Architectural Ups + Downs by John Griffiths
- Image: http://pdplondon.com/assets/_700x450_crop_center-center_75/roller-coaster.jpg Loading...
Everyone used to know where they were with recessions. Every seven years or so, the economy would get overexcited, interest rates would rise, the work would fade away and too many architects would end up chasing too few jobs.
We didn’t enjoy this, but to a large extent we all got used to it. Taking on and shedding staff was an unpalatable fact of life for all concerned, but everyone knew the rules.
We should have known that something was up the moment that Gordon Brown announced that his government had banished the boom-bust cycle forever. No sooner than he had opened his mouth, then not only Britain but the rest of the world had entered a monetary crisis such as had not been seen since the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
Up until the middle of 2007, PD+P had undergone steady, manageable growth, working on a range of interesting projects, mostly within central London. We had built up good teams of capable people who enjoyed their work. Suddenly, the future looked uncertain. Nobody knew what the effects would be, particularly on the high-end residential market that was the practice’s forte.
Whilst the world took this in, everything went very, very quiet. Doing nothing clearly wasn’t going to be an option, so the practice had to consider something that it had never had to face before – making redundancies.
Employment law has, quite rightly, made great strides in giving protection to employees. You cannot, as I recall one Senior Partner in another practice doing in the 1970s, fire someone simply because they annoyed you. There are now very prescribed ways of dealing with redundancies, but well intentioned as they are, they do not make the process any less unpleasant for either the employer or the employee. You now have to go through a formal process whereby every single person in a particular group has to be assessed and the decision as to go goes or stays is then based on a set of objective criteria. This no doubt seemed to be perfectly fair when the legislation was drawn up, but it is of necessity a long-drawn out affair that creates fear and uncertainty throughout the entire office. We all hated every minute of it.
But it had to be done. After a lot of soul searching, the Partners resolved that they would try and retain as many of the key skilled and experienced staff as they could. This would make the practice top heavy but also meant retaining most of the staff that had heavy financial commitments. It would involve everyone pitching in on some of the lesser tasks and taking a temporary pay cut, but the strategy should stand the practice in good stead when things hopefully started to recover. With others, we discussed the possibility of working reduced hours or taking unpaid sabbaticals. In spite of these efforts, we had to say goodbye to a lot of fine people.
Past experience of recessions suggested that things would bottom out and slowly recover. This wasn’t the case. A global recession clearly behaves differently from a normal cyclical recession and it was clear that London was behaving differently to the rest of the country. The high-end residential market recovered rather more quickly than anyone thought. In fact the turmoil in Europe proved to be a significant factor and the influx of money into what was seen as the safe haven of London from 2009 onwards has since driven a boom that was greater than anything seen before and still continues today.
In a very short space of time, PD+P was faced with an unexpected problem: how to manage growth, and, what is more, growth that seemed to be happening very quickly. In the light of this, the earlier decision to retain key staff during the down turn was vindicated and gave the practice a sound base upon which to grow.
Emerging from a recession can be more challenging than going in to one. When it is coupled with a sudden increase in workload, the challenges are doubled. In the first instance managing cash flow becomes more critical as fee income inevitably lags behind the cost of funding projects (more staff means a larger payroll, overheads rise etc, etc.). The second problem when a practice grows rapidly is that you have to question whether all the procedures that worked successfully for a medium size practice are going to work as well for a large one. As a result, PD+P has vigorously re-examined the way the office is managed, the way projects are run and re-assessed the roles and responsibilities of every member of the practice from top down.
A secondary problem is that in an expanding market, people with the right skills become progressively harder to obtain. We have been lucky in that many talented people from across Europe have joined the practice bringing with them a whole series of different perspectives that have enhanced the experience of being at PD+P. We aim to help them develop their skills and encourage them to take on responsibility for and ownership of their projects.
Managing all this whilst maintaining the ethos behind the practice is difficult, but vital for the long-term future. We continue to believe passionately in the quality of what we do, even if some of our clients appear to be more concerned about maximising square footage. We actually believe that we can do both and maybe that is the key to our current success.
High end residential schemes continue to be our bread and butter but we are now just as involved in large-scale urban design projects not only in the United Kingdom, but in such far-flung places such as Doha and Azerbaijan. Our office in Hong Kong, PDPEast is currently working on projects in both Hong Kong and Mainland China.
We have all been around long enough to realise that booms and growth of the type we have been experiencing will not go on forever. We must always keep a wary eye on the future and develop that lightness of foot and flexibility which has stood us in good stead in the past. The future is always going to be something of a mystery (maybe a triumph of hope over experience), but PD+P will still be here, doing what it does best and, with a fair wind, doing that best better year by year.