Architecture Ireland interviews Michael Frain and Alan Burns, of Bright Design Architects, who were Highly Commended in the Best Emerging Practice category at the RIAI Irish Architecture Awards 2016.
AI: Alan and Michael, can you explain how your practice begin?
BD: The initial idea came out of a change of circumstances. We had both worked for larger practices and began working more and more for ourselves as projects and opportunities began to change with the economy. Having known one another since college we realised that we had the opportunity to work together and take some of the stress out of essentially being a sole practitioner. Our skillsets were varied enough that they complimented each other and gave us a very good starting point. At the start we began with 2+1 in a smaller office, we now find ourselves with 2 +8.5 in a larger office to reflect that. Our client base has grown steadily and while we still owe much to our residential body of work, we are now in a position where we would like to expand into commercial sectors.
AI: Which projects do you specialise in?
BD: We made a conscious decision to target domestic work as it was more reliable. This is what the practice has grown out of and it continues to generate the most referrals and repeat business. Private residential accounts for about 80% of our work. This can vary from small scale suburban renovations, extensions, one-off houses, and small residential developments, to a handful of more significant commissions in south county Dublin. To date, our venture into commercial work has been organic and we have taken on a range of projects both small and large ranging from a master plan feasibility in Tangshan, China a few years ago to a large office warehouse fit-out in Sandyford completed last year. We are currently looking at a small boutique hotel in Cavan. We like to try new and different briefs all the time.
AI: How would you describe your practice in three words?
BD: Bespoke, client-focused, dedicated.
AI: What made you enter the Emerging Practice Award?
BD: We thought the practice was at the right place in terms of development. It takes a few years to build up a client base and a body of work sufficient to demonstrate a philosophy or process. We were also inspired at the RIAI Conference where the 2015 Emerging Practice winners gave presentations. We felt we had a lot in common with these practices and realised that it would also be great recognition for the practice.
AI: How do you think that you can utilise the award to your advantage?
BD: We have already marketed the achievement widely within our network. It is something we continue to use when meeting new clients and pitching for new work where the benefits are most tangible.
AI: So in general, what is your work method?
BD: We are quite client-orientated from the outset. With the majority of residential projects, budget is always an important consideration so we are careful to try and match both clients’ and our own aspirations with budgets. Central to this process is identifying the core of the brief which requires analysis of the site and/or existing house and working from there. Often existing spaces can be under-utilised. Re-organisation of spaces along with showing how houses can be re-imagined mean new build areas can be minimised and costs optimised. When working through the design we often use 3D as a design tool. It helps us bring clients through the process much quicker and usually makes it easier for them to appreciate what is bring proposed. This process can get the right decisions made early on, therefore streamlining it for all.
AI: What influences your work?
BD: An aspiration for really good design. We feel that every project presents the opportunity to create something unique and bespoke for clients – even if it’s just a couple of small details in a tight budget. Client’s trust is crucial and we feel this is a key reason for the word of mouth referrals that have helped us develop the practice so far. We are also very fortunate to have great staff who constantly bring fresh ideas and new ways of thinking.
AI: How much has 3D modelling helped you in explaining design concepts to your clients?
BD: In college we both used physical models extensively so it would be our preferred way of working. However, with constant time pressures they start to feel like more and more of a luxury which is unfortunate. 3D modelling is the next best thing and as per the above, it is central to our process to date.
There are a few projects that are designed entirely through 3D, in some cases side by side with the client. This can be both a positive and a negative but usually the former prevails. Currently, we do not use BIM and prefer the flexibility and speed of Sketchup. However, we do see this changing in the next few years if the scale and type of work we produce continues to evolve.
AI: What’s next?
BD: We plan to actively market ourselves to attract more large-scale private residential work. We have been fortunate to secure some significant projects in recent years, many of which we hope will generate similar work. We would also like to branch out further into commercial and public sector tenders. Given what everyone has experienced in recent years we feel diversity of projects is the best guard against sharp shocks in the future. The procurement setup in Ireland makes it difficult to break into public work until you have several years trading built up. We feel that we are almost at that stage and are at the latter stages of IS0: 9001 certification to have the practice ready to expand.