Steven Charlton, Perkins+Will, talks to Jade Tilley about leading a team and growing as a studio with a focus on transforming spaces for clients.
Steven has been recently appointed Managing Director of Perkins+Will’s London office, following a successful role as MD of the Dubai office since 2010, working with Middle Eastern clients on numerous large-scale commercial and hospitality projects.
Prior to this, Steven worked in central London with blue-chip clients, and has experience in both the London market and the Middle East. In his current role, he will be further cementing Perkins+Will’s position as a leader in the UK. Current projects include the masterplan for Trinity College, Dublin’s new technology campus in the Republic of Ireland; The Stage, a mixed-use residential project in Shoreditch that preserves one of Shakespeare’s oldest playhouses; and 150 Holborn, a 185,000 sq. ft. new build HQ corporate office building in the borough of Camden.
Here, Steven Charlton discusses his role as a leader, his soft spot for Santiago Calatrava and how getting his flying license is still very much on his agenda.
What is your earliest memory of design and architecture?
As a young child both my grandfathers would spend hours with me sketching buildings, animals, vehicles and I remember particularly enjoying the detail and geometries of architectural details.
Where did you study?
I studied interior design at Edinburgh College of Art, still one of my favourite cities!
How do you feel the architectural education system has changed in recent years?
Long courses and high tuition fees have certainly heightened the pressure on today’s architecture students. We need to foster creative talent, not scare it off, so I’m glad that there is growing industry awareness of the issues and opportunities surrounding training and education. I do feel that architecture firms can support students by giving them first-hand experience that helps prepare them for the workplace. We offer paid summer internships to give undergraduates experience on real projects, interdisciplinary design and best practice. Not only does this make graduates more employable, it also injects excitement into studying, as they can experience how concepts come to life.
What kind of leader do you aspire to be?
I think a strategic approach to leadership is crucial. There is incredible talent within Perkins+Will, and I will ensure we play to people’s strengths to keep them challenged and motivated. I think a leader should involve staff in the overarching vision, helping them to understand exactly what the business is trying to achieve and how important they are in making it happen. Making everyone feel part of the vision filters down throughout the business; everyone feels energised by it and the clients have confidence in our delivery. I’ve worked in a variety of roles and with multiple partners in numerous countries, which helps me to understand and support my team.
An effective leader knows that staff who are happy and have a sense of purpose make a successful business. Who are your design/architecture inspirations? I have always had a soft spot for Santiago Calatrava and specifically his blend of architecture and engineering into an art form.
What does Perkins+Will represent as an architecture firm?
We like to think we’re at the forefront of what we do. Despite being a large practice of 160 staff, we’re agile and quick to adapt to change. Under Jack Pringle’s leadership, we played a significant role in transforming the world of workplace, taking traditional offices and turning them into open-plan spaces where staff feel empowered to work more flexibly and creatively. We’re now one of the most successful firms in the UK and EMEA, best known for our award-winning corporate interior designs, but fast earning a reputation for our work in other disciplines and practice areas. We’re working on large-scale masterplanning and urban design developments, new build architecture, hospitality, and cultural projects, and are expanding in other areas where we see the demand and can make a difference. There is a client-first focus within the practice, and everyone strives to deliver a personalised service to the clients we work with. At the end of the day we want to be the best at what we do and by doing that we will see the firm grow both in size but also our offering to the market.
What matters most to you in the workplace?
Talent is everything. To grow a business the most critical ingredient is having the right team behind you. When I was Managing Director of Perkins+Will’s Dubai practice, one of the ways we managed to source such high-level recruits was by working with local universities to identify emerging talent; this allowed us to attract the brightest people into the practice, fresh out of education. Our team can work on multi-office projects with teams across the globe, participating in research programmes and continuously exploring new areas of expertise. We essentially offer tailored career progression while also providing an environment where talent can grow. Employee wellbeing underpins all of this. Once you attract new talent, you have a responsibility to nurture it.
Perkins+Will is currently part of a major research study by the British Council for Offices (BCO), which will provide definitive guidance on how to enable office health and wellbeing across a building’s cycle.
Where is the majority of your work based?
Our work takes us everywhere. Being part of a global firm means we can leverage our combined experience and expertise to benefit clients from across the world. We understand how to address different cultures, regulatory regimes, local procurement practices and provide expert delivery in each local market.
What has been your biggest design commission to date?
In reality I stopped designing years ago as my focus has been on growing a firm from nothing to over 100 in a – period. With rapid growth I had to rely on strong architects to do the design but our commissions where very varied and large from 50 storey residential towers, airport concourses to luxury five-star resort hotels.
What does the face of architecture look like to you in 10 years’ time?
Hopefully, more sustainable. Financial, human and environmental sustainability is pivotal to our work and ethos.
We believe in practicing what we preach. For example, we were one of the first architectural practices in Europe to achieve Fitwel certification for our new London studio, based in Derwent’s White Chapel Building. Globally, Perkins+Will has helped to raise awareness of how building materials and finishes relate to human and environmental health.
We launched the built environment’s first free, universally accessible database, Transparency, which contains updates on material health, as well as a comprehensive list of substances of concern.
We also work closely with clients to meet their sustainability goals. A few of the ways we work to ensure a healthy environment include resilient design and climate adaptation, high performance buildings and sustainable communities.
What would your alternative career look like?
I would have been a pilot which admittedly is something I still want to get a license for. Maybe when I fly less for work and can start enjoying air travel again!