When we launched the #Future15, we told everyone to expect the unexpected.
In our network there is such a diversity of businesses that we weren’t going to shy away from celebrating some of our more unorthodox startups.
Meet Kelsall Architects: the Manchester-based architectural duo of Naomi & Paul Kelsall, aiming to build a more sustainable future for our planet.
Over the past year, they’ve left employment and come face-to-face with the realities of running their own business. It may have been a learning curve, but with a new website and new connections, they’ve got big ideas on the horizon.
I sat down with architecture’s newest power couple in Manchester last month to find out more about their journey so far.
Abby: First of all congratulations on being named in the YENA #Future15! We’re really excited to be featuring you both on our list, especially as you don’t see a lot of startups like yours getting recognised for the work that they do.
Paul: Thanks! It’s not really a startup in a typical sense. I think because of the nature of the industry, it’s something that has to be grown organically rather than scaled quickly. A lot of startups have a small product or service that they sell to a wide audience, but we have a very big service product that we sell to a small audience.
Naomi: The architectural industry is quite insular in a lot of ways, but we think it’s a good thing to learn from other people who are running their own businesses.
Paul: We started an architectural firm because we wanted to do architecture, whereas we meet people who start businesses because they want to do business. It’s good to be around those people because you can learn so much from them.
A: Both of you have worked for some pretty big architectural firms in the past, what made you decide to start your own business?
P: I think we both always wanted to start our own practices independently before we even met. Both of our parents ran their own businesses so we were exposed to the idea from a young age.
N: I think a lot of people in the creative professions want to do their own thing so that you’re not always designing to please your boss! I suppose it’s really about autonomy and having control over how we do it as well. This way we can design directly for our clients and our values as a practice can be prioritised.
A: How did you find that transition from being employed to running your own business?
N: We’ve found it a huge learning curve. I mean, we knew that it wouldn’t be easy, but it was the stuff that you take for granted when you’re working for someone else that was hardest at first. The business side of things, like the administration and the finance, that’s normally taken care of and then suddenly you’re managing it all whilst also trying to do architecture at the same time.
P: I suppose the biggest thing now is getting the work in. Before you could just sit there and work would be presented to you, but now we’ve had to learn how to make those strategic relationships to get the work ourselves.
A: What you have you done to build those relationships?
P: It’s taken quite a bit of trial and error, and we’re still trialling it a lot of the time, but we’ve found that you can intentionally make a purposeful connection with someone or, opportunities can just drop out of the sky. I mean sometimes you’ll meet someone, who’s met someone else who knows someone who needs a building built. It’s about building your own network.
N: Also, I think that a lot of it is about trust so you have to build relationships with people. Word of mouth is good in this sense because it’s someone who knows you already recommending you.
P: With architecture there’s often quite a long build-up period so you might make a connection today and then in a couple of years time it will turn into a project.
A: Are you finding that word of mouth is something that is helping you build those relationships locally?
P: Yes, definitely. We went to meet a property developer the other day and we came into contact with them through quite a convoluted route. Someone from YENA put us in touch with their director who then put us in touch with the developers. I think because it came from someone internally it had quite a bit of weight to it.
N: And I think we learnt quite a lot from that experience because you realise that even if directly it doesn’t look like there’s any useful link, if you manage to build a friendship from that, it could lead to something in the future.
A: Where does your passion for architectural design come from?
N: For me architecture has such a significant impact on people, more than most people realise. A badly designed space can really affect people’s daily lives as much as a good one. I suppose that’s part of the reason I got into it. Architecture has this powerful ability to transform a place so sometimes it feels like a huge responsibility.
P: I like how architecture straddles both science and art whilst also having a massive social impact. My grandfather taught me how to draw and I knew I wanted to do something creative like that, but I actually found architecture by accident. I got given a career book that had different professions in alphabetical order and… you can work out the rest. It’s been a happy learning curve!
A: Why is sustainable design one of your core values and how has it impacted the work that you do?
N: It’s out of necessity really. Construction and maintenance of buildings accounts for about 50% of the UK’s carbon output and we feel we have a responsibility to future generations to reduce that. We’re trying to make sustainability measurable, but it’s expensive in comparison to building regulation standards. Essentially, sustainability has to stack up financially. That’s the challenge.
P: We’re currently working on a new build house in a seventies housing estate in Lancashire for a small developer. The client is keen to see how low energy it can be made whilst still returning a good profit. It’s great when you meet like-minded clients! The main thing for us is thinking long-term in our designs.
A: What’s been your favourite project so far?
N: We did an extension on a 300 year old cottage in the lake district. We always design contemporary architecture and the contrast of this sleek structural glass extension with the wobbly walls of the cottage looks great!
P: I think, for me, the house we’re doing in Lancashire at the moment is really interesting because there are so many challenges to balance, but the vision for it is very much inline with our values.
A: And last, but not least, what does the future look like for Kelsall Architects?
P: In the long run we’d love to move onto our own developments. We are always looking for sites with potential where we can add value to communities through our architecture
N: We’d love to design our own co-working space in Manchester. Maybe a mixed use development with a cafe and a residential area. For the time being though, we just want to make sure that we’re having a positive impact through the spaces that we build and hopefully that will guide us to the right kind of work in the future.