Naomi FisherDirector | Architect

Building strong relationships with our clients is intrinsically important to APEC’s practice of architecture, so how do you do this when you are working entirely remotely on a new project in a different part of the country? Director Naomi Fisher reflects on the journey so far of working with The Coro Theatre in Cumbria.

On Tuesday 17th March 2020, we were delighted to find out that the multi-disciplinary team we were part of had been selected to undertake an options study for the Coronation Hall in Ulverston. This was also the day that my family started our lockdown; my eldest son having displayed symptoms, meaning the beginning of 14 days of family isolation.

As a practice, we rarely take on commissions outside of the Midlands but this project had a very strong appeal:

  • The client is a community enterprise who had recently taken over the management of this much-loved community asset from the local authority.
  • The project is a combination of arts, community and heritage- three sectors we are passionate about.
  • The tender document was engaging and very well-written, clearly defining the challenge without a pre-conceiving the solution.
  • The study presented our first chance to work alongside arts marketing and business specialists from the outset. Courtney Consulting would be providing strategic advice on branding, market segmentation, financial sustainability and production and event programming.

And then there was a personal connection; the small town of Ulverston was a place I’d spent many childhood holidays in a family friend’s townhouse. That family friend was Martin Purdy, a founding partner of APEC. The pull was even stronger.

Understandably, the project did not start as expected, with our newest client suddenly catapulted into this strange new world of furloughing staff and cancelling… everything. Whilst this meant a few weeks of little contact from the team at The Coro, back at APEC, we were suddenly faced with the question of how do we carry on with our distinct and immersive approach to engagement when we can’t meet anyone? It was a challenge that permeated many of our projects, but perhaps this one, being so new and not in familiar territory, was particularly hard.

 

Twelve weeks on, and we have just issued the first draft of the brief to the client. It’s a document of some 6000 words detailing the vision, values and aspirations for a vibrant community arts venue that can attract high calibre acts to its 650 capacity auditorium whilst providing the flexibility to meet the broad spectrum of needs for community events and regional performing arts. The brief has emerged from an intense period of learning; of gaining a deep understanding of the workings of a much-loved but tired building, its ambitious and energetic custodians (including staff, volunteers, Board and patrons), and a town characterised by quirkiness, creativity and an unfathomable number of festivals.

Matterport point cloud survey undertaken by Sneak-a-Peek

As a team of three, we have conducted individual interviews, group calls, and surveys. Ordinarily, site walkovers with key operational and maintenance staff would form a critical part of our methodology to see first hand the workings of a building in detail. Instead, here, we helped The Coro to procure a local firm to undertake a 360 degree photographic scan of the unoccupied building. This meant that by sharing my computer screen, I could undertake the virtual equivalent of the site walkover with The Coro team, dissecting the particular issues and opportunities of each area of the building.

 

There have been challenges, including difficulty contacting some people on furlough, and dodgy wifi connections have meant sentences missed that could contain critical information. Meeting people for the first time in group calls on Zoom is not the easiest way to build trust through the normal opportunities presented by body language or pre-meeting banter. Calls are generally more focussed. There are no informal debriefs over coffee or on the doorstep. The most interesting conversations sometimes happen spontaneously on the periphery, when people perhaps speak more freely. However, we tried to assure participants to speak openly, and given that there was much consensus on many issues, we are reassured that most did.

Of particular success, have been the meetings we’ve had with the client team, having built up a strong connection over the duration of the study so far. It probably helps that it’s a small group; three consultants, The Coro’s Director and the Chair of Board, whom we actually met when we were interviewed for the project pre-lockdown. The meetings feel natural and comfortable; a tone set in the start-up meeting, when there were interruptions by pets, and an appearance by my inquisitive eldest child. Perhaps the domestic grounding helped disarm us all. Who knows, but in spite of my early reservations, I do feel that we have been able to build a client relationship in this strange, remote way of working.

View from the train up to Ulverston

We are due to present the options at a seminar in late July, and being the culmination of the study, it would be fitting if this last milestone is the first time we are able to visit since securing the project. And whilst virtual communication techniques have proven to be a useful tool in this journey, I’m not convinced that the full myriad of human non-verbal communication can be fully replicated virtually, and I for one can’t wait to experience real meetings again soon.