INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Sean Hatcher is Design Director for MCM Architecture, joining the company back in the Summer of 2013, and having worked at ORMS Architecture Design for the previous ten years. MCM is one of Europe's leading workplace strategy and architectural design practices, currently with major projects and clients in London, Germany, Poland and Russia within the workplace, leisure, retail and residential sectors.

This year, for the second time around, Sean has kindly agreed to share his expertise as a World Interiors News Awards judge. We ask him what he'll be looking for, and find out more about the man, his illustrious German mentor, and what led him into architecture and design in the first place. (As usual, the parents are to blame. Read on to discover the classic child-calming technique that helped forge a successful career!)

We also seek his views on the future of the workplace, and some of the considerable challenges now facing designers...

Sean, you were a World Interiors News Awards judge in 2012 on the Retail & Leisure Interiors panel. How did you find the whole experience?

I really enjoyed the debate with my fellow judges and was surprised that we nearly always unanimously agreed on the winners.

This year you'll be on the World Interiors News Awards jury again, this time on the Workspace Interiors panel. What are some of the key things you'll be looking for from entrants?

Regardless of sector, I always look for clarity and consistency of thinking. I try to imagine a user's experience as much as a designer's opinion.

Turning to your own personal story, you've lived and worked internationally a great deal, but where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Surrey, but I moved abroad with my parents soon after. My first two schools were in Fiji in the South Pacific and I was fortunate to travel the world while we were there.

Where did you train as an architect, and what inspired you to do so?

I trained at Plymouth University and the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. Creating, building and construction have always been in my life.

My grandfather was a bricklayer and steeplejack. He built numerous brick towers and chimneys in London and Surrey. My father is a civil and structural engineer. He built and converted countless houses as I grew up, while I frequently joined him on site visits as a teenager.

Combined with my interest in drawing and art, for which I won several awards, arguably it was pre-ordained that I would be an architect!

Were they school and college art awards? Can you give an example perhaps?

My artwork was recognised at an early age. It all started with my parents giving me pencils and paper to draw on as a way to keep me quiet! It led to me winning the Merist Wood award as a boy and ultimately to me winning the Degree Design Award at University, which was presented by Lord Palumbo. I was also nominated for the RIBA Bronze Award.

You're a fluent German speaker who worked alongside the renowned Professor Otto Steidle in Munich early in your career. Is that how you learned to speak German?

Yes, I acquired a job at Steidle & Partner with absolutely no German! My arts based portfolio, which was very different to a traditional German student's one, was my key to acquiring a position. I was initially employed on a two-month contract working on an international competition that we duly won! I ended up staying for three years, acquired some great German friends, kept away from the English ex-pats and immersed myself in the language. It's the only way to learn!

It must have been quite an education working with Professor Steidle. Can you tell us about one or two of the workspace projects you worked on with him?

The 85,000 metres square headquarters building was subsequently built and still remains the global headquarters for T-Mobile.

I also worked on the Wacker-Haus in Munich for the well-known chemical company, Wacker Chemie. The highlight of this project was the mountain stream that runs through the site and even a through a conference room!

Sounds intriguing! How does that work?

A stream that originates in the mountains 60 kilometres south of Munich flows through the city. Known as an 'icebach', the water is exceptionally cold! The stream flows 'between' two conference rooms and can been seen through large round glass windows. As the rooms are set into the ground, the water flows across the glass at eye level!

And what were some of the most important lessons you learned from him?

I learnt that a simple structure and principle can be used to create a rich and varied architecture. I will never forget his interest in 'dancing' - or kinetic - windows placed at differing heights and positions within a façade. Placed within a regular, regimented grid setting, they repeat themselves like a musical score on a page.

I also learnt that collaboration with other designers and specialists can enrich your designs. Professor Steidle would work with colour specialists, as well as lighting and landscape designers - and indeed sometimes with other eminent architects - to push his ideas and projects further. These lessons and this ethos is part of how I try to conduct myself today.

You later joined ORMS, becoming a Director in 2006. During your 10 years with the firm, aside from many European projects, you also had responsibility for Bangalore, India. What were you working on, how long were you there, and what was the most memorable part of the experience professionally?

I worked on three leisure projects in Bangalore. I only went there for 4-day working visits each time - they were always very intense but hugely enjoyable.

I was struck by how people are a cheaper commodity on building sites than machines, with an army - often made up of women - carrying huge weights to construct buildings. I was struck that site Health & Safety regulations don't exist; that an architect is still a hugely respected position within society, and that shaking your head is a great way to say 'yes and no' at the same time! I found after two days there I was doing it too! A magical experience.

How do you feel you've benefited from working internationally? How has it enriched your professional capabilities and helped you consider different paradigms?

Working internationally has first and foremost made me a more culturally enriched person. To understand how other cultures behave, think and conduct themselves in business widens your thinking and, in my opinion, makes you a more creative individual. I also try to imagine, "What would other designers from other countries do?".

In terms of workspace architecture and interiors, how diverse are the approaches taken by different regions of the world? Or are they actually quite similar?

There are inevitably different approaches. Your approach to working in Greece is different to working in Germany, as is your approach to working in Saudi Arabia compared to India! But they are all fundamentally based around cultural acceptance, national and local regulation, and building product cost and availability.

Sustainability in the workplace comes high on the agenda nowadays. What are some of the key factors that you feel architects should be considering?

Sustainability should no longer be high on the agenda, it should be by default part of the thinking and part of the solution! Architects should also be pushing clients to help create space that will change the market, not follow it.

Looking to the future, what other trends and priorities are emerging in the workspace arena?

Inevitably more creative and collaborative environments are essential to business - a workspace that works for them. The workspace will never die as people want to meet each other, want to share ideas and want to be tested. A great workspace should support this.

What do you mean by 'more creative and collaborative environments'?

Workplaces no longer need to be based around a desk and a monitor. The most collaborative spaces are when people meet and are relaxed enough to talk, while a creative space may be an area in which to be quieter and more focussed, or it may be a space where you are encouraged to use all types of media – paper, pen, mouse, beamer, and so on.

And what are some of the major challenges for workspaces in the future?

I believe that while there are real expediential changes in technology, movement in people, cultural shifts and climate pattern changes, our building stock, whether existing or 'future', is unable to cope and embrace such challenges. There needs to a fundamental review of design process to make this happen.

In what way do you believe our building stock is unable to cope?

Buildings need to be inherently more flexible and adaptive to allow for density changes as rental costs rise, to allow for more natural ventilation as energy costs rise, to allow for differing type of spaces and leases as company sizes change, to allow for differing power and data as technology needs change.

Going back to you personally, you've had the opportunity to work extensively at both ends of the commercial client spectrum for developers and end-users alike. Can you pick out one key thing that each could benefit from learning from the other when planning the interior of a new workspace?

With developer clients, it's about the 'value of the decision'. Understanding where your ideas will make the most impact to the building or space

With end-users clients, it's about bringing personality to the process. How the interaction, even bonding, between client and design consultant can create an end result that is, in part, an embodiment of their personality.

You once said that you had a passion for creating "memorable, enjoyable, and well-considered spaces". For you, what are the three most important factors in achieving this?

A deep understanding and meeting of minds with the client is essential. Ensuring you always question your decisions throughout the design process is important; as well inspiring the people you work with to better themselves and their work.

And finally, how is your new role as Board Director of MCM shaping up? What's in the pipeline project-wise?

I feel it is a privilege to be here at MCM, let alone a member of the company's Board. I am enjoying the challenges, my new fellow colleagues, and the ambience in which quality work is created and achieved. Timing is everything in life and there is a currently real renaissance of the business that has gathered momentum since I joined last summer.

Gail Tailor