Chris Harding, chair of BDP, is passionate about placemaking. Along with ‘collaboration’, it is a word he uses liberally, and an approach that he says goes to the heart of this successful interdisciplinary firm. BDP takes a ‘people-centred design approach,’ he says. ‘We are placemakers at heart. We’re about placemaking for a modern world.’
‘BDP,’ he explains, ‘is not boxed in by house style. We want to be socially progressive, rooted in our regions.’ And you can tell that he is proud of the firm’s history – of the practice that began in 1961, with its ‘collaborative approach, socialist roots, thinking there were better ways of dealing with big challenges.’
Certainly, 2017 has been a year of growth for the firm. In October it announced pre-tax profits of £4 million for the first six months of the year. Total architectural fees to the UK and overseas offices are up £1 million on last year’s AJ100 survey. The number of permanently-employed qualified architects in the UK stands at 308, up from 284 last year. BDP is second in the AJ100 rankings after Foster + Partners, and that gap continues to narrow. ‘The reason for our growth is our diversity – both in professional skills and the areas of life we’re designing for,’ says Harding. ‘That has always insulated us. We have had resilience through diversity. We have a holistic view about designing for life.’
‘Growth should be sustainable,’ he adds, ‘not growth for growth’s sake.’
BDP’s range of project type, location and skills is considerable. The firm’s offices span the globe, with South East Asia and North America strategic focuses. Nippon Koei, which bought BDP in 2016, brings a ‘complementary synergy’, with its engineering strength; BDP is co-located with Nippon Koei in Singapore and New Delhi, ‘which is going really well’. South East Asia is interesting to the practice because of its growing population and rapid urbanisation, which ‘needs the skill of placemaking’.
Work is 80 per cent UK-based at present; the plan is to have 30 per cent overseas, 70 per cent UK-based.
The practice is active in many areas (‘we’re not over-exposed on any’) including: education (‘that’s international’); healthcare; retail (Westgate Oxford, for Landsec and The Crown Estate, completed in 2017); workplace (‘it’s a growing area’); housing (‘it’s one of our strongest growth areas’); and transportation. And, of course, heritage – the work on the Palace of Westminster, won in July last year, is one of the most significant projects for BDP.
The John Innes Centre in Norwich, recently won, is a project which Harding highlights on account of its ‘visioning’ efforts with respect to the future of the workplace: the scheme, he says, ‘is breaking down barriers between scientists. The whole ethos is about how we create a collaborative environment.’
Central to the BDP ethos, says Harding, are three factors: design quality, people and outreach. On design quality, he explains: ‘We are passionate about the social experience of designing spaces, illuminating the conversation through our design process.’ He adds: ‘We want to win top-quality awards because it is one measure. Other measures are the experience of a building.’
People, of course, are a crucial element. Thirty per cent of BDP’s UK-based architects are women, but BDP recently reported that women’s mean hourly rate at the firm is 29.5 per cent lower than men’s. ‘We know we need to improve,’ says Harding. ‘It’s got to be a level playing field for everyone. We want the best talent.’ The practice, a Women in Architecture partner, is taking active steps forward, such as piloting The Career Mentoring Programme, designed specifically to support chartered female practitioners with the potential to become future leaders.
‘It’s about whoever you are, everyone has an opportunity to progress. It’s going to happen every day through calling it out,’ says Harding.
BDP also promotes different pathways to learning: partnering on the Collaborative Practice programme with the University of Sheffield; employing engineering apprentices; and working as part of the team currently devising architecture apprenticeships. ‘We are enriched connecting with academia. It’s another collaboration.’ As for outreach, Harding is keen for the BDP studios to become ‘city studios’ – collaborative hubs that host events, involve local businesses and ‘enrich’.
Harding is clear about the possibility for the role of architecture as a whole. ‘The profession should be more involved in strategic planning and strategic thinking. Architects have so much to offer.’ In all, he says: ‘We’ve had a good year, but we’re not complacent.’