"There is no magic solution": an interview with Fiona Scott

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Fiona Scott and Jay Gort set up Gort Scott Architects in 2007, five years after graduating from the RCA and Cambridge University respectively. In its first few years, the company straddled boom time and recession. Fiona Scott describes how they navigated the ups and downs of starting a business.

We had won a competition together in the past, and had been teaching an undergraduate studio at Cambridge University since 2005. We both expected to have our own business one day, and the teaching unit provided a good forum for discussing and testing out our interests, inspirations and ambitions.

In 2007 we were invited to enter an ideas competition for a mixed-use scheme on an interesting site in Cambridge. We were pretty confident and put together a good proposal, which won the competition. Before long we had persuaded the developer to give us a shot at obtaining planning permission for the scheme.

Boom Time

This win and the job that came out of it were the impetus that we needed to leave our jobs and set up in practice full time. We did not hesitate and were very optimistic about our chances. We felt that it was worth taking the plunge while we were still young and relatively free from family or financial commitments. It was still boom time in architecture and everyone, everywhere, was building.

Our imperative was to be operational as quickly as possible. We took advice from the Hackney Innovatory (now in liquidation), Business Link and a financial advisor. They all recommended the LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) structure, as it appeared to provide flexibility, seemed cheaper at the outset and required less administration than a company. In retrospect, we would have been financially better off if we had gone for a Limited Company, because we made a lot of profit in our first year and paid a huge amount of tax. But the LLP may prove to be a good solution in the long run. At least an LLP provides some protection against the personal liability of any one partner in the (unlikely) event of a legal case, but we may consider changing to a Limited Company in the future.

We started out in my tiny 6m2 spare room at home. We soon found that we needed to take on staff, so we found a 100m2 studio in the Print House in Dalston, run by a non-profit enterprise company. It was presentable enough to bring clients to, yet low key and flexible, allowing us to adapt the space and build a small wood workshop. We have since invested in the space and it has proved to be a fantastic location for us.

Many young architects get their first job either from their parents or by winning a competition. Neither of us took jobs or clients with us from our previous practices, and there were no fortuitous family commissions. Also, neither of us had any savings. From the outset it was imperative that our business was self-sustaining: we were not doing it for a hobby.

Eighteen months after we started, we were a five-strong practice, had secured planning permission for 140 flats on an important site just outside the city centre in Cambridge and had a number of interesting small and medium-sized projects on the books.

In year two of our business, we encountered the credit crunch. We realise now that straddling boom and bust years in our first two years offered a particular perspective: it gave us our first big job and then it taught us to fight for survival.

Always Ask Advice

During the recession, we consulted with a business adviser who was recommended by a couple of older practices. This helped boost our confidence and made us more pragmatic about fees, working out the actual daily cost of our time. But there is no magic solution to a successful business, and ultimately we know our strengths better than anyone else does.

We are a RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) chartered practice, which means that we comply with certain RIBA standards. We have a good relationship with RIBA and they have referred clients to us in the past. They could do more to advise architects on business start-up matters, possibly even placing them with relevant industry mentors. 

Advice from trusted and experienced practitioners has been invaluable to us, especially when working out fees and resources. For example, our first major commission was for a developer; we had never had to take full responsibility for negotiating fees or terms on a £25 million project before. I took advice from a lawyer recommended by my previous practice. He advised us to write a common-sense letter of appointment, rather than worry about an overly legalistic contract. That was good advice and it served us well.

In our early years we experienced teething troubles setting up efficient office management systems, working out coordinated software and hardware, and also keeping on top of book-keeping and financial admin. It is definitely worth getting a good accountant at the outset and making sure you ask a lot of questions.

Our contracts of appointment are reviewed by the lawyers of our Professional Indemnity insurers if we are concerned about any onerous details, because this is clearly in the insurer’s interests. We are Increasingly expected to take out collateral warranties, and this extends our liability, but it is a risk that we have to take. We have also used a lawyer to write up our employment contracts.

We have taken advice from those around us: keep your overheads low, invoice regularly and never, ever stop looking for new opportunities. We have looked for partnerships and collaboration wherever we can, as a way of broadening our offer and expanding our expertise. Remember, people are attracted to you as much for who you know as what you do.

Do not underestimate how hard it is, or the sacrifices that will be made in your personal life. But doing it for yourself is the fastest way to learn. And nothing can beat being able to do your own thing and being in charge of your direction. If you cannot do it, who can?