In this Lawray Life podcast and interview series we’ll be talking to fellow team members across the practice to understand how they think, what inspires them, and how they work to create positive outcomes for people, communities, and the environment.
Today my guest is Martin Fox, our Chairman, who joined Lawray over forty years ago, after graduating from the Welsh School of Architecture.
Whilst here he was approached by a friend to help on a project for Lawray in Cardiff. This was only meant to be temporary, but four weeks later he had a full-time job.
At this time in the late 1970s Wales was fairly depressed and transitioning from a coal-based economy. It was also the start of the housing association movement. This gave Martin the opportunity to cut his teeth on housing schemes and industrial projects, which included factories in the Welsh Valley’s that were designed to bring jobs and prosperity to former mining communities.
A project in Kensington Park Gardens for the Crown Estate brought Martin to London, and a number of high-profile projects followed. This included restoration works to Decimus Burton’s Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall, and ten years spent as the resident architect at the Corporation of Church House in Westminster. By the 1990s Martin was running the London studio, and ten years ago he became CEO. Over the years he has been instrumental in fostering a collaborative culture, and during lockdown chose to reflect on the practice’s values. Today I am talking to him about how these values have evolved and what this means in practice.
Hello Martin and welcome to the show.
Why did you start to think about the practice values during the pandemic?
When I first joined Lawray in 1978 it was a young, exciting practice full of enthusiasm, but not much structure, or indeed vision of how it might grow. We worked on whatever came through the door and studios were opened in response to workstreams. So, from its main base in Cardiff, a studio opened in Wrexham through local contacts and then, for a short time in Yeovil and finally in London from a contact Ray Pye (one of the original founders – the Ray in Lawray) had known in Cardiff. This was in the 1980s, in the days of drawing boards and paper printing and each studio was allowed to become quite autonomous.
Roles within the practice evolved, though we operated on the principle of the person who started a project at the beginning stayed with the project until the end, so I did my fair share of design, detailed design and production information as well as site inspection and contract administration. This of course gave me a solid grounding in the traditional work of the architect and I found my strength in the design side.
What it didn’t give me was a lot of experience in how to run an architect’s practice – we were still in the days of putting our name in the yellow pages, a signboard on our construction sites and a small plaque on the wall, waiting for the clients to contact us. Marketing and client engagement was still in its infancy.
I worked my way up to associate in 1986 and then director when Lawray Partnership was incorporated in 1992, responsible for design and visual communication. I was an expert at running projects but the business of running the company, I left to the other directors. It seemed a good move, until my older fellow directors started retiring.
Between 2000 and 2010 all the original senior team had gone and I found myself in sole control.
The haphazard approach of the earlier days had left me with essentially three studios that had become offices in their own right, linked only by financial control. The freedom to choose computers and operating systems had inevitably led to three different offerings, with limited ability to work with each other and I realised that if we were to grow, we had to stop seeing ourselves as three separate entities and pool our resources and strengths under one banner.
The market we were in was also changing. The shifting roles of responsibility was pushing more design work onto contractors, making them our major clients and the contractor organisations were changing and growing as well, so we found ourselves working for different divisions of the same construction companies in each office.
If were to compete and present a single face we had to make sure we had common values.
But the autonomy of the earlier days had also allowed each studio to work in their own sectors and create their own way of working with their own values, so I set about looking for commonality and discovering what made us all tick – and because each office had its own staff, I needed to know more about the value they had developed.
Consultation started at director level where we focussed on our strengths and on our commitments to clients. We then invited the practice-wide team to collaborate. Initially we developed three principals which are essential for any good architectural company: to engage with our clients to fully understand what they want from us, to establish a timescale for delivery of our work and ultimately the project, and to keep ourselves up to date with statutory requirements, neatly wrapped up as the three ‘T’s – in Touch, on Time and in Tune. These were duly promulgated across our company, but I found they were open to too much interpretation.
Taken literally they didn’t differentiate us from any other architectural company, but if left to individual interpretation they were too broad, so we asked ourselves what it meant to engage with the client: How did we listen? What contributions would we make to the conversations? How we would interpret what we were told? What did it mean to be on time? Who controlled the timescales, and how did we convert that into the costs involved in carrying out the work? And what did it mean to be in tune? We have a duty to comply with regulations, but how would we tackle issues outside the client’s brief? At this time there were plenty; we were reviewing the consequences of the UK leaving the European Union; the growing warnings from scientists on climate change and of course, the global COVID pandemic, as well as the increasing issues of localism which were rightly giving communities a greater say in developments.
So, we took the 3 ‘T’s and expanded them into a set of values which were more self-explanatory and more relatable. These evolved quite organically throughout lockdown when physical meetings were not possible, but the lockdown helped by making us use the technology sitting on our computers and we found that we could reach out to our three studios and get feedback far easier on Teams.
Can you expand a bit more on how you engaged staff in the process?
Taking one step back – getting the three studios to effectively agree to re-join Lawray as a single entity was the first task. The concept seemed logical, but I could see it involved the loss of the autonomy that the earlier years had provided, so we needed to move from a state of independency to interdependency where each studio could become more self-reliant. By working together they could achieve far more than by working alone.
As a board we discussed the financial benefits of working as a single entity. The ability to offer larger teams would attract larger commissions with greater efficiency, but of course this would require investment in more centralised administration and new interrelated computer systems before we could get everyone to work together. These discussions and agreements took place alongside the development of the common values we could share, and I am happy to say the board were in full agreement to the plan so we set about purchasing new computers, software and servers under the expert guidance of our BIM and IT guru.
I honestly believe this investment demonstrated our commitment not only to ourselves, but to all within Lawray, who could see we were serious in making changes, so when we released the new values they were already receptive. But we also wanted their engagement and to do this we formed a series of focus groups with people from each studio under the mentorship of the directors, to explore the issues around our work and our values. Through consultation we decided on a Design Group, to explore our approach to design, a Sustainability Group, to explore the issues around climate change and carbon reduction, a Revit Group, to review best practice in providing construction information, a Delivery Group on how best to provide and collate information and, finally, and Social Media Group to identify and populate channels to get our messages out to the general public and clients alike.
From that a framework and code of conduct was established, such as each group having representation from each studio, limiting people in the number of groups they could join so that they could give the time needed and the directors giving them the time to do so. The importance of this initiative was twofold; firstly to get the views from everyone on important issues and secondly to promote inter-studio communication, building incredibly useful links between the studios.
This continues to evolve, and I would like the groups to have they own voice and to make representation to the board of directors on the issues they see in their areas and how Lawray is responding so that they become experts and a voice of conscience to ensure we stay true to our values.
German architect Mies van der Rohe once said that ‘Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space”. How does Lawray keep abreast of the social, economic and environmental factors shaping the built environment today so that we can creatively respond to our clients’ challenges?
Good questions. Mies also said that ‘no design is possible until the materials with which you design are completely understood’ and that is a guiding principle for us. We encourage all at Lawray to dig deeply into the qualities and limitations in the materials. But it is not only the materials we want to research: we also want understand the consequences of our work on the communities and the environment.
This is embedded in the value we refer to as curiosity – a deep desire to understand our client’s requirements and the consequences of our work.
We live in different times to Mies and while there is still pressure to improve our communities, towns and financial centres and improve connections between communities as well as projects to reflect the success of individuals, now we see the growing calls to reduce carbon emissions. All construction has a cost and is paid in local or global currency, but I believe we are at a stage where the major currency of construction is carbon emissions and we must spend it wisely and cautiously, because we can’t do anything without spending it; and doing nothing is not an option.
On a basic level the Government needs to improve the quality of housing, the vast majority of which was built before the concerns of carbon were fully accepted, and there are calls for improved insulation, but it will not be so simple. We need to look at the types of insulation, how it is manufactured, its performance and its lifespan as well as the consequences on internal space and ventilation.
There is also a huge demand for new housing to meet the needs of the population and we look to balance the needs of higher densities with those of open space and privacy as well as society’s more flexible approach to homeworking.
And linking these communities there follows the need for data and distribution centres alongside the road and rail networks, supplying all manner of goods and services. These clearly affect the earlier local centres and high streets, and while we cannot control that, we can look at the reuse of so-called redundant spaces.
These all fall under our sense of curiosity and are picked up by individuals with particular interests and skills and discussed through the Focus Groups mentioned earlier.
So how do you ensure that you deliver on the promise made in your values?
Simply by rigorous self-evaluation and internal reviews. We require everyone at Lawray to use emotional intelligence to handle the relationships they form within the Company and externally, with clients and consultants. Of course, we can’t expect every relationship to follow the perfect path and we use internal reviews either at senior management levels or within the Focus Groups to identify any issues and provide help and guidance. We also check our performance against client appraisals during and the completion of projects.
Two of your values have an egalitarian stance; to be ethical and socially responsible. Can you be more specific as how your approach is ethical and addresses social need?
Of course, as a Chartered architectural practice we are bound by the ethical stance created by the RIBA, but we have also developed a branch of Corporate Social Responsibility within the company. Currently we are working with colleges and universities to identify the role of architects in society and to explore with students how architecture can have a more positive impact on well-being. As this develops, we will explore environmental and sustainability issues as well.
We want to take out some of the mystery of the art of architecture. Mies (again) once said that we should never talk to a client about architecture as most of what we say will not be understood and while there is some sense in avoiding the client becoming overwhelmed, I believe it is important that the process is seen as a partnership, and we should spend time ensuring they understand the implications of the brief.
I would like to conclude by asking how our values will provide the framework to nurture and develop the next generation as future leaders of the practice?
I can say that running the company is in a sense a bit like a relay. It is the responsibility of the CEO to ensure that the baton is passed when the time comes, and the values are there to help make those transitions smoothly. To support this, I have made some fundamental changes to the way Lawray operates and it is now in a strong position to face the challenges the future will surely bring. I also know that Lawray always needs fresh ideas and the search for that is continuous. The generation coming through the college ad universities are the lifeblood of that process and I believe that their enthusiasm makes now the time to share responsibilities for the company. I will remain as Chairman and in that role will continue to support the new teams. We are still expanding in the areas open to us and how our curiosity is leading to a strong research and development arm, that is still in its infancy. I will also ensure that the values remain at the heart of our work, and I will have more time to ensure they are broadcast to our clients and peers.
I have identified people within the company who share my goals and now we have individuals responsible for the direction of the whole company on revenue generation, marketing, operations, and financial control. And supporting them, individuals responsible for managing those tasks, at studio level providing guidance to team leaders responsible for individual projects. And each is tasked with mentoring those below them so that ideas and values constantly flow through the company. Responsibility is key and our values ensure that responsibility is owned and shared across the company. The Focus Groups provide an invaluable source of new thinking and at times important challenges to the status quo.