Monday interview: Adam McGhee of architect Sheppard Robson

Constructing a working future for the architectural world is a worthwhile challenge

Architect Adam McGhee has been through the good times and the bad but he is 'cautiously optimistic' that the sector has a growing future. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Architect Adam McGhee has been through the good times and the bad but he is 'cautiously optimistic' that the sector has a growing future. Picture: Ian Rutherford

In precarious economic times, consumer and business confidence are the first victims. The immediate effects are felt in industries such as retail, travel and construction, and if challenging conditions persist, the impact spreads from there.

Though working in “close proximity” to the construction sector, which is suffering in the wake of the Brexit vote, Adam McGhee of architects Sheppard Robson says the Glasgow office where he is based is “cautiously optimistic”. Growth remains the key objective.

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“We have had one major project put on hold since the vote at the end of June, but we feel reasonably certain that it is going to come back on-stream,” says McGhee, who was promoted to partner in July. “We have also secured four or five big new projects since the Brexit decision, which is very encouraging.”

Official figures released at the end of last week show the construction sector suffered its worst quarter for four years following the vote to leave the EU, with output down by 1.1 per cent from July to September. The biggest drag was residential homes, with new housing activity flat-lining in the third quarter.

Construction’s woes have already led to reports of small-scale lay-offs and recruitment freezes by some of the UK’s leading architecture firms, but the Scottish arm of Sheppard Robson is moving in the opposite direction. Buoyed by its appointment earlier this as the design team for the new £63.5 million Knockroon Learning and Enterprise Campus near Cumnock, Ayrshire, the office expects to add five new employees to its current technical team of 20 by the end of this year.

Furthermore, its most recent contract win – signed but not yet announced – will likely take that total up to 30 by February. It is another major project worth circa £60m which will further expand the Scottish operation’s spread of activity.

“We all know construction is a very volatile industry,” he says. “If you expose yourself too much to any one part of the market, you will put yourself in unnecessary risk.”

Founded in 1938, Sheppard Robson employs about 200 architects across its London HQ, offices in Manchester and Glasgow, and a small offshoot Abu Dhabi.

Accounts for its 2014-15 financial year show that pre-tax profits rose more than four-fold to £4.6m, and latest results are expected to reflect another strong year in Scotland.

“We will show an increase in turnover, that is for sure,” McGhee says. “Growth is the central agenda, but in such as way that minimises the risk we expose ourselves to.”

His prudence is understandable, given what both the profession and McGhee personally have been through in recent years.

Born and raised in Glasgow, McGhee studied at Strathclyde University before joining Keppie Design as an assistant architect in 1997. From there he worked his way through posts with HLM and Jenkins & Marr before joining Capita Architecture in 2004, where he was later promoted to director in 2007 aged 30.

He became a victim of the recession in 2011, when architecture firms were laying off staff in droves to cope with the crash in the property market. In some ways the timing was fortunate, as it gave him the flexibility to spend time with his young children, but part of him always craved returning to a “collegiate” system.

“For the most part, architects are very sociable people,” he explains. “That creative drive requires others to bounce ideas off of.”

He worked as a freelance through into 2014 before joining Scottish commercial property company HFD Group as head of architecture. There he learned what “drives the client side of the business”, knowledge which he took with him when an opening came up at Sheppard Robson the following year.

The recession was a torrid time for most architects, he says, with many such as himself feeling as though their careers had been knocked back by a decade. It also created a “lost generation” of professionals who did not get enough practical experience during that period, which is impacting on recruitment today.

“Salaries are going up because to get the right people, we are having to hire at a higher level than we would if those architects from that period had the project experience you would normally expect,” McGhee says.

He says Sheppard Robson has an advantage in this climate because of its emphasis on merit, where individuals are empowered to take their views on a project without the imposition of a “house style”. McGhee believes this will serve the firm well in a climate that is certainly more promising than in recent times.

“There is still uncertainty around Brexit,” he says, “but we are certainly in a better place than where we were in the recessionary years.”


Born: 1976, Glasgow

Education: Hutchesons’ Grammar School; University of Strathclyde

First job: General labourer on a building site

Ambition at school: I was always drawn towards the creative pastimes. Having said that, I also fancied the idea of being a lawyer for a while.

Can’t live without: My iPhone, but if we are talking desert island stuff, I would definitely take my family.

Favourite city: Paris

Favourite reading medium: iPad

Preferred transport: Train

Car: A BMW

What makes you angry? People that don’t give 100 per cent.

What inspires you? In terms of work, I am inspired by a realistic, simplistic aesthetic.

Best thing about your job: Every day is different.