Practice Profile: Niven Architects

A small practice with big ideas, Niven Architects is harnessing cutting-edge working approaches such as agile and lean alongside BIM, making it a force to be reckoned with in the north east. Sébastien Reed reports

Niven Architects is a collective of 12 located in the north east town of Darlington. Since its foundation in 1984, the practice has morphed and fluctuated in size between a modest four designers up to 22 at one stage in its lifespan.

Current owner Simon Crowe’s move to Niven was motivated primarily by what he says was the long-overdue prospect of “getting things done” – with the hope that working in a smaller practice would afford him more opportunity to see projects through. Following the 2008 economic downturn, Crowe (pictured, centre with John Adams, director, left and Karen Crowe, head of marketing, right) took over the management of Niven with a belief in a “strong design ethos” that has helped the practice to maintain its presence.

“We work in all sectors,” explains Crowe. “When one sector is buoyant, others will be down. We move with the tide.” The firm has used the cyclic nature of procurement in the region to its own ends to develop resilience and hone skills across a range of different architectural typologies and clients.

From strength to strength
Crowe outlines the tenets comprising Niven Architects’ philosophy:

“We believe in strong design, strong project management, and a strong technological lead”. In applying these core values, the practice has produced an impressive total of 867 schemes since Crowe joined in 2003, ranging in cost from £500,000 up to £55m, with more currently in the pipeline.

Deviating from the ‘two-track’ concept-execution model more frequently employed in larger cities across the UK and globally, the architect explains that things “don’t work like that in the north east.” Tees Valley projects tend to be seen through from design concept right the way to completion, says Crowe. In light of these regional dynamics, Niven fiercely apply their savvy project management skills to deliver projects effectively.

“Balancing the right design, at the right cost, within the right timescales is one of our strengths,” explains Crowe.

The architects attribute their skill in overseeing projects to the way they approach a brief – characterised by making time for, listening to, and being empathic to the stakeholders involved, as well as culminating a comprehensive and mutual understanding of the project among every individual working on the project. In Crowe’s words, “there’s no secret to it – if you listen to what they want, then you can deliver to the client what they’re after.”

Ahead of the curve
“While I, personally, can find it difficult to keep up with the latest tech, the business certainly doesn’t,” Crowe laughs. Since 2010, led by a firm belief in the benefits of embracing change, Niven Architects have invested heavily in increasing their digital capabilities – including BIM.

2014 saw the launch of Niven Architects’ sister practice and digital consultancy BIM Strategy, now helmed by director John Adams, who joined the operation two years later. Adams’ background in product management for a 1000-strong multinational software house not only bolsters the practice’s management capacities, it also provides leadership in its pursuit of cutting edge architectural solutions.

Adams has worked hard to transplant working methodologies from his tech-focused past such as agile and lean to reform design management processes at Niven. Agile encourages working groups to scale their time to accommodate unexpected changes in circumstance. Adams explains:

“It’s a robust, risk-averse, and fast way of delivering a project in a manner that’s flexible to change – put it together with BIM and you have a really powerful model.” Lean, on the other hand, is all about stripping out waste, condensing communication channels and streamlining workflows. The strategic approach to BIM, for this practice, isn’t about experimentation. It’s about “investing in innovation, working with the standards, and making sure it’s adding value.” Adams states his mantra as follows:

“Innovation isn’t something that just happens, it’s an activity that you engage in and do.”

BIM and best practice is gradually being embedded into the Niven design process, with an increasing number of projects making use of the technology.

“We’ve got Liam working on data validation, James looking at point clouds and photogrammetry; we’re looking at how to make the most of lumps of land, and working around employer information requirements.”

Niven Architects’ interest in future-oriented solutions has seen it spill into other areas such as offsite and modern methods of construction, and increase its profile. They have been working in partnership with Teesside University and the Ministry of Building Innovation & Education, to develop a series of courses around advanced homes and the future of residential construction.

The firm’s high-tech aspirations are countered by a keen sense of place, with the practice’s feet planted firmly in the Tees Valley. Beyond collaborating with local educational institutions, Crowe has made a point of embedding the practice into the community, working on a number of advisory boards and key initiatives to share management best practice and digital strategy knowledge with other local SMEs.

Feethams, a leisure development in the town is proof of the architects’ profound understanding of the local milieu and its demands, as Crowe explains:

“We realised that Darlington was in desperate need of a retail development project – a lot of people were going outside of town for those facilities.” In 2011, the architects came up with a concept which doubled up on the number of parking spaces expected from the plot, proposed it to the council and developers, won through competitive tender, and saw the scheme constructed and fully complete by 2016. The development now provides a platform for growing the town’s night-time economy and delivers the gravitational pull for graduates which Crowe says is so important to his region’s success.

The architects’ sensitivity to demand is coupled with a focus on sensitive design – as the project’s form demonstrates. Tapping into Darlington’s railway heritage, red brick railway arches were incorporated as a reference to the local vernacular, as well as providing a foundation to the floors above.

Even as the practice continues to push the envelope with technology, Niven Architects are great advocates of long- established design principles, citing the greats such as Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright as key influences.

“When you’re designing a building of scale,” says Crowe, “you need to create a strong base, a centrepiece, and a light top. Styles change but throughout you see this rhythm repeating itself.”

The massing rationale specified by Crowe is equally representative of his approach, working from a solid foundation of tested principles, and barring ego from creeping in.

Combining this appreciation of refined forms with technological ambition and a welcoming embrace of change, Niven Architects has an extensive toolbox which makes it fit for the future challenges and disruptions facing the profession.