Kirsten Lees, the managing partner of Grimshaw Architects’ London studio, seems almost surprised at the strength of the practice’s performance in 2018. ‘Given the political context and uncertainty, we had a fantastic year,’ she says.
Indeed, having added 20 architects to its UK staff, the practice has climbed a significant two places in the top 10 of this year’s AJ100. Architectural fee income from its UK office rose from £16.4 million to £21.6 million. And the year’s feel-good factor was capped by the practice’s chair and founder Nicholas Grimshaw receiving the 2019 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. ‘He’s delighted,’ says Lees, although she confesses to thinking it ‘perhaps a little overdue’.
In terms of major completions over the last year, Lees singles out London Bridge Station – ‘it was hugely complex to deliver but we’ve had a fantastic response.’ She also highlights Istanbul airport, which recently opened and is set to be the largest in the world when all phases are complete. Although the practice was not involved in final construction, it designed and delivered it through to Stage 4 ‘in an amazingly tight timescale’.
These two projects underline the long-term strength of the practice in the transport and infrastructure sectors – other major projects include HS2 Euston and Birmingham and masterplanning the Heathrow third runway expansion. Although as Lees is keen to point out: ‘Large infrastructure projects like London Bridge are of a scale that goes beyond the sectors; they have a civic city-making scale.’
There will also be a plethora of completions over the coming year across other sectors. In higher education, Grimshaw will deliver the final building of Southampton University’s new campus where they’ve been working for over a decade, and in the cultural sector, the Contemporary Art Museum in Istanbul is due to open in September. Another significant completion will be the Curragh Racecourse in County Kildare, Ireland, which heralds a new focus on sport – the practice is also working on its first standalone stadium, at Bath Rugby Club. Lees also sees the firm looking to pursue opportunities in the UK’s commercial sector.
She sees this diversification as making business sense. ‘I think it’s really key for long-term resilience that we work across all sectors and all scales,’ she says. ‘Although it’s important not to spread yourself too thin.’
One pressing issue is space at the London studio, where staff numbers grew last year by around 30 per cent. While the immediate solution is two nearby overspill spaces, ‘in the long term, we are looking to consolidate our premises,’ says Lees.
With employee numbers having risen above 250, the practice was this year required to report its gender pay gap, which at 9.1 per cent was lower than average. Meanwhile, the percentages of female and BAME architects employed in the London office moved up slightly to 41.5 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. Lees is quick to point out that making the workplace an inclusive and diverse environment cannot be measured in percentages alone. ‘It’s not just about recruitment; it’s about every facet of how we work,’ she says.
Despite the present healthy workload, Lees is in no doubt of the tough environment for finding work and sees the coming year as one more of consolidation than growth.
Though the practice remains unreservedly pessimistic about Brexit, Lees does see Grimshaw as having a certain resilience through its global network of offices, although architectural fee income from its overseas offices fell from £47.6 million to £34.5 million during 2018. Last year saw it register an office in LA for the first time.
‘We’re relatively optimistic – but you can never be complacent,’ she says.