Imagine cycling from London to Tignes on a Penny Farthing bicycle. Just a few weeks ago, that’s what Jon Beswick, founder of Adventure in Architecture, was doing – with one of his clients, and in aid of The Stroke Association.
To understand Beswick’s approach to business, you have to go back a few years. “It was the height of the recession, and me and my soon-to-be business partner were looking at a map of the world trying to work out where wasn’t affected. The answer, perhaps ironically, was Africa.” Both men had already decided to take career breaks and come up with an exciting next step.
The result was an eight-month expedition around the African coastline, visiting 33 countries and covering over 33,000 miles. While there, the pair had designed shelters for HIV clinics on the west coast – to house staff and waiting patients. “When we got back, we realised just how difficult a time we’d had. Starting a business was always going to be easier, and setting up our own practice was simply the logical next step.”
Adventure in Architecture spans residential projects, development, and lifestyle businesses. Beswick has designed the homes of people like James Horner, the composer of the soundtrack for Titanic, and is working with Rebel 1, Bear Grylls’s high-end gym chain, on its indoor climbing franchises. He’s designed Mayfair restaurants, eco houses in the home counties, courts and, of course, expedition shelters.
Go on his website, and you can see some of Beswick’s work. But many high net worth clients don’t want images published, even anonymously. “It’s frustrating, because some of the best work we do we can’t talk about.” There’s also the really “weird and wonderful” stuff. “One of the things we’re doing with 1 Rebel is spin classes on the go – in a converted bus. You board, and do the class en route to work.”
I ask Beswick what makes an ideal client. “They’re so varied. Some are incredibly emotionally involved, others just hand over the key and reappear six months later. The best projects are where you get plenty of face-time and meetings, but clients are willing to see the value of what you’re doing – and pay for it.”
Beswick, who wanted to be an architect since he was a child, when he was also sailing, skiing and exploring, realised that extreme adventures create really strong networks. “On that trip, I met some amazing people: mining company executives, expats, high net worths – and from there I built up a network that really enabled me to get the business off the ground.”
Shortly after that, Beswick was invited to ski to the South Pole as part of a British team. “Again, that trip was with successful businessmen who had the money, means and drive to get themselves there.”
It was on this expedition that Beswick found himself in one of his toughest scrapes to date. Having arrived at the American research base at the South Pole, he and some of the group borrowed one of their vehicles.
“We shouldn’t have done it. We took it 20 miles away – and bear in mind we were skiing just 10 miles a day to get there – before getting stuck. The only option was to get the vehicle out of the snow. So we took off one of its tyres, buried it and winched the vehicle up. I’ve actually never told anyone about it until this day. All architects are problem-solvers, but for me being so comes back to adventures. If something goes wrong, you just have to find a way to fix it.”
A problem it’ll be harder for Beswick to solve is the attitudes found in his line of work. “I have a huge problem with the architectural industry as a whole because of the preoccupation with only talking to other architects and critiquing each other’s work. We really should be out talking to entire communities. I guess I’m a pragmatist, and to me, the most important thing is talking to clients, making sure I deliver my brief. Theories only get you so far.”
Perhaps inevitably if you’re talking about insuperable barriers, we get onto planning. “It can be extremely difficult – you can feel like you’re going round in circles.”
An example: many architects and developers, Bewsick explains, come up against something called Paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework, which states that individual house builds can be exempt from all planning constraints if they are deemed “architecturally outstanding”. This decision is made by a planning committee. “Everyone invariably has their own agenda, and expertise can be varied. I don’t know a better solution, but it’s certainly not a perfect system.”
Now, Beswick is running the business by himself, and he is looking to grow it much faster. “Until now, growth has been fairly organic, with most clients coming to us through word of mouth. Now it’s me on my own, I want to grow quicker, building out the three teams we have – the number of projects, their size, and our employees.”
On the expedition front, Beswick is determined to “get as many of our clients to achieve what they think they can’t achieve.” In August, he’ll be taking a group to scale 5,650m Elbrus in Russia. “After that, it’s the Gates of Hell in Turkmenistan. It’s this tremendous fire pit in the middle of the desert.”
Unsurprisingly, many of Beswick’s employees are thrill-seekers – but not all of them. “We go climbing, axe-throwing... we’ve done Tough Mudder-type challenges. One member of the team isn’t the most athletic person, but she’s joined us and I really respect and admire her for it.” I ask whether they ever go to the pub. “Of course! We go after a challenge. And knowing you’ve just achieved something makes it more rewarding!”
Ultimately, says Beswick, he’s “not purely hunting profit. I’ve always been after a rounder business. I want to work with people who are exciting, who enjoy a challenge. That’s where you find the most rewards in life.”