Jo Cowen, founder of Jo Cowen Architects, explains her ethos for managing a practice and what drives her as a designer
Why did you decide to found your own practice in 2012?
I have always had the ambition of starting my own practice but knew I had to develop my technical and strategic knowledge before I was able to do so. After a number of years at Foster + Partners and then Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, I took the plunge and established Jo Cowen Architects alongside my co-director Chris Wilkinson. Chris and I felt we had the opportunity to bring ‘big practice experience’ to a smaller studio setting and focus on projects that delivered high quality design, regeneration, and intrinsic value to our clients and end users. There was a naivety in choosing to establish the practice at that point as we were mid-recession and finding work was hard. But we navigated the market, originated opportunities and kept a small but highly efficient team going until we had a more reliable pipeline of opportunities.
Why did you become an architect?
Architecture and the built environment in which we live has always interested me. Having grown up in South Africa where the predominant architecture is vernacular, I welcomed the opportunity to come to the UK and train with the leading architects and urban designers in the world.
What is your favourite sector to work in currently?
Our practice maintains a diverse approach when it comes to the different asset classes and seeks to take a fresh approach to each sector. The practice has become thought leaders in both residential, commercial and mixed use projects, and that’s reflected in our past work and the pipeline coming through. We are thoroughly enjoying the work we are doing in the Build to Rent (BTR) sector, an exciting and rapidly growing asset class, which is underpinned by long term institutional investment aimed at curating high quality housing and regeneration. Design, robustness and longevity underpins the sector and there is generally a real desire to create the highest quality housing for the next generation.
What has been your biggest lesson from leading a fast-growing practice?
Whilst we do have some specialism in BTR, it’s really important not to pigeonhole yourself in terms of the sectors you work in. The real estate arena in the UK is constantly evolving and changing. ‘Specialising’ in just one sector can be prohibitive.
Most importantly though, I think it’s really important that our staff understand how to balance good design with commercial viability. We have tried to drill home the point that while clients might be impressed by your intricate and eye-catching architecture, if it’s not financially viable for them then there’s just no point. That approach is one that’s going to win you repeat business and minimise the amount of ‘paper architecture’ – projects that never get off the drawing board.
What do you like most about running a studio?
I walk into the studio every day and constantly feel so fortunate to have the team of architects and support staff that we do. There is a real buzz and energy and great friendships amongst the teams. As Richard Branson said, “culture trumps strategy.” The growth of the studio has also been satisfying, as it reflects the great work we’re all doing. Running your own studio means you need to be immersed in all aspects of the business, whether that is involved with running projects, strategising for the year ahead or out securing new business. Chris and I love the intensity of it all, and think it’s important that everyone in the studio mirrors this enthusiasm.
What do you least enjoy?
There is not much I don’t enjoy, although the geo-political climate in the UK at the moment is causing sleepless nights. And I’d be lying if I said a little more down time wouldn’t go amiss!
What is your approach to tackling the future possible impacts of brexit both in terms of staffing and work?
We’re thinking all the time about how we can add value to our projects, bring in efficiency and certainty and trimming out excess spend in anticipation of the rising cost of labour and general Brexit uncertainty. We are trying to support our staff and also understand the likely implications of an independent and isolated UK. We are extremely proud of our work culture, so what’s really important to us is that our European employees feel as welcome and valued as they always have done.
How would you describe your approach as a leader?
I try to ensure that the team are given the freedom to express themselves and that work is delegated with trust and support. We need to grow their experience and their architectural progression. Chris and I have never sought to micro-manage our team so that our architects remain creative, try new things all the time and be given the trust to do so, even if that means picking up the pieces from time to time. We’re really lucky to have an extremely talented and hard-working team here at the studio, so it’s fairly easy for me to put my trust in them to deliver.
Design competitions – bane or boon?
Boon! It’s always great to be recognised for your work and be the best in class for something you all work so hard for. We’ve won a few and we’re really proud of that.
What project are you proudest of?
We’re currently working on a number of really exciting projects for industry-leading developers and that’s a testament to how far we’ve come since our birth in 2012. They’re going to be right up there once they are finished, each of them being really unique and complex in their own way.
In terms of past work, Bakery Place with the developer West Eleven proved to be the elevator that really kicked us off. West Eleven purchased a bakery dating back to 1898 and we converted the three buildings into a number of unique residential units.
What innovative materials have you come across recently?
We haven’t used them ourselves but I read recently about an Australian University, which started developing bricks from cigarette butts. It’s that kind of innovation which makes the construction world such an interesting and forward thinking space to operate in.
Have you made increasing diversity a key policy within the practice?
We are extremely conscious of diversity and the benefits that brings to the success of the practice both in design and dynamic. We are doing well in our male/female ratios, and are over 50 per cent female and flexible to all of our staff. The profession has a long way to go in terms of overall social diversity, and we are looking to promote ethnic diversity, and bring forward architects from a range of socio-economic backgrounds – a major failing in the industry as a whole.
What’s your next big challenge?
We are just starting work on some exciting new hotel projects in the hospitality sector.
What do you do to relax?
I love travelling and get about as much as I can, although that’s not so easy given how busy we are at the moment. But in all honesty, I love being with my children and find lazy days with them the most relaxing time away from the office.