Productivity and innovation under one roof

The 17 year-old firm of Cartwright Pickard Architects (CPA) has won numerous awards, including prestigious accolades from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Designing offices, residential housing and schools, CPA says that, as an architectural practice, it has to “deliver value to our customers through more than just aesthetics and architecture with a capital A,” according to James Pickard, one of CPA’s founder-directors.

“You have to be able to deliver fantastic value on time and below budget. We’re a relatively small practice but we punch well above our weight. We have built our practice on being a knowledge-based, thought-leading evidence-based designer.”

So, for example, the firm carries out regular R&D on which it gets tax relief.

“We go out of our way to conduct R&D. The tax relief helps when we are doing something that is pushing the boundaries. It encourages us to innovate.”

The firm has also received an £80,000 grant from Innovate UK for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Glasgow’s School of Art and Architecture where Pickard is a visiting professor. It’s a research project into health and well-being in residential homes.

Slicker connections

When the firm recently opened its third office, it wanted slicker connectivity between its London, Leeds and Manchester operations.

It was a good reason to sign up to the Connection Voucher scheme – the government-funded scheme that provides small and medium-sized companies with the chance to upgrade from standard, slower connections to a superfast service with vouchers worth up to £3,000.

Gaining enhanced communications capacity and speed between CPA’s three offices was only one benefit. The voucher is contributing to CPA’s long-term investment strategy to improve skills and productivity.

For CPA to continue to punch above its weight in a market that is noted for its “feast or famine” cycles as well as constant pressure on fee levels, it has to upgrade its skills and capabilities constantly. Investment in technology is central to CPA’s strategy.

From CAD to BIM: an information revolution

Less than a working lifetime ago, architects worked entirely from pen and tracing paper and produced finely-hatched drawings on large sheets. In the 1980s, technology arrived. Computer-aided design (CAD) was a huge leap forward.

Now there is another big shift. Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology is bringing a huge wave of change to the profession. Not only does BIM enable the architect to work in 3D, it allows all parties to work on the same model, improving co-ordination.

It’s a big and expensive step to take, however. The transition means new software and hardware; the data-hungry BIM system requires considerable additional processing power. It requires detailed and extensive training of CPA’s staff.

For a £3m-turnover business, BIM represents a massive investment. “We have spent more than £250,000 in the past couple of years on IT,” says Pickard.

The investment in BIM leads to a significant improvement in productivity, says Pickard. “It allows us to continue to improve the way we work and, ultimately, to produce more information with fewer people. We have to be more productive. By investing in IT and our infrastructure, we can become more efficient.”

Speed needs

The sophistication of BIM means that project file sizes are much, much larger. Stored in the cloud, CPA’s existing broadband could not cope with the larger files and the demand for constant access to them from all three offices.

“We needed the broadband speed to help us transfer this information,” says Pickard. “We need speed all the time.”

The firm’s research led them to the connection vouchers scheme.

“We found out about it on the internet,” he says. He describes the application and implementation process as easy; CPA used its existing supplier. Once an application for a connection voucher is approved, the connection will normally be installed within a few weeks – and for a wireless connection it can up and running in a matter of days.

Pickard says that the enhanced connectivity is helping the business enormously. “The connection voucher paid for the whole cost of the connection,” he explains. In the context of CPA’s considerable investment in its IT infrastructure, a £3,000 voucher may not appear to be much. But it meant a lot.

“I am a Yorkshireman,” Pickard grins, “and I like to maximise the use of whatever you can get. Business is tough enough, so why not put £3,000 to use if it is on offer?

“I have been through two recessions. In my earlier career I was in another business when it was surviving with just a few weeks away from going into receivership – you learn the value of things. And the connection voucher means a lot.”

The superfast broadband that CPA has installed is not just being used for handling sophisticated BIM files efficiently. It will enable efficient video-conferencing between the three offices. “If you don’t have the right speeds, then you will always have problems videoconferencing,” Pickard observes.

Pickard is very appreciative of the support that CPA has been able to access. “If the help is there, take it. It’s important that the government encourages entrepreneurs and small businesses to be more innovative and invest in their future.”

Scheme now closed

The Government’s Broadband Connection Voucher Scheme ran from December 2013 until October 2015. From April 2015, the scheme was funded by a £40m Government challenge fund. This fund is now fully committed and the Scheme has closed to new applicants.