The Big Interview: Bill Ritchie of Atelier Ten – ‘We need stability on the political scene’

Bill Ritchie at the Glasgow office of  Atelier Ten. He recently added to his duties a three-year stint as chairman of the Scottish committee of the British Council for Offices. Picture: John Devlin
Bill Ritchie at the Glasgow office of Atelier Ten. He recently added to his duties a three-year stint as chairman of the Scottish committee of the British Council for Offices. Picture: John Devlin
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One day I could be working with an oligarch from India on a penthouse in Knightsbridge, and the next sitting in a site hut in Springburn working on some social housing,” says Bill Ritchie of his role in charge of Scottish operations of Atelier Ten. “Both are just as enjoyable and just as challenging and exciting, and both require a different approach to design.”

The firm of environmental design consultants, lighting designers and building engineers started in 1990, established its standalone Scottish arm in 2010, and now has offices in New York, Singapore and Sydney, as well as Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Recently added to Ritchie’s duties is a three-year stint as chairman of the Scottish committee of the British Council for Offices (BCO), with the organisation’s mission to “research, develop and communicate best practice in all aspects of the office sector”.

He has worked on projects including the St Enoch Centre and The Corinthian in Glasgow, Marischal Square in Aberdeen and Limitless Towers in Dubai and Jordan, and says working in engineering was “a long family tradition”, with both his father and grandfather in the profession.

He studied industrial engineering at what is now the University of the West of Scotland and secured a placement at a firm of consulting engineers, which involved spending “a lot of time in factories, warehouses and power stations. I really enjoyed the excitement of being able to see different sectors, meet different people and do some travelling at the same time.”

The placement continued into his postgraduate studies in building services engineering at Heriot-Watt University, and he was offered a permanent job with the firm, later joining Wallace Whittle and Partners in 1997. He left there after about four years to join structural engineering consultancy Whitbybird, after attending a presentation by the company about sustainability and low-carbon solutions. “I saw that being the future – the ‘new normal’ in terms of design to embrace sustainability,” he says.

Ritchie set up Whitbybird’s Glasgow office in 2001, with the firm opening in Edinburgh two years later, before the group was taken over by large Danish player Ramboll in 2007 for what was thought to be £100 million.

The deal saw Whitbybird’s 680 staff join a group where headcount exceeded 6,000, with 140 offices. Yet as the Danish giant’s influence grew, it also made differences in attitude more apparent. “I felt we were losing our voice and our ability to direct the business in a manner we wanted, so we decided to look around and see what else we could do, and in 2010 we started Atelier Ten.”

The company now has about 200 staff, with just under 100 in London working on some “major” international projects, with clients including Google, while in the US it has about 60 engineers.

It has about 30 staff in Glasgow and about ten in Edinburgh and is eyeing expansion in the north of England. “We feel Manchester would be strategically a good move for us,” Ritchie says.

The firm operates as a separate business north of the border, which, Ritchie says, grants it the independence that “makes us very different from the bigger multinationals”, adding that it has control over budgeting, salaries and direction, and can “react opportunistically” when required.

Ritchie says most of Atelier Ten’s work “is very much Scottish-based and Scottish-grown”. Its fire engineering team, which focuses on code-compliance “but at the same time wants to create exciting, inspiring spaces and deliver capital cost-savings”, is involved in projects such as the revamp of the Burrell Collection and delivering a new fire strategy for Glasgow School of Art. It is also working with the Dementia Services Development Centre at the University of Stirling on lighting design that can help patients with dementia.

Ritchie sits on Atelier Ten’s international board, which looks at “what’s new and fresh and exciting in the market”, he says, citing the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as one source of inspiration.

A fellow of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, Ritchie says he has observed the trend for offices becoming “workspaces”, amid growing expectations for comfort and convenience from millennial workers. “The old 1960s-style of typing pools has gone,” he says. “People are looking to work in cafes rather than a bespoke office environment. We’re seeing the benefit this can bring to staff retention and productivity.” Indeed, Atelier Ten’s new Glasgow office on West George Street includes a cafe space, breakout areas and circadian lighting, which changes colour to match the body clock.

The so-called “wellness” factor of a building offers great potential for positive impact in the care sector. The business is working on the Royal Blind Jenny’s Well Care Home in Paisley, for example, and is the building services, environmental and fire engineering design consultant to The Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice in Glasgow.

Ritchie took over the Scottish chairman reins from Mike Buchan in September, having sat on the BCO’s Scottish committee for more than ten years. His role is to represent its interests on the Scottish Property Federation (SPF)’s policy committee for sustainability and building standards, which allows him to engage with forthcoming legislation, with a growing focus on reducing environmental impact.

He is cautiously optimistic looking ahead, despite continued political uncertainty. “Without confidence, we’re going to get a lack of investment, and we just really need a settled political landscape, whatever that might be,” he says. “We just need some stability in the market and that might engender some more foreign investment, which at the moment we’re seeing quite a lack of.”

Such a drive for clarity was not helped by the Brexit vote, and Ritchie says that after 23 June, “we’ve seen some schemes slow down and stop, whilst investors look at the political scene again”.

But he says that more broadly, “there’s still quite a bit of activity, and on the commercial office side there’s still some reasonably large inquiries.

“There’s a lack of grade A office space in Glasgow and in Edinburgh just now and it’s going to be interesting to see. Somebody has to make a move in terms of developing one of these schemes out but there are some reasonable-sized inquiries in the marketplace.”

A recent study by Knight Frank found that the availability of grade A space in Edinburgh stood at 267,000 square feet at the end of last year, the lowest level since 2012. “With just three schemes, totalling 185,000 sq ft, due to complete over the coming 24 months, the supply shortage is set to continue,” it noted.

As for Ritchie’s vision for Atelier Ten, this is “not for world growth, it’s enhancing the position as a building services engineer and we need to do that through good design – and not this constant race to the bottom for fees”.

“There’s real value to be added through good design, and it’s not just about the bottom line of the capital cost of the project, but it’s the 25-year life cycle costs, in terms of energy, maintenance of the building but also ensuring that [occupiers] are engaged and happy in their environment.”