New London Architecture

Five minutes with... James Pickard

Wednesday 22 June 2022

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hi, James. How are you?
 
James Pickard  
Very, very well, thank you!
 
David Taylor  
Very good. I think last time we spoke, or at least the first time we met, was back in the last century - he says, sounding very, very old! It was when you were doing Murray Grove, which seemed like a pioneering project at the time. Is that how you look back on it now, celebrating your 25 years as a practice?
 
James Pickard  
Well, it's interesting. Murray Grove was actually our first completed project – completed in November 1999. And we're really proud of it. Obviously, it won a lot of awards and put us on the map. We won that project in a design competition against some of the great and good of the profession, including Future Systems, Ian Ritchie, and quite a few other well-known practices. It was a great a great thing for us, as we had literally just set up in practice not long before that. So that was a really important project for us. 
 
David Taylor
And its chief innovation was its modular nature, thinking back on it, wasn't it? 
 
James Pickard
Yeah, it was. It was the UK's first fully modular apartment building. With nearly all dry trades. So, no wet trades. It was erected and completed on site in around six months rather than 12 months which would have been the normal construction program for 30 apartments. But what was really quite special was that it was handed over with zero defects, which is almost unheard-of in our industry. Peabody acknowledged that it was handed over with zero defects, so that's quite nice. It was highly innovative, and it was recognized as such, but it was 20 years ahead of the market. You probably know that, certainly in the Build to Rent sector and hotel sector now, modular construction is quite widely used. But at the time, it was used very little for residential accommodation. So, we were a little bit too ahead of the market, I think, really.
 
David Taylor
Do you think as a discipline, it's progressed as far as you thought it might 23 years ago, up to now? 
 
James Pickard
To be perfectly honest, I think it's progressed very little. I think the technology that's being used now, to construct these 30-storey Build to Rent towers, which we see being built in modular, is pretty much exactly the same technology that we used 23 years ago, perhaps with the exception that they're incorporating concrete floors in the module now, where we didn't have concrete floors. So, it hasn't moved on hugely, I don't believe. I think it's just the principle; the recognition that taking the building site into the factory has so many advantages; in terms of quality, speed, and, at times like this, when the shortages of labour in the south, particularly in the UK, you could probably do it more cost efficiently as well. 
David Taylor
Now, anniversaries, such as your own as a practice that is now 25 years in operation, are a cause for reflection, on, not least, the oeuvre of what you've done. But also perhaps how the practice has changed in ethos, or outlook – or indeed in how it operates. What are the things you've learned in that period about all of those things? Or any?
 
James Pickard
Yeah, I think one of the things we've learned is that growing an architectural practice from scratch is tough. I think the first five years was very tough. And looking back on it, sometimes you think: if I'd known how tough the journey was going to be would you have actually embarked on it in the first place? And your naivety is the thing that allows you to do it. But I think that one of the biggest lessons is we have learned that we have won most of our work, or a lot of it, and exciting projects, through competitions. We're regularly in competitions where we're shortlisted against four or five practices. Usually, they're much larger than us. Usually, they're top 20 of the AJ 100. And we have developed a really good success rate of winning work against...we call it the David and Goliath giant-killing process we have to go through. We've learned to relish that opportunity, I think, but it's not for the faint-hearted! And you have to have a thick skin to survive and to carry on. But we've learned to enjoy that; the cut-and-thrust of that process. 

What we have really focused on is building a team of very loyal staff who feel a sense of ownership over the business; we have gifted some equity to key staff, and we're looking to broaden the ownership of the business over the next 18 months. We historically have a very low turnover of staff. I think the industry average, if you read the RIBA data on it, is roughly 15% staff turnover annually. I think, over 10 years before COVID, we were averaging 4%. So, when we get people on board, we tend to keep people. I think we are also one of the very few architecture practices in the UK that have signed up to Investors in People awards. We've been doing that for the last 10 years. That helps us structure our training strategy for individuals in the business. And we have found that fantastically helpful for structuring how we train people and how we focus their training for the benefit of both themselves and for the business. I don't believe many architects have bothered with Investors in People, which I think is a missed opportunity. 

I think another lesson we've learned is the importance of diversity, and geographical diversity. We've quite quickly created an office in Leeds; we've got an office in Manchester, and all three offices, including the London office, are thriving. We find that sometimes the regions or the North might have hit a slowdown for some reason, and London's booming – or the other way round – and we have a lot of inter-office team working. I guess that is partly because of the pandemic; the use of technology now is enabling us to be very agile in the way we have a multifaceted team with people working from different offices. So, I think that's a relatively new way of working for us. And it adds a lot of spice to life. I really enjoy going up to Leeds and Manchester and working on projects that we're doing up there, because they're often quite different clients in different sectors. So that's been one of the interesting things for us is to keep not just totally London-centric, but have a really strong presence in the north of England: Leeds and Manchester.
 
David Taylor  
That fits broadly with this so-called levelling up agenda, I suspect, as well, does it?
 
James Pickard  
Well, the levelling up agenda is a very recent thing, isn't it, that this government's brought out and was on Boris's list that got him voted in. But we are most definitely seeing levelling up in funding, whether that's by the public sector or the private sector feeling that there's the activity, the economic growth there now in Leeds, Manchester. We're doing some really exciting net zero carbon office buildings in Leeds and Manchester, some of which are going to be built speculatively, which perhaps would not happen in the same way in London and the southeast at the moment.
 
David Taylor  
And your mention of net zero there brings me to - I'm not fond of these specific ‘weeks’ for things, but I read it's Net Zero Week, from the 2-7 July. You've been sort of pioneers in that pretty much before it was even coined really, haven't you? Where are we on that as a nation and as an industry?
 
James Pickard  
Well, I think again, it goes back to the very start of my architectural training. Peter Cartwright and I both studied at the University of Nottingham; we did the degree in architecture and environmental design. And I think that architectural training currently broadly lacks enough true understanding of all of the fundamental principles and engineering principles behind how you build buildings, but also how you achieve the Low Carbon credentials that we all have to achieve now. And I think it puts us in really good stead. So almost all our office buildings from the get-go have been BREEAM Excellent.  Our Wakefield One project won a RIBA Sustainability Award as well as an RIBA award when that was completed. We've pioneered the sort of low carbon, low energy approach to design from the get-go. It's obviously put us in a really good position now, because we have that back catalogue, if you like. Even more important, we know how to do it. 

We've learned over 25 years, incrementally on each project, what works, and what might not work so well. So, for example, our BREEAM Excellent headquarters for the Health and Safety Executive or Merseyside, which was built by Kajima Partnerships - that building has performed outstandingly well. This building, potentially with 3000-4000 staff, in it – it's a big building, a 30,000 square metre building. After five years of occupation, I went up there with the developer to meet the CEO of the HSE, who praised the building. He said that it was reducing staff absenteeism, reducing staff turnover; they were attracting better staff because the building was so attractive. Honeywell are operating it as a PFI…I asked how often the mechanical ventilation is coming on, because it uses displacement ventilation through the floor, combined with openable windows - it's what they call mixed mode. And they said that the mechanical ventilation in the floor was only coming on for two or three weeks in August. The building was operating as a naturally ventilated building for 95% of the year. And so I said, Well, how often does the cooling come on? He said, about one or two weeks a year at the most. So you know, this is a huge office building, with vast areas of workspace not needing to be air-conditioned, because the openable windows and the atriums are all doing the job that we thought they'd do. 

So, we're convinced that there are many locations in the UK where you do not need air-conditioned offices. And we proved it. It's there. It's doing the job. We would just love to do more of that. So that's our focus now for the next decade - to keep driving down the need for air conditioning.
 
David Taylor  
So, two very quick questions, because we're running out of time. What's been your favourite project in the practice over that period? And what of the next 10 years? What do you think that holds for Cartwright Pickard?
 
James Pickard  
Well, they say you're only as good as your next project, don't they? (laughs) So, I think we've got two projects that I think are looking really exciting. And in a sense, they are my favourites now because I don't think you should look back too far, and that you should always look forward. We've got a net zero carbon residential scheme in London. We've designed it so it can be fully modular. But it's net zero carbon in use - 70 affordable homes. And that's 100% affordable. That is a really exciting scheme.

And then we've got Hive Central in Sheffield, which is for a private developer, which is a co living space - Build to Rent co living - and that's earmarked as net zero carbon in use, but also net zero in construction, which is really tough. Our client there, Grantside, are very keen to go for the net zero carbon in use as well. So that scheme's got planning and we're at the next stage where we're going to be going out to tender; we're exploring the use of CLT structure and exposing the CLT soffits, partly for aesthetics. So that's going to be a real technical challenge. And obviously, with all of the new fire regulations, how we make all of that work and combine that with net zero carbon in use and net zero carbon in construction is probably one of the biggest challenges we've had for a long time. So, I think if we get those two built, they'd be my favourites at the moment!
 
David Taylor  
Yeah! Brilliant. And just one line on the next 10 years. What's your main hope for the practice?
 
James Pickard  
I guess the main hope is to grow Leeds, Manchester, and London to a similar pace. But we don't just go for growth and we want to have the staff that have been with us for 10, 20 years to feel that this is really their home, and that the next generation - we've got some fantastic, younger staff - that they feel this is a place that they can express themselves and enjoy creating brilliant architecture. And to keep that of sense of almost like a family, which we've had for 25 years. To keep that going.
 
David Taylor  
Well, magic. Congratulations on reaching that milestone and good luck in the future.
 
James Pickard  
Thank you very much.
 
David Taylor  
All right. Cheers. 
 
James Pickard  
Okay, bye. Bye. 


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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