A short while into my conversation with Richard Feilden, it's clear that there is something in this tale. For example, the office hierarchy is as flat as a flounder – "I've always seen architectural practices as peer groups"– and staff zip about town on folding bikes (stacked on the right as you enter the firm's airy office off Oxford Street).
Feilden makes no attempt to disguise the practice's critical successes – referring to its status as Building's Architectural Practice of the Year and ending every other sentence with the phrase "which won an RIBA award". But the most striking fact about its recent past is how well it has mastered the strife-torn commercial world. In fact, it's skinning the opposition alive.
The practice has grown from two men, a cow and some bizarre ideas about "sustainable design" to the point where it is about to become a serious player. It is currently 30th in the consultants league tables also published in this issue. And therein lies a problem: how to retain its identity as it makes the transition into a high volume commercial player.
Feilden concedes that, with around 100 staff split between London and Bath, strategic and commercial problems can no longer be resolved with a group huddle. "To some extent size has made keeping the same atmosphere more difficult," he says. "But we feel very passionate about maintaining our studio policy where everyone can talk about anything."
So, for the past few months, Feilden has been leading a review of operations. He is instinctively comfortable with this kind of thing. Possibly too comfortable – "We do get accused of excessive navel-gazing," he says. He has interviewed every member of staff to ask them how they think the practice should evolve. The response has been enthusiastic. "We've got some really good ideas about how to proceed," he says. Tough decisions may need to be taken, but the review process hasn't been too painful – the presentations were given over four days in a hotel in Barcelona.
Some school designs are a disgrace. They give a lousy message about what we feel about the environment to young people
The marriage of blue skies thinking with Feilden's boundless energy has been the practice's secret weapon. Keith Bradley describes working with the 53-year-old as like "being strapped to the back of a Harley Davidson". He has preached sustainability and regeneration – all the rage now – for 25 years. "It gave us an element of distinctiveness," he recalls. "Now our environmental work makes it seem like we've been on the right track."
More than that, Feilden has moved from the left wing to centre stage, and may even be in with a chance of changing the system from within: he has become a member of the architectural elite at CABE, where he used to look after the design of schools.
Feilden is evangelical on the power of good design to improve quality – and is scathing about some of the designs he has reviewed. "They're a disgrace. They're giving lousy messages about what we feel about the environment, and they're a lousy way to get the community involved."
He says the way to tackle mediocre architecture is with "exemplar designs" that PFI providers should attempt to match. Feilden Clegg Bradley has produced a template design with primary and secondary schools cohabiting around a courtyard, and space for evening classes for adults. "The whole concept is about breaking down the year groups," he says.
But Feilden is doubtful that the template will be universally applicable. "A lot of the sites that are being redeveloped for secondary schools are terribly constricted by existing buildings, access points, parking, and on those sites the exemplars may not be much help."
He admits that some of the designs have been horrors. "It's extremely difficult to tie in the PFI process with design review. When do you do it – the invitations to negotiate stage, at appraisal, or at design review?"
Time and money
His biggest bugbear is that the invitations to negotiate period is too short. "More than any single issue, this is most important: suddenly you have to design a school in 12 weeks and get to a point where it can be accurately costed by a contractor so a commercial offer can be made. Quite often those bundles will be for £50m or £60m. It's impossible to give the level of attention to design quality in that context, even for a practice of our size."
There is also the question of actually winning a PFI project in the first place. Even a firm the size of Feilden Clegg Bradley can't afford to bid for lots of jobs, so it has joined up with four other practices to create PFI5, a consortium in which design can be monitored.
Personal effectsWhere do you live? Just outside Bath, but I’m about to buy a house with my son in Camberwell where I can stay when I’m in London, which is usually half the week.
Do you have any kids? I have a daughter and two sons, one of whom is studying to be an architect.
What does your wife do? Tish is a psychotherapist. I’m really into organisational psychology, which influences the way we do things at the firm: we have away-days to think about where we are and where we’d like to be.
How quickly can you turn one of those things into a bike? [A whirl of arms on the corner of Great Tichfield Street establishes that Richard Feilden can make his own transport in exactly nine seconds.]