Adding social value is more than a “nice to have” aspiration – it can bring proven positive impacts and solid business benefits. Fiona Clark, practice director at David Miller Architects, discusses the firm’s own efforts to make social value business as usual
London and Liverpool-based David Miller Architects (DMA) is known for its ingenuity in design and practice management. The practice was set up in 2000 by David Miller, an architect with a desire to create a business that placed equal value on design and delivery, whilst also encouraging collaboration and empowerment.
Almost 20 years on and this 32-strong practice is regularly listed as a desirable place to work, ranking within the top 30 of Building’s Good Employer Guide. Not only is DMA the smallest company to be featured but it was also spotlighted for its approach to diversity and recruitment through its work placement programme.
The person responsible for the operational delivery of the practice is practice director, Fiona Clark. Fiona has been with DMA since the early days and it was always her ambition to create a dynamic business culture – where freedom of expression is encouraged both from a design perspective and business process.
Social value is at the heart of practice management for Fiona and, over the past decade, she has worked hard to make this of significant importance to the business.
At the end of 2018, DMA was voted one of the City of Westminster’s most socially responsible firms after winning the Westminster Lion’s Excellence Award and has been recognised as an SME whose commitment to inclusion and diversity is making a real difference with a City of London Lord Mayor’s Dragon Award.
Fiona explains why social value is so important to DMA and what motivates her to run the practice this way.
At what stage in the development of the business did you start to get interested in social value?
It was right from the outset. As architects, our work has a direct impact on people’s lives, communities and the environment. Clearly, we want to design buildings to achieve the best possible outcomes for all of these, but we also had a fantastic opportunity to go that bit further and make sure that our projects, and the way we work more generally, delivers social value above and beyond the architecture.
Very early on, we realised that it’s not just about doing the right thing, but it makes great business sense as well.
How are you incorporating social value into business as usual?
We put a lot of energy into trying to bring a wider range of young talent into architecture and construction. We’re known for being a leader in digital design and this definitely helps to entice young digital talent.
We have developed an award-winning work placement programme and we now host around 20 work placements a year. It is open to all and we work in partnership with a number of schools and organisations to target young people who may not have otherwise considered a career in the built environment and to broaden our reach.
To date, seven of the people who have participated in the work placement scheme have come to work for us on a permanent basis. We also support apprenticeships and our practice manager, studio manager and studio assistant have come through apprenticeships.
It sounds as though it is very much about the team at DMA – how do you manage this?
Having a team who feel part of our business’s strategic vision is as important as their talent as designers. We try to involve the whole team in developing our future plans, and we are committed to investing in training and creating opportunities for people to grow. We attract and retain people who share our values, and we do enjoy a great team spirit as a result. We give people time to take part in activities such as mentoring with organisations such as the RIBA, the Social Mobility Foundation and Class of Your Own and we encourage and support the team with volunteering and charitable activities. We’re finding that people want to be part of a practice that acts responsibly.
Giving back to the community is high on the agenda for DMA – how do you achieve this?
That’s true and by using our professional skills as architects and giving our time pro bono, it’s easy to have a direct impact. We worked with the team behind Maida Hill Place to create a community café and kitchen space, which was a great experience.
More recently, we’ve also worked with Fitzrovia Youth in Action to transform a basement into an events space and we’ve just started a collaboration with the Young Westminster Foundation on the Fourth Feathers Youth Club in Marylebone.
As with the mentoring and work placements, it’s a good way of allowing junior team members to take on lead roles and it helps to develop their own confidence as well as getting involved in improving the places that we live and work in. In other words, it benefits everyone.
Not only do you work with other businesses to support education programmes, but DMA is involved in sponsoring schools programmes and curriculum content, why is this important to you?
It’s about the sustainability of the profession and of course, that starts with education. We’re passionate about creating a level playing field and opening doors into what is a really exciting industry to work in.
Through our work with Class of Your Own over the last five years, we were given the opportunity to sponsor a school. Together with Henry Riley and Arup, we adopted St Joseph’s College in Croydon. We’ve just completed a two-year design project with them and we’re proud that so many of the students achieved great academic results.
We’ve also recently joined the Employers Alliance Group at the new Sir Simon Milton Westminster UTC, which is another perfect opportunity for us to help open doors for young people.
I really think these links between industry and education are vital, not only in opening up the profession to a wider range of young talent but also in making sure that education stays relevant and up-to-date.
What are the main benefits that you’re experiencing as a result of your social value activities?
Increasingly, we’re being asked to make social value commitments when we’re bidding for work for local authority and housing association clients and this can be worth as much as 10% of the overall mark.
We know this is helping us to win work as we are scoring very highly and it means that we bring something extra to collaborative bids, making it advantageous to work with us. Our social value commitments recently helped us to win three new projects to take to planning with Westminster City Council and contributed to us being part of a team with Osborne on a large residential development at Parsons North.
But just as importantly, it’s about trying to create a sustainable future for the wider profession. There is a skills shortage in the industry at the moment and it needs to be opened up to deal with this. There are proven statistics about the positive impact and business benefits of having a diverse workforce and of course it makes sense. At DMA, it is really important that our team reflect the communities we work with – design is about imagining yourself in a situation after all.
What does the future hold for DMA?
Our focus at the moment is on measuring and reporting our social value so that we can set ourselves specific targets and continue to develop. Last year, we started using GivX, a free tool to help companies easily track and measure their social value activities.
We have also recently opened a studio in Liverpool and, from day one, our approach has been to contribute positively to the city, replicating what we’ve been doing in London. Even before we had secured any projects, the team in Liverpool were mentoring with the Social Mobility Foundation and RIBA North West student schemes.
This attitude led to us being invited to bid for a major project in Liverpool (which we’re pleased to say we won!) and, as we grow the practice there, we will be making sure that Social Value creation is thoroughly embedded into how we work nationally.
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