“It’s the smallest amount of fees we’ve ever earned but it has opened so many doors”.

15 May, 2019

“It’s frustrating that architects’ training gives us the ability to solve problems but we only apply that knowledge to buildings,” says Russell Curtis, founding director of RCKa and one of the founders of Project Compass.

Project Compass was borne out of his and others’ exasperation with the procurement process that makes it almost impossible for small practices to win public work and although the website lists over 50 funders and supporters, it has not gained the traction he’d hoped.

“The problem we identified still exists – if anything it’s getting worse – but because it’s a ‘side project’ we don’t have time to promote it or fundraise,” he says.

And the subject, he admits, doesn’t’ exactly make the pulse race but it’s important and Curtis never wanted Project Compass to make money.

“It was an altruistic exercise not a sustaining business but I’d hoped for more traction. We get a lot of support but architects won’t put any money into it.”

Identifying where the money will come from and the costs you are likely to incur is one of the first steps of any start-up even if, like Curtis, you’re prepared to put in your own cash at the start.

Chris Romer-Lee, who has spent six years trying to find backers for Thames Baths jokes that the project is known as the ‘black hole’ in the office.

The project caught the public imagination helped by some high-profile backers, a well-executed crowd-funding campaign and seductive imagery. Crowd-funding brought in enough cash to give it “the semblance of a project and to move forward albeit vastly underfunded,” he says.

Although the money has long since dried up, Romer-Lee remains hopeful – the practice has been paid to develop concept plans for a site in east London which, he says, is “a major turning point”.

“Thames Baths has opened all these doors which has allowed us to get out and meet people and our profile changed because of it. The conversations we’re having with big developers is really exciting.”

Curtis agrees that having a side project can bring benefits. For him it’s about becoming a respected ‘voice’ on procurement issues – something he regularly airs on Twitter – while RCKa is also trying to integrate some aspects of Project Compass into its own work.

Architects have always pursued side projects from Terry Farrell’s inspirational scheme to transform Euston Road to Studio Bark’s U-Build System, recently featured on Grand Designs.

Curtis believes the next generation of architects will be more entrepreneurial and less worried about the risk involved in pursuing projects that lack a conventional client.

With so many pressing issues from housing to helping people lead healthier, more active lives, this can only be a good thing and would help restore the idea that architects are interested in a wider vision of what they can do for society.


Tips from Chris Romer-Lee, Studio Octopi

  • have a patient and understanding business partner
  • be clear about exactly what you are trying to do and how much you’re willing to spend
  • continually chase funding
  • ask yourself is this a viable business, do people want it?


  • The next Architect Pitch- Crossing Boundaries is looking for seven architects to present their entrepreneurial ideas or products and win a £5k marketing and PR package. To find out more about the pitch and to enter please click here.