Fluid Design, a small practice that was formed five years ago, has abandoned the notion of renting an office. Instead, its nine designers work from three of their front rooms. Drawings are passed around via e-mail and phone calls replace the usual face-to-face discussions.
If the team need to get together, they meet in the front room of Fluid founder Steve McAdam's Muswell Hill home. This has been converted into an impromptu design office by replacing the three-piece suite with a couple of sturdy timber benches that run the length of two walls. Two self-assembly metal-frame shelving units keep the reference manuals off the floor and a small table in the middle of the room takes up much of the rest of the space.
Alan Houston's home in Bethnal Green and Alex Allain's flat in Highbury are the other two "offices". Says Houston: "If I'm working on a particular project at home, it's not unusual for someone else working on it to come round."
A few years ago, this style of working would have been unthinkable. But the increasing reliability of electronic mail means that CAD files and other documents can be transmitted from partner to partner quickly and reliably, wherever their location. Discussions about designs take place by phone – in fact, the usual pose for a Fluid architect is mouse in one hand, mobile phone in the other.
Mobile phones are key to the practice's homeworking principle. As there are no formal offices and workstations, there are no dedicated phone lines, so each member of the practice has a mobile. Fortunately, the reception in McAdam's front room is good.
The benefits of this way of working are clear. Fluid does not pay £25/m sq to rent an office in Clerkenwell or Hoxton. The hassle of commuting and the stress this causes are eliminated, and less time on the train means more at the computer.
But what of the benefits of interaction – bouncing ideas off each other and explaining the intricacies of a design? Fluid has this angle covered too. If any of the architects feels in need of face-to-face contact, they just jump on their bikes and cycle over to one of the others' houses.
One drawback is the size of McAdam's room – at 2 × 5 m, it isn't ideal for holding client meetings. But as Fluid does all its designs on CAD, it doesn't need space to spread out drawings (the practice doesn't even own a printer on which to run off CAD drawings). A few rolls of A1 are stuffed in a corner, but these are old drawings that have yet to be thrown out.
The practice does recognise that the lack of a large central space might cause problems in the future. Some clients still prefer to look at drawings on paper rather than on a computer screen. For the moment, though, Fluid is not concerned by this. So far it has only one shop interior and a house in Hampstead to its name – but then most of its work is as a consultant to local authorities on regeneration masterplans, for which it is earning an enviable reputation.
The design competition it ran for Hackney council last year is a good example – and the lack of a central office was one of the reasons for its success on the project. Fluid went out onto the streets and canvassed local people about their hopes for the regeneration of the town centre. Rather than take down their comments on bulky questionnaires (which it would have had no room to store), the practice used laptops to key them in on the spot and took digital photos of the locals. These and the comments were then posted on a web site, giving designers interested in entering the competition access to raw data. For their part, residents were pleased to be asked their opinion, knowing that their comments were being recorded and would be listened to.
Homeworking is an exciting way of working, and also cheap. With no rent to pay at the end of each month, Fluid has not been forced to take jobs it doesn't want to do or isn't ready for. Could this be the way that all practices start?