“Young, talented staff are like oxygen to the practice”

20th October 2016

Eleanor Young, executive editor of the RIBA Journal, spoke to Sheppard Robson’s Alan Shingler on what makes the practice’s business and culture tick. Extracts from the article can be read below, with the full interview available here.

Constant renewal rather than sudden change is a formula that has kept Sheppard Robson going strong for 77 years.

How did you get here?

I have been with Sheppard Robson for 18 years. I started in an office building in the City on the coordination of the basement, so I literally started at the bottom. The practice has given me opportunity and diversity throughout my career. I am now on both the design review board and the management board, which means I have a role in shaping the business and design direction at the practice.

How do you judge your success?

Architecture is about design but you can’t divorce it from delivery. It is a service to the client and to the public. By balancing design and business acumen, architects are better placed to fulfil the interests of the clients who, ultimately, are paying the bill. The success is in the architecture, the buildings we create and the satisfaction of clients.

How are you making that happen?

Part of the success of the business is not to redefine style or process. The Sheppard Robson DNA means our role is to evolve the business, not to challenge what makes it successful. We are in a process of constant renewal. Change is slow, a gradual planned succession – not tectonic shifts as this is where the risk is. We are unusual in that we have been around for 77 years and remain one of the UK’s largest practices.

One of the successes is the culture of personal and professional development. Young, talented staff are like oxygen to the practice. We invest in them and they invest in us. Staff stay an average of 4.7 years. So it is also important that we are a meritocracy; we avoid figureheads as they disempower others in the business.

Is communication tricky?

We have resisted setting up small regional offices around the country as it can dilute design control. It is easier to focus effort on managing fewer locations.

Communication is harder between 360 people than for a practice with 30-40. We don’t have one single thing to deal with that. We do presentations to the senior management group. We present projects to the office and hold our own Green Week, which organises events across all our offices to promote and discuss sustainability; we also publish a staff newspaper, which gives the staff a voice.

What is the next big challenge?

We believe that new technology – alongside the current tools we have as architects – will enable us to re-establish our central role, leading collaboration with other disciplines and allowing us to stay with projects from conception to completion.

As an industry, we need to anticipate the changing relationship architecture has with the construction industry. It’s a danger that the profession gets sorted into either design or delivery architects, which would lead clients to appoint one firm until planning and another practice to deliver.

Architects tend to avoid risk and the most risky time, and the hardest time to make a profit, is in the delivery phase. However, we’ve found that it’s extremely valuable to see schemes through to completion, benefiting from the lessons learnt from the construction phases of projects.

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