John Assael, director and co-founder of Assael Architecture, took the stage of OxArch’s Resilience lectures to answer the question what resilience means in the context of running your own practice.
Assael themselves declare the Great West Quarter in London one of the projects that contribute to their excellent reputation.
John Assael runs an architectural firm that is hugely celebrated not only as a design practice but as an employer. With near thirty years of experience, he has gained extensive knowledge about the inner workings of an architectural business. He shared the valuable lessons learnt with Oxford Brookes students in OxArch's first lecture for the new semester.
The architect started by outlining the meaning of resilience. According to him, it is ensuring that a practice is able to survive in the increasingly competitive business environment of architecture. Adaptability and flexibility, the capacity to accommodate events and to recover quickly are key for a firm to not just survive but to thrive.
“How do you run a practice in a way that is going to survive?”
Following that, John Assael questioned the resilience of the architectural profession itself. While architects in UK are in a more advantageous position than in any other country in Europe, the lack of legal protection of their functions and the polarisation in terms of the size of practices are some of the major threats to the survival of architectural firms. He warned students to be mindful of those issues, once they make the step towards establishing their own company. He says patience is important when threading the professional world of architecture where careers are long and peak later into the individual’s life.
Macaulay Walk, Clapham. A hugely celebrated retrofitting project.
To demonstrate resilience in practice, the architect then presented Assael Architecture’s ethos and methodology in detail. While he admitted that the model may not always work, it ultimately has helped the practice to survive and grow within the design market for over twenty years.
He described Assael’s vision as a four leg chair that combines and directs their goals and values. The four “legs” that support the “chair” are design excellence, great staff, financial strength and giving something back - all essential elements for the successful management of an architectural firm. By meeting all four, Assael have managed to establish a prosperous business with an involved and strong community.
“The Four leg chair model: 1. Design excellence, 2. Great staff, 3. Financial strength,
and 4. Giving something back.”
The lecture continued by examining the way Assael Architecture treat each one of those elements in details, starting with acquiring work and achieving design excellence. In that regard, Assael believe in the value of building a reputation within the architectural world through winning awards, leadership, memberships and communication.
Securing award winning work is particularly important for building the prestige of the company and an integral part of that is the participation in competitions. Assael prefer to avoid open competitions and focus on limited and invited ones where their work can stand out more.
However, as Assael Architecture believe that without talented staff, there will be no good work, attracting and retaining good employees is equally as important for the practice. In order to ensure the employment of competent and talented designers, the practice has taken upon itself to provide its employees with the best working conditions possible, including offering benefits, rewards, studying and training opportunities. The numerous awards the firm has received in that aspect attest for the importance of creating a favourable workplace culture and environment.
Young Street, Kensington. A project that puts Assael at the forefront of the Built to Rent design practice.
In order to support the design functions of a practice, it is crucial to ensure its financial stability. In general, bigger practices are more resilient due to the ability to expand and contract in extreme business climates. To provide the finances to back this up, a practice needs to value its own work and time by charging good fees and carefully monitoring its income; it needs to be careful with its borrowings and the leases it takes on. Assael Architecture approach this by creating a comprehensive business plan, making sure they are prepared for all eventualities.
While the aforementioned elements of Assael’s practice management are somewhat standard requirements, the fourth “leg” helps set them further apart from their competitors. The firm has created an obligation to its employees to give back to society. With charity work totaling up to 1% of its business turnover (£75,000 last year), this has become such an integral part of the practice’s culture that there is an official committee to oversee the process and make decisions in distributing money and obligations. This makes Assael and their staff exceptionally involved in social issues both as a business and as individuals and further helps with the positive image of the company.
Creekside, Greenwich. The tallest modular building in UK.
Having given the audience an overview of Assael Architecture’s ethos, John Assael closed the lecture with the standard for OxArch Q&A session. Ever happy to share his experience with future professionals, he once again advised to be patient and not to hurry to establish own practice. When prompted, he also shared his thoughts on the future of the status of the architectural profession.
A prominent insider of the industry, John Assael’s advice is all the more important in guiding architects in training to navigate the complicated and competitive world of design practice. His lecture highlighted the importance of integrity and always being prepared - lessons that will hopefully stay with many at the start of their professional careers.