Atkins has defied its own expectations for the past 12 months and is looking ahead with renewed confidence following an upswing in masterplanning work at home and overseas. The multidisciplinary firm – which was purchased by Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin for £2.1 billion in July – caught headlines last summer when it announced plans to axe 92 staff from its design division due to ‘increasing uncertainty and more challenging conditions’ in the UK.
Thankfully, Atkins’ gloomy prognosis turned out to be a false alarm after a number of large government-backed infrastructure projects, which the practice has traditionally focused on, got the go-ahead. The result has been near-stable staff numbers – just three fewer architects employed today compared with last year, and the maintenance of a top 10 AJ100 position.
‘We thought the announcement was the right thing at the time, but now we are actively recruiting as we go forward,’ explained Atkins’ new UK director for architecture, masterplanning and urban design, Declan O’Carroll, who joined from Arup mid-way through last year. Key gains for the practice have been in the global masterplanning and tall buildings sectors, where O’Carroll plans to exploit Atkins’ burgeoning reputation and presence.
The practice is currently working with Gensler on a 280,000m² overhaul of Leeds Station for HS2 and has recently been selected to re-masterplan the districts surrounding Sheffield and Newcastle stations, which are both tipped for massive regeneration. Other major wins in the transport sector have included the planned Rotherhithe-to-Canary Wharf Thames crossing in south-east London and an appointment to upgrade the arrivals facility at Birmingham International Airport. Overseas, the practice has recently been commissioned to design an entirely new settlement in the hinterland of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia and a mixed-use development in Gibraltar. At home, the firm has also been chosen to design the latest phase of Sky’s west London Osterley headquarters, an ‘innovation campus’.
The firm’s most ambitious vision is to reposition itself as a major player in the UK housing sector – a move which could pay dividends as the need for a co-ordinated solution to the country’s worsening housing crisis becomes more pressing. A pilot scheme of four of the practice’s branded MetroHome units – intended to help local authorities unlock small land parcels for affordable housing – has recently won planning in Lambeth and the company is in discussions with Transport for London about how the concept could help with mayoral ambitions to deliver more affordable housing. Meanwhile, Atkins has won a place on Sanctuary Housing’s new framework and has been hired by Berkeley Group for the high-density redevelopment of a former Parcelforce depot in West Ham.
Looking ahead, O’Carroll stresses the growing threat posed by the marginalisation of architects and the need to communicate the benefits of good design more holistically. ‘We’ve got to be brave, passionate and leading the conversation about transforming people’s lives. Only the designers can do that,’ he says.