David Miller in South Africa: Sharing Experience

Monday, November 13th, 2017


David Miller’s appointment as Creative Director of 2017 Guerrilla Tactics, the RIBA’s flagship event for small practices, proved to have far-reaching resonance within the international architecture community, culminating with an invitation from the Pretoria Institute of Architecture (PIA) to tour South Africa to share his knowledge.

The PIA, under the enthusiastic guidance of this year’s President Gerd Bolt, have a keen interest in BIM and how it can be implemented in architectural practices. As David Miller Architects have first-hand experience and knowledge in this field, the PIA were keen to understand how business processes changed to enable DMA to successfully make BIM ‘business as usual’.

Arriving in Pretoria on the first day, David was met by Gerd and Mauneen van Wyk of the PIA – who was instrumental in organising the SA tour – with a visit to the Nirox Foundation Sculpture Park, which provides a unique platform for the exhibition of outdoor sculptures and installations.

The following day saw a visit to four vibrant architect practices with different, inspiring approaches and, in the afternoon, David went on a site visit to the new Future Africa Campus designed by Earthworld Architects.

Site Visit with Earthworld Architects

For David, it was very interesting to compare notes on where we are regarding the adoption and implementation of BIM in both countries, but also more generally within the professions and the stresses and strains we see. Architects seem to have the same challenges as in the UK including the downward pressures on fees and changing procurement ecosystems. Finding ways of being more efficient was a common theme discussed during these visits.

An aspect that became immediately clear during the visit was the very friendly, tight-knit community that the SA architects enjoy. If one compares numbers, there are around 3,000 architects in SA, but around 33,000 in the UK (serving similar populations). These differences in figures explain to some extent how difficult it can be to stand out from the crowd in the UK and why it is so important to be innovative.

David’s first  talk of the Pretoria visit (‘The Small Business Approach to Big Business’) was given at the PIA’s ‘DesignBuild’ conference and explained how small practices can take advantage of their size to be quick to innovate in increasingly competitive environments. He explained how architects can maximise what they offer through embracing new technologies for digital construction – a message that received enthusiasm from the attending delegates.

David Miller visiting ARCA Architects with PIA president, Gerd Bolt

The conference also included a ‘DesignBox exercise’ where David, Gerd Bolt and a research student at Pretoria University (who wrote the brief) were involved in judging the delegates’ efforts. David very much enjoyed the experience, especially the way everyone got stuck in, getting creative and making stuff out of cardboard.

The following day saw David present a 3-hour workshop titled ‘Reimagine Your Practice’, an in-depth extension of the previous talk explaining in detail how DMA embarked on a six-month reshaping of their business.

The DMA 6-month exercise was conducted with different business coaches and involved a series of exercises to define what they were trying to achieve in the practice and how it could be done. For the workshop, David distilled the key elements that he thought particularly useful (without the ‘business speak’) into a tight workshop, sharing how DMA had implemented changes to give the tools to other people to utilise in their own practice.

It was now time to leave Pretoria and the amazing blossoming Jacaranda trees and head for Cape Town to meet Kevin Gadd – the President of the Cape Institute for Architecture (CIFA) and to give another one-hour lecture as before.

Being in Cape Town allowed David some time free time to explore the city with the architect Paul Krynauw and his wife, Rowena, who provided David’s accommodation at their lovely home in the beautiful wine country of Stellenbosch.

David Miller with Architect Paul Krynauw

David was again taken to visit architectural practices in the region before moving onto the final destination of the trip – Durban.

The architect, Richard Dobson met David and took him on a cultural tour of Durban where he explained the changing demographic and nature of the city over recent years. Richard had previously worked for the city authorities, but now runs an NGO supporting The Warwick Markets community – an informal market of about 6,000 stallholders inhabiting an area underneath and over some unfinished flyovers in Durban. This market has an extremely strong social value with the idea of looking at ways of creating semi-formal market spaces – even identifying areas of pavements where people can set up stalls providing an entry into commerce. Interestingly, every market stall is effectively supporting up to 18 people. It was a fascinating experience for David and one of the major highlights of the trip.

After the tour of the city David gave his now rehearsed ‘Small business approach to big success’ lecture at the South African Institute of Architects KZN (KwaZulu-Natal) offices, and on the following morning presented his well-received 3-hour workshop on how to ‘Reimagine your practice’. David enjoyed meeting and being shown around Durban by the South African Institute of Architects (SAIA) president, Kevin Bingham, and the KwaZulu-Natal Institute for Architecture (KZNIA) president, Ruben Reddy.

This fantastic tour of SA left David Miller a little exhausted, but inspired by the architects of the country. The environment in which they work is less constrained, allowing for a great deal of creativity in design work. There are certainly similarities between SA and the UK in the pressures of the architectural profession, but seeing different approaches can help in viewing challenges in a slightly different way. The tour provided an opportunity to be open about those challenges, and to share ways to overcome obstacles to overall success.