Foster + Partners’ huge project portfolio is typified by mega-bucks commercial projects such as the Bloomberg HQ, its £1.3 billion London office block, which won last year’s RIBA Stirling Prize. But the practice, which has topped the AJ100 rankings for the eighth year running, says it has long-term goals to break into an unexpected sector: public housing.
Except for a not particularly successful attempt at a low-rise estate at Beanhill in Milton Keynes some 40 years ago, this is relatively uncharted territory. But Fosters’ managing partner Matthew Streets identifies it as ‘absolutely’ a target area for the UK.
‘Nearly every architect tries to crack that problem and it is difficult to do that sustainably, economically, and aesthetically at the same time,’ he says. The company has looked at masterplans for new towns and cities abroad and Streets thinks a housing ‘breakthrough’ overseas could be the best route to success with public housing at home, where, he says, challenges include a construction industry with set ways of working.
This seems a logical approach for a practice that enjoys huge global demand but, by Streets’ own admission, finds the UK ‘tougher’ and more competitive. During 2018, fees for UK projects fell slightly from £20 million to £18.8 million. However, this only represents around 10 per cent of the practice’s total architectural fees, which rose from £164 million to £185 million following robust performances in its core markets of Asia (‘not just China’), the Middle East and North America.
Streets says the firm has had a ‘remarkably good’ 12 months and confidently predicts a ‘substantial increase in underlying profits’ in the next financial year, despite its most recent accounts – ending April 2018 – revealing falls in profits, turnover and staff numbers. ‘Despite all the headwinds, uncertainties, and so on, it has been a very strong year,’ he says. ‘If you’re a strong business, uncertainty and issues can deliver as many opportunities as problems.’
In the past few years Fosters has held the AJ100 top spot despite shedding staff. But an increase in architects employed at its Battersea HQ, from 353 in 2017 to 362 in 2018, means that, although the gap is narrowing, there is still plenty of clear water separating it from its nearest rival, the growing interdisciplinary practice BDP.
Fosters’ major recent completions include the refurb of The Murray hotel in Hong Kong and the BBC Wales HQ Capital Square development in Cardiff. It has dominated headlines both for winning its third RIBA Stirling Prize with Bloomberg – a ceiling panel from the building has pride of place in the practice’s entrance lobby – and the unveiling of designs for its controversial Tulip skyscraper in the City of London.
The firm opened an office in Sydney off the back of projects such as the city’s new metro system, and is also opening an outpost in Shenzhen, China. There was less success in Latin America, where it closed its Brazil branch, blaming an ‘incredibly difficult’ economic climate. The scrapping of its Mexico City airport proposal after it was rejected in a national referendum is also likely to spell the end for its office there, though Streets says it ‘hasn’t given up yet’.
These ups and downs in local markets can be easily navigated because of the practice’s ‘global footprint’, explains Streets. ‘Unless there is worldwide recession, typically at any point an economy or country might be down but another will be up and we can balance and redeploy in the light of that.’
Its willingness to adapt became apparent last year when the practice announced it was considering uprooting itself from the UK because of Brexit. Is a move still on the cards? ‘That keeps cropping up in a B for boring kind of way,’ says Streets. The firm wants to remain in London if it can, he states, but still has ‘contingency plans’ to move.
If there is a silver lining to Brexit, which Streets argues has needlessly damaged the UK ‘and continues to do so’, it is that through negotiations over the deal, politicians and the civil service have learned a lot more about the architecture sector. But there is still a need for more clarity, he adds.
Another priority area, according to Streets, is sustainability and climate change, where ‘everybody’ – by which he means the government, the profession and individuals – must take inspiration from 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. ‘It falls to us all to push it further up the agenda.’
Last month, the practice was one of the 17 original signatories to the Architects Declare pledge to fight the climate crisis. It remains to be seen whether it can reconcile this stance with extravagant follies such as The Tulip – and, indeed, how much of its design talent it will commit to sustainable council housing.