Interview with Business Founder, John Coward

What made you want to become an Architect?

I was, like most children at school uncertain of what career to pursue. My A level subjects were Art, History and Geography which were fine for acceptance at Architectural School but perhaps short on Science and Maths.

I applied and was offered a place at The Regional College of Art, Manchester. All my eggs were in one basket and there were no alternatives.

How did you get started in Architecture?

I passed the required A Levels and started the course which comprised:- Year 1 – Full Time Year 2 and 3 – Part Time (office based) Year 4 – Full Time (Passed Intermediate Exam, degree equivalent today) Year 5 and 6 Full Time (Diploma) Year 7 Professional Practice (office based) I dropped out of the course at the end of Year 5 having become frustrated with the School of Architecture and also for personal reasons.

For the next twenty years I worked in several public and private practices where I was employed as an Architectural Assistant but doing the job of an Architect.

In my forties and married with three children I was encouraged by my employer to enrol on the three year, Part Time Diploma Course at Liverpool Polytechnic School of Architecture.

I Qualified in 1989 and set up my own Practice, John Coward Architect in 1991.

I was inspired on the Diploma Course by Professor Ken Martin who gave me the skills, confidence and determination to set up my own Practice.

Tell us a little bit about the early days of John Coward Architects…

The Practice, John Coward Architects was set up in Cartmel with a £10k bank loan, I was a sole trader with a part time secretary. We both had the drive to make the Practice succeed by delivering a first class service to all clients with priority on quality design. My efforts were focussed on delivery of good buildings while Margaret (secretary) concentrated on planning and running the commercial side of the business.

Work quickly expanded and after six months we took on a Year Out Student.

Our first office was a small rented room in the Village Institute. As workload expanded and more architectural and clerical staff engaged an office move was essential and made around 2005 into a former Garage/Filling Station.

The scale and type of projects grew as workload expanded with many jobs outside Cumbria. Staff training was encouraged with three Architects becoming AABC qualified and regular attendance at CPD events.

The Practice became a Limited Company in 2002 with a Board of Directors and Company Secretary.

John Coward Architects Ltd moved into their bespoke new office in Unsworth Yard in 2010 The building is owned by the Practice.

What would you consider was your biggest challenge when starting the practice?

Finding a good work/life balance is not easy but essential. Working all hours to meet client aspirations and hit deadlines can be counter productive if it destroys relationships and damages health.

The risk in giving up a good salaried job to set up a Practice was massive but I was fortunate in having a fully supportive wife, Val and family.

Managing relationships with clients can be difficult and it is important to maintain high professional standards. Most clients are fair and honest but it is of paramount importance to have a signed agreement in place clearly setting out scope of services, terms and conditions from the outset. Similarly there must be clarity and transparency with comprehensive records kept of all meetings/relevant events.

Growing the Practice with good staff is essential, I worked on the principle “if you looked after them they’d look after you”. Maintaining good working relationships in the workplace doesn’t just happen, it requires a lot effort by management.

From the outset the Practice had an annual Business Plan which set achievable targets and was reviewed monthly. This was essential to maintain cash flow and manage growth.

What would you consider was your biggest career success and / or highlight?

Setting up and growing the Practice from scratch has been very rewarding in so many ways. When I retired in 2017 we employed thirteen architects, technicians and clerical staff and were perhaps the largest Practice in South Cumbria.

John Coward Architects Ltd has and continues to design high quality buildings and has delivered a first class service to many clients. All projects are given careful consideration with good design having very high priority.

Seeing completed schemes designed by the Practice can be very rewarding. To deliver a good building from conception to completion is both exciting and satisfying.

Who or what were your biggest inspirations when practicing?

Professor Ken Martin and his lecture team at Liverpool Polytechnic were inspirational and supportive for three years when I was balancing family, work and study.

The late Robert Gilchrist (Windermere Architect) was my first employer in The Lakes. He died within nine months of me joining his Practice but in that short time taught me so much about being a practicing Architect.

Alan Dodds was Chief Architect at South Lakeland District Council and supported me in so many ways to qualify as a mature student.

I have been inspired by many International Architects, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Norman Foster to name but a few. Locally, the Arts and Crafts Architects Charles Voysey and Bailey Scott have had significant impact on my approach to design.

What would be your dream brief for a project?

A dream project would be one with a supportive client who would have confidence in your ideas and a budget to deliver the project. Also a competent contractor committed to working within a team to deliver a quality building.

Good consultants are also critical and must work within the framework determined by the Architect.

The project could be anything from a museum in Manchester to a retreat in Rwanda!!

What would be your one piece of advice for any budding Architect today?

A “budding Architect” must have passion, enthusiasm, skill and lots of energy. Inevitably there will be frustration and disappointment but also lots of joy and satisfaction. They should also be confident, but not arrogant in seeing through ideas without compromise.

Fun Facts about John

1. What was your very first job?
My first job was working as a Year Out Student at Bramley and Pate, Architects in Preston.

My first project was to prepare the technical drawings for a three-storey block of flats and submit the Building Regulation Application.

2. Who’s your favourite artist?
Favourite Painter – Piero della Francesca
Favourite Musician – Miles Davis
Favourite Singer – Ella Fitzgerald

3. If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To grow wings and fly

4. What’s your favourite building, place or city?
Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

5. What trip would you most like to take, but haven’t yet?
Inca trail to Machu Picchu