Using VR is one way to add value to your practice, providing a client with a fully immersive experience of what a project will be like. © Tomas Millar

Why Small Startups are the Future

Small startups are disrupting whole industries and changing the business landscape forever.

The fourth industrial revolution is gaining momentum. We are entering the age of AI, self-driving cars, the internet of things and additive manufacturing. However, according to a recent McKinsey report, construction is rated as one of the least digitised industries in the economy.

Both construction and architecture have been described as industries that are ‘ripe for disruption’, following research by the IHS Global Projects Database that indicates projects routinely take 20 percent longer to finish than originally scheduled and run up to 80 percent over budget.

Yet, many small, recently formed architecture practices are innovating both in their approach and the scope of their work in a market where large established firms with greater resources have traditionally dominated the field. Small startups are perfectly positioned to not only endure the changes but drive them.

While the large firms have the edge in terms of scale and resources, it is the small firms which can shift direction and adapt to market forces more easily. In an unsettling economic climate experiencing rapid technological advances, having the will and flexibility to shift direction is invaluable.

As a small architectural firm, Millar + Howard Workshop operates on the principles of a startup, with a focus on results and outcomes, and a history of investing time and money in innovation. As such, we are finding ways of making efficiency savings and maximising customer value. We are by no means alone: there are many other businesses who are part of a movement within the industry that is setting a new course for architecture, construction and planning.

Collectively, their diverse approaches bring in factors that have not always received sufficient consideration: concerns such as social value or mental and physical wellbeing. Rather than focusing purely on the function of a building, or on its aesthetics, a holistic approach is favoured in the delivery of solutions for basic human needs while creating successfully functioning communities.

Assemble, Facit Homes, Architecture 00, Public Practice and Turner Prize nominees Forensic Architecture are all examples of small practices that are functioning outside the traditional boundaries of architecture. They are innovative in a variety of ways.

Some are collaborations of different professions beyond those traditionally associated with architecture — Forensic Architecture, for instance, engages with software designers, journalists and scientists. Public Practice is focused on altering the approach local authorities have to building houses and facilities. Facit Homes and Architecture 00 challenge the supply chain and the way buildings are actually constructed.

They blur the lines between art, science, technology and engineering. But they are linked by a determination to improve why and how buildings are designed the way they are; and to ensure they are built for the sake of all — those using as well as conceiving, funding and constructing the built environment.

Much of Millar + Howard Workshop’s approach has been shaped by the RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics convention: an annual event containing a programme of learning for small practices. It hosts a variety of different speakers, all sharing experiences and passing on lessons learned and provides a platform to share knowledge and focus on moving forward through innovation. Not the kind of innovation that is simply purchasing updated software and installing new systems and new technologies, but the kind that introduces different work processes, behaviours, ambitions and focus points.

‘Ten years ago I suddenly found myself spending the majority of my time running a business instead of being an architect,’ admits Tomas Millar, Co-founder and Director of Millar + Howard. ‘University had done little to prepare me for this. Guerrilla Tactics simultaneously provided a forum for thinking more about how to creatively run a practice and, in turn, it freed up more time for the design work we love.’

Events such as these are often full of promise but fall short; Guerrilla Tactics, on the other hand, has been consistently helpful and Millar + Howard Workshop have gained a great deal from attending, both on a micro and macro level. One particularly significant year inspired us to start a new sister company, Livedin Custom Build, which operates a platform business model in order to connect landowners to people wanting to build their own house.

The events at Guerrilla Tactics are fast-paced and relevant, with an atmosphere filled with energy and a buzz of ideas and excitement. It is a great networking opportunity: we have met and interacted with peers from all around the country and gained valuable insights into how they operate and innovate. But it is also a hive of ideas and stimulates reflection, at both practice and industry level, that can drive innovation forward. From a pure learning perspective, it is an opportunity to tick off eight or more hours of CPD and the topics are significantly more interesting than any sales spiel about damp proofing.

There is also a speed-mentoring event, which provides an opportunity for time (admittedly only a few moments) with prominent architects, journalists and business-support experts, providing knowledge and practical solutions to shared problems. ‘Speakers tend to be very open about how they run their practice, so you can gain real insight into other people’s processes and techniques,’ Millar enthuses.

Tomas Millar will be demonstrating how an architect can ‘Learn How to Use VR to Better Communicate with your Clients’ on CPD Day at Guerrilla Tactics 2018: Expanding Practice: Navigating the architecture of planning, procurement and property, which takes place at the RIBA on 13–14 November 2018.

This was originally a Guest Feature on