Why Scotland’s architects have designs on England’s green and pleasant land!

Alasdair Rankin

The Scottish architecture & design sector is strong. There’s a huge range of talent and an ability and desire to deliver projects at a scale and frequency that cannot be sustained by only working in Scotland. What does it mean to see Scottish architecture & design as an export, what support is available to practices making that leap, and what more could and should the Scottish Government be doing to support this, asks Alasdair Rankin, MD of Aitken Turnbull Architects

A google search of the top ten Scottish Architects has no one who lived beyond 1938, for those of us still practicing I’m not sure if that’s an insult or a motivation.

Regardless of the vagaries of online searches, the architecture and design community in Scotland is both strong and talented. Our universities are consistently producing Students who can compete on the world stage, many Scottish based or Scottish headquartered practices are engaged on major projects south of the border – and further afield, demonstrating both skill and a hunger to deliver for their clients that they find attractive and unusual.

What’s the driving force behind this desire to undertake projects in England?  Scotland’s geography undoubtedly plays a part – London remains closer and easier to access than huge parts of Scotland, equally anyone who’s spent any time gambling on the UK train network will know that it’s hardly the golden age of rail travel and any distant thoughts of the orient express quickly disappear – along with the drinks trolley north of Newcastle!

The real drive for expansion south of the border is the scale of the market. The Scottish Market is simply too small to support the number of practices and individuals competing for it. Projects take too long to come to market and budgets are lower.  In the same way that ripples are more pronounced in smaller or shallower pools, the Scottish market is smaller and more impacted by change than its southern counterpart.

If we accept that there is real talent in the Scottish A&D Industries and that maintaining and protecting those staff teams is vitally important, the only way to cushion them from the market swings is to secure a larger part of a competitive market, or to broaden the market.

For most practices the initial move into export comes from following a client, accepting a project that’s very similar to one you’ve delivered for them before, just slightly further from the office. It becomes a logistical juggle based on moving people around to meet constantly changing meeting schedules. Assuming you are successful in this complex three-dimensional dance more projects will follow. The tipping point for each practice is different, but at some point, the decision is made that rather than delivering these projects as remote projects with long commutes, couldn’t they support a new physical presence – the remote office is born!

As soon as this gains even the smallest amount of momentum it takes on a personality of its own. Now the challenge moves from staffing and managing these projects at a distance, using your existing team members, to recruiting locally without losing the skills, ethos and hunger that made you attractive in the first place. Now the journey of exporting your brand really has begun.

If this all sounds more detailed and personal than these articles normally do, it’s because it is! This is a journey we know because we’re on it too. We’ve delivered multiple projects across England from our Scottish studios, and this year we’ve opened our first Studio south of the border, in Manchester.

We absolutely love it, the process is exciting, invigorating and challenging in equal measure. The market south of the Border is open to our approach and we’re meeting enthusiastic clients and collaborators at every step, but crucially we’re doing it on our own.  Well, not entirely on our own, there’s other consultants and collaborators who’ve taken the same journey who’ve been generous with their time and experience and provided support and advice.

With this in mind and given the contribution that architecture and design make to enriching the knowledge-driven economy, the export of Scottish-based skills and expertise to areas south of the border presents substantial opportunities.

There is a vital opening for the Scottish Government and Scottish professional bodies to offer support, guidance, and promotion, facilitating the expansion of this significant sector of the Scottish economy.