SME focus HawkinsBrown will not let friendliness get in the way of ambitious growth plans

Partners: (from left) Roger Hawkins, Russell Brown and David Bickle

Architect HawkinsBrown has a reputation for being one of the design world’s nice guys, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have ambition.

The practice recently beat signature architect Rafael Viñoly to the £30m Corby Cube (pictured) – a key development in Land Security’s regeneration of the former Northamptonshire steel town. It is to put the design up for planning permission next week. It also made it to the final two for a children’s discovery centre in Syria, ahead of Zaha Hadid Architects.

These are two recent highlights in 18 years of high-profile work. However, founding partner Roger Hawkins has still loftier aspirations for his practice. “People say to us we can’t be a signature practice because we’re too nice,” he says. “But it’s our ambition to be a friendly signature firm.”

Hawkins says the rival he really wants to emulate is the grandmaster of UK architecture – Richard Rogers Partnership. “We’re targeting people who used to work at his place,” he confesses.

HawkinsBrown’s financial results certainly reflect a firm enjoying robust health.

Hawkins insists his strategy has always been steady growth “like an oak tree, rather than bamboo” and the firm’s end-of-year results show this, even if this particular oak tree is growing at quite a lick.

In five years, pre-tax profit has risen almost six-fold, from £250,000 in 2001 to £1.2m in 2006, but the steady growth strategy may soon end, as forecasts for 2007 predict turnover will increase by almost 30% to £8.5m, compared with £6.1m in 2006.

The firm has always been strong financially, Hawkins says. Even during the 1990s, when most other practices were shedding staff and jobs, HawkinsBrown grew steadily on the back of public sector and higher education work.

It’s our ambition to be a friendly signature firm Roger

Hawkins, founding partner Hawkins\Brown

Since 1988, when Hawkins and co-founding partner Russell Brown established the practice in a small office in Soho (a third director, David Bickle, joined in 1993), the practice has stuck doggedly to its mantra of designing equal amounts of public and private sector work.

But entering the public sector market needed a touch of creative accounting. Hawkins explains: “Local authorities wanted three years’ audited accounts, but because we hadn’t been established that long, we couldn’t enter those competitions. So after two and a half years we changed our financial year to create three years of accounts. We were in after that.”

They have about 100 projects on the go, ranging from a £1m arts studio in Cambridge to one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe – the notorious Park Hill Estate for client Urban Splash, in Sheffield, where Hawkins studied architecture.

As well as being known for its regeneration schemes, the firm has picked up a reputation for projects in the transport and arts sectors. It has been involved in Crossrail since 1991, for which it designed the Tottenham Court Road station, and is also on the Transport for London framework, alongside big names such as John McAslan + Partners and Atkins.

Recently, the practice was given the go-ahead to build an extension to Stratford Regional Station, which will open up the path to the huge Stratford City development and the Olympic Games.

In the arts sector, HawkinsBrown’s Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire, opened by Cherie Blair, caught the nation’s attention in 2005.

HawkinsBrown is aiming for a large commercial project next, preferably in central London. But Hawkins knows there is still work to do. “We are not as well known in the upper echelons of the commercial sector,” he admits.

Perhaps it’s time to turn to Richard Rogers for advice?

Founded 1988 by Roger Hawkins and Russell Brown
Directors Russell Brown, Roger Hawkins, David Bickle
Specialist areas Transport, regeneration, arts
Turnover 2006 £6.1m in 2006; pre-tax profit £1.2m
Turnover 2007 £8.5m (predicted); predicted pre-tax profit is £1.5m
Number of staff 55 (likely to be nearer 80 by the end of the year)