By George Dean
A Designerati series featuring designers, architects, and senior professionals talking about future-proof design. Today, we speak to William Poole-Wilson, Founder of the London-based architecture and interior-design firm WILL+Partners. He joins us to discuss the link between the human experience and designing for the next generation.
Looking back since you started your career, are the design and architecture industries at a place today where you expected it to be, and where do you think they’re now heading? It feels like some things haven’t changed. People still need architects. We still have to draw drawings and envision ideas. In recent years, as the world’s values are shifting towards the human experience, health and wellbeing, sustainability and technology. Envisioning and being able to draw those visions has become more important than ever.
Sustainability is arguably the single most important topic in the world of design today. What are WILL+Partners doing to ensure sustainability in how it operates?
Sustainability is core to what we practice and what we preach. We pick our projects carefully and offer sustainable options to our clients. We have lead the industry with our research, pioneering and authoring the SKA Environmental tool, and authoring BCO Wellness Matters. We’re lucky to have our sustainability director, Mitakshi Sirsi on our team. She’s an expert in sustainable design and achieving net zero, ESG and Wellness, and navigating the conflicts that exist in this specific design subject.
We’re also teaching the next generation of designers and architects at Will Academy the importance and application of sustainable design. In terms of design, we have pioneered reuse, retrofit and repurposing, including recycling furniture and are advocates of new design considerations in the bar build specification so that we can truly reduce all embodied carbon, whilst having spaces that meet the needs of Landlord, Tenant and Facilities Manager. There are no silver bullets but a roadmap and iterative process to 2030.
WILL+Partners has made a successful business as an interior and architecture firm. What would you say is the secret to your business’s success?
In a word: People. Constantly learning about the human experience. Will Academy has allowed us to further our insight and practice as well. Understanding the design of the workplace means we must consider things more like a university. It’s iterative, constantly improving. We try to weave our findings on the human experience into our work. In this business, it’s about being someone as opposed to something. Human interaction is so simple and unique, and to be in a business where you can feel the diversity of connection was so important, particularly when ideals have become so fractured, in our new digital paradigm.
Would you say this digital paradigm is a challenge the design industry is currently facing?
It’s certainly something we should be conscious of. Designers can’t get absorbed into the prison of online. What people interact with online are, in actuality, the algorithms. Algorithms create feedback loops of what you like. They create bubbles and keeps us polarized and separated. Which is exactly what technology initially set out not to do. The real world is the cure to that, it’s hard and tough but rewarding. Pick up the pen and paper.
We’re dealing with the real, you can’t get the human experience online, it happens in the real world. This is absolutely core to our practice. Why are people so obsessed with recreating the real world in the online world, are they dissatisfied? Why not focus on making it better? Digital platforms set out to create forums of collective thinking. Instead, the algorithms have made them evangelical.
Your company has attracted attention for its ‘WILL Academy’ programme. What can you tell us about that?
There is an issue of fairness and exclusivity that the UK architecture sector needs to address.
Indeed, the two issues go hand in hand. Barriers to entry, especially around cost, are discouraging those from less well-off backgrounds from pursuing a career in our profession – all too often I speak to fellow architects from my generation who say they would not take up the career if having to start over today.
It’s easy to see why. In today’s regime, it takes seven years to become an architect with at least four or five of those spent at university with course fees of at least £9,000 per annum. Add in costs of accommodation, materials, travel, software and even printing (2D and 3D), and the debt mountain looks daunting. It is perhaps little wonder why a three-year mathematics degree followed by a well-paid postgraduate placement may seem like a more attractive proposition to many young people.
The current model is also costly for practices, especially smaller ones like ours where sourcing real-life projects to enable students to complete RIBA Part 3 is no small undertaking. What’s more, the problem is compounded by the fact that there is no real institutionalised alternative to becoming an architect at the moment. However, breaking down these barriers to entry is critical to the long-term health of the profession, and building more productive connections between educators and employers is one way of removing some of these obstacles.
In my own organisation, the WILL Academy is an internal practice-wide research initiative for continuous learning. As well as providing opportunities for learning internally, it provides outreach support to university graduate and post-graduate students through mentorship-based partnerships with universities – crucially, this offers work experience opportunities and internships that bridge the gap between the industry and academia. The Academy sits next to and feeds into our WILL+Partners Research & Development unit, where we dissect current and future trends in collaboration with university research partners to help us design better solutions for our clients.
Finally, what can you tell us about the WILL+Partners’s upcoming projects?
We’re currently working with YMCA to redesign their headquarters. A fabulous project about connecting with people’s lives, connecting with the real. We’re creating something centred on the human experience, which is our core tenet. We try and weave the human experience into everything we do. Our other core values include health and wellbeing, sustainability, community, culture, and technology.
We’re also working with Shell, on a project all about alternative power sources and helping the energy transition. We’ve also recently completed the redesign of the British Red Cross headquarters, based around “the power of kindness”. This project was all about enabling collaboration and positive interactions through architecture and interior design, as we wanted the volunteers and workers at the BRC to feel like they are part of something greater. Humanity at every touchpoint.