I had wanted to start my own practice for years, but how to do it was always the problem. When Hari and I discussed entering a competition together, it was an interesting opportunity, and while I was confident in our abilities to do a good submission, I didn’t expect to win. After we were shortlisted, we were invited to an interview at which we explained our scheme and our situation. We were a couple of recently qualified architects working for other practices and with no experience of housing design. But London Borough of Newham took the very brave step of appointing us if we could set up a practice in a month, and that is what we did. I was worried that Hari’s recent promotion would stop him taking a leap into the unknown, but as it became clear that this really was a genuine project, he joined me and we started in earnest.
We started in the corner of someone else’s office, renting two desks, working from laptops, passing files between us with a USB stick, and six months later we were joined by our first member of staff. Various people in the industry were very enthusiastic for us, and we have many people to thank for the invaluable advice they gave us, such as how to negotiate an appointment, finding the right accountant, or getting PI insurance. This all happened very quickly, and coincided with me getting married and reaching my 30th birthday; it was a very exciting time.
We made it up as we went along and we made all sorts of mistakes as we tried to work out how to run a business. Twelve years later we are a practice of 27 people and growing, with much more experience, a solid office structure and a great team of staff. But I still have the same sense that it’s a continual voyage of discovery. We still don’t know where the future will take us, in terms of the people we work with, or the type of project, or the myriad challenges ahead. But that’s what’s exciting, and that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Hari and I have complimentary personalities and different skills. On occasion we have heated arguments, but it’s always about superficial things like the pitch of a roof or the right shade of green. It has been essential to have a completely honest working relationship, where people feel they can speak their mind, and this is the way we all communicate in the office. It ensures we properly debate any relevant issue, and it means that the eventual design is all the stronger for having been deeply interrogated in a robust way. Nonetheless, this way of working is underpinned by a deep respect which staff have for each other. Whoever has the best idea, that’s the one we use; there’s no room in the office for big egos. If the most junior member of staff has the lightbulb moment, that’s the concept we use, and that ensures everyone can feel ownership over a design, and gain motivation and satisfaction from it.
We carry out staff reviews every six months, and I am proud that every time, without prompting, people state their satisfaction, motivation and happiness at working in the office, proven by our excellent staff retention statistics. We genuinely value everyone’s input, we give people the training they need, we try to give people the types of project they are interested in, and there’s a clear career path which shows there’s a future for everyone. We work in an open plan office with lots of chat and laughter, but with a strong dose of concentration and hard work. I am always impressed by the dedication and phenomenally long hours people put into their work. And this is what has helped us design some great buildings and build a very successful office. As a practice of twelve years old, this is really only the beginning, but I feel as though we’re in a great position for the challenges ahead.
In 2003 Tim Bell and I had an awkward, stilted conversation during a party in the kitchen of his flat in Elephant and Castle.
“Yeah, shall we do it?”
“Yeah, I’m up for it”
So it was that we tentatively agreed to set up an architecture practice together should the opportunity arise.
Not long after I spotted an advert for a design competition in the pages of BD, showed it to Tim and over a couple of weekends we put together a submission. Tim hated my habit of playing loud music while working. He still does.
Like many young architects desperate for a break we sent the submission off more in hope than expectation and the competition was the first we had entered, so we were pretty blown away to be firstly shortlisted, and then subsequently announced as winners. The torrent of profanity that Tim endured when he phoned to tell me we’d won was yet another lesson as to what he was letting himself in for.
The project was substantial. A £6million project to regenerate and refurbish over 200 homes on an East London housing estate phased over a number of years. We quit our jobs, Bell Phillips Architects was formed and we plunged headlong into 12 year journey of exploration, hard work, high emotions and all the other ingredients that make up the formation and growth of a small business.
The nature of our formation is very much emblematic of the way we are. Project - focused, interested in exploration through doing, keen to tackle tangible issues rather than theoretical or paper architecture and a belief in architecture as an instrument for social good.
Over the years we’ve often talked about what Bell Phillips Architects stands for and what our architectural manifesto is. The truth is I don’t think there is one. Further I’m not sure I really like the idea of an architectural manifesto. It suggests that you’re arrogant enough to imagine that you’ve worked architecture out.
Nevertheless looking back over the years certain interests and themes have emerged; a passion for materials and the resultant impact on form and detail, an architecture that emerges from a considered analysis of the historical and environmental context, and a passion for making a positive social, economic and physical impact on the world in which we live. But whilst these interests underpin the work of the office, each project is taken on its own merits, and is part of a broader evolution of thought and process.
As our office has grown we have sought to cultivate a studio atmosphere in which everyone feels that they have a voice and are empowered to make a genuine and valued contribution.
We carefully select our team for their enthusiasm, passion, intelligence, commitment and energy. The talents of these individuals, the responsibility that they are given and the collaborative way that they work together is what makes our studio a special, stimulating and enjoyable place.
This approach is reflected in our projects which I believe are richer, more interesting, more complex and diverse as a result.
In the autumn of 2006 I was looking for employment and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. What kind of practice did I want to work for? What kind of architecture was I interested in? Was I looking for a home or just a temporary resting place whilst I completed my professional qualifications? The agency I was signed with called to say they could set up an interview with a small practice that might be looking for a Part II; I’d never heard of Bell Phillips Architects and a brief Google search later I wasn’t much wiser — the practice website was somewhat basic — but I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, or where I was going to find it so it seemed I had nothing to lose from a conversation.
My interview did not leave me totally convinced that Bell Phillips Architects was the right fit for me, or me for them — it’s fair to say that we are all different enough personalities that it was something of a gamble on both sides whether it would work out. What I was sure of however was that Tim and Hari wanted to build buildings, and that’s what I wanted to do too. It sounds stupidly basic, but it felt like a genuine rarity to find a small practice actively engaged in the real and messy pursuit of architecture; not ideas competitions or theoretical projects, but real buildings to meet a genuine need. And engaged through all the stages; projects followed through to completion – construction and realization as important as concept and design. In addition to this I felt that it was the type of place where my voice would be heard, where I could make a mark on the operation of the office and the work we produced.
Ten years since I joined, dozens of projects, five different office addresses and six babies (not all mine I’d hasten to add) later the practice is a very different place. For starters we are no longer occupying an unheated garage above a soup kitchen, we’ve grown from a staff of five to 27 (at the time of writing), we have a lot more experience and we’re a bit more grown up — although not totally finished growing I hope. The office has always had an egalitarian ethos — as attracted me in the beginning — although maintaining this as a way of practice is very different with a staff of 27 as opposed to a staff of five. There are many more voices around the table now, adding a layer of complexity to the process, but I hope in turn this also adds a greater depth to our exploration resulting in ever more confident and ambitious designs.
It feels very much like taking a freeze-frame in time, and it has certainly prompted a number of conversations as to who we think we are, where we think we are going and what we are trying to achieve — and how to accurately reflect this. The business of building a practice can be so all consuming; one moment you are a small firm starting out, living hand to mouth from one job to the next, the next moment you’ve grown in size and ambition but are always still looking to the next challenge — it’s incredibly hard to find the time or space for any form of self - examination or reflection. I’m not sure where we will be in another dozen years but I do hope that we are still questioning, still debating, still trying to figure things out and work outside our comfort zone. And most of all I hope we’re still building buildings.