Moss House, University College, Birmingham
When Covid-19 struck, Glenn Howells Architects (GHA) planned for a worst-case scenario – anticipating no new wins at all in 2020 and a 50 per cent cut in its existing workload
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Fortunately, six months on, the reality has proved rather less grim, with founder Glenn Howells reporting a 20 per cent downturn and a number of choice new projects.
Although the practice has reluctantly had to trim staff numbers, Howells says it has benefited tremendously from the government’s furlough scheme. The practice was also buoyed by a ‘great’ 2019, during which time it maintained its £11.5 million turnover and added 10 more architects, propelling it 14 places up the AJ100 table.
High-profile projects last year included the English National Ballet headquarters, which garnered a host of awards, including the AJ100 Building of the Year Award.
Back in 2019, Howells recalls wryly, all the practice had to worry about was Brexit – and this was certainly a major source of concern, causing a great deal of distress and hurt, given that half of the Birmingham practice’s London office hail from mainland Europe.
While those pre-Covid days now seem a long time ago, Howells is cautiously optimistic in outlook. ‘We have no debt. We’re a solid business and, with [new chief operating officer] Rob Bray at the helm, we’re confident we’re stable.’
Founded 30 years ago, the practice has built up an expertise in large-scale, often long-term, masterplanning and urban regeneration schemes, including the ongoing Paradise site in the centre of Birmingham. These have naturally led to residential and office projects, with the remaining quarter of the workload taken up by community, public and education schemes.
New wins this year include new housing prototypes using Modern Methods of Construction for Urban Splash at Port Loop in Birmingham and a sustainable new motorway service concept for the Westmoreland family, which takes inspiration from agricultural architecture.
The practice is designing a place-making strategy for East Village in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, for developer Get Living. The practice also has new work in Ireland, which Howells thinks could really see a Brexit benefit.
The ‘extra thinking time’ arising from Covid-19 has helped the practice to develop its approach to sustainability. Led by Sophia Ceneda, it has been working to embed knowledge across the practice through the development of a ‘sustainability roadmap’.
By the end of the year, the aim is to develop a checklist approach that can be audited at every stage of the project, including performance in use. ‘We’re moving from an ambition to be sustainable to a process that’s measurable,’ says Howells.
Reflecting that a lot of city suburbs, including those in Birmingham, were a response to the prevalence of disease in inner-city areas, he ponders the impact Covid-19 may have on our cities in the longer term.
‘We’ll be in for an interesting time, as a lot of our projects are on a big scale and about shaping new communities,’ he says. He expects that smaller, less-dense cities outside London – where people can easily cycle to work and are more likely to be able to afford a garden – may also become more attractive post-Covid.
Howells is pleased to see that some staff are now starting to come back to work in the office, but the practice is still very much taking each quarter as it comes.
‘Covid has woken us up. We were all sleep-walking. But now we realise that rapid change can happen,’ he says, adding that there may even be a knock-on benefit to last year’s big concern, the Brexit problem.
‘Covid might have actually helped with Brexit, as I sense there’s a growing realisation that we need to work together to overcome problems. Hopefully this will start to heal rifts in our society. Perhaps we’ll emerge from this with a greener, healthier and more sharing approach.’
By Pamela Buxton
Source: Architects Journal