News PRP at 60: Q&A with our Senior Partners

PRP at 60: Q&A with our Senior Partners


February 23, 2023

Q: How has PRP’s approach to design evolved since the practice’s conception 60 years ago, and how do you see it changing in the next 60 years?

Brendan: The ethos and values of our founding partners centred around putting the end user at the heart of every design decision; that has very much remained core to PRP. However, the ways in which we implement that ethos has evolved quite drastically. There are a lot of new and emerging factors to be considered that simply weren’t in the picture back then. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s hardly any community consultation took place; nowhere near as much as PRP does today.

Manisha: When the practice was first set up, the focus was very much on housing in London and the South East – but in the 1990s, that changed quickly. PRP expanded internationally and the team grew rapidly. At the time, this seemed to represent success; it was what a lot of the big names in architecture at the time were doing. However, it didn’t feel right. The UK housing market was facing huge challenges and we wanted to focus on addressing these.

Brendan: It was clear that the work we could do to make a difference was here. We wanted to bring PRP’s design ethos back to housing and people-centred design, rather than emulating the strategy of practices that don’t necessarily share our values. In many ways, we’ve come full circle.

Manisha: More recently, the pandemic has drastically changed how we think about our homes. It highlighted the importance that design considers the ways we live our day-to-day lives on a practical level. PRP has been practicing this long before Covid-19. Consequently, the multigenerational housing typology we developed for Chobham Manor turned out to be ideal for pandemic living - its compartmentalised spaces were perfect for family members who needed to isolate. The ability to rent these spaces out for additional income has also proved popular since the cost-of-living crisis has worsened.

Brendan: In the next 60 years, I see us taking on bigger projects in terms of placemaking, masterplanning and town centre planning, as well as continuing to develop in new areas like film studio design. Our specialism in designing homes for later living will also form a big part of our workload in the future, given the western world’s ageing populations. Internationally, we will always export our expertise where appropriate – especially in terms of thought leadership. We’ll grow, but our people-oriented, context-driven and sustainability-led design approach will remain.

Q2: Together, you have worked at PRP for nearly 60 years in total – what is the biggest change that you’ve seen in that time, other than the evolution of our design approach?

Manisha: We’ve seen huge progress in how the practice embraces different cultures, flexible ways of working and diversity at senior levels.

Brendan: Manisha and I have always been very invested in both diversity and inclusion. We’re actually a bit competitive about how much progress we can make: we go out of our way to find people from groups that may have never been exposed to architecture. Whilst this is part of PRP’s legacy as a whole, we’ve definitely taken it to a new level.

Manisha: I do think we’ve broken down hierarchies…as soon as Brendan and I joined the board, we felt they didn’t exist. In fact, we broke them down quite literally, by knocking down the glass walls housing the office that used to be occupied by PRP’s senior management.

Brendan: It felt important – a symbolic gesture to end any feeling of ‘them and us’.

Q3: How do you plan to further enhance the diversity of PRP’s workforce?

Manisha: One of the key things we’d like to improve is access to architecture as a profession, particularly for people from deprived backgrounds. Five years of education is a huge financial barrier, so we are planning to get much more involved in apprenticeship schemes and school outreach work.

Brendan: We are also actively working to improve diversity at management level. Whilst PRP is a comparatively diverse practice, we are totally aware that this diversity currently decreases as seniority levels increase.

Manisha: This can be hard to plan, but we’re not just paying lip service. If we promote someone, it’s because they deserve it. We aren’t here to fill a quota; we’re here to reflect London and the mix of the UK population in general.

Brendan: Unfortunately, Brexit has harmed our ability to be diverse – it is more of a challenge to hire great candidates from across Europe. However, there is still a rich pool of diverse talent within the UK that we can draw from.  

Q4: What is the biggest challenge that architects are facing today?

Brendan: I think that making a difference to the environmental sustainability of a project is the biggest challenge, because architects are so limited by viability models and building costs when it comes to housing.

Manisha: Making architecture appealing for the next generation is a huge challenge. It’s a vocational course; it might not be as well paid as other professions, but it is very rewarding. That’s why we have to put programmes in place to encourage the next generation to train as architects and the reason we are linking up with more universities – in addition to the benefits we gain from that cross-fertilisation of research and practice. That’s another key challenge for the future: keeping ahead of the curve.

Brendan: Yes, that is a challenge. We think we are good at predicting the way things are going with housing needs, societal trends and difficulties ahead, but it we be harder to do so and overcome the barriers ahead, particularly the climate crisis.

Q4: What socioeconomic drivers do you foresee having the biggest impacts on the housing market and architecture as an industry in the coming decades?

Brendan: 60 years ago, geopolitical factors didn’t affect us anywhere near as much as they do today – for example the cost of living crisis, and how that has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and Brexit. In coming decades, we’ll have to keep one eye on what’s coming and how that impacts us.

Manisha: Unfortunately, I think the affordability crisis is here to stay. The next generations will grapple with this; it’s bigger than housing - there needs to be a big intervention. Within architecture as an industry, this is going to impair our ability to retain staff. Technology also has, and will continue to have, a huge impact on our profession – from the ability to WFH, to the speed at which we work. The role of an architect has evolved; it’s become a lot more complicated.

Brendan: Demographically, the ageing population is going to have a huge impact on the future housing market; the lack of housing for older people in this country is already a crisis, particularly at the affordable end. The government could make a lot more progress if they had a housing strategy that was interlinked with a health strategy.

Q5: In the next 60 years, what changes would you most like to see in the built environment sector?

Brendan: I’d like to see more funding for social housing.

Manisha: I’d like to see architects designing for the changing needs of the population. We need to transform the way we think about housing and look at the country’s evolving demographics, instead of saying ‘we’ve done this for years so let’s keep doing it’.

Brendan: Yes, architecture that genuinely is socially, culturally and contextually relevant.

Manisha: Architecture doesn’t move fast enough for social change. People change, but design lags behind. That can’t keep happening for the next 60 years – the sector needs to look ahead and innovate.  

Q6: Finally – what is your favourite memory of working at PRP?

Manisha: There’s a series of moments, it’s hard to name one. A particularly glorious one was ten years ago, when we were waiting for results from the LLDC to find out who’s won the competition to transform the first Olympic legacy site. I was in the Welsh countryside, so had to hike to the top of a hill to get signal – I remember getting the message that we’d won like it was yesterday.

Brendan: I have so many…if I had to pick one, it was probably during a meeting with the board back when I was a young architect. I remember the chairman asking me where I saw myself in the future, and I told him that I see myself sitting where he is. The whole panel laughed!

There’s also one meeting a few years later I recall very clearly. Manisha and I were sat next to each other in a big project team meeting on Silwood Estate - one of our largest estate regeneration programmes at the time - with about 16 people sat around us, and we were asked a question about an aspect of our design. The question was addressed to me because I was the more senior architect at the time, but I turned to Manisha and told the room that she was a better position to respond – basically, I threw her in at the deep end. It was a pivotal moment; she answered perfectly, and from that time on I knew I could leave her to lead projects on her own.

Manisha: I remember that too, the handing over of responsibility – it felt like the moment ‘the student has become the master’. I think we’ve really kept that ethos going; investing in learning, development and mentoring is so important. This belief has enabled every generation at PRP to take the practice to a new level; from exposing PRP to the political arena to shaping the future of our capital through my role as Mayor’s Design Advocate.