Keith Ashton, CEO of SPACE&PLACE, talked to Shipshape about the challenges of Brexit and how his business is helping improve the health and wellbeing of communities around the UK.
Sports and leisure specialist SPACE&PLACE is a firm of architects, engineers, designers and consultants creating inspiring spaces and places that encourage communities and commercial workforces to be more active and engaged.
“Within our specialist market, we’re the UK’s number one at what we do. That gives us an easier stretch into other sectors that might want the same outcomes. For example, creating work space for businesses that have an emerging focus on workforce wellness,” says Keith. “We also do some work on residential, film studios, transport hubs, theatres and education.”
Working with the legendary Zaha Hadid, the company designed the London 2012 Aquatics Centre. It also worked on the Olympic Games in Athens and has advised on various other large events, particularly in aquatics.
With around 60 employees the company has offices in Glasgow, Manchester and London as well as smaller spaces in Northern Ireland and in the South West.
Keith feels that the Brexit affair has not been easy for UK architects.
“We used to get between 10 and 20 amazing CVs coming through from Europe each week, but since the Brexit vote we now get far fewer. More than half of our workforce is European and equal pan-European standards allow us to ramp up qualified workforce numbers quickly to suit project needs.”
Keith says the flow of skilled people has almost completely dried up and that some of its European workforce decided to go home. He says their only option to ensure a good supply of staff was to set up an office outside the UK.
They chose Portugal as a significant number of their people are from there. “On some projects, it’s the first-language in the London office!”
Shipleys put SPACE&PLACE in touch with a fellow AGN member firm based in Portugal, which helped it set up a company and office in Lisbon.
“It took a lot of effort and it was a big commitment for a small company like ours to set up a Portuguese company,” says Keith. “The Portuguese tax authorities have certainly been an unintended beneficiary of Brexit as far as we are concerned!” “Fortunately, our investment in technology allows us to operate from anywhere.”
Keith says SPACE&PLACE is seeing better growth in other European economies. It has also had to deal with the devaluation of the pound, which has increased the cost of construction in the UK. “A third of any building cost is subject to currency fluctuations and some clients have held back development because of all the uncertainty over Brexit.”
Leading the way
Aside from the issues around Brexit, Keith says both the company’s biggest challenge and opportunity comes from the fact that local governments don’t have a statutory requirement to provide sport facilities.
He explains that much of SPACE&PLACE’s work has become about improving health and wellbeing outcomes for whole communities, particularly in less affluent areas, looking at everything from transport policies to passive urban design that nudges communities to be more active.
“We’ve been at the forefront of working out how to still provide facilities but fund it differently. The Government is finally waking up to the fact that it needs to focus on preventative healthcare and we’re well placed to help drive that.”
“We need to get society more active. A lot of the UK’s sport infrastructure is pretty poor so we lobby the Government around intelligent investment. We improve the business case – it may have been a half million pound subsidy per location but we can turn that into a million pound surplus.”
“Design has become only a small part of what we do. We’re just as likely to be looking at operator P&L models and outcomes as we are to be looking at whether something is made of brick or concrete.”
A helping hand from Shipleys
The company has been working with Shipleys for the last 13 years. “Simon Robinson and his team do our year-end accounts and provide payroll services. More importantly they also give sensible and intelligent financial and strategic advice and mentor us through with those unusual issues that occasionally arise.”