DCN talks to Justin Nicholls

Justin NichollsAs adept use of technology enables small teams to compete with established names, architecture is in a state of flux as never before. Justin Nicholls, ex of Fosters and Make has taken the plunge and started his own practice – Fathom – creating a unique team with a fresh approach to design

DCN: Take me through what your aspirations are for Fathom – this would seem to be a particularly good time to be starting out with something in architecture . . .

JN: Starting a practice is something I’ve always wanted to do. Tom (Tom Shard, co-Founder) and I have spent a number of months refining our focus: complex briefs and sensitive sites. That’s where architects can really add value to a client – unlocking really difficult problems. Looking for unusual answers to unlock those problems is the core of our business. That could be plans, it could be in the brief, it could be with mixed uses, it could be in heritage areas, or it could be to in rural areas, which are very sensitive. Tom’s background is in production (He ran a commercial TV production company in Soho for 13 years) so a different industry, but also a creative industry. His role is to run the operations, but also to bring in a different way of thinking and challenge the preconceptions of how we work, and to ask questions – to bring value by challenging the way we work in general. Make was a fantastic platform to grow within, that was a really good springboard to do this – it was a natural progression. We’re focussing mainly on the South East – Central London, the South coast, Oxford, places where there are difficult design challenges – Oxford’s a very constrained city. Brighton is constrained by the South Downs and the sea. There’s a lot of heritage in those areas. That means there’s really only one way to go, which is up. Going up in those areas is difficult!

DCN: You’ve hired someone that’s got experience in robotics and digital manufacturing – that’s not standard for most architect firms. Is that indicative that you’re not going to have a standard team here?

The Fathom teamJN: I think we’ve got a great opportunity to build a team for years to come, so we need to look forward into the future and think about where the future might be. Build that infrastructure now. We need to think more about construction – you have to conceive your architecture with a view to it being built, rather than come up with an idea and then find a way of constructing it. Buildability is really important. I was part of the Government’s offsite manufacturing programme – the £60k house. Volumetric offsite construction, student accommodation, prefabricating stone work facades – all of these are a manufactured approach to creating architecture. The more knowledge we have of that the better, the more we can futuregaze.

DCN: BIM – it’s been talked about a lot and there’s a bit of an alienation in the marketplace because it’s a top-down imposed thing. But explain why you think it’s so essential to the whole piece . . .

JN: The 3D model is actually the way people think, they think three dimensionally, especially architects, we think spatially, so to extract that into 2D is a backwards step.

If you then look at the way construction is moving into a much more fabricated world – the less time we’re modelling the same thing that’s got to be better. Everyone is working on one dataset and that’s massively important for co-ordination, facilities management, so it’s a no-brainer. What’s difficult is that the software is still quite new, the skillbase is still quite low – other countries appear to be ahead of the game.

This is a fantastic opportunity to have a zero-legacy practice working in BIM from day one. It’s a bit more painful as there’s a lot of upskilling to do, but it puts us in a really strong position

This is a fantastic opportunity to have a zero-legacy practice working in BIM from day one. It’s a bit more painful as there’s a lot of upskilling to do, but it puts us in a really strong position going forward and then enables us to really explore these other digital tools that wrap around it. We can start to really push fabrication and digital construction.

DCN: What do you see as those key digital tools? 

JN: I think the ability to script is a really interesting thing to think about. I’ve been a tutor at the Bartlett for many years. Architectural students are not just modelling form more and more digitally – they’re programming solar shading for example, or structural loading. Why do you need to programme as an architect? There are so many different things to plug into – if you look at the manufacturing end, how you programme and script a robot is really complicated, a robot can get itself into a knot really quickly, so there’s actually quite a skill in programming something that looks simple in a mechanical sense. If you’re working in 3D, if you’re completely digital, the ability to script becomes critical. Then you’re not inhibited by the software that already exists but you have the ability to write your own software. I can see those that embrace digital as being the beneficiaries here.

DCN: This year we’ve become more aware of AEC companies doing in-house coding – Weston Williamson, KPF, Kier, Costain – does that mean the existing software out there isn’t good enough?

JN: Or it’s becoming straightforward enough to be able to explore things. So you have computing power on your desk that is ridiculously good. Evolving your own software is the next logical step. I was speaking to Thomas Mahon at Bimorph  a few weeks ago, a former student at the Bartlett, and he’d scripted an office fit-out app that populates a corporate HQ with desks and chairs from a spreadsheet, so you’re populating a CAD drawing – why would you do it by hand anymore? It no longer makes any sense. This is the next step.

DCN: The technology – the processing power and the packages move on so quickly – does it make more sense to be in a small team because you can be more agile?

JN: I think being collaborative is important so bringing in a skillbase as and when it’s needed is very different from what we’ve been doing before with traditional structures. So that’s important – it’s also why we’re trying to look down the telescope and make sure we’re employing people with the right skills. It’s early days, let’s not forget that construction is a physical thing – a piece of wood is very different from a piece of concrete which in turn is very different from a piece of metal. Being able to see that properly is difficult in a virtual world, which is scaleless and it doesn’t have all the senses attached to it. So it’s important to keep thinking, understanding, learning – being able to visit factories, visit a stone quarry – to really understand the processes that a material goes through to become a building. That’s where you can challenge normal ways of thinking to come up with better answers.

DCN: You’re closely connected to Bartlett, you’re finding it’s a challenge to find people with good tech skills that are also creative. Do you think there’s a delicate balance between how much do you teach software and how much do you teach traditional skills?

Should architects be ‘office ready’ or should architects be taught good design skills? Those are two rather different skill bases…

JN: I think that opens up a whole question about architecture education – should architects be ‘office ready’ or should architects be taught good design skills? Those are two rather different skillbases: your design skills, your lateral thinking and your creativity have great longevity and are the cornerstone of what is required of you internationally. Your office ready skills have a much shorter lifespan: you’re using Revit today but you’ll be using something else in five year’s time. So I see those very much as bolt on skills. If you teach too much of that it inhibits people’s thinking. So typically for an MA student you want them to experiment and speculate about how a building might look. They’ve got plenty of years in practice to be constrained by all those other things! So it’s a really tricky balance. A lot of people we’ve seen are very tech strong but not necessarily using delivery elements we’d use in the office. So someone could use Microstation with their eyes shut, but doesn’t necessarily have a disciplined approach to using it that is needed to deliver a building. The downside of academia is that you tend to work on your own and now this industry is very collaborative. We set our files up so that someone else can also work on them within the studio, within a design team. This is a much more rigorous disciplined approach compared to academia, but you don’t want to stifle creativity – that’s the core of architecture education.

DCN: What’s the mindset of clients these days, do you think they’re tech aware or do they have roughly the same priorities for a design brief as they always had?

JN: I think every client is different, as are places, so a university client that has a long term interest in an estate, has a different view to someone that’s building a block of flats and then selling them. So there’s different drivers there, Most clients are pushing BIM quite hard because they see that as the future of facilities management. There’s a whole upskilling of the facilities management world to achieve this.

DCN: So there’s a high level of awareness – even if they’re not mandated, they’re a private client they still want it?

JN: Yes they do, and that’s shifting – two years ago it might have been different. Those organisations that have huge property stock, that have projects that have been running a couple of years, it’s difficult to reverse engineer those. Contractors seem to get a lot of benefit, really squeezing out any inefficiency in the programme. It’s a very good visual communication tool when you’re liaising with the sub-contractor supply chain.

I think there’s been a shift in the last 12 – 24 months; the majority people are working in BIM whereas two years ago it was a minority. It will be interesting to see how the FM world adopts it and what benefits they find.

I think there’s been a shift in the last 12 – 24 months; the majority people are working in BIM whereas two years ago it was a minority. It will be interesting to see how the FM world adopts it and what benefits they find.

DCN: Where else do you feel clients have been impacted by technology?

JN: Take a specific sector: what is the future of retail? how do retailers create revenue or footfall from people when they can see something in a shop but go home and buy it online? I think that having a digitally enabled tech-rich built environment is fascinating. Everyone is debating office buildings:  what does a future office look like? That’s been completely thrown open – in the last few days we’ve been talking to developers, they prefer to meet in a coffee shop than their nice new office. A neighbour of mine works in a bank, I bumped into him in a Church in the city because there’s a coffee shop in there, I asked him ‘what are you doing in here?’ ‘It’s a team meeting’ he replied – it’s because it gets them out of the office environment, so they think differently. With mobility and technology you can work anywhere – that’s making a big difference to the built environment from a client’s perspective.

DCN: In the digital world can you see how there is an opportunity to present more info – 3D models, CGI, VR headsets, there’s more information and more interaction. Do you think that’s going to be an element of what you do?

JN: I worked on a project in Bath – which is a very sensitive area, and I was a little bit concerned about how it would be received when people walked through the development because there’s a huge amount of information to take in. You’re presenting something at full-scale. The reaction was really positive, people were saying ‘Oh I can see what it looks like out my front window’, when you walk through a simulation like that you really walk through it naturally, as opposed to looking at a static photograph CGI, you look at that like a painting and your eye goes to all sorts of focal points that you’d never really concentrate on in real life. So actually it’s a huge a benefit – people start to experience things in a much more realistic way.

DCN: Do you think that had a genuine difference in terms of generating a positive reaction?

JN: On that particular project definitely. However, the reaction will be contingent on the scale of the development – it’s changing something they know very well. I think visualisation will help, as we move closer to central models, planning officers will put a building inside a model and the general public can have a good look, more than just a fly through. It will be interesting to see how that evolves. It is extremely helpful for planning authorities, officers, elected members and the public – who can start engaging in a much more proactive way.

DCN: People are talking about DIM (District Information Modelling) being the next frontier …

JN: I can see that happening, we need sort out BIM first though! We need a bit more computing power to make something like DIM work fully. Google Maps is an amazing example of ground level info to hand – including all local businesses and the 3D bit reasonably works well. If someone tried to predict that five years ago people would think they were crazy. You can walk all the way up to masterpieces in the National Gallery using Google Earth. Right up to the paint strokes. A lot of businesses you can now walk through – it will be interesting to see how that pans out.

DCN: Because you’re box fresh what sort of projects make most sense to you at the moment?

JN: We’re focusing between £5m and £30m projects, that’s where our experience lies. Technology helps us to do that, we’re very happy to bring other people in to collaborate with us. So outsourcing works very well in that respect, other practices do it and engineers have been doing it for many years. It means that everyone is playing to their strengths – people that are drafting for a living are better at that than a creative architect. So we’ll bring those people together very quickly. Gone are the days where you need a huge room of draftsmen to deliver a £30m building.