As Atkins settles into its new London offices at Nova North near Victoria station, the practice can reflect on a strong 2018. It increased architect numbers by five in the UK and completed significant projects including the restoration of Middlesbrough’s Grade II-listed town hall and three purpose-built schools in Leeds for pupils with social, emotional and mental health needs.
According to Declan O’Carroll, UK architecture, masterplanning and landscaping practice director, the practice ‘thrived’ last year reflecting the breadth in scale, region and sector of its work, which gives it a ‘general resilience’. This ‘really balanced’ portfolio includes international work, work on major government projects and government-funded local authority frameworks, education work, and residential and commercial projects with developers. ‘That has characterised our success to expand in what is a very fragile economy,’ he says.
He adds that the practice is ‘looking forward confidently’. It is expanding further this year with the opening of a new studio in Manchester – its 11th in the UK – for architects, masterplanners and interior designers. The office will employ from three to six architects in its first year, and aims to grow further within two to three years.
O’Carroll says Atkins’ ?Warrington studio is known for its technical expertise, serving nuclear facilities and the infrastructure sector in the North West, while its Leeds office excels in work in the education sector. ‘The missing tooth on the smile has been Manchester,’ he says.
Supporting regional offices was ‘one of the most persuasive things’ for O’Carroll about joining Atkins from Arup in 2017. ‘Fundamentally, if you were being honest, you might conclude that maybe 90 per cent of UK communities are not really touched by very good design,’ he says. ‘It tends to be very centred around London. I found the Atkins operating model incredibly compelling: taking design studios out into local communities, working with local leaders, local clients, and delivering design excellently for them – and not through a centralised London studio.’
Atkins introduced a ‘reverse mentoring’ programme for its staff in 2018. O’Carroll says senior leaders ‘need to be sensitive [to] and aware of the aspirations and mindset’ of younger people and that the process ‘breaks down a lot of barriers’.
His younger mentor, he admits, is teaching him to improve his communication skills. ‘When I talk to people I tend to presume that I’ve made it clear what I’m thinking. But when we talk my younger mentor says: ‘But we’re just not aware of those things; they don’t come across.’
The practice is looking to refresh its overall communications strategy and raise its profile in 2019. O’Carroll says Atkins has focused on doing good work with its clients and has not made a priority of telling the outside world about it. ‘“Quietly brilliant” is an interesting strategy,’ he says.