Chamber member, James Brown, Director of Cuppa Architects, tells us how lockdown in 2020 affected him and his company. It's a positive story for this local business.
Covid and lockdown impacted the business quite dramatically in two different ways, leading to what I would say from a Managing Director point of view, has been its most ‘rollercoaster’ year to date.
Firstly, the uncertainty of the job sector resulted in a number of project cancellations, and potential clients sitting on quotes where they previously would be giving the go ahead. When forecasting we realised that some gaps started to appear and projects needed a bit of reshuffling to maintain a healthy pipeline of income, but primarily I felt empathy for those who were ill, had lost family, or had lost/were at risk of losing their jobs; on reflection we were so fortunate only a reshuffle was on the cards for Cuppa, compared to so many who had lives turned upside down.
The other side of the coin was that lockdowns and furlough meant so many people were stuck inside their property, looking around at the same walls and pondering how they could change their homes to better suit how they wish to live; this is exactly the area of architecture we specialise in and so in some bizarre way, lockdown gave our potential clients the sales pitch before they’d even reached out to us.
This led to a surge in new enquiries for not only our usual extension and alteration projects, but a large number of conversion projects in which we’ve demonstrated highly effective design in the past – creating home office space, garage conversions, small extensions and outbuilding conversion projects transforming unused or junk-filled storage areas to places to work from. In addition, we’ve undertaken a large number of ‘annex’ style accommodation for either housing elderly relatives to keep them out of residential care, enabling a level of supported independence for adults with additional needs, or even creating somewhere for young adults wishing to fledge home, but unable to get themselves onto the property market.
We previously offered free initial on-site consultations with people, but due to sheer demand for service and with only so many working hours each week, we have taken to doing initial property reviews via desktop research and combination of contact via email, phone or Zoom; speaking frankly, with the aforementioned rise in enquiries, there are also a huge number of people who watched Grand Designs last night and want to play designer for their home, yet have no realistic intention of doing any extension or alteration work, so we’ve found ways of rooting out these time-absorbing folk and offering a premium design consultation for those who are serious, without compromising on the friendly and hand-holding service we pride ourselves on offering to our householder clientèle.
We are able to, yet have no desire to do so – as is often the way, people, businesses and their processes adapt when they are forced to do so, but as director I think it’s also important to take a step back and reflect upon how all changes are impacting performance, staff, reception and approach; in doing this with Cuppa Architects, I realised the processes and changes we were forced to make have resulted in us not only becoming more efficient, but also embracing flexibility and change, which instils confidence that we can roll with the punches in future too.
We have had a few projects cancel due to client employment issues, but equally have had several of these return to us since now that matters have stabilised again – all in all I would say the negative lasting effects have been greatly outshone by the new opportunities that have arisen.
After a large number of new project wins, and after winning two unexpected awards in 2021, we are in the very fortunate position to have a full order book for as far into the future as we generally care to peer; our focus is now directed on ensuring that despite rapid expansion and project portfolio, the quality of service and client experience remains exemplary.
A new part-time member of staff has come on board to support with the administrative side of projects, benefiting the company with their background experience in Planning and Law but frees up myself from office processes and allows greater focus on the items I’m best at: designing, problem solving and other architect duties.
After being nominated and then announced as Winners of the LABC 2021 Building Excellence Awards for the South West Region, I have since been put forward as a short-listed finalist for the national People & Places Award at the LABC grand final in London next year. So that’s an exciting and very flattering bit of positivity I’m coming to terms with embracing, but mostly I’m enjoying finding that balancing act of making wonderful spaces and places at work, but ensuring I take time and energy to enjoy my own with my family.
Be brave enough to turn down work and listen to your gut feelings – going the extra mile is wonderful in terms of customer satisfaction, and arguably gets excellent results, but just ensure this isn’t at the expense of your own working ethos and boundaries, for you can’t work beyond 100% forever without risking burn out. Oh, to ensure maximum calm and creativity, ensure you’ve always got the kettle on!