The novel coronavirus pandemic has proven to be an indiscriminate disrupter in the architecture world and is putting the financial squeeze on even the mightiest, highest profile of practices. Yesterday, it was announced that Foster + Partners, the international firm founded and led by Pritzker Prize-winning British architect Sir Norman Foster, is instituting company-wide curtailments, including furloughs and 20 percent pay cuts as a direct result of the pandemic.
As noted by Building Design, which was among the first outlets to report the news, Foster + Partners is the United Kingdom’s second-largest architecture firm, with just over 1,400 employees and over a dozen offices worldwide in addition to its Battersea headquarters in southwest London. (Other publications have named it as the largest architecture firm in the U.K.) Exact size aside, it is the first firm of such magnitude to make public such belt-tightening actions in response to the pandemic.
In a statement shared with AN by Foster + Partners, managing director Matthew Streets detailed the course of action taken by the firm during “these challenging and uncertain times.”
“The safety of our people and the safeguarding of their livelihoods is at the heart of all our decisions. To help us in these aims, we have decided to furlough those people who are unable to carry out their work at home. Additionally we have asked all our staff worldwide to take a temporary pay cut of 20 percent for three months, with a minimum protected salary of £25,000. At this time we believe that these measures are the best way to help protect the practice.”
It has not been disclosed how many employees cannot carry out their work from home and will, in turn, be furloughed. Per Building Design, under the British government’s job retention scheme, all furloughed employees will receive up to 80 percent of their annual salaries with a monthly cap of £2,500 ($3,099). As mentioned by Streets, employees with an annual salary less than £25,000 (approximately $31,000) will not be impacted by the 20 percent salary slash.
As reported by the Architects’ Journal, Foster + Partners spent £121 million on staff wages and salaries during the fiscal year ending in April 2019, bringing in over £258 million during that same period.
In 2017, the firm dismissed 100 employees, primarily London based, due to uncertainty over potentially stalled construction projects stemming from 2016’s Brexit vote. A year later, the firm also floated the possibility that it would pack up and leave the United Kingdom altogether due to Brexit. Less than a quarter of Foster + Partners’ London-based employees are U.K. nationals, and the firm has long prided itself on tapping diverse top architectural talent from other EU member nations and beyond. “We don’t want to leave London, but we—like any business—would have to consider that,” Streets explained to the Architects’ Journal. “If Brexit means we can’t attract world talent then we would have to go to somewhere where we can.” (Foster himself has been more than vocal about his displeasure with Brexit.)
In coronavirus news not related to furloughs or temporary salary reductions, Foster + Partners recently unveiled a prototype design template for a three-piece reusable protective face shield that can be fabricated using a laser cutter. No 3D-printed components are required, which the firm believes can help to speed up the production process. The open-source design is meant to “encourage both designers and in particular large-scale manufacturers to investigate the potential of digital and laser cutting machines as an alternative to 3D printing technology.”