BDP wants to win the RIBA Stirling Prize. Most practices do. However, it’s not just an idle wish for the UK’s second-largest employer of architects. The practice, which was last shortlisted for the country’s biggest architecture prize in 2008 as project lead on the Liverpool One scheme, has pinpointed a Stirling Prize victory as one of its key business goals.
This aim is inscribed in an internal document outlining new BDP chair Chris Harding’s vision for the company (alongside other performance indicators such as making the multidisciplinary giant more profitable, more international and more diverse).
Indeed this renewed focus on design quality has become a cornerstone of Harding’s travel plans for the ‘new BDP’ as it seeks out opportunities around the world, especially in areas undergoing major urbanisation.
There has been some self-examination following BDP’s £102 million takeover by Japanese engineers Nippon Koei in March 2016. Harding, 56, who was elected BDP chair in December following the retirement of David Cash, admits: ‘The takeover made us look at ourselves. One of the things I am doing now is looking at who we are, why we do what we do and why people work for BDP. I’ve set out a vision called Placemaking for a Modern World – a strapline effectively saying why we are relevant to the needs of society.’
Any impression that BDP has become a lifeless mega-corporation is way off the mark, says Harding. ‘We are not like some big, faceless organisation, we are real people. We share thinking, we work collaboratively – and we critique each other’s work.’ In order to get his plans across, Harding has taken a tour of the firm’s regional studios to ‘encourage big BDP conversations’ and begun a re-examination of the company’s ‘under-utilised’ office space to see how it can be overhauled to reduce barriers between staff.
And, while Harding believes the company has ‘cracked the succession nut’ he is acutely aware BDP hasn’t yet been as successful in creating a truly diverse workforce. However the ‘big message’ for BDP – and one which will be core to a new three-year business plan to be unveiled this summer – is a drive to become a real international player, as opposed to a practice that only goes on the search for work overseas when recession hits at home.
The company’s current global fee income is split 80:20 per cent between jobs in the UK and international projects. Within the next three years the proportion of overseas turnover is expected to change to 75:25.
BDP should benefit from the doors that its newish owner Nippon Koei can open, piggybacking on the huge infrastructure projects currently being delivered by the Japanese giant. These have so far manifested themselves in large masterplanning and visioning jobs on significant urbanisation projects.
And now BDP looks set to make moves into Singapore and Canada, where it is working on five huge schemes including The Well – an entire urban block in Toronto that includes 50-storey towers above a retail base.
With substantial schemes in the UK still ticking along nicely, such as the practice’s executive role on the BIG/Thomas Heatherwick-designed Google HQ at King’s Cross which is keeping about 30 staff busy, the order book looks healthy.
It is understood that the latest trading figures – which will not be released for some months – will confirm that BDP has had yet another solid 12 months, with increases in both profit and turnover.
Over the past year the practice also added 11 qualified architects to its books and reduced the gap between itself and the AJ100 top-ranked practice Foster + Partners to less than 100.
With a diverse portfolio, and an international workflow almost guaranteed through Nippon Koei, it wouldn’t be surprising if BDP narrowed the gap yet further in 2017.