Working in the commercial world was a valuable education for an architect, says Trevor Morriss


Despite knowing architecture was the career for me from an early age, my route into the profession was unconventional. Straight out of school I began as a print boy at a practice called John Brunton Partnership. It was a move driven by impatience; I wanted to get started in the design process and to see how things get built. This entry-level introduction to the profession was incredibly formative, but that was as much to do with the era as the work.

It was the late 1980s, and construction was booming. From the start of the day to close of play I was working non-stop on dyeline prints. After hours that I stayed in the studio to work on my own sketches, based around schemes within the practice. My education was rooted firmly in the real world of architecture which manifested itself in the construction process.

I was still under 20 when I was pulled off blueprints to work on my own first building. It was, essentially, my training ground.

After hours that I stayed in the studio to work on my own sketches, based around schemes within the practice”

I went to university part-time to formalise my architectural qualifications, but was eager to keep up the training I had received in the commercial world of real estate, and at 23, I eagerly took up a role as a senior architect at real estate giant Jones Lang Wotton (now JLL), where I spent the next seven years.

It was in the university environment that my design skills got honed, but it was my time at JLL that provided a balance to the studio mindset, and really taught me how to understand the industry from a financial viewpoint. It taught me what makes a building viable, and, crucially, what gets a project off the ground.

During this time I realised that for me architecture was going to be about the physical, not the hypothetical. It taught me that space and comfort are a priority for occupation, and how to design from the inside out. It’s where I developed the desire to make high quality design part of everyday life, not saved up for the occasional philanthropic commission.

Top, above: Employed by the John Brunton Partnership to make dye-line prints, Morriss produced alternative proposals for the office’s projects out-of-hours.

Though this education was commercial, it was never about compromising on the architecture; in fact, it was the exact opposite. My time at JLL taught me that focusing on the commercial drivers of any project is a route to ensuring and delivering high quality architecture. Even the bold architecture not usually associated with the term ‘commercial’ could be built with sound economic logic – not by compromising on design quality, but rather by starting in a different place.

I learned not to jump straight to the sketch book, but to first look at the site opportunities and to be as creative at this point in the process as any other. It taught me to extend the possibilities of the original brief wherever possible – and to optimise assets and development potential, to secure not just a better return on investment for the client, but more room for manoeuvre for the architect. Releasing value for the client is often the route to creating the most interesting buildings.

My time at JLL also gave me a comprehensive understanding of the planning process and laid the foundations for many relationships with local authority planners, and gave ample opportunity to develop the skills of persuasion and compromise that are important in securing consent for complex schemes.

Underlying all of this was the fundamental lesson that although high quality architecture and commercial optimisation are not commonly discussed bedfellows, to realise an architectural vision, the two must always work together.