Practice Name alternative studies
Founded May 2021
main people Paul Milner and Scott Savin, co-founders.
Where you come from?
We studied architecture followed by urban design together at Newcastle University before embarking on different career paths. For Scott, this included working in various practices in the North of England, in particular, delivering projects across the UK with IDPartnership. Paul, meanwhile, spent eight years in Ryder Architectureculminating in the design and delivery of Tombola’s multi-award winning headquarters in River Wear, Sunderland.
For 10 years, alongside the practice, we have taught separate Master’s modules and served as visiting critics at Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. We would often meet and casually discuss the desire to establish our own design studio.
What job do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
Our current architecture and interior design work spans the UK – from workplace redevelopments in the capital to a Lake District hospitality pavilion and a commercial horticulture building in North Yorkshire, to a former telephone exchange on the edge of Glen in the west. Highlands. Our largest commission in Northern Ireland is a high-end private residential development with a mixed-use gatehouse nearby.
Working across the country has given us more freedom to explore and investigate our own approach. Despite such diversity in scale, industry and location, they all have in common clients who truly value design and our process. This process is based on starting a dialogue with each place and exploring what is special about it; exploring and adapting the opportunities of each context. This may be a coincidence to date, but each project sits on a sensitive and predominantly challenging site, making them all the more exciting and requiring research-rich design responses.
In almost every commission there is something old and valuable that we have to carefully criticize and appreciate. So, going forward, we would welcome more of the same: commissions aligned with our values, making them satisfying and meaningful to work for.
Our original short-term business plan changed significantly almost from the start. We went live with several hospitality fit-out projects in the pipeline through existing contacts – design-led successes, but quick in terms of schedule. Strategically, this was to have generated some work done under the company name in a relatively short period of time.
The pandemic hit and this sector stopped overnight
The pandemic hit and this sector stopped overnight. We then delayed our launch, pivoted and proceeded to establish a new client base which ultimately resulted in the completion of a series of feasibility and feasibility commissions for private commercial clients. These larger projects, several with initially undefined deliverables, resulted in more work, and many are still on the books today.
We have noticed an increase in the number of inquiries focused on the work commonly associated with RIBA Stages 0 and 1. This comes primarily from non-professional clients who approach us to initially assess and identify opportunities in their property and land portfolio, allowing us to make the case for adaptive reuse. from an early stage. To date, this has involved creating research-rich briefs even before considering anything noteworthy in terms of design: the weight of importance placed on this “slower” but desirable analytical process has been refreshing and resonated with our spirit.
We have been able to make the case for adaptive reuse from an early stage
Particularly as we feel that ‘slow’ has a deeper meaning, it comes back to the idea of wanting high quality and having to work hard to get it.
What are your ambitions?
In the short term, along with further establishment of our name, to continue the natural flow of interest, followers and subsequent miscellaneous commissions across the UK in line with our design ethos. This will coincide with the growth of our close-knit team and collaborators, the latter likely one of the main reasons for our success thus far. We are actively looking for a larger studio space, which could be a self-funded development project.
In the long term, it’s about diversifying our revenue streams, increasing the number and scale of in-house developments or joint ventures, and over time creating an even split between private commissions and our own entrepreneurial ventures. We are often asked about our ambition in terms of practice size, and to remain true to our ethos and desired studio environment, we don’t see ourselves outgrowing a team of 10 or 12 max.
For those we work for and with, we aspire to be recognized as an alternative design studio that goes beyond expectations. We want our architecture to somehow reflect the unique look of each place, no matter how big or small. Naturally, we hope that our projects will genuinely transform people’s lives, making them feel better about themselves in these places, while providing evidence of carefully crafted design, based on rigorous research and a devotion to detail. It is simply our responsibility as architects to have a positive influence on how we perceive places.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a startup and as a profession in general?
The most immediate and potentially lasting challenge is recruitment. Naturally, the success of these goes hand in hand with the infancy of our studio, but having added two talented and valuable team members this year, after a lengthy process, we are about to augment our core team.
The best advice they gave me is to ‘be patient and take your time’
That being said, the best and most sound advice we’ve ever received is to ‘be patient and take your time’. All of our right or wrong decisions were considered and strategic. We held back from formally launching the business until we felt the time was right; essentially when we could effectively engage with people in person. Projects unexpectedly switched to long-term commissions, so our design work will naturally also take longer than anticipated.
We find that our clients prefer to work with smaller practices as they can quickly get assurance about who they are investing in: which designers will work on their commission and who can build close relationships with them based on trust. The resulting experience is usually more enjoyable.
As we are equally demanding with the projects we undertake, they are also comfortable with the value and importance we place on their project for the growth of our studio. We try to make a careful selection based on client motivation and chemistry.
With respect to the economic downturn, we have been fortunate. It is not hampering our current projects or those on the pipeline for next year, which are deliberately diverse and not limited to one sector. However, the rate at which part of the construction could be delayed due to well-documented increases in material costs and lead times.
What scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you the most?
We have drawn more inspiration from the growing architect-developer architectural movement than from any particular scheme. We attended RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics in 2019, where this topic was explored through the entrepreneurial efforts of a select number of practices.
What it did attract was a growing confidence in not relying on traditional procurement and service methods, but in positively exploiting the skills of the profession to generate additional revenue streams and mitigate reliance on and impact of what can often be a market volatile.
This resonated with us prior to establishing Alt Studios and we have since acquired a few properties at auction to explore this branch of practice for years to come.
How are you promoting yourself?
Everything, however banal, is an extension of Alt Studios and, in turn, can have marketing value. Thus, our attention to detail has been and continues to be applied to everything from web development, smart documentation templates to letterpress printing, ultimately reflecting our day-to-day approach to project work.
None of us used Instagram before beginning our practice, but it has become a curated insight into our work on projects, collaborations, and exploratory studio activities. However, as with everyone, time is of the essence, and we primarily market the in-person practice by consciously attending and participating in select non-architectural events.
We look to other markets and disciplines for inspiration, so we haven’t been afraid to reach out, seek advice and network. In doing so, we have established some mentors who in turn made fruitful presentations. Likewise, surrounding ourselves with valued, like-minded creative collaborators has helped organically expand our reach and contacts. It is essential for a small studio to connect and cooperate with the best specialists in each field.
In terms of giving back and introducing ourselves to the future generation of architects and designers, we provide both regional architecture schools with a self-initiated student career program, Candid.
More than 120 architecture students participated in and benefited from our informal yet comprehensive workshop series this year. By the way, it will return locally in 2023 before expanding to additional architecture schools in 2024.