practice name alternative studios
Based on Newcastle upon Tyne
was established May 2021
The main people Paul Milner and Scott Savin, Co-Founders.
Where are you coming from?
We studied Architecture followed by Urban Design together at Newcastle University before embarking on different career paths. For Scott, this involved working in several practices across the North of England, notably delivering projects across the UK IDPartnership. Meanwhile, Paul spent eight years in the Rider Architecturewhich culminated in the design and delivery of the multi-award winning headquarters for Tombola on the River Wear, Sunderland.
For 10 years, together with practice, we have delivered separate MA modules and served as visiting critics in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University. We often get together and casually discuss wanting to start our own design studio.
What is your business and what kind of projects are you looking for?
Our current architecture and interior design work spans the UK: from a workplace refurbishment in the capital to a hospitality suite in the Lake District and a horticultural retail building in North Yorkshire, right through to a former telephone exchange on the edge of the Glen in the West Highlands. Our largest commission in Northern Ireland is an upscale private residential development with a nearby gated mixed use building.
Working across the country has given us more freedom to explore and investigate our own approach. Despite this diversity in size, sector and location, they all have a common clientele who truly value our design and process. This process is supported by initiating a dialogue with each place and exploring what makes it special; Explore and adapt opportunities in each context. This may be a coincidence yet, but every project is in a sensitive and often challenging position, which makes them all the more exciting and requires research-rich design responses.
In almost every commission there is something ancient and valuable that we must carefully critique and appreciate. So, looking ahead, we welcome more of the same: commissions that are aligned with our values, making them fulfilling and meaningful to work on.
The original short-term business plan changed dramatically almost from the start. We’ve had several hospitality fit-out projects in the pipeline with our existing contacts – design-led, but quick successes in terms of program. Strategically, this should have resulted in some realized business under the company’s name in a relatively short time frame.
The pandemic hit and the sector came to a halt overnight
The pandemic hit and the sector came to a halt overnight. We then delayed our launch, pivoted, and proceeded to build a new client base which eventually led to underwriting a range of commissions and feasibility for private commercial clients. These large projects, many with undetermined results initially, resulted in more work, many of which are still on the books today.
We have seen an increase in inquiries focused on work commonly associated with RIBA Phases 0 and 1. This has mostly come from regular clients who approach us to assess and initially identify opportunities across their properties and land portfolio, enabling us to advocate for adaptive reuse from early stage. So far, this has involved creating research-rich abstracts before even considering anything notable in terms of design – the weight of importance given to this ‘slower’, but desirable, analytical process has been refreshing and resonating with our soul.
We were able to advocate for adaptive reuse from an early stage
In particular, since we feel “Slow” has a deeper feel, it goes back to the idea of wanting high quality and having to work hard for it.
What are your ambitions?
In the short term, along with further solidifying our name, to continue the natural flow of interest, following and subsequent diverse commissions across the UK in keeping with our design ethos. This will coincide with the growth of our close-knit team and collaborators – the latter perhaps one of the main reasons for our success to date. We are actively looking for a larger studio space, which could be a self-financed development project.
In the long term, it’s about diversifying our income streams, increasing the number and size of internal projects or joint ventures for that matter and, in time, creating an equal split between our own commissions and our entrepreneurial ventures. We are often asked about our ambition in terms of practice size, and to stay true to our ethos and desirable studio environment, we don’t see ourselves going beyond a team of 10 or 12 people.
For those we work with and work with, we aspire to be recognized as a design-led alternative studio that exceeds expectations. We want our architecture to somehow reflect the unique aspect of each place, no matter how big or small it is. Naturally, we hope our projects will truly change people’s lives, make them feel better about themselves in these places, while providing evidence of carefully crafted design, based on careful research and dedication to detail. Quite simply, it is our responsibility as architects to positively influence how we perceive places.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a startup and the profession in general?
The most pressing and enduring challenge is recruitment. Naturally, the success of this goes hand in hand with the start of our studio, but after adding two talented and valuable team members this year, after a long process, we are on the verge of increasing our core team.
The best advice is to be patient and take your time
However, our best and most appropriate piece of advice is to “be patient and take your time.” All our decisions whether right or wrong were considered and strategic. We held off on officially launching the business until we felt the time was right; Essentially when we can effectively deal with people in person. Projects unexpectedly turned out to be long-term commissions, so the realization of our design work would naturally take longer than expected as well.
We’ve found that our clients prefer working with smaller practices where they can quickly get assurances about who they’re investing in – which designers they’ll work on commission with and with whom they can build close relationships based on trust. The resulting experience is often more elegant.
Because we are equally passionate about the projects we take on, they also feel comfortable in the value and importance we place on their project for the growth of our studio. We try to make a careful selection based on the customer’s motivation and chemistry.
In terms of the economic downturn, we’ve been lucky. It does not hinder our current projects or those in the pipeline for next year, which are deliberately varied and not confined to one sector. Although the speed with which some deliverables can be delayed is due to well-documented increases in material costs and lead times.
What scheme has been completed in the last five years that inspired you the most?
We were inspired more by the growing architectural developer movement rather than a specific scheme. We attended Guerrilla Tactics at RIBA in 2019 where this topic was explored through the entrepreneurial endeavors of a select number of practices.
What was called for was a growing confidence not to rely on traditional methods of service and procurement, but to positively exploit the skills of the profession to generate additional sources of income and mitigate the dependence and impact of what can often be a volatile market.
This resonated with us before Alt Studios was created and we have since acquired some real estate at auction to explore this branch of the practice in the years to come.
How do you market yourselves?
Everything, no matter how cliched, is an extension of Alt Studios, and as such may have marketing value. So our attention to detail has been and continues to be applied to everything from web development, to smart documentation templates, to letterpress – ultimately reflecting our day-to-day approach to project work.
Neither of us used Instagram before starting our practice, but it became a curated vision for our project work, collaboration, and exploratory studio activities. However, as with everyone, time is of the essence, and we primarily market the practice in person by attending and participating in select non-architectural events.
We look to other markets and disciplines for inspiration, so we weren’t afraid to reach out, ask for advice, and mingle. In doing so, we have created a few mentors who have in turn made fruitful introductions. Similarly, surrounding ourselves with invaluable, like-minded, creative collaborators has organically helped broaden our reach and connections. It is essential for a small studio to communicate and collaborate with the best specialists in each field.
In terms of giving back and introducing ourselves to the future generation of architects and designers, we have offered each of the regional architecture schools a self-initiated student career program, Express.
This year, more than 120 architecture students participated in and benefited from a series of informal and inclusive workshops. Incidentally, it will return domestically in 2023 before expanding to additional architecture schools in 2024.