New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Justin Nicholls

Monday 19 April 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor catches up with Fathom Architects partner Justin Nicholls to get the lowdown on starting a business and surviving and prospering over the first five years, plus his crystal ball views on next five for the practice, retail, and London…

David Taylor 
Hi! How are you, Justin?
 
Justin Nicholls
Very well, yeah. Very excited for the year ahead. 
 
DT
What excites you about the year ahead? What do you think is coming?
 
JN
Moving out of pandemic, I think, moving forward, I think the world has been innovating much quicker in the property industry than we're used to. And I think it's shown that we can innovate quickly. So: I think that's really a good place to be as a creative person. We can use all those great, lateral thinking skills to solve problems better. I think there's lots to be looking forward to.
 
DT
Can I turn the clock back with you about five years? Because I think it's coming up to five years when you left Make Architects to set up Fathom. What was the process like? And why are you called Fathom anyway? (laughs)
 
JN
(laughs) Yeah. I've always wanted to run my own business. And I felt if I didn't do it soon, I’d be too old. That was the key driver and it felt like a good time. I'd learned a lot in my years at Norman Foster's office; 10 years helping Ken (Shuttleworth) set up Make from the beginning. I learned a lot about running a business from that and fancied giving it a go myself. We started three weeks before the Brexit referendum vote. Remember that? 
 
DT
Yeah. Perfect!

Image: Fathom Futures, Department Store
JN
So we've had that. We’ve had Coronavirus; we've had lots of little hurdles put in the way along there. But you know, we've survived and come through that much stronger, I think. The focus of the business really was about depth, hence the word fathom. That is the complexity. That's the collaboration and depth of care. And complexity really came from an ability to work on complex sites. Those sites could be complex in terms of mixing of use or be by a railway or over a river; it could be a laboratory combined with sensitive sites. So listed buildings, conservation areas, and so forth, and there are quite an unusual mix of skills. We felt that was a really strong place to focus our time.

Fast forwarding to now, projects that have come out of that focus really reflect that. Sometimes it would be nice, just have a really simple project! (laughs). But difficult is what we focus on; collaboration. 

We've grown as a network of people. I've always been a bit frustrated that architecture practices are these big things that are quite clunky and heavy. My business partner, Tom, comes from film production. In a film, you set up a film, and you go: okay, who do I need today to bring together to do that? If you’re doing Star Wars – I’ve got a good friend, who's an art designer, and he worked on Star Wars, but you probably wouldn't put him on Poldark. It's about picking and choosing the right people for that. 

We have a core of architects and we have some really good experts like lab planners who can work in digital environments and designers and things that we bring in to bolster that. So it’s a much looser, more fluid way of working, and much more collaborative. And then care is really the kind of the projects that can add to that. That extra time that we take to solve those complex projects. We’re doing a project on Blackfriars Road at the moment; we have got a 20-storey office and 62 alms houses and a new public garden. And it's been led by a charity, so you know, development for social good. That's a really different process to working with a developer, or a landed estate, and so forth. It’s that care you take looking after those people that really pays off in the long term.
 
DT
What would you say would be the one tip that you would impart to other people who are considering making a similar move and setting up in practice right now?
 
JN
I think ‘be resilient’. You've got to really just keep going. (laughs)
Things get thrown at you along the way. Be very light on your feet and nimble to move quickly, change direction quickly. Lots of things get thrown at us, and I think that's the thing that keeps you going. That could just be in terms of pure running a business, but also in terms of, you know, an office building now is completely different to what it was five years ago. The residential world is changing, sustainability is changing…
 
DT
…And retail is changing, obviously; you recently did some work on an ideas piece about thinking about the future of retail? What are your thoughts about London's position regarding retail, and perhaps in the central zone?
JN
I think retail is fascinating. And really, for us, it comes back to looking at the high street or actually really the town centre, if you look at the traditional high street being retail and commercially driven. And town centres being all those other things that add to that, like town halls and GPs, and libraries, and so forth. They are the heart of our London districts. Of which things like the West End and Oxford Street are the biggest example of that. They're really crucial to the life of the city, and all the interaction that goes with that. 

We've been working with clients over the last year and actually a little bit longer than that, even pre-COVID, and the digital world has been overtaking retail quite considerably. One of the examples we looked at was a department store as part of this idea of digital futures, and it was looking at what physical infrastructure does the digital world need? Rather than think about all these empty shops, we thought that if we're moving into the digital realm, there are certain things that that digital realm needs in reality. 

An obvious one is last mile logistics. Actually, department stores have got really good delivery and storage. You can use that infrastructure that already exists. You can put in the basement a really interesting installation of effectively Amazon lockers, but you turn it into an experience. You can have ‘digital wardrobes’ that you can walk in and see yourself in all sorts of directions when you're trying on clothes. You could bring some friends along, have a drink, have a coffee, make it a social occasion. And whilst you're doing that, you're taking out that last one mile delivery, which is hugely unsustainable, particularly in dense town and district centres.
So that then drives footfall and transport into the town, which is great. It creates interaction. And then as you come up through the building, looking at training and digital skills – wherever you are in London or wherever you are in the country, everybody needs to be up-skilling. Whereas, if you're in a rural environment, things like agriculture and fishing use a huge amount of digital technology now that people need to be trained in. 

Digital tools go hand in hand with that – things you can't afford to have in your office, or in your home, or don't have space to have in your office in your home. So things like virtual reality suites, rapid prototyping, immersive studios. So: if I was going to present to you a scheme, I could take you there, and you can have a much better experience of what that future building might be like. 
And I think that works across all industries, and all scales and locations. So that's why I think it works really well as a department store. And we've had some really amazing feedback on that. It'd be interesting to see how department stores do evolve. They are the anchor of the high street as well; really important. They're not just a big lump of space, they are where people focus that time and effort over time, so they have an attachment to them as well.
DT
Okay, we're just about up to time. So my last question is for you to look into your crystal ball and look five years hence. And tell me what, in a couple of sentences a) your practice, and its work will be like, and b) how London will change, do you think, in that in that five years?
 
JN
Someone asked me the other day what I have learned from lockdown. And what I've learned from lockdown is how much I love living in London. What a cultural melting pot and experiential melting pot it is. Last night, I managed to finally get a drink in a bar, and I went to meet a landscape architect; some of his team were there. I was having a conversation with a Kiwi, a Canadian and two English people about swimming in the sea. And it was about a perception of temperature. And I thought: this is really interesting in terms of sustainability and buildings and what people feel is cold and warm. That was a real serendipitous conversation, which doesn't happen sitting at home. 

I think London will really reignite very quickly. And it's all about that collaboration and interaction. If you fold that into how that looks in terms of our work, we're already doing a lot more in terms of refurbishing office buildings, refitting buildings that, sadly, aren't that old, in order to create those environments so that our workplace is a better place to work than our home. And I think that's fascinating. I think there's some really interesting stuff coming through and we've got a great project to share with you in the near future. 
 
DT
Ooh, that sounds exciting. Good. Well, thank you, Justin for that short, but still quite deep dive into fathom – if you pardon the pun (laughs) – and your work!
 
JN
 (laughs) Good pun!
 
DT
Good luck and I'll see for some serendipity soon.
 
JN
Very good. Thanks for thinking of us. Cheers. Bye!

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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