BDP has, if its staunch chief is to be believed, barely been touched by the buffets of the Brexit storm. According to Chris Harding, who took over as company chairman in 2017, the last 12 months have been ‘as good as we’ve ever had’.
Over the past few years the UK’s second-largest employer of architects has made significant strides towards becoming a major multidisciplinary player on the global stage. Profits have gone up 14 per cent to £8.7 million on 2017’s results, while turnover has been increasing by about £8 million a year. The UK workforce alone has swollen by 150 people over the past year, putting an additional 22 architects on the payroll.
While many other design firms have sweated about sector or regional workloads on account of the uncertain business climate caused by the prospect of Brexit, Harding says BDP has been insulated from its ill effects by the breadth of services the firm offers and by its overseas income.
He says: ‘Two or three years ago we reset the vision for BDP. That included growing the practice and getting back to our founding ethos of being socially progressive and interdisciplinary.’
This pan-company drive seems to be bearing fruit. Harding adds: ‘ was transformational. We really have become truly global.’
Game-changing international commissions have been secured in Singapore and Canada and through BDP’s ongoing collaborations with parent company Nippon Koei – the Japanese civil engineering consultancy which bought the practice for £102 million in 2016.
BDP has finally succeeded in getting its feet on the ground in Singapore, having had its eye on a base there for years (see AJ 12.06.17). The outpost now employees six staff.
The Canadian venture is more significant. In February this year BDP announced it had snapped up 200-strong Toronto-based practice Quadrangle in a move to strengthen its foothold in the North American market. Before the purchase, BDP had already been working with a raft of other architects on Toronto’s largest construction project, the 300,000m2 mixed-used Well scheme, a major city-centre redevelopment. The union with the 33-year-old design studio brings something extra to BDP’s table: Quadrangle has great experience in high-rise housing projects. This will be increasingly useful to BDP, because the practice’s residential sector workload has skyrocketed.
Income from housing projects has ballooned 500 per cent over the past 24 months. Notable among the current UK jobs are the transformation of the post-war Sheerwater housing estate in Woking and the prototype, modular, super-green homes (branded The Gap House) designed for the Bristol Housing Festival. But larger projects, including some in London, are in the pipeline and the collaboration-happy practice is keen to make use of Quadrangle’s expertise. Harding says: ‘The UK has a housing crisis and we want to be part of the debate [about how to solve it].’
Meanwhile, the drive towards improving BDP’s design quality continues. Harding has been candid about his bold dream of, one day soon, winning the RIBA Stirling Prize. It is, he says, one of his own key performance indicators and claims there are three or four schemes coming through the practice that could be contenders for the UK’s top accolade.
Even so, last year the practice was handed the Carbuncle Cup – the unwanted wooden spoon for the nation’s ugliest new building – for its Redrock Stockport ‘leisure destination’. This was a blip, insists Harding, adding: ‘It won’t happen again.’ In this respect, projects such as BDP’s Wren hotel in Dublin, with its scalloped ceilings and faceted façade on a tight urban site, look more thoughtful and crafted than some other recent creations.
There appears to be progress on improving gender equality at BDP following the publication of its pay gap figures last year and the broadside by former employee Pepper Barney, who spoke out about the practice’s ‘offensive and demeaning’ attitude to her request for flexible working on her return from maternity leave (AJ 23.08.18). The latest figures show the median gender pay gap has narrowed by more than five points from 25.5 per cent in 2018 to 20.2 per cent in 2019.
A key focus at BDP for the next few years will be the delivery of one of the nation’s largest and highest-profile construction projects: the £4 billion restoration of the Palace of Westminster and the associated decanting of the Houses of Parliament into neighbouring buildings in Parliament’s estate. The relocation of the House of Lords into Powell and Moya’s QEII Conference Centre has also recently been added to BDP’s books. About 250 staff, from architects to environmental engineers, are employed on both projects. BDP proclaims it as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of its UK business. With the company’s empire growing globally and the potential for other mega-projects in the offing, it would not be a shock to see the Palace of Westminster job joined by other glittering prizes in the near future.