Supporter's Column: John McRae

The director of Orms Designers and Architects looks at the challenges and successes they faced as they transitioned to an employee ownership trust in 2018.

Ultrapractical - Architecture for an accelerated age 


The fast-paced, financially driven, nature of modern society has had a major influence on the design and construction of buildings over the past decade. More recently the way we practice, and design buildings and urban spaces has been challenged by unprecedented events such as the pandemic, climate emergency, soaring inflation, scarcity of materials, shortage of architects and addressing the findings of the Grenfell inquiry. You would be forgiven for being overwhelmed but given architects often imagine all the moving parts before anyone else has the power to see it affords an opportunity to reshape how we practice and think about architectural and urban design. At Orms we constantly strive to ‘intensify’ and to ‘go beyond’ what we are employed to do, and this has enabled us to deliver high quality buildings and thrive as a medium sized practice.

When Orms transitioned to an Employee Ownership Trust in 2018 one of the aims was to bind everyone who works with Orms a little more closely together and find a new way to think collectively about architecture and urban design and to connect with the people we build for. The 2020 pandemic accelerated this thinking and in 2021 we created ‘Ultrapractical - Architecture for an accelerated age’ a handbook / guide as a positive reminder and reference for all decisions and discussions. Sven Muendner (founder) and Rory Olcayto (editor at large) of Beispiel worked alongside us to explore and articulate what really matters to Orms, what was required to attract and work with the best consultants and clients and engage the people who occupy our buildings. This was achieved through a series of in-depth interviews and workshops and led to five principles, they are:

Building Stories - Storytelling as a central component of our identity, defining our culture, our research and learning and our buildings.

The Garden - Collaborate, nurture, and nourish a diversity of people, plans and possibilities - together.

Ultrapractical Architecture – Create technically sound, functional architecture that goes beyond the practical to foment character and place and anticipate future uses.

Deep assignments – Embed themes, ideas, practices, into the life of Orms, that can be developed and refined.

A Custodian’s work – Emotional attachment is architecture’s superfood – people always make the place – and how that experience is formed and maintained throughout a building’s life is fundamental.

Guest writers Zoe Adjonyoh, Nancy Durrant, Edwin Heathcote, Steve Rose and Simon Sellars were invited to pen short informal essays around the principles. Each essay was then amplified by Beispiel to explore the principles and allow us to immerse ourselves in ideas and digressions inspired by the principles. The guide encourages us to challenge our own working methods; to ask at every stage, whether what we are doing is informed by the principles, whether designing, writing PR, or presenting to consultants and clients. Whenever we are ‘stuck’ or can’t quite pick the lock, we can dip into the principles to inspire us but it’s a constant reminder to avoid cliche and not be afraid of squinting our eyes in order to see more clearly.

The accelerated age demands a fresh model of practice and thinking and one where the architect re-establishes the role of leader. As a result of our findings, we have brought our team into the heart of decision making and have created an ‘Architect as Leader’ programme that encompasses a sustainability team (led by architects) to undertake all aspects of carbon profiling and circularity, in-house BIM team (led by architects) to coordinate the drawn information, undertake clash detection etc and a research hub to test ideas around technology, the future of the high street and workplace. We are seeking to create a next generation multi-disciplinary practice that seeks to understand and feel the challenges but importantly lead the process in solving them.

This article is by John McRae, Director of Orms