Today you'll hear from Holly Lewis, one of the founders of We Made That, a London based architecture and urban design firm.
In this episode of the Business of Architecture, Rion Willard interviews Holly Lewis about how they've doubled their practice over the past five years.
In today's episode, you'll discover:
- How the firm We Made That doubled in size over the past five years
- How they use teaming to win larger and more diverse architecture projects
- How creating your own publication can skyrocket your visibility and preeminence
- How to win a steady stream of public sector work without marketing
Resources for today’s show:
Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:
Speaker 1: The projects are not the challenge is making sure that we have the right resources to do them in the way that we want to do them and it is a challenge. [inaudible 00:00:13]
Speaker 2: Hello. I'm Enoch Sears and this is the podcast for architects where you'll discover tips, strategies and secrets for running a profitable and impactful architecture practice. I'd like you to invite you to discover how to double your architecture from income and create your dream practice of freedom and impact by downloading my free four part architecture from profit map. As a podcast listener you can get instant access by going to freearchitectgift.com. Today's podcast is sponsored by AIA Advantage partner, BQE Software, the makers of ArchiOffice. ArchiOffice is the only office and project management software designed specifically for architects. It helps you manage people and projects while you focus on designing great architecture, so whether you're working remotely or on site, ArchiOffice allows you to monitor the status of your projects and tasks and send out invoices in an accurate and timely manner. Get your fully functional 15 day trial of ArchiOffice by going to businessofarchitecture.com/demo.
Rion Willard: Good afternoon, my name is Rion Willard and I'm here with the business of architecture for the UK. And I have the good pleasure of speaking with Holly Lewis who's one of the founding partners of We Made That. We Made That was established in 2006 and is an architecture and design studio that places the architects civic responsibility at the forefront of their design and results in a practice which is delivering very innovative built work in the public realm. I had the pleasure to study with Holly many years ago at the Bartlet, and you know during our undergrad- and I also had the pleasure to experience many of their buildings or their work firsthand such as last years exhibition states of mind at the welcome trust, and of course near my home town in Croydon, the south end road street scaping so thank you Holly for being with me this afternoon.
Holly Lewis: Thanks very much for having me.
Rion Willard: And I'd just like to start, just tell us how you began the practice. How did you and Olly- you know you've been going for 10 years, you're quite young architects, how did it all begin?
Holly Lewis: Complimentary that we're young, not so much anymore. It started- I mean I could tell you that there was some big plan and it was all very deliberate and we've just executed a plan but it's not true. It was really by chance that we started the practice, by chance and just pursuing things that we liked doing so after we'd both finished our degrees we were both myself and Oliver working in different practices and we saw that there was a competition to design a beach hut that was open at the time. And you had to just submit a model of your beach hut proposal and we thought, well we could spend the weekend by the seaside, have a nice time, make a little model and that that would be fun and nothing really more than that, and then we won the competition. I think they had hundreds and hundreds of these little beach hut models that arrived and they picked four or five to build. So then as part one, students I guess 21, 22, we had £20,000 to build this beach hut, so that's kind of chucked us in at the deep end.
Rion Willard: Yeah.
Holly Lewis: And we did it, that was the first project – project 001 in the folders and yeah, it all grew from there I suppose.
Rion Willard: And from delivering that first project kind of unassisted, did you have any mentors or anybody helping you or was it very much a kind of like we've got to figure this out ourselves?
Holly Lewis: No no, we heavily relied on our practices that we were working for. I remember having design reviews with them, trying to figure out how we're going to build it, who we're going to ask to do it, no we had a lot of help I would say and engineers. In fact, engineers that we're still working with that we brought into that project to figure out how we'd do the roof of this stupid beach hut and yeah, lots of talking with other people and trying to get their benefit of their experience.
Rion Willard: And how did that- how did that grow over the next sort of 10 years into what we have, what you're doing today?
Holly Lewis: So we're now 17 people and like you say, 10 years and that's grown relatively quickly over the last five years but for the first five years after the beach hut, we were both still working in practice then going back to do our masters degrees and subsequent kind of placements and training part three and all of that stuff. So for those five years we were still doing projects and just looking for things that seem to be interesting. It has to be interesting enough to do it on your evening or weekend, so it was all things that we thought would be good fun.
It was a major benefit to us that the beach hut was for Lincolnshire county council, so our first client was a public sector client and we were always interested in how a wider public would engage with the work that you do so that the beach hut was a public thing that could be hired and we were really interested in how people engage with your design work basically and so that's been a kind of continuous thread from the first project all the way through and that now means that sort of 95% of our clients are local authority clients. But it just grew from doing kind of small project by small project by small project and then I think by project number 31 that was when we both quit our jobs and both were kind of all in on making it pay the bills.
Rion Willard: Yeah. And what was the difference from going, you know from making that leap going all in to what you were doing before and how like we were just talking about how you know, you're beginning to identify as being a business woman as opposed to an architect. What was that kind of, that shift and when did it happen?
I think it's when you have to pay other peoples mortgages. I think that's that a really clear point. No, I mean it's- obviously those first five years we were building a client base and working, we did some work on art projects in the Olympic Park that were really exciting and growing in confidence and knowledge. And then by the time- in fact, there wasn't really a big leap of faith into the unknown. At the point where Oliver finished his masters, he didn't go out and look for work. He just knew that we could get enough work to at least pay his part of the rent.
Rion Willard: Yeah.
Holly Lewis: And so that process has been pretty gradual. I don't think that there- there was a small moment where we'd won a project, to design a natural play space in 3 Mills that was for the London legacy development corporation, or what is now that and the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority that I had to quit my job, and that felt a little bit scary but that was probably the biggest leap of faith that we ever had to take and even by that point, there was some money in the business and we'd been kind of building it up and then after that, over the last five years we've probably kind of doubled in size and turnover every year more or less and that again has felt quite gradual. To go from two to four people wasn't too scary, then from four to nine not so much. So it's been like that really, I don't think that there's been a kind of sudden scary moment, but just building unfortunately it's taken 10 years to build to this, but-
Rion Willard: And how, what have been the most important relationships that you've cultivated because it sounds like those early projects there was a lot of relationships that you know, you were laying the foundations, you were kind of putting together, you guys had found obviously something that was deeply interesting and important to you. How did you go about cultivating those relationships with your clients?
Holly Lewis: I look at our client base and I feel really lucky that we have it, and I can't- again it wasn't like there was a kind of killer strategy that we executed but from that first local authority client you can then go, well we've already done a project for the council so we can do it for you as well. And we've been, I mean we've always been committed to doing the best possible job and I think everybody would say that they are that, but we have been lucky enough to have repeat clients from lots of local authorities and that's led to us being also on a couple of framework agreements with the GLA and the mayors office in London, the great London authority and transport for London, but there's a lot of repeat business so yeah there's relationships with those clients and we've been able to always use the last one to trade up for the next one I suppose and we do think of it like that like it's a trade up, and how much above our weight can we punch realistically with what we've got in the bank, and also who do we need to work with to get those jobs.
I would say if there are kind of strategies or tactics that we use, we definitely look at the job that we think is really interesting and plot, put it in the cross hairs and how can we get that one and so there's relationships with the clients but we've got lots of really great relationships with consultants and self consultants where we're in a sub consultant relationship with someone bigger. I think, I mean I've been told by, we've got a communications guy now, a PR guy, and he said that most people don't have a list as long as ours of other architects that we work with. We often find ourselves in relationships with other architects, we're working with Hawkings Brown at the moment, we've got got good relationships with [cacuswitch karsen 00:09:38], I mean there's quite a long list actually of other architects and we- we work with them. We enjoy it, it's that collaboration is good fun, but it does help us get into rooms that we otherwise wouldn't be in and I would say that's quite definitely tactical.
Rion Willard: Yeah. Yeah. And how do those relationships begin? Were they interested in what you were doing and they kind of picked up on and saw, or was it you directly approaching them and saying you know actually we've got something here of value that we could bring to your projects, we've got a particular way of viewing public realm?
Holly Lewis: Yeah. It varies. I mean, you know that the architecture scene in London is quite small, so you've probably met most of those people at a party one way or another.
Rion Willard: Yeah.
Holly Lewis: So quite a few things come that way. We don't really, I can think of only one practice that we've worked with multiple times that we did a sort of cold call of like we're looking at this tender, do you want to team up. And that's actually proved really fruitful, that's with some economists though. We've got a research, an urban research sort of wing of the practice at the moment and we work with these economists called Regeneris and I just called them and said how about it, but we don't do that very often and we do get approached I think we've become associated with, or a little bit known for public realm and public spaces and I think that, the fact that we're not necessarily competing with some of those architects means that it's to develop a relationship or that there's an identifiable bit of the project that might be our responsibility, so that's also kind of come up and in those cases we've sometimes been approached by other architects.
Rion Willard: And how- did that assist you into getting into framework agreements? Did you go- did you team up with other architects to get that or-
Holly Lewis: No, those- the frameworks that we're on, or one particular framework that we're on that is the most- which is the Mayor of London one, we went for on our own and I think we have the open mindedness of the great London authority to thank for that and their support and sort of trust I guess, the kind of meager offerings that we had to put into that tender that they could see the potential in those and I guess trusted that what was shown in those could be applied to larger and bigger scale things which I do hope has proven to be the case.
Rion Willard: And what's been- what's been your sort of proudest obstacle that you've overcome in the last sort of 10 years?
Holly Lewis: Yeah it's really hard to say that because I would say that it has been this gradual kind of building and growing. I mean we're sitting in a room surrounded by boxes but I'm starting to feel quite proud of this office and the team that we have now and you know, we've overcome the investment of moving into this place and doing it up and you look around and think actually this is nice.
Rion Willard: Yeah.
Holly Lewis: I like it. And it wasn't the kind of massive individual hurdle, it's been a kind of an incremental build, and then you look down the hill that you've climbed up and think like actually we've come quite a long way and that feels good.
Rion Willard: Yeah, and how have you gone about you know, with such sort of rapid growth in the last few years, what's been the biggest challenges there in terms of say, in terms of employment and finding the right people. How've you gone around creating the right teams?
Holly Lewis: I feel like I have to start by saying I love our team. They're so great, and that is probably the biggest challenge actually I think if we could just turn a tap on or kind of open a magic door and there'd be a perfect person behind it, we could get loads more work than we have now, it's not the projects are not the challenge is making sure that we have the right resources to do them in the way that we want to do them, and it is a challenge and I think we- it's difficult to describe yourself. We're a little bit off beat as an architecture practice. We don't do loads of buildings, it's a lot of public space, quite a lot of research and increasingly more kind of master planning and urban design.
I don't think that that appeals necessarily to all architects, and we get different levels of responses at different levels of seniority, so maybe younger sort of out of college type of people seem to find us more appealing than more senior very serious people. I think we struggle actually to get that more senior level of involvement and I suppose to convince people that we are serious. We've got like a slightly silly name, we're sort of quite young. Yeah, that is a challenge for us definitely and hopefully increasingly the work sort of speaks for itself and that we'll overcome that challenge but it's definitely difficult to find the right people and I feel incredibly lucky that people that we have are here and that they do such good work for us and they don't run off and go somewhere else. Yeah, but I think that is the biggest thing that we have to kind of keep working towards and working against, is getting the right people involved because that's what we're doing.
Rion Willard: Yeah. And it's kind of constantly cultivating your team and you know, not wanting them to sort of leave and-
Holly Lewis: Yeah we don't have a massive- or we haven't had a massive problem with that. People mostly seem to be quite happy, but yeah absolutely I mean it's the maintenance of that team is the really important thing.
Rion Willard: And how've you done that? What kind of learning curves have you gone through in terms of just you know, finding yourself in a position now where it was just you and Olly and now you've got kind of a good sized team, and learning about the people skills that are involved in doing that and-
Holly Lewis: Probably we're still learning. I don't know, I guess it's the same way that you approach a project right, is that you're a human being, they're human beings, let's be reasonable about this. I mean we don't, we do try and make sure that we're properly resourced so we don't ask people to work really long hours. We think if you're going to design things to be out in the city and be kind of relevant and useful to normal people you need to live your life like a normal person, so if you're always in the office being and architect and doing clever architecture things, then that's not going to work, and-
Rion Willard: Mix some of that design ethos into the ethos of you know the culture of your company.
Holly Lewis: Yeah absolutely, and so yeah we try and make sure that no ones here at the weekend and we're not working late hours, everyone's sort of got a life outside and I think that's really important. We, I don't know there's silly little things. Try and have parties and we've sort of established a slightly weird tradition where our Christmas party is organized by me and Oliver without telling everyone and then it's a surprise and no one knows where we're going and we always seem to- not always seem to, we deliberately do always do some kind of making activity so we've made neon in the past, this year we did [pewto casting 00:16:50], sort of stupid things but I think it's enjoyable, they seem to like it.
Rion Willard: And it kind of helps you know keep the group bonded and-
Holly Lewis: Yeah exactly and it's jokes of who- where are we going, what are we doing, do I need my passport, which they haven't needed to so far but- we try to be thoughtful, I don't know you'd have to ask them.
Rion Willard: And how've you kind of grown the company in terms of your like marketing and how you, because it seems like you guys have got a very kind of niche knowledge base that you're working on and actually starting to produce quite an impressive you know set of skills for public realm. How do you get that knowledge out, how do you sort of help other people find out about you, how do your clients find out about you? Is it a case of do you do a lot of you know publishing or writing and people kind of find you through that or you're giving lectures and public speaking?
Holly Lewis: I need to preface the answer by saying we probably need to do a lot more of that. I think we could do that much better, and that's part of the reason why we've now got somebody to help us with our PR. We've always been really conscious of the quality, the aesthetic of the practice. We're really careful I think about what things look like that go out and you know, the website was one of the first- when we won our first project, the website was one of the first things that we did so we try to make sure that when you do hear about us, you hear about us in the way that we want you to, but we probably need to do more to spread the word.
We're also operating in an environment that allows us to be slightly more passive. Because all of our work is public, it has to be publicly procured and tendered, so the tenders and the opportunities in contracts have to be advertised and we see those adverts and we respond to them, so that puts us in a slightly passive role and we also have been talking recently about needing to be more active, but there's loads and loads and loads and anybody who's even had a look would know that all of these tender portals with tons and tons of projects about whatever, IT, infrastructure and I got one today about cyber terrorism, all kinds of things completely unrelated but any public sector spend of any decent scale has to be made public, so that kind of in some ways lessens the need I think for marketing because we're able to spot opportunities that apply for us and respond to them.
Rion Willard: And why do you prefer working in the public realm as opposed to working with private individuals? Do you do that as well do you-
Holly Lewis: No.
Rion Willard: Have private clients or residential-
Holly Lewis: No. No.
Rion Willard: Or anything like that.
Holly Lewis: That's been a rule from the beginning is that all of our work is public and if I'm giving a talk about what we do I sometimes say something which is probably a bit rude but I'm not that interested in choosing taps for other people, especially not really rich people and my small experience of working in practices that do do some of that work is that- and that's a perfectly well established, perfectly respectable way to build your practice as the young practitioner, and that I only say it you know, it's tongue in cheek but-
Rion Willard: What's really interesting for me is to see you guys, you haven't done that and you know, I mean I myself for example start to practice the formula, the ready made formula is to go and find a private client and sort of start networking with affluent people and figure out that, and then you might kind of you know a few years down the line find you know what this doesn't really fit me the way I wanted to. So to sort of begin from the outset with you know, we're not going to do that is quite bold and you know, I find it quite inspiring actually that you've made- that was the sort of the vision, and a lot of people wouldn't do that. A lot of people wouldn't necessarily be aware of their passion and what it is that they want to be doing.
Holly Lewis: Yeah, I mean I don't- it's hard for me to reflect on that because that was something that we always held true to, we would say no to those and in some sort of slightly I guess highly arrogant way we sort of quite enjoyed that as well. No we don't do that, we don't do that type of thing, we're not into that. But I think because of the way that the practice has built relatively gradually, we've been able to do that and we have never felt like oh god well I need to do because we need to have the money coming in because for at least for the first five years we didn't need to have the money coming in particularly and by that point we'd built enough of a kind of portfolio of work and clients that we didn't need to rely on those bits of work, so it probably was a bit of youthful arrogance, but I mean yeah we were clear like what we were interested in is how the wider public relate to the built environment and that we hold true to that and we really enjoy it so why would you spend your time doing something that you didn't enjoy and it turns out you can also pay the bills off it so that's a happy kind of not coincidence, but a happy result of taking that stance from the beginning.
Rion Willard: And what advice would you give to people who are wanting to work more in the public realm, particularly sort of younger students when they're coming out of university, I mean how do you feel first like the kind of how well does architectural training because it's a such a long incubation period for an architect and obviously when you set up practice, you're kind of- you've got to learn things. The only way to learn it really is through the experience of learning it. Do you think there are any areas in our training which could be improved or could be more assistance, because you know you look at the statistics sort of 50% of all architects or people who train end up running their own practice, it's a creative profession and you know at the heart of it you kind of want to be making your own stand, do you think there are many sorts of areas in our education that could be sort of altered or-
Holly Lewis: Yeah, well it's a big source of frustration for me that nobody ever mentioned in my- maybe right at the end, so in the first maybe six years of my architectural training, nobody ever said you might run your own practice, it's sort of assumed that you'll go and work for someone else. It turns out I actually really enjoy it and maybe I'm all right at it, so that seems like a major oversight in the education because it should of at least been on the table and I don't think it was even mentioned, but I mean my feeling is that it's very difficult to expose students, and I've done a bit of teaching but its difficult to expose students to the full breadth of what it is to be an architect in practice in the environment of the school, so my advice to the students was always to look for live projects that they can do and to feel empowered to do them, because I mean because that's what we did and that has been okay. And there's quite a lot of you know, building a structure for a festival or there are opportunities out there, so if you think you might be interested, try it and see how it goes.
It's actually- and then lots of people find that it isn't for them and that that level of responsibility is a bit difficult or challenging and that maybe having a salary that's paid by someone else is much more comfortable and all of that is absolutely fine, but I think that you know, it's a slightly defeated attitude.
I'm not sure that universities is the way to put this knowledge into people's brains and that actually just being out there and doing it is probably the better way. That's why things like the London school of architecture are quite interesting and I'm curious to see what comes out of that. But you can just try and do some projects and you know, a few thousand, ten thousand, whatever little builds are really great at exposing you to the types of skills that you need and pretty low risk for both parties really. I'm not advocating tons of untrained people going out and building hospitals or anything, and I don't think that you'd find the opportunity because there is quite a risk of a sort of attitude, but I think you can go out and try a few things, see how it goes.
Rion Willard: And where do you see your guys going in the next 10 years, what are your sort of aspirations for the company? What kind of projects would you like to be doing?
Holly Lewis: So the, I mean we- there's a document obviously there's a document that kind of says that and what we've said is that we want to be influential contributors to the built environment so that there isn't a sort of limit on that or a number of staff or anything, but we constantly are hungry for more influence. [crosstalk 00:25:30] Yeah that's the vision.
Rion Willard: Driving force.
Holly Lewis: Yeah it is. So far we're almost exclusively working in London and we'd be really happy to work in other places. I think it is definitely anybody that's interested in public engagement with the built environment or just the nature of civics base and civic relationships between what we build and who builds it and who it's for, so that's a conversation that applies kind of in all kinds of- everywhere. In cities particularly, buy all over the world, so there's definitely an ambition to spread beyond London and I think, I mean the current sort of conversation is also a little bit we need to get beyond always being called emerging.
Rion Willard: Yeah.
Holly Lewis: And just to be a practice that does some interesting stuff. Yeah, and I mean we're both I'm 32 Olly's 33, so there's a few more years for us still to be young architects by architects standards and no one else's, but yeah we're quite keen to get beyond that I think and just be a practice that does interesting stuff. But yeah, to be influential and I deliberately put no limit on that and we stay I mean the fact that all our work is public is something that won't go away, so the combination of those two things gives I guess the future for what we're doing.
Rion Willard: Brilliant. Thank you very much.
Holly Lewis: Thank you.
Rion Willard: That's been really insightful, it's been very sort of you know inspiring to hear how you guys have, this story of you know that kind of consistency and the sort of the gradual growth is very you know so nice to hear that that persistence pays off and you know, it's not the sort of a big break type of thing.
Holly Lewis: Oh no, definitely not.
Rion Willard: That kind of illusion can exist sometimes where you kind of think, oh I'm just waiting for the break. Actually no, it's just being consistent.
Holly Lewis: I mean the break is also- I can see how that would be something that you would want as somebody who's maybe when you're just starting that you want the big break.
Rion Willard: Yeah.
Holly Lewis: And to say it actually maybe it's 10 years worth of work is what I need to do, isn't probably what you want to hear at that point for us that's been true and luckily we're not kind of seeing the fruits of that.
Rion Willard: And could you just tell us a little bit about your urban research newspaper that you've been doing over the last few months?
Holly Lewis: Yeah so we- we've been publishing a newspaper called the unlimited edition. We did the first three issues of that in 2011, 2012 in response to a request for a kind of cultural grant of about £5000, it was just a quick project and it's become a kind of longer standing series which we've recently resurrected on the occasion of our new office and relocation. So what we do is the newspapers are always really locally specific, we look at a very particular place and we kind of cast our eye over it and find stories that might be interesting, strands or themes of research that are interesting in relation that place and then we give the newspaper away for free so that that's the sort of really important thing as well, particularly in the one that we did previously in 2011, 2012.
Rion Willard: Yeah.
Holly Lewis: In Whitechapel, that we look at a place, we put together a whole bunch of really interesting stories and content about it and then we give it out for free. In fact in that case we stood on the high street and put it into peoples hands and that's a good way of reminding yourself that you have to be relevant to people if you're going to piss them off by stopping them in the street you have to say actually this is really interesting we stand by it, we believe in it.
So the unlimited edition is this series of newspapers set in different places and we always invite different contributors so its not just written by us, there's a couple of things by us in there but also contributions and articles from other people and we found that to be a really good way of introducing yourself to people, gathering really interesting content, having interesting conversations, but yeah introducing yourself to new spheres of work and of investigation so at the point where we first did that paper, it was just something that we were interested in, thought might be a curious thing to do but actually since then urban research has become a whole strand of the work that the practice does so we've got a couple of researchers, both from non architectural backgrounds. They both did kind of politics and philosophy and economics, those kinds of things but we really enjoy the opportunity to look at cities and look at places and to unpick the dynamics of what's happening in those places and think about the implication for how they're going to grow or change in the future which seems to me to be totally fundamentally kind of architectural and urban and totally relevant to the work of the practice.
Rion Willard: And do you find that this has been really kind of crucial in gaining new work in terms of you know your clients and people actually giving like a wow that's so- that's quite a good level of engagement and it kind of adds to the depth understanding of those sort of areas that you're working in?
Holly Lewis: It's been a surprisingly good tool actually. Partly because we've made some good friends and contacts through it, but it- for example the first issues that we're looking at Whitechapel high street were happening at a time when the mayor of London was looking very specifically at high streets and what high streets mean for London. They've since invested about £185 million in high street regeneration projects, so a newspaper that is just talking about high streets was really relevant to them and that actually was one of the first times that we met with the regeneration team at the majors office was to talk about this newspaper which seems kind of inconsequential but actually now it's like a really large portion of the work that we do is working with that team, so it's been really interesting. It's also taken us to places that I would never have thought that it would. So it- we submitted the paper to be part of an exhibition called Archizines which toured all over the world and actually I went to Buenos Aires when the exhibition was happening there funded by the British council, so the newspaper also took me to Argentina which we never would have expected. So there's something about I guess exposing yourself to different influences and something about publicity as well that the newspapers kind of led to.
Rion Willard: And you're positioning yourself as an authority essentially as well because you're being one that's kind of curating all this kind of research and you know, making it available to other people so it's kind of you know you put yourself in the position of an expert.
Holly Lewis: Yeah I mean now I feel much more comfortable saying yes to that question- to that idea. I think at the time we would have thought well it's just you know, a collection of things that we think are interesting but now no, I think you're probably right. We do think that.
Rion Willard: Thank you so much for your time.
Holly Lewis: Thanks very much.
Speaker 2: And that is a wrap. Thank you for listening today. If you're looking for more time, freedom, impact and income as an architect, get instant access to my free four part architect profit map by visiting freearchitectgift.com. Today's podcast is sponsored by AIA Advantage partner BQE software, the makers of ArchiOffice. ArchiOffice is the only office and project management software designed specifically for architects. It helps you manage people and projects while you focus on designing great architecture, so whether you're working remotely or on site, ArchiOffice allows you to monitor the status of your projects and tasks, and send out invoices in an accurate and timely manner. Get your fully functional 15 day trial of ArchiOffcie by going to businessofarchitecture.com/demo. The views expressed on this show by my guests do not represent those of the host and I make no representation promise guarantee, pledge, warranty, contract, bond or commitment except to help you conquer the world.