Open mike: Successful projects rely on much more than hard cash, says Martin Murphy. Emotional investment by the local community and end users is what ensures success

Running a business in times of economic strife is never easy, and I should know: I started up my architectural practice in the depths of the last recession in 1992.

At the time I was wildly optimistic and craved the freedom of being my own boss. I soon met like-minded people and before long we landed a job to design 100 shops across the UK and northern Europe.

Over the following years, we chose to remain small and our income went up and down like a sine wave. It was tough but our optimism paid off and in the end we were successful.

Now it seems the economy is in the same situation. Or is it? I recognise some of the trends, but the enormity and speed of this recession is unlike any other. So, why is that?

Well, the past decade has seen the growth of enormous, centrally funded projects across the UK. Endless pots of money have been doled out to worthy causes and communities by lottery and regeneration funds. In some cases, this money has been reasonably easy to obtain, so ill-considered, multimillion pound briefs have been financed.

Every time I have read an article about another £50m interactive cultural centre on the side of a disused coal pit, I have wondered how long this reckless expenditure could go on for. This month Sandwell council had to shell out £1.5m to stave off the closure of one of these schemes – The Public in West Bromwich, a £61m arts centre. Top-down projects like these often struggle to deliver their worth, as rather than considering communities’ needs, the committees that devise them are often only following the fashion of dumping a cultural scheme in the middle of a derelict area in the hope of kickstarting a revival.

In contrast, most projects my firm has been involved in have grown from the ground up. This means working directly with end users to develop a full understanding of their requirements. The time has come for this method to expand across the country. As banks lend less and private funders tighten their belts, this is the ideal opportunity to start looking for funding closer to home, for instance from charitable foundations with local interests.

Let me give you an example of a project completed in 2006. A primary school needed an art studio. The local authority asked its consultants to provide a design, but the idea was shelved because it would not fund it and the school could not afford to. When the architect finally got involved, the staff and pupils became excited. Previously, staff were not behind the project as they had not been engaged, so did not understand its potential.

The architect’s design got planning permission, after which the head teacher and architect tried to extract funds from various sources. The local authority was reluctant, but eventually coughed up £80k. A further £20k came from the Foyle Foundation and £20k from the John Lyons Trust, on top of the school’s £120k.

Without the sweat and toil of the architect and client, who shopped around for money and twisted the local authority’s arm, the project would not have been built. This effort took the brief further than the school had imagined and ensured the final product was a success.

This kind of contribution by all members of the project team, and the engagement with the community, is vital to the success of public and community projects. Buildings created in this manner are loved, used, respected and, above all, sustainable.

This is the kind of effort we have tried to put into our projects. At the moment, we have a theatre, a football pavilion and several arts buildings being built in this manner. And as our local community, nearby clients, councils and professional institutions have flourished around us, our practice has grown.

This goes to show that businesses that operate in this way can be successful, even during hard times. We are confident that by engaging in a shared sweat capital ethos, we will ride the rough seas ahead and be well placed to thrive when the storm is over.