Ahead of his talk on the ethics of mark-ups and handling fees at this year’s BIID conference in June (book your place here), we caught up with chartered architect, founder and chairman of KSS David Keirle.

When talking to someone in a position such as David’s — whose experience and success speaks volumes for itself — it’s easy to believe that they hold all the answers when it comes to unveiling the secrets behind building and maintaining a sustainable, ethical and admirable business. However, as he is quick and keen to admit, David’s primary method for finding the best solutions and implementing the most effective strategies is simply to trust in the diversity of other people’s experience and perspectives — while also being humble enough to prioritise them above your own.

As he prepares to join Susie Rumbold, Colin Jones and Rachel Smart for his conference session, we asked David about business management, designing some of the world’s most famous sporting venues and why he wants to see the next BIID president put design fees under the microscope.

David, you’ve founded and chaired an immensely successful business in the architecture and interiors sector, working internationally on a vast range of projects. What is the one rule of business you always abide by?

Always employ the very best people, get out of their way and let them do their jobs.

You get the very best out of your colleagues by creating an environment which inspires them to think for themselves and put forward their best design ideas. Collective brilliance is far better than any individual talent. And never think that your idea is the best just because you thought of it!

Your talk at BIID’s ‘Inside Knowledge’ conference will focus on the finances and ethics behind mark-ups and handling fees. How intrinsic is it to the successful running of a business or project to think carefully about these aspects?

It is essential to the financial sustainability of any business that you think carefully about taking on any project. Not just about the level of fees you may be able to charge and whether you can make a profit, but also whether this is the right project for your company? Will it enhance your reputation?

You need to be accurate and honest about the resources it will take to do any project properly and the right level of fee you will need to charge to successfully complete it and make a profit. If you can’t get the right fee you need, then walk away. Working at a loss is the quickest way to go bust.

Many of your projects with KSS straddle the fields of architecture, interior design and branding. Which roles within a business such as KSS are key to finding balance between these elements?

Finding the right balance between these elements is not the responsibility or role of any one individual or position within KSS. It is an inherent part of our culture to work collaboratively, across the various design disciplines, to understand what our clients really want and to develop the best design solution that successfully delivers any project. The best ideas are always the best ideas, no matter which design discipline conceived it.

Your company works internationally. The laws and regulations behind business, finance, architecture and construction change all the time in the UK and can differ drastically around the world. Who or what do you and your teams turn to make sure you are always up to date and working to the correct standards?

Keeping up with ever changing regulations is a massive challenge for any business, particularly when working internationally. We have developed robust internal systems to assist our staff and we continually invest to improve our knowledge and ensure we are as up to date as possible.

When working internationally it is important to choose the right local partner. In addition, we always do as much research as we can with the UKTI and professional colleagues who we trust and know have relevant local experience. We are never afraid to ask the awkward questions and we are prepared to walk away if we don’t like the answers. Even so, we still make the occasional mistake.

KSS is a company with a team of more than 100 people working in a variety of creative fields, from interior design to graphics and branding. What’s the one piece of advice or guidance you make sure all employees receive and keep in mind for all projects?

In my view the most important attribute for any designer is the ability to listen and challenge. Listen to your clients, listen to your experienced colleagues and listen to the other design disciplines involved in a project — and challenge anything you don’t think is correct. You have far more chance of making the right design decisions if you are good at listening and are not afraid to challenge the established norms.

Your recent projects have focused on high profile sporting facilities and venues. What are the unique challenges faced with this niche type of project? Are they financial or creative?

High profile sporting venues are extremely complex buildings to design. They present all sorts of creative and financial challenges for designers, from ever more complex geometric structures, to accommodating a huge range of different uses, to providing meals and drinks for thousands of people, to creating safe environments for families and children. And all of this needs to be designed to reflect the values and heritage of the individual clubs. But, principally, these buildings are all about designing safe, uplifting and amazing experiences for fans and athletes alike.

How would you describe developments in the business of interior design and architecture since your started your career?

In the last 36 years the way in which we design buildings, and our ability to convey the quality of our designs, has changed beyond anything I could have ever imagined when I left college in 1981. Our designs are now only limited by our imagination, not by our ability to draw. We can present amazing virtual reality images and videos, and we can walk our clients through our buildings, in real time, before a stone is laid. We can ensure that our complex designs are fully coordinated with the other design disciplines, thereby significantly reducing the risk of anything going wrong once construction commences on site.

All of this is incredibly positive, but we also need to educate our clients to ensure that our fees reflect these new skills and the investments we have to make to reduce the client’s and contractor’s risks.

Charles Leon will soon become the president of BIID. What one issue would you like to see him address in his time in the role?

I have always questioned the ethics of designers charging clients commissions on specified elements of a project, while also charging consulting fees. I think this is a real issue for the profession. We need greater client awareness about the true costs of designing bespoke, high quality buildings and interiors, and the fees the need to be charged to do this with skill and flair.

I would like to see Charles raise the level of debate on this issue within the profession, and within the wider construction industry. Designers need to be totally open about what they are really charging and have the confidence to charge the right level of fee to do the right job.

Why are professional bodies, like BIID and RIBA, important? What do they offer to professionals?

It is clearly important that both the BIID and RIBA work to promote and raise the standing of the professions within society as a whole and, perhaps more importantly, to promote the joy of a career working in these professions to the next generation.

My experience of RIBA has sadly been pretty disappointing for the best part of my career. They  have not, in my view, defended the profession from the many challenges to the architect’s position and status in the wider industry. They seem to me to be more focused on promoting a few high profile practices rather than dealing with the real challenges facing the profession.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Always treat everybody you work with exactly the same, whether they are at the very top or the very bottom. Great advice!

What, from your wealth of experience, do you hope people take away from your session at the conference?

I would like people to go away from this conference with the confidence to be open and transparent about the level of fees they need to charge to do their job properly. If all designers did this we would be collectively financially healthier and in a much better place to invest in the future of our businesses and our talented colleagues.

Learn more about David’s session and book tickets for the BIID Inside Knowledge conference here.

Follow BIID on Twitter and #BIIDIK17 for news and updates.

Photo credits, top to bottom: 

AMEX – American Express Community Stadium for Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club ©Paul Hazlewood

LFC – Anfield New Main Stand for Liverpool Football Club ©Adrian Lambert

THFC – Tottenham Hotspur Training Centre ©Gareth Gardner