Rediscovering Our Purpose – Part 1

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In the first of a new series of insights, Spacelab Founding Partner Nathan Lonsdale takes a frank and honest look at how he and the team were working – and how he realised that a healthy bank balance wasn’t the be all and end all. 

How long do you usually spend at work each day and why? In 2016, we were in the office for 9.8 hours each day, on average. That’s a 49-hour working week as standard. And some of us were regularly smashing 60 hours, not including grafting away from the office or at home. That seemed normal. 

We were a successful interior architecture practice in London with 65 designers, researchers and support team members. Work was pouring in, and the bank manager was happy. 

I kept saying, ‘brilliant, another new client!’. I was so busy trying to control everything and hunting new clients that I couldn’t see what was happening around me. People were working long hours because they felt they had to, not because they wanted to. We were busy being busy, instead of being creative. Somewhere in the whirlwind, we’d lost our reason for being. 

Getting back to our roots 

Some 16 years earlier, when my co-founder Andy (Budgen) and I talked about what we wanted to achieve (usually over a pint or two), it was always about changing the world. We knew how powerful a well-designed space could be and that if we got it right, we could improve people’s lives. 

We wanted to be different, to shake things up. To build from the inside out, putting people first. I remember peers looking at us like we were from another planet when we started talking about data and evidence-based design. Nevertheless, our approach has served us and, more importantly, the people are using our spaces very well. 

Ironically, as we grew by creating space for others, we forgot to keep any for ourselves. Not physical space, but space for creativity, thinking and learning. We got caught up in the constant race to be the biggest, rather than the best. Focusing on profit, not on purpose. 

I was mostly to blame for this, as Andy had been concentrating on UrbanLab, our development company. This was painful to realise, but it made me open my eyes. We had to make a choice. Should we keep growing to 80, 90, 100 people, and concentrate on building a larger studio – or stop and re-think? 

We asked the team what they wanted to get out of work and life. Just like Andy and I in the beginning, they spoke about creating amazing spaces that they were proud of, making a difference for communities and being part of something positive. No one mentioned money – but I’ve always believed that if you do things the right way in business, the rewards will follow. 

Since we found these common goals, we’ve reinvigorated our work and our culture. 

“We were busy being busy, instead of being creative. Somewhere in the whirlwind, we’d lost our reason for being” 

Ripping up the rule book 

One day when I looked around the office and saw everyone working, on 2D plans, I suddenly asked myself ‘why?’. Because the industry dictated that we should still be working the way everyone always has done – back when there was no technology. The whole RIBA process is archaic and doesn’t focus enough on how people will actually use space. It certainly doesn’t enable outstanding interior design in the 21st century. So, we’ve ripped up the rulebook and developed our own way. 

Rather than deliberately keeping clients at arms’ length, we’ve made changes that help us to work even more closely and openly with the people we’re designing for. We’ve experimented with the latest technology and, as a result, Virtual Reality (VR) 

is helping us to create and collaborate like never before. Exploring and experiencing spaces in such an immersive way, as designs develop, has opened our minds and hugely increased stakeholder engagement. We’re able to challenge and stretch people’s imaginations with bold new ideas, which can be thoroughly tested in VR remotely from anywhere in the world! 

We’ve invested even more in research, like looking at how personality type links to space preferences, so we can tailor designs even more specifically. We’ve also made everything we do completely transparent, using tools like Trello (a handy task management app), to keep everyone up to date and involved. 

Yes, doing more to understand a client’s needs and collaborating every step of the way can take longer, but this has undoubtedly led to us designing even more amazing spaces. Isn’t that what it’s all about? We think it is, and now we only take on work where we can make a difference.

 Look out for part 2 in the April issue of Mix.