Supporter's Column: Ross Hutchinson

A comparison between two major European cities, London and Berlin, and how their approaches to planning, fees and procurement vary.

A Tale of Two Cities: London & Berlin


My credentials for being able to talk about London and Berlin are slightly lop-sided. 

I have studied, practiced, and lived in London over a period dating back to 1996. In contrast, I set up a GmbH and Berlin office in 2019. Working in another European city had been a long-held ambition, but the catalyst to act was a want for our practice to remain part of the European Union. With a German wife and half German daughter it was also a personal symbol of unity. 

My experience of Berlin differs to London not just because of time spent. I don’t live in Berlin. I’m more than the tourist I once was, but I’m still very much a visitor, albeit a regular one. Clearly, I have considerably less experience of working in Berlin. However, our Berlin office does now have three live projects at varying work stages and in three different districts of Berlin. In addition, for the past four years our Berlin team have worked on a research project entitled Twelve Sites; a study of the twelve districts of Berlin designed to accelerate our knowledge and understanding of every aspect of the city. Our research has generated a twelve-hundred-page primer and has seen us map over twelve hundred sites in search of ‘the twelve’. 

Perhaps due to being relatively new to Berlin, my reflections are prone to being rose-tinted. The joy of the new is undeniable and brings with it an energy that comes from new discoveries, new experiences, new knowledge, expanded horizons and the potential for new opportunities. It is an energy that has fed into our London office and back again to Berlin, through a symbiotic relationship of shared resource, learning and indeed socialising. 

The sense of excitement and opportunity doesn’t just come from being new to the city. It has been nearly 80 years since the end of the war and over 30 years since reunification but, despite Berlin being half the size and a third of the population of London, Berlin still seems relatively incomplete in comparison; all three of our projects involve the re-development of bomb-damaged sites. In contrast, most of inner London has been in a perpetual cycle of renewal for decades, with some sites in their third or even fourth post-war incarnation. In London, improved public transport has meant there is still significant spread into the outer boroughs, with people now living in parts of London that were once unimaginable as residential areas. Despite this, developers are undoubtedly finding viable sites increasingly hard to find. Developers in Berlin would say the same but, from our own experience, there is a greater challenge in London than Berlin. 

There are many things that I could discuss: the housing crisis faced by the two cities; how the need for a reduction in car usage is being addressed; what progress is being made in terms of sustainability (it currently feels like Berlin is ahead). Within the parameters of this piece I have chosen to focus on two. 

The differences in the planning stage have been of particular interest. On the scale of the mixed-use projects we are working on, our findings can be summarised as there being greater simplicity, objectivity and above all certainty in Berlin. There is less planning policy (in London a development of scale can be subject to over 500 policies). Perhaps as a result there are no planning consultants; the architect is fully responsible for co-ordinating and obtaining planning permission. There are no planning committees; decisions are made by the planning department. There is no public consultation on the projects we are working on. Quantum of development is judged to a far lesser degree on appropriateness of scale as it is in the UK, which can be very subjective and emotive. Instead there are calculations for site coverage, comparison of figure-ground plans, relationships to neighbouring building lines, and calculations for building setbacks to avoid overshadowing of neighbours to name a few. Sites can be subject to a Bebauungsplan; a local government defined parameter of massing and use for areas of the city. This process is considered by many in Berlin to be unnecessarily lengthy with some Bebauungsplan taking up to seven years. In London, from experience (Whitechapel Square 2012 to 2019 RIP) the planning process can take just as long but with no certainty at any stage, where even the Secretary of State can overturn the objective recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate. 

Arguably the skill of the architect, in terms of deftly creating more height and massing for their client, is less called for in Berlin. However, with clearer guidelines and professional decision making comes more certainty and less wasted time, cost, energy, and endeavour which can often be the case in the UK. 

Lastly comes fees. In Germany, an architect’s fee (and inflation of fees) is based on the HOAI, a federal ordinance regulating the fees for architectural and engineering services. This was mandatory before the EU ruled it to be anti-competitive but is still very much in use. 

In the UK, the free-market of architectural fees can often lead to a race to the bottom; a combination of architects not being aware of what the going rate should be and the fear of missing out on work or losing a client. In Germany, the level of fees and scope are understood by clients and architects from the outset, with detailed discussion and agreement assisted by comprehensive schedules of service to agree the required scope. Negotiation is limited to reaching agreement on whether a project is of low, medium or high complexity and the likely construction cost on which the matrix is based. Clients expect to be charged a fee for feasibilites. Fees are undoubtedly higher, even accounting for there being more to do up to planning and more responsibility. In the UK, the result of fee competition is that fees have at best stagnated and are becoming too low to cover the ever-increasing cost of overheads. Without fee levels increasing and the profession being protected from itself, the exodus of architects leaving professional practice to work for the higher salaries offered by developers and contractors will continue. The risk is practising architecture will no longer be seen as a financially viable career. It has been said by others before me that it is no coincidence that the architect is seemingly more highly valued in Germany. 

I feel privileged to work in both cities and to have the perspective that it gives me. There is much I have learnt already and much that I think the profession and the property industry in both cities can learn from each other. London will always be my home and when I take a step back it will always leave me in awe, but rose-tinted glasses or not, Berlin is an amazing city in which to practice, and I will always be grateful to the people who have helped us to become a part of its life and its fabric. 

Ross Hutchinson is the Principal Director of Hutchinson & Partners