With Murray Grove, Cartwright Pickard established itself as the practice that could turn modular technology into architecture. Now that the Americans want it to do the same for them, the practice is poised to realise some of its ambitions. And boy is it ambitious …
Chicago developer reads about east London social housing project in book, realises it could be just what the urban planner ordered for some of the USA's cities, and invites small UK architect to do the same at one of its sites. The project is being called the American Dream, and it's happening to prefabrication specialist Cartwright Pickard.

That a mere social housing project propelled the practice on its international trajectory is the most surprising aspect of the story. Until you realise that the project in question is Murray Grove, the UK scheme that really made the case for modular build technology as a solution to the low-cost housing shortage.

The US developer, which is keeping its identity under wraps for now, has asked Cartwright Pickard to design a modular housing scheme to be built over a shopping centre car park in Chicago. The practice has been working on the plans for three months, and will be going to examine the site in June. The intention is that the concept will be rolled out at more sites later.

"The plan is that we will design the first one or two, creating a kit of parts that other architects will then use. We'll create the product, and then get a royalty on it," says James Pickard, the more outgoing of the two, and the one on the right in the photo.

It is a dream job, but at the same time the duo are keen to emphasise that there is more to their practice than its expertise in modular affordable housing. They have even calculated the numbers to prove it. Only 40% of the practice's work is residential, Cartwright says, and that is a mix of private and social. "Of that, a third is prefabricated, so we do design a lot that isn't," he points out. Of the remainder, 30% is in masterplanning and offices, low-energy office design being a special interest of the practice, 20% is in the education sector and 10% is hotels and leisure.

Still, the project everyone associates them with is Murray Grove. Is this a bit of a millstone for a practice that has now found new worlds to conquer? "Nothing could be further than the truth," says Pickard. "It has generated a tremendous amount of work for us. We're now applying the lessons on schools and office blocks." Some of the design ideas in Murray Grove came from the office sector in the first place, both he and partner Peter Cartwright have drawn on the experience of commercial projects that they gained with big-name practices before setting up together six years ago. Cartwright worked with Michael Hopkins and Partners for eight years, and spent a year in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Chicago office. Pickard joined Peter Foggo when he set up Foggo Associates, and his CV also includes a few useful years working on off-site manufactured housing in Stockholm.

The practice consciously tries to get the most from its experience by disseminating it across its 30 staff, and by applying lessons learned on one scheme to others in different sectors. But its coy US client wants the practice simply to repeat the Murray Grove formula. So what is it going to learn?

"Murray Grove took a lot of design work. There is an element of payback, so we wanted to do more," says Pickard. He points to three further projects with Peabody, the modular Sixth Avenue Apartments in York for Yorkshire Housing and York council, a project for student accommodation for Nottingham University, and following that, a winning competition entry for a hotel on the university's campus.

We use research and development and practical innovation to create new opportunities. It keeps us ahead of the competition

James Pickard

About 90% of the practice's clients come back for more, and repeat business makes up 70% of its workload. "Our approach is very focused on the customer and the end user and that the end product should work. That focus on who you're designing a building for is something that is lacking in architectural education," Pickard says, picking up a subject that both partners are passionate about.

"The London schools of architecture in particular are not getting the focus right in training. There's an artist in every architect, but there also has to be a businessman, and we have not been arming architects to serve the industry well enough. Cost consultants, planning consultants and urban designers are scooping up the roles that the architects used to have and architects are deskilling themselves. We're reskilling."

Pickard's vocabulary certainly has more in common with the businessman than many architects. "We are as interested in the delivery process as we are in the architecture," he says. "We value our relationships with the contractors and the supply chain as fully as we do with the clients." So close is the relationship that the practice is working with a manufacturer new to the UK to develop a flat pack timber-frame system for the low-rise family housing market. This is one of a number of research and development projects undertaken by the practice, which reckons on ploughing 10-15% of its turnover back into research and development.

"The flat-pack system is the biggest single investment to date," says Cartwright. "We use research and development and practical innovation to create opportunities. We feel it keeps us ahead of the competition," continues his partner. The practice's research into air rights development, part of the Peabody Trust's competition to design an inhabited bridge, is now proving invaluable for the US project, and work on occupier productivity has fed into the latest British Council for Offices guide to best practice in the specification of offices.

Occupiers of the practice's buildings routinely get a call from the architect a year after move-in, asking whether it can bring its staff along for a meeting to find out how things are working out. "We even ask about things like static electricity and the chinks of sunlight coming through the blinds," says Pickard. "The whole office benefits from that shared experience," adds Cartwright.

Two-thirds of the practice's staff are based with Pickard at King's Cross in central London; the remaining third are based with Cartwright at the practice's northern office near Pontefract in West Yorkshire. "There are lots of reasons why it is important to have more than one base," says Cartwright. "It's important to have a London presence, and the northern office gives us a diverse workload," continues Pickard. The partners would ideally like to double the staff numbers. "We are both very ambitious to be recognised and successful in our field. We want to be at the top when the big boys retire," says Pickard.

There is no north-south divide within the practice: Cartwright commutes to London once a week and Pickard travels to Yorkshire twice a month. Work is allocated to whichever office has capacity, although Cartwright is likely to play a prominent role in the US project simply because he is a US passport holder. That won't leave Pickard in the shade. Among other upcoming projects is a capsule hotel, containing 2 × 2.5 m windowless "rooms", which is at feasibility study stage, and another project for modular key worker housing in Hackney.

Work so far … and ideas for the future

1999 Murray Grove. The first multistorey affordable housing development to be built in a factory. It harnessed new construction technologies and set new standards in cost-effective housing.

2001 Sixth Avenue. The first factory-built affordable housing scheme outside London. The development was built with Yorkon, the same module manufacturer as at Murray Grove.

2002 University of Nottingham student accommodation. Based on five years’ experience of modular construction, the design aims to reduce the whole-life costs of the buildings.

The future Concept for an inhabited bridge over the River Lea, London. Prefabricated apartments would be craned onto a bridge as a solution to London’s shortage of development sites for housing.