Life’s too short not to follow your dreams

Gavin McAuley (left) and Mark Houston from hub South West

AN award-winning Hamilton-based chartered architectural design-led studio is going from ‘strength to strength’ after its founder decided to take the plunge and launch his own practice after a family health scare acted as the catalyst to encourage him to follow his dreams.

McAuley Architecture + Interiors was recently crowned the winner of the 2022 Build Lanarkshire Programme, a free training programme delivered by development partner hub South West Scotland with the aim of helping businesses involved in the construction sector to grow, develop new skills, and make valuable contacts including their Tier One delivery partners.

McAuley Architecture was founded by Gavin McAuley in the midst of the pandemic in 2020.

Gavin started his architectural career in Ireland, initially working for small practices on luxury residential projects.

Following exposure in the interior fit out industry, he underpinned his experience and knowledge with an added degree in interior architecture and was involved with projects for global IT blue-chip companies who are pushing the boundaries of interior workplace environments.

Gavin was also engaged in nightclub, pub, restaurant, and workplace interior projects, as well as a wide variety of sector projects including fit outs for Google in Dublin and Krakow and hotel giant Hilton.

About five years ago, he and wife Katrina decided to move to Scotland, where Gavin had previously studied. He initially worked as a senior designer for a well-known hospitality design studio in Glasgow and focused on re-purposing existing buildings into large hotels – some in the region of up to 250 bedrooms – before being approached by an AJ100 firm who wanted him to help set up their interiors team and come on board as an associate director.

Gavin was with that company at the start of the pandemic, working from home on a major Edinburgh hotel project.

At the same time, the couple received the devastating news that Katrina had cancer. She underwent surgery and, two years on, has made a complete recovery.

However, the experience made them take stock of things and realise that life is too short to put things off.

Gavin told Project Scotland, “I’d just turned 39. We were sitting on the sofa; it was during lockdown, so it was just the two of us. There were a lot of late-night discussions about what we were dealing with before and after surgery. Katrina said to me one night: ‘What do you want to do with your life? What is your dream? Life is way too short.’

Gavin and wife Katrina

“I said I’d always wanted to work for myself, and she said, ‘just go for it’. The next day I was straight on to Companies House and officially registered McAuley Architecture. I knew I had the qualifications and experience, and, within two months, we got so busy I had to hand my notice in.

“People did think I was crazy in the middle of a global pandemic but if you don’t jump when you’re not supposed to because of the risk, you’ll never jump. That was the way I looked at it.”

The early days comprised of domestic work. The practice’s first project was an extension for neighbours in Hamilton.

Things have grown steadily since then and today McAuley Architecture + Interiors is working on a wide range of projects including a restaurant in Cumbernauld, a dental lab and teaching facility in Glasgow, and a dental practice in Barrhead, with over £1 million pounds worth of construction currently going through building warrant.

The business has recently relocated to a larger office and is in the process of interviewing for new staff.

Gavin revealed that all the firm’s commercial work comes from referrals. “We try to offer a gold standard service,” he said. “There’s no levels of our service. There’s no bronze, silver, and gold; there’s just gold. We have a code of conduct and we’re a CIAT chartered practice so there’s a certain level of service you get from us.

“I want to build a team. I want to have a strong high-end domestic department, and also a high-end interiors department. I would never cut off my domestic stream because I’ve seen people do that since the boom we’ve had since the recession. But then when a market contracts, where do you go? You’ve lost your connections or your ability or your team even if you just have a team focusing on one sector.

“In five years’ time, I’d like to have six or seven staff. We want to offer a bespoke service to our clients. Do I have any dreams of being on the AJ100? I don’t know, I think you’re only as good as your last job in this sector, particularly because it’s so competitive.”

Gavin explained the importance of staff retention, adding that he’s determined to create a positive culture and working environment.

Reflecting on the Build Lanarkshire Programme, he admitted the prospect of making connections with Tier One delivery partners was a big pull. Gavin was also keen to learn more about different aspects of running a business including employment law and cybercrime.

The programme is run over eight half-day sessions – with each session focusing on a different theme such as leadership and management, business strategy, tendering and procurement, marketing and social media, and finance and employment law. As part of the final stage, participants give a presentation to the North and South Lanarkshire Council leaders and the heads of procurement for eight Tier One delivery partners in the BE-ST (Built Environment Smarter Transformation) facility, outlining what they have learned and the impact it will have. Gavin was chosen as this year’s winner based on factors including his input and level of progress made.

Gavin presenting to the group during one of the sessions

“At the moment, for me, exposure is key,” Gavin said. “We’re in the growth stage. It’s helped solidify and underpin my skills and ability.

“I’ve had interviews and meetings with a couple of the Tier One delivery partners – they’re doing what they can to get me involved in projects and sending me to their connections as well. Things don’t happen overnight at that level of construction, but things are going in the right direction.”

Mark Houston, supply chain development manager at hub South West Scotland, told Project Scotland that the hub model relies on having a supply chain that is ‘robust and fit for purpose’. He explained, “The Build Programme is designed to give SMEs the tools they need to take their activities to the next level.

“We try not to make these sessions like a lecture; we make them as interactive and challenging as possible, and as real as possible. Importantly, we aim to help these companies develop their business and create lasting relationships with like-minded companies in the south west of Scotland.

“The group dynamic for me is fundamental to a successful programme. I always try to make sure I get the right atmosphere on a programme; get the right people on board. We have a laugh but it’s challenging, it’s in your face sometimes. It’s got to make an impact. Participants are giving up a lot of their time. The programme consists of eight sessions with each session lasting the best part of five hours so it’s a big commitment.

Mark Houston

“We’ve honed the sessions over the years so that I don’t think there is a session (which doesn’t make an impact). It’s deliberately put together in such a way that you’ll get something out of every session.”

Currently, hub South West Scotland runs three Build Programmes each year – one in Ayrshire, one in Lanarkshire, and, for the first time ever starting in September, one in Dumfries and Galloway.

Mark explained that some huge success stories have come through the programme.

“An innovative drone business came on the programme,” he added. “It was a new business hoping to make a mark. Since getting on the programme, they’ve been scaling new heights – no pun intended. At the time many thought drones just went up and took a great photo of a site (but) they can do data analysis and measure the site and depth.

“We’ve also had a roofing business, which has won multiple awards and changed the roofing model by taking on a subscription-type model for the roofing industry similar to boilers.

“Typically, the companies who tend to have the best success tend to be the younger businesses. They’ve used the programme as a route to their growth. I think it helps them set their strategy and polish off some of the rough edges.”

Gavin interjected to explain that when a fledgling business is in growth mode, it’s easy to ‘have your head in the sand’ and be constantly focused on finding new work, delivering the projects, and organising the invoices. Spending time out the office on a programme like this allows you to focus on things which you previously may have given little or no thought to.

Many of the sessions are run by specialists, who the participants can have access to on a one-to-one basis afterwards if they wish to further embed the lessons learned.

Mark revealed the Tier One contractors who give up their time to participate also see huge benefits.

“They love the programme,” he stated. “What it does for them is gives them access to fresh talent. We take the programme on tour, involving our Tier One partners, and they join us at the end of the session.

“They’re on the programme because they want to be the best they can be, so that already ticks a box. The participants are ambitious, and they want to be in the right place. The fact they’ve made the effort to be there is half the battle.”

All the Build Programmes follow the same format. Mark explained that numbers are deliberately kept tight, with around a dozen businesses participating each time.

“It’s important we’ve got a small, dynamic group of businesses who can network together,” he said. “If you get too big a group, the louder ones will speak up and no one else talks. If it’s a smaller group, they’ll all contribute.

“When I ran these programmes previously, lots of the businesses were fairly small. It can be lonely (running a small business). Now they’ve got their own exec board to talk to. Whether they realise it or not, they’ve got a group of people they can go back and talk to and have built valuable long-term relationships which they will continue to build in the future.”

• If you would like to take part in any of the Build Programmes, including the upcoming Dumfries and Galloway one, email Mark Houston at