Setting up in practice is something that many architects aspire to. For most, the advantages of taking this bold step (increased creative freedom and financial reward) far outweigh the disadvantages (greater professional risk and longer working hours). Like many before him, architect Neil Davies decided to set up his own company in 2012. Based in London and New York, Neil Davies Architects now employs six staff and works across a range of sectors, including residential, commercial, and arts and leisure. Central to Davies’ success has been his long-term professional relationship with trusted advisor SIG Design & Technology, and in particular SIG Sales Director Ross Finnie. So how did this association come about? What are the benefits? And how can this approach help other architects who are thinking of going it alone? Neil Davies and Ross Finnie discuss these questions and more with Architecture Today’s Technical Editor John Ramshaw.
Neil Davies, principal of Neil Davies Architects; Ross Finnie, Sales Director of SIG Design & Technology
AT: Neil, can you briefly explain what path you early career took and why you decided to start your own practice?
ND: My architectural career began in London, where I worked for several practices before joining Munkenbeck & Marshall in 2000. I stayed at the practice for 11 years, working my way up to associate level and then becoming a partner in 2009. In 2011 there was an opportunity for me to set up on my own and it felt like the right moment to do so.
AT: When and how did you first meet Ross?
ND: I first came into contact with Ross while I was working at Munkenbeck+ Marshall. At the time he was a technical representative for another roofing manufacturer and gave a CPD presentation on single-ply roofing. We were using single ply on several of our projects, including one that I was working on, and we quickly developed a rapport. Following this, we worked up specifications on a number of M+M projects together.
Back in the early 2000s, subcontractors and suppliers were still prepared to impart their knowledge and expertise to younger trainee architects, ensuring the best possible outcome for building projects. However, as the tendering environment became increasingly competitive, many of these people retired, sold their businesses or left the industry. As a result, much of this knowledge stopped being passed onto young architects, such as myself. Today, the need for technical consultants who know about a wide range of products within a specialist area, such as roofing or cladding, is crucial. In this context, Ross’ role at SIG has become even more important. Architects need advice and assurance that the roofing specification is robust and suitable for the job, particularly as it will often need to withstand value engineering and price interrogation by the main contractor.
College Court, London (ph-Nick Gutteridge)
AT: Ross, how would you define the role of a trusted advisor?
RF: Personally, I don’t like the term, trusted advisor. For SIG and myself, it’s about developing a rapport with the specifier and always delivering the correct information for the project. If Neil were to come to me with a project that is not suitable for SIG’s products or systems, I would tell him the truth rather than deliver a sub-optimal solution. This is the ethos I impart on my staff, because you are only as good as your last job. At the end of the day, it’s a question of ethics and trust.
ND: With SIG we will work up a specification that goes hand-in hand with the tender drawings. The Design & Build contractor may then push for its favoured roofing product or system. What’s great about Ross and his team is that they will provide an honest answer as to whether the proposed product/system is suitable or will cause problems later on. We can then feed this information back into the tender process, making it easier to retain the original specification and design intent. Having the right roofing specification from the offset is also crucial in terms of ensuring fitness-for-purpose and minimising design liability.
RF: That’s a very important point. SIG takes on the design liability for its roofing systems and has its own professional indemnity (PI) insurance. Some other manufacturers accept design liability, but can’t back it up with PI.
Evening view of College Court in London (ph-Nick Gutteridge)
AT: Neil, how has your relationship with SIG changed over the years?
ND: It has become increasingly multi-faceted. We find that SIG is able to give in depth advice across a wide range of roofing applications and scenarios. For instance, on a recent refurbishment project in London, Ross sent a SIG field surveyor to investigate the existing roof that had been installed within the last 10 years, but did not have a guarantee to ascertain what product needed to be overlaid on it in order to have the requisite roof warranty. SIG then provided a report and an NBS spec that we incorporated into our tender set of information. SIG were also key in providing comprehensive technical support to the practice in its role as architectural advisor to Camden Council’s affordable housing programme. This covers all aspects of the roofing works from design and specification through to maintenance and upkeep and assistance in putting together performance criteria for all aspects of roofing to build suitable and robust employers’ requirements.
Culford Gardens, London (ph: Kilian O’Sullivan)
RF: I would agree. SIG has diversified over the years, and our expertise has grown –driven mainly by the marketplace. Not only do we advise on roofs but also the facades and the interfaces between them too. Mainly in conjunction with our Zinc & Copper business. We are now able to advise on the envelope rather than just roofs. Roofs are no longer there just to keep the weather out; increasingly they are becoming important amenities, as evidenced by the rise of blue and green roofs.
AT: Neil, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you set up in practice?
ND: Architectural practice is forever evolving, and as a consequence I’m always learning new things. Against this backdrop of constant change, I find that I wouldn’t actually change anything about how I originally set up my studio. With a fledgling practice you are always trying to develop working relationships with small contractors and suppliers. In the early days we had several go-to contractors that we could rely on, but with hindsight it would have been better to build a bigger network of skilled craftspeople. This can make a real difference on site.
Mandeville Loft, London (ph: Kilian O’Sullivan)
AT: Neil, what advice would you give to architects who are considering going it alone?
ND: Stick to your guns! You need the strength of your convictions across all aspects of the business. The reason a client will come to you is because he or she is looking for your vision and professional input. As such, you need to be confident in your abilities and what you can offer. It can be tough, and sometimes as an architect you are treated a bit like a punch bag. But if you can find the strength to keep going and work closely with the other consultants, you should be able to realise your design vision.
For more information please visit the SIG website.