[This article was first published in our Synergy2016 conference magazine.]
Technology, collaboration and globalisation are three key drivers of change in the AEC industry. There’s continuing evidence of these playing a role in Australia with some of the world’s largest architectural and engineering firms either opening offices or acquiring local businesses. It also seems unsurprising to read about overseas firms winning notable projects in Australia against local competition, while international joint ventures are becoming more and more common.
So how can SME practices compete with companies and joint ventures that seem to have virtually unlimited resources? One answer lies in embracing these drivers of change and turning them into differentiators and advantages. Australian architectural firm i2C Design and Management has done just this. In founding the Ryder Alliance with UK-based firm Ryder Architecture, they’ve added strength in depth with international resources, expertise, capability and, arguably, reputation.
We interviewed joint managing director Anthony Merlin to find out how and why an international alliance is creating opportunity, what the challenges and benefits are, and what he’s learned about collaborating across time zones in a global industry.
i2C was founded by Anthony Merlin and Brian Jende in 1999. Both had been working at a Melbourne-based architectural firm and decided to go out on their own with the belief that it was possible to open an architectural practice in two cities simultaneously during uncertain market conditions.
They opened Sydney and Melbourne offices on the same day – Brian from his spare room in Melbourne, Anthony in space borrowed from a friendly construction company in Sydney – and set out to create a company founded on culture, technology and great design. The story goes that Brian lasted around three-and-a-half hours before finding space in a friendly engineer’s office to escape the mayhem of small children underfoot at home.
16 years later, i2C has around 50 staff across Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. The practice focuses primarily on retail work and regularly manages projects in the $100m to $200m range, working with the likes of Stockland, Charter Hall and Vicinity.
Despite now starting to branch out into the commercial and residential work that generally comes with mixed use development, the company faced challenges pitching for larger projects in coming up against bigger firms with huge resources. To tackle this, the Ryder Alliance was formed from an idea that began with a conversation over a beer in 2009.
The Ryder Alliance is currently made up of Ryder Architecture, i2C, Ravetllat Ribas and the BIM Academy. i2C publically announced its membership of the Ryder Alliance in February 2015, though the original MOU was signed in April 2014.
Ryder Architecture has four offices in the UK – Newcastle (HQ), Glasgow, Liverpool and London – and one in Hong Kong with approximately 140 staff overall.
Anthony Merlin explains that there’s no financial interest in each other’s companies, the alliance is built around complementary fields of expertise, shared views on company culture, and a philosophy of research-based design.
“We’d been talking to Ryder over the course of five years,” he says.
“This culminated in creating an alliance of like-minded architects across the world. In a way it was a response to some of the big companies that would come in and suck up many of the little companies and just become one big conglomerate… why not have a network of architects who can work together when they need to, be nimble, exchange best practice ideas and still offer the personalised service and value of a smaller practice.”
One of the driving goals with the alliance is to enable smaller architectural businesses to compete with the big firms that have far greater resources.
“Certainly being in the room with some of our bigger clients we’re able to say we might only be 50 people in Australia, but we have access to 140 people at Ryder, and others around the world through our mutual relationships,” Merlin says.
“Hopefully it means we can compete with the big guys on a resource basis… some of the really big companies can become a bit impersonal, I think.
Is it more likely that i2C will come up against bigger firms because of its focus on the large retail industry segment?
“Quite a bit,” Merlin says.
“We’ve seen situations where our Australian competitors in the retail market have been required by the client – because of the scale of the project – to work with a larger foreign company to help with things like the concept and master planning elements up front, while they handle the local knowledge and presence during construction phase.
“With the alliance we can head that off. We’ve been able to demonstrate our expertise and the benefits of the network in showing our alliance partners’ work where the client has realised it puts us in another league.
“What we really want is the flexibility and scalability in having a network of like-minded architects, rather than having a massive behemoth under our feet.”
Merlin says one of the biggest benefits has been the exchange of team members.
“Where a lot of companies often lose young talent because they want to go off traveling and get other experience, we can do staff exchanges and we often get our graduates back and keep them with us,” he says.
“We’ve had two of our team go over to the UK on two separate occasions to give Ryder some help for three month stints. One of our younger guys took a gap year and did some work with them while he was travelling and we had one of their team from Hong Kong with us for three months.
“One of the Ryder guys from their Glasgow office is on his second spell – he spent three months in our Perth office and is now back for another three months in our Melbourne office with his girlfriend who also works for Ryder.”
The agreement also mandates that the directors spend one to two weeks at each other’s offices annually.
“This is an exchange of ideas, experience and best practice for our collective benefit,” Merlin says.
Collaboration in action
One of the reasons the two companies meshed so well, Merlin says, is their complementary expertise – Ryder Architecture doesn’t do much in retail, while i2C hasn’t done much in education or healthcare.
The two firms collaborated on a design competition in China for a large shopping centre using people from both companies.
“Two people from our team [joint managing director Brian Jende and a senior designer] went to visit the site in China,” he says.
“They flew to Hong Kong and picked up two people from the Ryder office (one of whom speaks fluent Mandarin) and then had three months to do the design.
“We split the process up with i2C doing the initial concept design, then did lots of video meetings on Zoom on a weekly/twice weekly basis, which worked well.
“Where we discovered a hurdle is when one of the core team went on break for two weeks and a few things unraveled a bit and needed reeling back in. What we learned was it’s really about dissecting the project and setting up who’s doing what.”
The Ryder Alliance also took part in a 48 hour BIM modelling and design competition called Build BIM Live. The competition team included BIM Academy, Ryder UK and Hong Kong, an architectural practice in Barcelona, some UK-based engineers and US-based cost planners.
“This is the first competition like this we’ve been involved in,” Merlin says.
“They tell you where the site is along with a very brief description, then only give you the site model and a more detailed brief about two hours before the clock starts. We decided to split the site up rather than all working on the same model and handing it over to each other, but it was possible for the team to work around the clock for the whole 48 hours with handovers where necessary at the different time zone crossovers.
“Part of the competition was demonstrating the whole of BIM. This means it’s not just about a model, but about sequencing, cost planning, engineering and sustainability. We had to pull all that together in only 48 hours, along with visualisations and an animation.
“The UK office had a live webcam showing their ‘war room’ with about seven machines in action. We had continual handovers between the teams. We also run Yammer at i2C for internal and project communications, so we created an external network to communicate about the project in one place, which worked brilliantly.
“We won the competition out of about eight teams worldwide.”
Merlin says the competition was an amazing learning curve on working together and collaborating around various time zones.
“The competition taught us how collaboration can really work,” he says.
The future of the Alliance
The Ryder Alliance is expecting to grow in the near future with discussions progressing with a Scandinavian and an American-based practice and others in the pipeline. So how does another firm qualify to join and who gets the say? After all, it took four years to form the initial alliance.
Merlin points to the design competition the alliance (and competition partners) won as an example of what he’d like it to look like, and how it can work in reality.
“The competition was a really good eye opener on how we can work together and collaborate across the all the different disciplines. Whoever comes into the alliance needs to understand this way of working and be across the right technologies.
“But overall it’s a culture thing. A lot of the work we’ve done in our company in the last five or six years has been focused on culture. That’s been part of our journey and it’s been a really enjoyable one. New members of the alliance need to have been on that journey, too.”