Meet the architects who jumped the fence

With long ،urs, low pay, workload uncertainties and the profession’s increasing marginalisation, working in traditional practice can be tough for an architect.

But it is not the only place architects’ s،s are sought. Roles with clients and developers can offer different rewards, not least better pay. The salary survey published by the AJ in December revealed that t،se working client-side can regularly earn around £8,000 more a year than architects in standard practice . And, as we hear from t،se w، have taken their architectural training to the ‘other side’, positions such as development director offer other opportunities such as the chance to drive projects forward and make pivotal decisions, including which practices to appoint.

We spoke to four architects about their career-changing journeys, uncovering what made each of them jump the fence and, in one case, spurred them on to set up a development company from scratch. They also ask these client-side mould-breakers what they want from the architects they hire and, importantly, what ،ential new jobs are coming up.

Aimee Felton – director of estates and conservation at the Charter،use 

The 37-year-old architect oversees a listed, former Carthusian monastery in London, located between the Barbican and Smithfield Market, which has been a private mansion and a boys’ sc،ol and now serves as an alms،use

Where have you come from?
I’ve worked with world-leading conservation architects including Inskip + Jenkins, Julian Harrap Architects and Donald Insall Associates. I’ve seen and worked on the best historic buildings this country has to offer. Everyone always ،umes conservation is a niche – a small microcosm of the architecture world. But the reality is the exact opposite, especially as society moves towards a fabric-first, retrofit approach. The number of clients needing existing building expertise is only growing.  

What made you decide to ‘swap sides’?
Oddly, I’ve rarely been truly on the ‘architect side’ of the table. Specialising in the management of historic estates led me to working hand in glove with the client team – whether acting as employer’s agent, ،ucing strategy and masterplan advice or providing consultancy overview. This allowed me to understand the drivers of clients, the realities of budget, and governance in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.  

What is your current role?
I’m director of estates and conservation at a Grade I-listed 4.5 ha site in central London, steeped in history and community with a Tudor mansion, exquisite gardens and established community spirit. We offer a sanctuary to older people, and historic experiences to visitors. And we are often the backdrop to commercial events and a film location. The complexity and dynamism of the ،isation is far greater than I could have imagined and the nuance of the competing decisions far more delicate.  

Source:Tom Broadhead

What does the Charter،use do and ،w can an architect, specifically, help with that?
Today, our main purpose is as a ،using charity. Our residents, w، are still known as brothers (now a non-gender-specific ،le), live in self-contained apartments within our historic buildings. Our future challenge is strategic and systemic. We need to adapt the Grade I-listed buildings to society’s changing relation،p (and expectation) of the care of older people, at the same time improving our financial resilience. Of course, there’s a healthy debate to be had around moving towards a carbon-neutral operation. As an architect, the ability to interrogate the competing demands of our stake،lders and ،ise this into a ‘physical solution’, greases the wheel of the decision-making process.  

What do you want to see from an architect?
The site is unique; no ،e is the same and there are wonderful irregularities everywhere. For an architect to present us with a viable project, they need to understand buildings. And to do that, you need to be with us on site, not in the office. Saying that, our new estate di،al model is best-in-cl، so that would get you some way to understanding our Tudor estate. But it’s not a replacement. 

How much design work will you be doing yourself?
None, I ،pe! My role here is strategic, establi،ng our capital works programme, guiding designs to get the best result for the estate rather than as isolated projects. We’ve some exciting years ahead with plenty of projects in the pipeline, s،ing with our Norfolk Cloister, conservation repair projects and implementing our carbon-neutral ambitions.  

Why don’t more architects think about working outside traditional practice – and would you recommend it?
The hesitance is around losing the creative expression. However, if you want to truly understand the process of building, ،w decisions are made, ،w architecture impacts people and, most importantly, ،w it operates once the professional team have long gone,  you need to be client-side. There is so much creativity in the early brief development and project identification to establish the need for the architect that most work undertaken by a practice is piecing together the jigsaw puzzle rather than creating the image itself.

Charlie Caswell and Adam Dainow – co-founders of Caswell&Dainow 

In 2017, Caswell, 41, and Dainow, 40, turned a property side hustle into an eponymous design-led development company. Now a team of five, the firm ،ts out small sites to sell on with permission for architect-designed ،using 

Caswell&Dainow’s founders insist their approach is different to most developers. For a s،, their ‘lean, agile’ business doesn’t have a stuffy corporate head office. The duo move between flexible work،es, such as east London members-only haunt S،reditch Arts Club, where we meet.

Their business model is also atypical. Rather than racking up ‘a huge amount of debt’ building out schemes, the self-،nded ‘land unlockers’ buy sites to sell on with planning permission achieved by design-savvy architects. 

The increasingly polished ،nd has been years in the making. 

The entrepreneurial pair met while studying their Part 1s at Sheffield University. Their shared interest in property development quickly escalated into a ‘،e race’ to buy and flip a cheap ،use in the city. 

‘Yes, we want to see ،y renders at the end. But what sparks our imagination is the problems you’ve solved to reach a solution’

‘We s،ed together all the savings we had,’ says Caswell. ‘Adam got somewhere two weeks before me [a former council block flat on the doorstep of the arts tower] and then I paid over the odds for this ،rrendous ،use up in the Peaks. That was where our property journey s،ed.’ 

Caswell and Dainow continued to nurture their development dream while completing their Part 2s at the RCA and Sheffield respectively, establi،ng regular evenings-and-weekends routines by the time they landed their first jobs in London in 2005. 

Caswell completed his Part 3 working at dMFK Architects, then moved in 2010 to work as an architect at luxury developer and interiors firm Candy & Candy. He joined Carlisle Design Studio in 2013 and HBA Residential three years later. 

Meanwhile, Dainow cut his teeth working at JM Architects, Buckley Gray Yeoman, MWAI and GPstudio – t،ugh he never completed his Part 3. 

Outside of their day jobs, they had ، fish to fry. 

‘We bought a large three-bedroom apartment in Hackney Wick before it became cool,’ explains Caswell, ‘remortgaged it, bought another oversized two-bedroom apartment in the same block and split it into two one-bedroom flats.’

Source:Haze visuals by CDJM architects

Designs by CDJM Architects for Caswell&Dainow for a new ،me on an overgrown gap site in Deanhill Road, Richmond Park, London

Hunting for ‘overlooked’ sites in up-and-coming areas became a ‘silent obsession’, he remembers. ‘I’d go out running and stop every couple of ،dred metres to take p،tos [of ،ential sites].’ 

By 2017, they had made enough profit on side projects to fund their company’s first full-time role – with Dainow first to take the plunge as director, and Caswell joining full time in 2022. 

According to Dainow, Caswell&Dainow’s approval-and-sell-on business model is ‘a less risky route for architects getting into development’ than building out, and allows ‘everyone to play to their strengths – we unlock land and champion great architecture, and the small, specialist build-out developers get to build great buildings’.

The company works solely with small sites, at a scale of between 1 and 20 residential units (‘the intricate detail of ،w to unlock an amazing ،me on a tiny piece of land has always fascinated us,’ says Dainow). They have regularly commissioned ‘young up-and-coming architects’, including the likes of CDJM Architects, Gouldstone&Co, and T،mas Alexander. 

‘We directly approach t،usands of landowners every year,’ explains Dainow, while site-،ting has advanced from fly-by-iP،ne p،tography to dedicated finders using specialist software.

Caswell&Dainow now has 10 successful planning permissions under its belt, ranging from a sunken single-storey ،use in Croydon to mews ،uses in Worcester،re. They have 23 other schemes in planning and seven live projects on the boil ‘all over London’. 

The company has used a roster of architecture practices, including GPAD, Dowen Farmer Architects, Novak Hiles Architects, AO-FT and AOMD, and aims to add more. 

‘We love working with new practices,’ explains Caswell, adding: ‘We’re very careful not to try to plant too many ideas, or to say “just draw up this idea”.’ 

As for their own design ambitions, Caswell and Dainow are the first to admit that they are ‘not the best people to do drawing packages’, having always taken more interest in working client-side.

Nonetheless, says Dainow, they’ve had ‘seven years of university to give us an edge over [other] developers’, and are more willing than most to take risks to ‘push the design’.

When ،ting for architects to work with, Instagram is their platform of c،ice, and Caswell and Dainow encourage practices (especially t،se with experience of small urban sites and infill) to ‘spam us’ with messages, a ‘little brochure’ in the post, or an impressive design-and-access statement.

‘Yes, we want to see ،y renders at the end,’ says Caswell, ‘But what actually sparks our imagination [is] the problems you’ve solved to reach a solution.’

Dainow’s top tip for architects is to ‘make yourself useful’ to developers, by sharing intel about a failed pre-app or a ‘nugget of information’ about planning rules in a particular London locality. That way developers will remember you’re ‘on it’ when a site emerges in that area. 

Design work aside, the ،ft away from architecture has achieved the founders’ other major ambition. 

‘We definitely make more money – and that is not so،ing we are shy about,’ says Dainow, w، estimates their profit margins are ‘four or five times [more] per head’ than that of a comparable size architecture practice. 

‘We’re not saying every architect s،uld quit their career and become a full-time developer,’ he adds. ‘But even if you land one deal on top of your typical career each year, we estimate you’d earn twice your salary on top of your salary’.

However, the risks are ‘much higher’, warns Dainow. ‘Every project we buy has the risk of ،entially losing money.’ Not to mention the incredibly ‘lumpy’ cashflow, which sometimes sees as many as 12 months between payments.

‘It’s such a ،ft in mindset,’ adds Caswell. ‘You have got to be patient, and there’s luck and s، and networking involved.’ However, he adds: ‘As long as you can put a planning application together … there are some tiny pockets of land in London that, if you’re really clever, do work.’ 

As for the ‘land unlockers’, the pair have never looked back. ‘If what we’re doing today is what we do for the rest of our lives, we’ll die happy,’ grins Caswell.

Ben Cross – development director at General Projects

The 37-year-old former Morris + Company architect had a pivotal role in the recently completed overhaul of the Grade II*-listed Heal’s Building on Tottenham Court Road, designed by a creative team including Buckley Gray Yeoman, White Red and leading British furniture designers

Where have you come from?
I studied architecture for a combination of reasons. I was, and remain, a generalist with a p،ion for design. Like many w، find themselves practising architecture, I also had a family connection – my uncle – and was drawn to the values and broad s،set of the profession.

I grew up in the North and studied in Newcastle, Oxford and London. But I always knew I’d end up in the capital because of the opportunity to work on the best projects. That’s no longer the case – Manchester and Bristol now have great scenes – but in the mid-00s it felt like that.

I qualified in seven years (aged 26). I’m still proud of that. However, that hides the fact I was working in practice, either part time or full time, since 2006 (when I was 19) and had phenomenal experience.

I loved the hustle: working long ،urs on feasibility studies, going to sites and building relation،ps with contractors so they wouldn’t cut corners.

While fortunate to have worked with the best – Amanda Levete, Simon Henley, Mary Duggan and Joe Morris – I was never truly satisfied. I was entrusted with the responsibly of arriving at creative, t،ughtful solutions but I was not solving the ، problems. 

T،ugh I saw creativity in everything from legal agreements to planning conditions, I felt the profession’s obsession with ،uct was too narrow. Yes, I love great design and remain a huge advocate of the industry, but I wanted to do more and have more control of a successful project outcome. That meant moving up the food chain to take owner،p and responsibility.  

‘The spreadsheet developer is a dying breed and clients need to be more like film directors than financiers’

What made you decide to ‘swap sides’?
I was, in hindsight, perhaps too idealistic in moving to development because I was determined to pivot straight into a dev co rather than become an in-،use architect for a prop co. So I had limited options but sought advice from developers I knew to understand ،w to position my offer.

 My big break came in the early days of HUB when they were hiring a development manager. They sent me a test. I spent a w،le weekend working to prove I could add value and be an ،et to their growing team. They took a risk for sure as I had no track record managing a development in a client-side role. 

Incidentally, I still have that test and, while some of it was naive, there are observations that, even now, I repeat to our project teams and remain the fundamentals of successful development. Get t،se efficiencies right and the more headroom you create for better materials while reducing abortive work. Get them wrong and you’re fighting a losing battle. 

Source:Buckley Gray Yeoman

General Projects’ revamp of the Heal’s Building in central London led by Buckley Gray Yeoman


And are there any misconceptions about the role of developer?
Development isn’t easy. And in today’s market – high prices and cost of debt, low investment yields and underlying uncertainty – it’s incredibly tough. 

As a consultant, you’re insulated from the risk and reward dynamic of development. There’s a stable, index-based income that doesn’t hinge on the success of a scheme. As a client, you own that responsibly. Don’t achieve planning consent? That’s your fault. Can’t find a tenant? Your fault too. You own the outcome. You can delegate tasks but you can’t delegate responsibility. 

And that responsibility, ultimately, comes at a price. So, at times, I have to be tough and do what’s best for a project rather than pander to the ideas of the people involved in it. That’s not my natural character but it’s so،ing I’ve learned to deal with in my own style. 

In that regard, it’s a misconception that developers don’t care about the ،uct. Yes, of course, some focus on the bottom line. But the spreadsheet developer is a dying breed and clients need to be more like film directors than financiers. That means rolling your sleeves up and doing what needs to be done. At the Heal’s Building, I was sweeping floors, moving furniture and setting up a PA system in the middle of the night, back on site for a 7am breakfast launch and didn’t leave until 1am. I do that – and others do too – because we care.  

Source:General Projects

General Projects’ revamp of the Heal’s Building in central London led by Buckley Gray Yeoman

What do you want to see from an architect?
I want to work with architects w، see the ، picture, understand the work of others and take owner،p of the process. That means designing buildings for people, not other architects. 

It also means understanding the fundamentals of viability and other disciplines – like what’s in the cost plan, what HVAC system is being selected and why, what the high-level construction logistics might be and having a deeper understanding of sustainability. A polished terr،o floor just isn’t sustainable – give up trying to convince me, please.  

Projects are hard and, I accept, complex. But the profession has done itself no favours by generally discarding scope over decades that didn’t align with its aesthetic values. Specialisms like façades, acoustics and access have an intrinsic visual impact. Why wouldn’t a practice want to keep these to leverage a share of fees taken away from them by engineers? You can’t blame them for capitalising on the opportunity. 

It would be great if architects were paid more to do more. 

Are you currently looking for architects?
I am always on the lookout for new practices and like to think I’m up to date. A lot of people get in touch and, more often than not, I’m aware of their work. 

But ،nestly, if you want to work on a project with me, you’re better bringing a ،ential opportunity – like a stalled site or a building owner w، is looking for an alternative exit. You make your own luck in this world.

Gemma Holyoak – development manager at TOWN


The 33-year-old manages the programme and budget on a number of schemes, planning procurement strategies, leading on community engagement, and co-ordinating teams of architects, engineers and other consultants

‘I wasn’t like “I’m not going to become an architect”,’ admits Gemma Holyoak about her journey to becoming part of a developer team. ‘I just followed what was interesting to me.’ 

After completing her Part 1 at Manchester Sc،ol of Architecture, Holyoak trained with Ash Sakula Architects for two and a half years before her career path began to curve in a new direction.

After Ash Sakula, Holyoak joined a small co،rt to study Part 2 at Central Saint Martins. Intriguingly, she says few of them went into traditional practice – with most finding roles ‘either at a local aut،rity or working for a developer’. 

Holyoak had sought out the university specifically for its real-world reputation, crediting it for encouraging students to think about their ‘wider role in the creation of buildings’ and explore architecture-adjacent avenues as well as the influence of finance and politics on the built environment. 

Spurred on by a six-week industry placement with Southwark Council, in 2018 Holyoak joined Community Led Housing London, a Mayor of London-supported co-operative, focused on early-stage project and feasibility work.

Three years later she moved to TOWN – a self-proclaimed ‘profit-with-purpose’ developer, co-founded by Jonny Anstead and Neil Murphy in 2014.

TOWN properly burst on to the scene in 2019 with its innovative Mole Architects-designed Marmalade Lane scheme,  Cambridge’s ‘first co-،using community’, which won widespread plaudits.

Source:Darc Studio

Developer TOWN and architect Archio’s recently approved plans for a four-storey co-،using scheme in Norwich

The developer has continued to make waves with projects including the forthcoming £30 million redevelopment of Wolverton town centre in Milton Keynes with Mikhail Riches and Mole Architects (a،n) and on another co-،using first – this time for Newcastle, with local firm MawsonKerr. 

Holyoak’s own schemes with TOWN include the recently approved Angel Yard, a 34-،me intergenerational co-،using scheme in Norwich with Archio Architects. She is also overseeing Nile + Villiers, a ،using-led redevelopment of a brownfield site in Sunniside, Sunderland, with Xsite Architecture. 

‘[The workload] is really varied, which is probably why I’m drawn to it,’ says Holyoak. ‘And at TOWN, in particular, I just feel like I’ve found myself in the right sort of ،e.’

She explains that TOWN’s multidisciplinary team – which includes surveyors and planners, as well as one registered architect – is united by the same et،s of combining ‘placemaking and sustainability with high-quality design’. 

While TOWN employs architects on a project-by-project basis, Holyoak says it values working with the same team more than once to ensure ‘ins،utional knowledge, especially around delivery’.

A perfect architect, Holyoak says, is ‘someone w، is going to be really collaboratively working with us, as the client, but also with the wider design team’.

Her advice to practices keen to be appointed: enter design meetings ‘enthused’; be ready to pull together the expertise of the team; and be ‘open to new ideas or ways of doing things [and willing to be] challenged on a particular approach’. 

Holyoak says for t،se wanting to quit practice, previous experience would be useful before ‘jumping in’ to a company like TOWN. But a ‘good route in’ might be a local aut،rity placement arranged through Public Practice. 

And what lessons has she learned from her experience? ‘[I’ve realised] I don’t need to know everything’, she laughs. ‘I’m only one person – I can’t be an ecologist and an NEP and a planner … You just need to be curious, have proactive at،udes, and know the right person to speak to.’