Practice Profile: HLM Architects

James Parker speaks to HLM’s chairman Richard O’Neil to find out how 2020’s Architectural Practice of the Year has maintained a keen focus on ‘social architecture’ over nearly six decades, while continuing to broaden its horizons

HLM is a longstanding fixture in the AJ100, having been active for well over 50 years, and picking up awards regularly for its projects, particularly in the healthcare and education sectors.

The firm, which now numbers five studios across the UK, continues to have a strong ethos of social responsibility and a reputation for high quality work in the public sector. This is embodied in its ‘Thoughtful Design’ maxim, that helps its architects focus on and enhance users’ “emotional response to the built environment.”

HLM’s origins go back to 1963, the year The Beatles released their debut album. Meanwhile, architectural students David Hutchison, Graham Locke and Tony Monk won a design competition for the new Paisley Civic Centre to the west of Glasgow, which led to them forming Hutchison Locke and Monk, in 1964.

The centre was the second largest public sector project since the Second World War and, according to current HLM chairman Richard O’Neil, “the iconic building became the foundations from which our social architecture philosophy would grow.” He says that the firm proceeded to build its reputation across its key sectors via not only focusing on solving clients’ challenges, but being “mindful of the impact that design can have on people, communities and society.”

“Since the practice was founded,” O’Neil tells ADF, “our design philosophy has always put people at its centre, and we have a proud history of producing architecture that helps improve people’s lives.” He asserts: “We’re driven by a sense of social purpose, it’s at the heart of everything we do.”

He explains how the firm’s ‘Thoughtful Design’ approach aims to exceed clients’ briefs, using innovation to think about users’ emotional responses, and cites the wide range of awards the practice has picked up as evidence of the success of this. Most recently, it was crowned Architectural Practice of the Year at the 2020 Building Awards, as well as Employer of the Year at this year’s AJ100 Awards.

While the approach has stayed very similar over the years, the technology available to help HLM architects “enhance the human experience” of designs has changed dramatically. O’Neil says: “We believe that the successful application of digital technology will transform the design and construction industry and more generally, bring significant economic, environmental and social benefits for all.”

When it comes to spreading the net of opportunity within the firm, in 2019 it announced a new board structure. Managing director Karen Mosley commented at the time: “This creates more opportunities for some of our most experienced team members and rising stars across the country.”

Diverse methods
HLM’s five studios are in Glasgow, Belfast, Sheffield, Cardiff and London, all having a dedicated studio lead, and working collaboratively on projects to draw on the practice’s pool of expertise. As part of meeting the aim of ensuring diversity among the staff, HLM puts particular focus on “social mobility,” says O’Neil, “inspiring people who might never have thought about a career in architecture or even studying at university.” Students are supported through their studies with year out placements, and the firm works with the University of Sheffield as a Collaborative Partner Practice.

The chairman says that with the aim of creating an “inclusive and inquisitive learning environment and helping every single person to flourish, achieve their personal goals and feel valued and supported,” HLM runs a Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) Group. It is also part of the Architecture Trailblazer Group led by Foster + Partners, which has developed two architectural apprentice standards, and “seeks to achieve the right gender balance from the most junior level upwards.” In addition, the HLM Academy provides “tailored training and career progression” and allows all staff the opportunity for innovative compressed ‘nine-day fortnight’ agile working.

Coping with Covid
How has this important firm (which currently sits at number 33 in the AJ100) coped with maintaining workflow in these unprecedented times? Its scale has helped its resilience, says O’Neil: “Being split across five studios, we already had a culture of ‘working smart’ and in an agile way as one team.”

He says that a proactive approach to the situation (led by the IT and HR teams) meant it was able to quickly set up the infrastructure needed to “protect our assets and ensure we were able to continue business as usual with minimal disruption.” The chairman adds that despite the challenges, “we have found that we are helping clients, partners and consultants in new ways, enhancing their digital environments and discovering how best to communicate and collaborate.”

Some of the momentum is down to clients’ positive approaches too, but the picture is mixed: “We’ve got some really forward- thinking clients who were cracking on under their own steam, but some have found the situation more difficult.”

One of the innovations HLM has recently come up with to continue to support its design process during the ongoing ‘new normal’ is its ‘Thoughtful Design Toolkit.’ O’Neil reports that this has enabled stakeholder consultation and design team meetings to happen remotely, and allowed projects to progress.

It was developed as a suite of tools that “uses technology and data to help designers work with more confidence that their proposals will deliver the needs of building users.” The tools
use data to “advance designers’ understanding of what people want and need from the built environment,” says O’Neil, while helping clients make better-informed decisions about targeting their investment.

Wellness to the fore
I asked O’Neil how much of a challenge it has been to maintain staff’s wellness, as well as motivation this year. He asserts that wellbeing has always been high on the agenda, and 2020 has been no different; “our HR team have been amazing at launching new ideas and initiatives. In fact, everyone across the business is playing their part in cascading news, checking in with their colleagues and coming forward with new ideas.”

Each studio director has a call with their studio team on a Monday morning to update on what’s happening that week. Staff have virtual tea breaks at normal times, and a group within the firm has taken on creation of its ‘virtual socials,’ which are usually “quite imaginative,” says O’Neil. “They’ve gone to a whole new level using technology, graphics, and morphing of imagery!”

A recent addition to the working week was ‘Walk-out Wednesday,’ where staff were encouraged to see how far they could walk in 30 minutes at lunchtime, and later share photos as evidence. “We chatted on Teams as we walked,” says O’Neil. A mental health first aider has also run mindfulness sessions, and given staff “an abundance of physical, mental and healthy tips.”

Key projects
Notwithstanding Covid, the chairman hails 2020 as having been an outstanding year at HLM in terms of creating new digital design and engagement tools as well as securing significant architectural design projects, “particularly those which act as a catalyst for regeneration in innovation districts.”

He cites these projects as being “the future,” and picks out the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland, a £65m collaborative research facility that was designed with the University of Strathclyde, the Advanced Forming Research Centre, Catapult, Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. Another key recent scheme is Ysgol Pen Rhos, a new £10m timber-framed school in Llanelli, which won the National RICS Social Value Award 2020.

Finally, Innovation Centre 7, a £25m new zero carbon innovation centre for the University of Keele, is a sign of things to come, having employed HLM’s recently developed in-house environmental performance modelling tools.