Building a collaborative environment

Many firms now stress their green credentials but how does an architectural practice demonstrate its commitment to the environment? Three of the senior marketers of UK architects AWW talk to Neasa MacErlean about sustainability, growth and collaboration.

Sustainability has been a profile-raiser for some professional firms. But, as with any other big topics, the issues become far more complex the more deeply they are explored. Creating sustainable buildings, for instance, can add capital costs — and therefore, as AWW has found, not all clients are that keen.

So if a firm is committed in its bones to sustainability, does that commitment represent an advantage or a handicap? AWW finds that some kinds of organisation are far more interested than others. “It depends on the client,” says Phil Bevan, Marketing Director and architect. “When we are working for people who will be paying the energy bills — tenants and other end-user clients — we find that they are very interested in low energy use.” And, he says, we will all be going green over the long run. For instance, Bristol — where the three-office practice started over 40 years ago and where it maintains its HQ — is a leader in this field. It has committed to being carbon neutral by 2050, and Bristol University wants to get there by 2030. “Local and central government are going to be forcing people into providing better performing buildings,” adds Bevan.

A serious commitment to sustainability has led the 100-person firm to make major investments in technology, including the specialist software Sefaira. This shows the emissions and energy implications of every design solution, material and engineering device at the earliest design stages.

On top of that, AWW is now one of just five architectural practices in the UK to hold BRE Global BIM Level 2 Business Systems Accreditation. BIM facilitates genuine collaboration in design teams through an interactive model of the project (allowing analysis and modelling of a building before it is built in order to achieve peak performance). “People say that they can do this without the qualification but getting the accreditation puts you through quite a rigorous process,” says Bevan. The practice also offers Virtual Reality tours of projects as a collaborative tool to enable clients to understand how it will feel to occupy buildings once they are complete.

The coming years will be challenging ones for the whole construction sector, as developers wait to see what Brexit will mean. But such challenges are meat and drink to a marketing team. And the seven-person marketing/business development group which reports to Bevan are reinvigorating old projects and working on new ones. Annie Jarman — BD and HR Manager— is leading a renewed focus on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and the website. “The next generation of talent begin with social media,” she says, discussing how young architects and others start their job searches. Greater dexterity in this area enables AWW to reach “different audiences”, she adds, and to be “part of the conversation”.

Creating more subtle forms of collaboration and communication is part of the role of BD Manager Deb Harris. Talking of pitches, she says: “We are drilling down into tenders now, reading between the lines and engaging with the directors and architects here who are best placed to reply.” She also talks about “making sure everything is joined up”. The main vehicle for this approach is a monthly marketing meeting, attended by the 12 directors (including those from the London and Plymouth offices) and the Marketing/BD team. While these round tables have been going for several years, they have never been so creative and productive, says Harris. “We talk about particular issues and sectors in depth. There is a lot of dialogue going on.”

With the nervousness around Brexit affecting funding in the construction sector, and so slowing down projects, AWW is paying greater attention to sector diversification than in the past. The London office, opened 20 years ago, used to be focused on the (now-flagging) residential market but its new heads are experienced in other areas including offices, healthcare, heritage and education. AWW’s Bristol base, one of the largest architectural practices in the city, is already well-diversified and continues to push on all fronts. The firm’s annual strategic review process identified areas for AWW to put greater focus on. These include warehouses and other industrial buildings and the private rental sector. Having seen consistent growth over the past five years, Bevan says: “We see ourselves consolidating this year”.

AWW has long spent time developing its profile at the top end of the construction sector, with its directors taking roles on committees in Chambers of Commerce, the Forum for the Built Environment, the British Council for Offices and other organisations. Younger professionals are being encouraged to get involved in the junior versions of these institutions. Establishing itself as a serious commentator on the big architectural issues of our time, AWW uses its experience in design and building to create more interest and focus. For example, a dinner held to discuss the future of office space last year was held in London’s highest restaurant on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, enabling guests to look out the windows to see in front of them the changing cityscape they were discussing.

A relatively small practice (ranking only in the UK’s top 70), AWW was re-appointed this year as one of three firms on the BBC’s architectural framework— and it numbers the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and Standard Life among its clientele. The next couple of years will not be easy ones for the architectural sector. But, thanks to its various long-term strategies, AWW may be better placed than many. Like numerous other organisations, it claims to put a strong emphasis on collaboration. While some practices find it difficult to substantiate that statement, AWW can point to various of its software investments which were clearly made with this motivation in mind. And that message is winning over new and existing clients.