SME focus - Fledgling architect to boost London presence with Manchester and New York offices

“We like talking to the big guys,” says Stuart Piercy, part of the the triumvirate that runs Piercy Conner. “We try to punch way above our weight. That’s why we’ve been at MIPIM every year since we set up.”

Until now, the practice has been best known as a purveyor of fine microflats to discerning urban professionals. Last month, the practice entered a new league when it won two international competitions within a fortnight of each other. The first was Manubuild, a European prefab housing competition. It beat off competition from Feilden Clegg Bradley and Llewelyn Davies Yeang to land the £3500 prize.

The second win was the Living Steel housing competition; that netted £35,000 and the chance to build its designs on a site in Kalkuta (formerly Calcutta).

“We can’t underestimate the importance of the Living Steel win,” says partner Richard Conner. “The site where we’re building is going to be a new city. It’s a great opportunity.”

The wins come on the back of a strong year for Piercy Conner. The firm may not have made it into the big time – turnover is £2.1m and profit stands at £300,000 – but it is being invited on to projects usually reserved for more experienced architects.

Conner (left) and Piercy.
Conner (left) and Piercy.

It has been asked to draw up plans for a site in property tycoon Jeremy Paxton’s exclusive development in the Cotswolds, alongside Will Alsop and Piers Gough of CZWG. The firm is also looking at a 350-unit scheme on the city fringes for client Dandara as well as a £10m scheme for Derwent Valley.

Like all young architectural practices, the going has not always been easy. Piercy and Conner met at Grimshaw in the 1990s and went into business together in 2000. They decided not to go start out with small domestic projects – “we’re just not that good at them” Piercy admits. Instead, the pair joined up Matt Fairman, who became the third partner, and set up an animation and CGI company called Smoothe.

Piercy says: “We had to divert from architecture for a year or two to make ends meet, but there was never any question we wouldn’t go back to architecture.”

We’re at the early stages of something big

Richard conner, partner

They made a five-year business plan to establish a multidisciplinary design practice and build up enough money through Smoothe to launch Piercy Conner. This meant it could be more selective with projects and would not have to worry about workflow. Since 2003, the practice has been independent of Smoothe.

First image of their Manubuild scheme
First image of their Manubuild scheme

Piercy Conner is now launching into a new phase of expansion. In particular, the two partners plan to turn their hands to developing, despite a previous bad experience.

They won a microflat competition, which involved two people living in a one-bed flat in the window of Selfridges for two weeks. They decided to develop the designs themselves, but never found a site and the scheme fell through. “We were a couple of young architects running around looking for a site, pretending to be developers,” Piercy sighs. “We lost a lot of money and had to do a lot of rebuilding after that.”

In September, Piercy Conner will move to a bigger building in Spitalfields in east London. At the same time, it will set up an office in Manchester, alongside Smoothe, which already has a presence there. There is also serious talk about an office in New York next year.

“We’re at the early stages of something big,” Conner says.

“It’s very exciting.”

The whole operation has been running for four years but the pair are interested in the fact that nobody calls it “up and coming” any more. “We wouldn’t mind the label,” says Piercy. “We’re still up and coming. But I think it comes back to punching above our weight. It looks like we’ve pulled it off.”