Three decades after a train journey from London to Manchester when they decided to go into business, Ian Simpson and Rachel Haugh have grown their practice to 120 staff, delivered an extensive portfolio of work, and maintained one of the most productive partnerships in architecture.
She describes him as “dynamic”, he calls her “measured”, and it’s to this difference in personality that they attribute their long-term success.
The decision to set up Ian Simpson Architects in Manchester came after Haugh and Simpson found success working on design competitions together outside of their day job at Austin:Smith-Lord, realising “we had a degree of creativity that could compete nationally and internationally”.
Now, the practice has offices in London and Manchester, and according to the last financial results to March 2016, achieved a £10m turnover and £2m profit.
While Haugh and Simpson have complementary approaches to how they generate ideas and run the business, that match was a happy accident. “I started working with Rachel because she’s a really good architect and designer, not because she’s good at the nitty gritty,” says Simpson.
Famously in architecture, few partnerships last without some kind of rift, perhaps due to the bullish nature of architects defending their ideas.
“I worked in practices with good designers but who were total alpha males, so they just ended up arguing,” describes Simpson. “When that happens it can turn into two studios running alongside each other with their own work, but not talking to each other.”
Not so for SimpsonHaugh. “Our practice is very much a joint effort, it’s a whole,” says Haugh. “Everyone understands that and appreciates our different inputs.”
This difference particularly shows itself when it comes to responding to an urgent design brief.
Simpson is the first to see an enquiry. “You have to respond quickly, in 24 hours for a concept, in order to get someone excited. I like to think I can come up with an idea in 12 seconds.”
He’ll come up with various options, then the pair will look at the drawings collectively, “and Rachel spots the good one within that”.
“Ian is very dynamic in how he arranges ideas,” says Haugh. “Whereas I’m very single-minded and come to one solution over time.”
When it comes to design “we share exactly the same taste,” asserts Simpson. “We have very strong themes to do with light, space and form, and we believe in those and apply them to our buildings. It’s not a house style, but a house approach. Our buildings are recognisable, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
Delivering their buildings from design to project completion is important to both, Simpson says. “Our buildings might appear simple but they’re not, they’re very complex. In order to achieve them as we envisioned, it’s all in the detail. It’s that quality we enjoy bringing to the work, not the surface level that can then be bastardised by someone else.”
Both live in buildings designed by their practice in Manchester; Haugh in No.1 Deansgate, and Simpson at the top of Beetham Tower, testament to their commitment to their own products, and to the city.
The studio has been at the forefront of the regeneration of Manchester, particularly over the last 20 years. Past schemes include Urbis, now the National Football Museum, and buildings within First Street and Spinningfields, while recent work for Allied London, Ask Developments’ Found Space, and Renaker’s Owen Street towers means their stamp is on several projects emerging across the city.
Despite the scale of development, Simpson is keen to point out that “the city isn’t done, it’s not finished in any way.
“There’s a long way to go and there’s a danger that as soon as you see the first sign of life and vitality you move onto the next corpse. There’s lots of places in the North West that need resurrection, but there’s work still to be done in the city too.”
Both concede the Manchester market is still a challenging one, “and it’s still hard to get the right fees”. “There are a lot of good architects in the city, doing the best they can in difficult circumstances, in terms of programmes, build costs and values,” says Haugh.
When faced with clients focusing on delivering a project as cheaply as possible, the trick, according to Simpson, is “design by stealth”.
“Wherever we can we’ve tried to do something extraordinary, making what we can out of what can often be a very banal and prosaic programme, a ‘200 flats in a block, please’ type of request. Our responsibility as architects is more civic than just delivering to clients. But it’s a commercial world and if we don’t roll-up our sleeves and work with these developers, someone else will.”
“We need to support one another in that endeavor to achieve quality,” adds Haugh. “This is our city, we’re only as good as our last building, which is why it has to be the absolute best.”
To those who suggest that the design of large-scale Manchester buildings is a SimpsonHaugh monopoly, Haugh is quick to point out that it hasn’t been easy. “We have been successful, but it did take ages. We worked very hard at it, and it took us 10 years to get to the point where we made any money.”
“If you’re good and consistent you can break into Manchester,” adds Simpson. “There are a lot of great practices here, but the risk is that if a recession hits they pack up the Northern office and go back to London, whereas we’ve always been here.”
Their first projects were “tiny, shop entrances”. “We had no work when we set up, it was total naivety,” laughs Haugh.
However, for younger architects starting out in their own practice, both agree that naivety is key to making it work.
“You have to be naïve, if you know too much you won’t do it,” advises Simpson. “You have to be naïve, young, talented, positive, hardworking, and footloose and fancy free to start with, as it’s no life really.
“And you need to be robust enough, to fail and start again.”
If you want to work as a pair, “choose your partner wisely”, says Haugh. “It’s about having the right people around you as you grow. People are the most important asset and the key to making things a success.”
Adding other members of staff into the business’s ownership was part of the decision two years ago to rebrand from Ian Simpson Architects, to SimpsonHaugh & Partners.
As Haugh was an equal partner from the start, many in the industry felt the name-change was a long time coming. However, Haugh asserts the delay was nothing to do with inequality, but more to do with wanting to incorporate 11 new partners into the LLP structure at the same time. The studio came close to changing the name just before the market crash in 2008, but then “no one would have wanted to be a partner in anything”, she said.
The perception shift towards her externally has been “dramatic, and there’s a lot more focus on me that I hadn’t expected”. Essentially for Haugh, “the partners have been empowered by the change… They’ve changed in terms of the practice and the future, changed behavior in terms of client base, and developing relationships, gaining identity themselves.”
This is important, as for Haugh and Simpson succession planning is part of the next phase of the business. While both are quick to reassure “there’s another 10 years in us at least”, for Simpson “it’s about how we secure the long-term future of the practice”.
“We have no plans to stand down, but we might want to work a different way, and divest ourselves of more equity to create an infrastructure that’s sustainable beyond the two founding partners.”
Would Haugh have guessed they’d achieve such professional success? “I wouldn’t have been able to anticipate that we’d be able to achieve what we have, not in my wildest dreams, what we’ve done…”
“…and continue to do.” Finishes Simpson, predicting: “The next five years will be spectacular.”