New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Tim Bell - director, Bell Phillips Architects

Thursday 08 October 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

David Taylor: Hi Tim! How are you doing and what have you been up to recently?

Tim Bell: Hi! We’ve been really busy. We have to be grateful because I know it's not been the case for everyone, but since lockdown we've been as manic as ever and have even been employing people. And I think partly that's due to a lot of our work being from the public sector; that seems to still be running pretty quick.

DT: We were – you and I and a group of others – supposed to be going cycling in the Dolomites recently, as you know, and Covid put paid to that. But I just wondered how cycling is in your personal work life. Do you get out on the bike quite a lot, and if so, do you see the city in a different way? And do you find that helpful?

TB: It’s a pretty essential thing for me, and I try and get out maybe three times a week. Actually I went out today for a couple of hours over lunch - don't tell anyone! (laughs) I find it essential to clear my head and have time to myself and keep fit and see a bit of countryside. And when I come back, I concentrate better and I'm probably better company and… it's just really essential!

DT: You mentioned in an email to me that you've been working in Gothenburg and that sounded fascinating, not least because it almost sounds like a completely virtual project in terms of the way you've been dealing with it, not having visited the site etc, You are masterplanning it in collaboration with Studio Egret West. Can you just tell me a little bit about that and how that's felt?

TB: Well probably just initially how it happened was also interesting in as much as people always question what comes out of MIPIM. But last year at MIPIM I met the Swedish developer whose project this is and had 15 minutes’ chat on the beach in front of the London pavilion. They came back to us then just under a year later, and asked us to bid for this masterplan for a really interesting existing factory site in Gothenburg. They needed about 1000 new homes out of it and various other retail and cultural uses, but we were up against a few other people and I didn't feel we quite had enough of a pedigree in masterplanning, so I asked Egret West to come on board, and we went in together.

It's been amazing in as much as we've never been to the site; we've never met the consultant team face-to-face, although I have obviously met the client just the once. David (West)’s never met them. The client did a film for us walking around the site explaining the whys and wherefores. David and I haven't worked together before, but just as lockdown was happening and I started to work from home, he came over one day and we just sat around the dining room table and kicked around the first ideas and sketches. But thereafter it was all virtual and all the client meetings were virtual on Teams. And it was a really positive process. I think partly that was due to the client who was really organised; an appreciative, thinking, decisive client, and we had a good team. It was just a really interesting process and has helped me understand how in future - you know, we’d rather go to the site and we'd rather have face-to-face meetings, but in future, it isn’t impossible to do it this way 

DT: Did it feel slightly odd and sort of artificial, however?

TB: I suppose to a degree it did and at masterplan level it's always slightly abstract. I would rather have been there, of course, and really sort of felt and smelt the site and really got my fingernails dirty somehow. I would rather have had a few meetings with the client, where afterwards we go for a drink and establish those relationships a bit more, but those things didn't happen. But nonetheless it worked well. 

DT: Now, housing is pretty much your thing really; your bread and butter; is that fair to say?

TB: Oh absolutely. Completely. At least 80% of what we do.

DT: So how would you characterise the housing scene, if I can call it that, in London at the moment? I notice you are doing six Passivhaus projects in Ealing – is that a mini-trend perhaps influenced by Stirling Prize-winning schemes, for example?

TB: Yeah, it could be a trend. I mean I think certainly the Stirling Prize win has been amazing for the whole sector, but I think also just policy and public opinion moving in that direction. So yeah, we do a lot of work for local authorities: direct delivery housing, regeneration or infill sites, and Ealing has been the first of them to give us that Passivhaus brief and zero carbon in operation. But we're starting to see it on a couple of other briefs coming out from other clients. I'm hoping this is going to become more of a trend because as a practice we need to become much more belligerent about really only doing work which has a brief which is super-serious about the climate crisis. Life is too short. We need to be doing the thing that's right for the world, and that's what we should be doing.

Bell Phillips Architects, Dean Gardens © Secchi Smith
DT: You also mentioned that you're bidding much more - you're not doing as many open competitions. Is that another trend specifically within housing or broadly across the piece?

TB: Mainly within housing. We are on a number of frameworks, but equally we are getting asked more and more to just be part of a shortlist off the cuff, to bid or pitch or put in ideas, which is really good because it increases our chances of winning something.  Obviously, people appreciate what we do, but I don't want to denigrate the open competition scene too much because we came into being as a practice 16 years ago having won that and we won the Gasholder park at Kings Cross for Argent in an open competition. But just the huge amount of time you can put into those is pretty shocking, so I'm quite happy to be invited increasingly. 

DT: So where are you as a practice, and what's next? have you had a chance to reflect? Has the Covid period given you that chance to reflect on where you are and where you're going?

TB: Er…yes and no. It has certainly given us that chance to actually look up from the screen a little bit and think about the wider picture, and actually just look back at the work that we've done, which we never really take the time to appreciate or critique as much as we should do. But we haven't really formulated a sort of clear picture forwards, except to say: we want to be doing really good work for the best clients and we want to be extremely serious about zero carbon. Doing good work is what gets us out of bed in the morning; it's not just turning a fee. It's got to be so much more than that.

DT: Brilliant. And more cycling, I hope, when we can…!

TB: Oh, yes indeed. Dolomites next year, please.

DT: (laughs) Thanks Tim, that’s fantastic.

TB: Great to speak to you. Bye!


David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ



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