Architecture was in shock earlier this year when Hamiltons, the UK’s 16th biggest practice, decided to split up. Former director Craig Casci talks to Emily Wright about the break-up, and about making sure his new company stays a manageable size

This time last year, the architect Hamiltons was the 16th biggest in the UK, according to Building’s consultants survey. The 45-year-old practice was winning major jobs such as the design of Land Securities’ Park House project in Mayfair, it had grown from 80 to 300 staff in just 10 years, and was holding firm despite the recession.

So why did the directors decide to go their separate ways? From the outside it made no sense. Most people reckon growth to be a good thing - enviable in fact. But over the course of six months, the founder and three other directors left - some to set up breakaway firms. By March 2010 Hamiltons was no more as the four remaining directors restructured it, renaming the practice BFLS.

The sudden break-up left most people assuming that there must have been internal issues or a falling-out, but one of the former directors, Craig Casci, who has now set up his own masterplanning and housing offshoot called GRID, wants to set the record straight.

“We never intended to get that big,” he explains from his west London office, which he still shares with BFLS. “None of us wanted to be promoted to the point where we weren’t architects anymore. When we realised just how big a practice of 300 people is and how many compromises have to be made, we decided to restructure.”

Good night and good luck

So no dramatic bust-up, then? “All the press coverage of that time was completely inaccurate,” Casci insists. “People thought we had gone bankrupt or there had been huge fights. But Hamiltons was one of the only recession-proof practices around because we never borrowed and we had no debt. And there were no falling-outs.

“There were three of us who left at around the same time. It was all done openly with the support of the other directors. People said, ’You take that client, take that fee base, take some staff with you and good luck old chap’.”

What about the controversy surrounding the Park House job - the one another former director, Robin Partington, was reported to have taken with him when he left? “There was no problem when Robin went to set up on his own and, as for Park House, it was his job. I don’t think there was any enthusiasm across the board for any of us to take it on.”

Partington is quick to back up Casci’s evaluation of the split. “There was no animosity at all,” he says. And as for the firm being in trouble? “It couldn’t have been in better shape and still is as BFLS.”

Looking ahead

On to Casci’s breakaway firm, the 35-strong group of masterplanners and housing experts - formerly the urban regeneration division of Hamiltons - that makes up GRID. So far things appear to be going well. The firm has won key schemes - including a 40-acre masterplan in Dartford, Kent, and 190 Strand London, a 200-unit apartment and retail project - and has retained all its clients.

Casci says the success of the new firm so far has a lot to do with the timing: “A recession is the best time to do this. You don’t want to do it in the middle of a boom when you are working flat out. I have always enjoyed recessions. It’s like pruning in the garden - great fun. You have to get the shape back if you want it to grow properly next year.”

As for clients, Casci says there were no complaints once they had been reassured he would be keeping the same staff. He adds that, since the split, the firm has attracted a number of new ones too. He won’t be drawn on who these clients are, but he doesn’t think he would have won them a year ago: “Hamiltons had a reputation for being this big commercial practice. It had a bad press profile and even though we had done well in 2003/04, there were parts of the business that weren’t consistent. Our division was pushing housing and the green agenda, but neither of those things were big on the overall practice agenda. So when we moved on and said to clients, ’We’re not part of that big beast you may not have liked,’ they became interested.”

Not always about architecture

While housing may not have been top of Hamiltons’ list of priorities, it is GRID’s raison d’être. “We want to push ahead with our version of things in this sector,” Casci says. “We want to specialise in projects where you have everything you need to live in one footprint - public spaces, retail - everything.”

He is convinced this is what the public wants: “There should be no standardisation, no particular style. Actually sometimes there isn’t a huge amount of architecture. It’s about a real understanding of human nature and needs. Also, flexibility is key. People at the National Landlords Association stand up and say, ’A one-bedroom flat should be 87m2’. OK, but for who? People should be able to choose.”

And is he concerned about the future of housing in the wake of Homes and Communities Agency cuts? “I’m not hugely worried as there’s always more than one way of dealing with these policies,” he says. “If the government wants affordable housing and it cannot contribute then it will have to at least allow private housing to progress in the immediate term.”

He says the firm will reach maturity within three years, though he won’t be drawn on figures. “Our really busy time will be October as so many projects that were meant to kick off in the spring have been delayed. I see turnover growing this year and next and staff peaking at 80 by the summer of 2013.

I would hate to get any bigger than that.

The quality drops off because you are not in control any more.”

Speaking of control, what does Casci think he is like to work for since becoming the founding director of a practice? “I am sure I am a terrible boss because I don’t like telling people what to do,” he laughs.

“I suppose the ultimate job of a boss is to push the big red button so if things go wrong, you stop it. But I allow a lot of mistakes to be made, actually - as long as I am in control. People need to make their own mistakes to grow.”

Who is Craig Casci?

Casci is a Scottish-Italian architect with experience in housing, commercial and masterplanning work. He founded the housing and urbanism group at Hamiltons 10 years ago before setting up GRID. The new practice will focus on housing and masterplanning but will also take on commercial and hotel jobs.

The hamiltons split

After moving all 300 staff under one roof last year, Hamiltons formed a committee to talk about the restructuring of the business. The idea of a federation, where a number of the businesses would be autonomous but jointly owned, was discussed. Ultimately the directors went their separate ways.

The founder Tim Hamilton had left at the end of 2009 and Robin Partington had departed in October 2009 - both set up their own firms. Casci took the housing and urban design part of the business and set up GRID. Paul Birch, another director, also left. Meanwhile, Ian Bogle, Jason Flanagan, David Lawrence and John Silver relaunched the Hamiltons brand under a new name, BFLS. The understanding was that directors would take the staff, clients and jobs relevant to their new practice with them.

Portrait by James Royall