Chethams design by Stephenson Bell

Stephenson working on ‘great pipeline’ of new work

James Graham

Manchester architect Roger Stephenson has worked through three recessions, an experience that has left him acutely aware of the profession's vulnerability when the economy falls off a cliff.

Roger StephensonHe admits he "hardly noticed" the early 1980s slump and says the '90s differed from today because the banks had money but there was no work. This time there are jobs but developers are having problems getting hold of cash, which makes it, "just as bad, if not worse".

"For architects there's no clever way out because you're not in control of your own workflow," Stephenson told Place.

"You might be expecting £1m over three years then the project hits planning problems and goes to appeal. That's totally out of your control.

"Whereas, if we were selling beans we could just say to the salesmen, 'sell some more beans'."

This vulnerability hit home when his old company Stephenson Bell was hamstrung by the failure of clients, such as Modus, which left it with debts of around £500,000.

The impact of the downturn on other large practices has become evident in recent months. BDP decided to close four offices, including Liverpool, after profits fell by 50%. Austin-Smith:Lord is cutting 80 staff nationally – eight in the North West – after payment delays and has restructured its debts through a company voluntary arrangement.

In March, Stephenson parted company with partner Jeff Bell and also pursued a CVA, but it didn't work and the company went into administration in July.

"We thought the CVA was the honourable route, but we quickly found that we were shackled," says Stephenson. "We couldn't operate properly because we couldn't make bids for public work.

"The private sector schemes are generally financed by big institutions and it's almost the same thing there. They want solid people working for them and in particular they want their warranties to be effective.

"So if it's an office building and they want to sell it on, they'll also sell on everybody's warranties. They could have difficulties if the architect is no longer there.

"The reality of the CVA was that it would have taken many, many years until we got to any kind of normal trading."

He adds: "We got a lot of support. My staff were fantastic because it was very unpleasant for them."

Stephenson has been a key player in the re-shaping of Manchester over the past 30 years and was awarded an OBE 10 years' ago for his services to architecture. His practice's work includes the conversion of the Free Trade Hall into the Radisson Edwardian, the remodelling of Piccadilly Plaza, apartments on the site of the Hacienda nightclub and numerous projects for landlord Bruntwood.

He grew up in Beckenham and went to the same school as David Bowie, starting his career at BDP in Manchester in 1969. After three years he joined Michael Hyde and Partners and set up on his own in 1979. He partnered with George Mills in the 1980s and then Jeff Bell in 1990.

Now he is leading the business on his own again, trading as Roger Stephenson Architects, the vehicle that bought his old firm's assets through a pre-pack administration. Staff numbers have shrunk from 48 to 22 as a result of the changes.

"We're leaner and meaner. We've got ourselves down to a manageable number of people for the amount of work we have. All our clients have stayed with us and in the meantime we've got a great pipeline of new work.

"I can't pretend it's any easier, it's still a bit hand-to-mouth but I'm much more optimistic about the future. We're at the crossroads. We could be recruiting within months."

The practice has six hotel projects "at various degrees of certainty" and is on site with the Property Alliance Group at a Premier Inn in Dale Street, Manchester. "That's going extremely well. It's totally pre-fabricated. It's going up about a floor a week."

It is still working on the £36m extension to Chetham's School of Music in Manchester which should complete in February. Stephenson describes this as "the best commission that we've ever had, it's the most exciting thing I've ever had to do". The firm is also involved with the Co-operative Group's nearby Noma scheme where it is working on the refurbishment of a 180,000 sq ft office building, and it is also handling some social housing in Sheffield.

Recent experiences have made the firm more proactive when it comes to finding new work. "In the good times you don't really think, 'where's the next project coming from?' It just comes along. Now, we're very actively promoting our work."

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