UK architect Mark Dziewulski lived the American dream in New York and California for 17 years. Now, he is bringing his can-do approach and value engineering expertise back to Britain.
Home run
Ever thought of emigrating to the USA, where the architecture is on a grander scale, construction technology is said to be at its most advanced and earnings put sterling salaries to shame? British architect Mark Dziewulski made the journey 17 years ago and found that the American dream really can come true.

Dziewulski built up experience and contacts in New York before successfully setting up his own practices there and, later, in Sacramento, California. In the sunshine state, he brought design flair to archetypal US shopping malls and value engineering to millionaires' houses. But now 38-year-old Dziewulski is back in the UK, homesick for a country where he believes design is highly valued, and ready to build up a new business on this side of the Atlantic.

In the USA, Dziewulski found a niche as a design-led architect who talked to developers in their own language, and he hopes to slot into a similar market here. But he is also interested in expanding his repertoire into areas such as the public sector and low cost housing, with all the can-do attitude of a natural-born American.

"I don't think architects need to specialise," he says. 'There's always a short, steep, learning curve [on an unfamiliar building type], but you can apply the same attitudes to every project." For Dziewulski, that means rigorously designing out cost in the unseen parts of a building so that the money released can be spent on adding design flair to its public face. "Developers often think that design will just cost them more money. But it is possible to get the best of both worlds."

The Cambridge graduate and Fulbright scholar moved to the USA in 1982, a temporary arrangement that soon became permanent when job offers and commissions began to flow. He worked for SOM and Michael Graves Architects in New York before setting up his own firm in 1986 and designing office, banking and other commercial projects, as well as loft conversions and apartment buildings.

The practice's repertoire widened following the move to Sacramento in 1993, where a scheme for a Virgin Megastore and a small speciality shopping centre attracted several design awards. Ongoing projects in the care of his US staff include a war memorial in Poland for the Polish airforce, a 38 000 m2 international bamboo research institute in Beijing and a museum in California.

Now, Dziewulski is attempting to establish himself in London, where he already has two residential commissions, and at the same time maintain the California business. He clearly feels he has come home, not just to his family but in an architectural sense. "I can see the changes clearly," he says. "People are very interested in design, and design standards have gone way up."

But Dziewulski is also discovering important differences in the way construction projects are managed in the two countries, and he believes that the US industry has had more success in improving efficiency. For instance, in the Sacramento office, value engineering to produce the most space- and cost-efficient buildings does not wait for the return of tenders or even a back-of-an-envelope cost calculation. Instead, architect, client and construction manager exchange ideas "before you put pen to paper".

If the construction manager has not been appointed, Dziewulski would try and work with an estimator and trade contractors. "If everyone's involved at the beginning, they're more prepared to compromise later," he says. "You have several offices working together rather than groups of people arguing."

Another difference is his belief that "small is beautiful" where his practice is concerned. Dziewulski's six-strong office is a surprisingly lean machine that concentrates on scheme design. For working drawings, Dziewulski "partners" with other practices that specialise in whatever building type is on the drawing board.

Rather than "handing over" the design, Dziewulski or his staff are offered desk space in the other firm, and the two progress the design together. "Very few offices can maintain teams who have experience in several design fields, and keep them busy," he says. "And if you hire new staff for a project, they have no experience of working together."

In fact, Dziewulski is convinced that partnering arrangements between different design firms will increasingly become the norm in the USA, with the UK perhaps catching on later. "You don't have hiring and firing issues but you do have lower overheads and more flexibility," he explains. If his business takes off in the UK, he hopes to use a similar staff-sharing arrangement here, and has already introduced the idea to several practices.

Although Dziewulski's accent and manner are more English than American, talking to him is still like absorbing a glossary of US construction terminology. A client is an "owner", working drawings are "construction drawings" and a gutter is a "cricket". Sometimes, he is not sure of the translation, for instance asking if "infill" is a term used in this country.

There is even a chapter on financial terminology, such as "cap rates" for property yields. "I can talk to developers about their returns or the fixed value of money," he says. "I have a lot of experience in financing and I'm a co-investor in some of the projects."

Dziewulski clearly has his fair share of entrepreneurial spirit. As he gets into his marketing stride, UK clients, developers and other architects can expect to be hearing from him.