John McAslan has a lot on his mind. First, the huge housing design competition he’s running for the Haitian government. Back at home, meanwhile, his practice is working on a concourse at King’s Cross and a Crossrail station at Bond Street
John McAslan looks haggard. Is it the rumour that one of his prize projects, the Crossrail station at Bond Street, will be axed in the government’s public spending review? Or perhaps he’s braced, like so many architects, to lay off a swath of staff? It’s neither, he says.
He is stressed because he’s been poring over some 350 entries to a competition for housing in Haiti: McAslan has taken on the immense responsibility of choosing the designs for the bulk of permanent housing to be built for the 1 million Haitians who need homes urgently after January’s earthquake (see factfile, below).
He is frank about the time this is taking. “Too fucking much! That’s why I have tonnes of mouth ulcers and a cold. Don’t get me wrong - I’m honoured and committed - but there’s huge pressure to act fast and so much to do.”
McAslan says the job is taking up a quarter of his time, but 100% of his “headspace”.
Despite this, he has quite a lot going on elsewhere too: as well as Bond Street, he’s doing the dramatic new concourse at King’s Cross, the firm’s biggest and most complex current project. It is worth half a billion pounds in construction costs and stands starkly in the glare of public scrutiny (not a clever project to mess up). So mouth ulcers aside, how is McAslan bearing up?
Financially, he says his practice is doing okay. Although the firm had yet to post its latest results at Companies House at the time of going to press, McAslan predicts turnover of £10.8m for the 120-strong firm in 2010, which will be its highest since it launched in 1996.
In terms of profit, again, McAslan’s work in Haiti, which is paid but non-profit-making, appears to be uppermost in his mind. “I genuinely have no idea,” he says. “I can tell you we aim for a 15-20% profit though.”
Later his PR reveals the firm is forecasting £950,000 in pre-tax profit for this year.
Suggesting he does have at least some idea about finances, McAslan adds: “We have never been in debt.” Neither has the practice, unlike most architects, suffered “major redundancies”, he says. “We’ve always kept things pretty lean.”
That’s not to say he’s impervious to the economic gloom. For a start, the practice works on schools, colleges and universities, potentially exposing it to the fallout from the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future programme.
“It’s hard, it’s very hard.
Anyone who’s doing anything in architecture right now is doing well,” he says.
But McAslan says the mood in the industry has improved. “There is a nervousness but things always slow down over summer and it doesn’t feel like the black hole of September 2008, so I’m optimistic. We’re even hiring a few students.”
Still, he can’t have missed the speculation surrounding the future - or not - of Bond Street Crossrail station. But he denies the project is under threat: “There was talk that it was at risk but, no, it’s proceeding. It will continue to be scrutinised for costs, of course, and we are being asked to rationalise the design to save costs - for instance, reworking the M&E strategy to save needing a triple basement but that’s what you should be doing anyway.”
As positive as he is about the UK market, the practice is also heavily involved in overseas markets, with a third of its business emanating from outside the UK. Current projects include the $80m Stanislavsky Centre in Moscow, a 600ft2 pair of residential towers in Istanbul and the Cultural Forum, which is part of Qatar’s £3.5bn Heart of Doha project. Is he consciously planning international expansion? Not exactly.
“We’d like to do more in Qatar, particularly in the schools market. But we have a simple view of work: if we get invited to bid for something, we will do. If we get appointed, great, and we’ll then aim to develop that relationship and win more work.”
He admits there are shortcomings with this approach: “Maybe we could have more rigour and aggression, but I would rather start with a relationship than nothing.”
The international market has not always been plain sailing for McAslan, however. Five years ago, the firm attempted to partner with a firm in China and left after it did not get paid. “We didn’t have the right relationships and we didn’t set up proper payment procedures. It’s quite hard to get paid properly in China as you have exchange rate controls and so on to negotiate.”
He has learned some harsh lessons: “Now when we work internationally we try to set up simple payment procedures and we have a good finance team.
But you grow into that and adapt to your experiences. Although, thankfully, I don’t get too involved with that sort of thing.”
As if to prove the point, his thoughts turn back to the mountain of Haiti proposals he’ll be sifting through this weekend.
“The pile is this thick,” he says, with a hand hovering at least a metre over the desk. Doesn’t he mind this distraction from his day job? “Life’s not only about architecture,” he says.
Man on a mission
John McAslan was involved in Haiti before January’s earthquake through the McAslan/RIBA/ICE (Institution of Chartered Engineers) Bursary, a scheme that supports students and graduates who carry out small projects in deprived communities. Under the scheme, McAslan + Partners was working on a handful of small projects, including school designs.
Since the disaster, the Haitian government has asked the practice to do more, including developing a concept for an international competition to rebuild housing. Requests for proposals (RFPs) are being used to create a pool of architects and contractors. The Haitian government will then select its preferred firms and negotiate contracts with them. The housing is to be built within 18 months and the response to the design RFP has been “unprecedented”, hence McAslan’s stress levels.
His other work in Haiti includes the refurbishment of the iron market in Port-au-Prince, a historic structure featuring two delicate towers, which was damaged by fire in 2008 and further ravaged by the earthquake.
John McAslan created John McAslan + Partners in 1996. He trained with Richard Rogers and Cambridge Seven Associates in Boston before becoming co-principal of Troughton McAslan in 1984. McAslan + Partners has won more than 50 international design awards and its most important projects include the Bexhill museum and the refurbishment of London’s Roundhouse. McAslan is 56, but says he “behaves like a 26-year-old”. He was born in Glasgow, has been married for 30 years and has three grown-up children.