Supporter's Column: Biba Dow

As part of the new Supporter's Column Biba Dow, Director of Dow Jones Architects, writes about the scale of practice in her article ' Isn't Size the Wrong Question?'

Isn't Size the Wrong Question?


By Biba Dow 

The second question architects usually ask each other is ‘how many people are you now?”. It’s about numbers of staff, a measure of success. As a director of a small practice, it hits a nerve. Why do I mind being asked?

Underlying the question is a suggestion of competition, a silent pecking order. The assumption is that both size and growth define success. Being small is to be less important. The RIBA 2018 Business Benchmarking report into RIBA chartered practices identifies that only 3.4% of architectural practices have over 50 employees (conversely there are ten times as many practices with just one or two architects), and that these practices generate 88% of revenue (gross income) of all the practices assessed. Big practices have access to more work and are more profitable. Crossing the AJ100 threshold is a status symbol. Like the wider business landscape, the architectural world doffs its hat to big business. Why do we value size so much?

Obviously behind the quest for growth is an element of hunger, of wanting to be eligible for the next job which might be bigger and more challenging. Capability is often measured by size and turnover on a cut-off basis before assessment of experience and aptitude. We are all used to the ruthless competition process which is the route to so much interesting work and which sets practices against each other. Its counter-effect is to create an uneasy competitive cross-culture between colleagues which is hard to avoid.

Like all businesses, architectural practices find their economies; their profiles include types of work as well as scale of project and practice. Expansion brings risk with rewards and burdens. I understand and sympathise with the concerns of colleagues in larger practices who are more exposed to the impact of fluctuations in project programmes that comes with larger projects. All our practices are operating in a time of extreme challenges for the construction industry, with the impacts of Brexit on labour, manufacture and supply chains, of the impact of inflation on project costs and the cost of living crisis, and of adapting our businesses around the pandemic, with its attendant impact on local authorities. It’s a significant list.

During the more reflective period of practice in lockdown, we had an epiphany. We realised that we could in fact just leave aside our concerns about positioning of our practice. Instead of asking ourselves if we should be doing more of a particular type of work, or growing more quickly, or generally be more like other practices, we realised how happy we are operating at our scale, and how very much we love the projects that come to us. We realised that this is enough – more than enough. The challenge is in fact about how to sustain our practice, not turn it into something else. Our practice has been the same number of people – fewer than ten people - for years, and we love that. Operating at this size means that in our practice we can share one conversation, that we all know every project, that everyone contributes. There is no need to grow to be like anyone else. What’s important is to nurture ourselves. Our challenges have been the same as when we set up practice over twenty years ago: with each new day and each new job, we ask ourselves how to do things as well as we can.

It can be hard to resist the prevailing cultural influence. We look for inspiration to other small-ish practices, practices who by any measure are respected and admired. They are all around us.


Article written by Biba Dow, Dow Jones Architects, as part of the Architecture Foundation's Supporters Column.