‘Our ethos simply evolved from our personalities and knowing the sort of design-led practice that we wanted it to be.’

Joanna van Heyningen

How it started

vHH began life in 1977 as a husband and wife practice based in the family home in North London, designed by Joanna van Heyningen and Birkin Haward. Jo and Birkin were joined by Meryl Townley in 1996. By 1997 the practice had moved into Burghley Yard to allow for expansion, but never at the cost of the family values which are central to the way in which we still operate. That same year they recruited Chris Wilderspin, followed by James (Josh) McCosh in 1999. So before the start of the new millennium the three architects who would go on to become Partners in 2005, and ultimately succeed Jo and Birkin, were already playing a crucial role in shaping the character, and ensuring the success, of vHH.


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Having come from 13 years at Foster and Partners Birkin knew that he wanted ‘to concentrate on things that get lost in a big practice. We wanted to have more direct contact both with our staff and our clients, and to make ourselves more available. Having lunch together and doing trips’, which the current Partners have continued, ‘just seemed to me the natural thing to do. Also, we wanted our staff to have a life. I felt that it wasn’t necessary or efficient to work until late at night, every night.’ As Jo explains, ‘our ethos simply evolved from our personalities and knowing the sort of design-led practice that we wanted it to be.’



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‘The fact that Jo and Birkin always designed from the perspective of those who would be using the building was attractive to all of us when we joined vHH, and is something that we still passionately believe in’, explains Meryl.

Another of their legacies is an understanding of how buildings are put together to ensure that they really last. Everyone in the practice fundamentally agrees with that, so even if we have to use less expensive materials on a project, the detailing is consistently at a high level. ‘As well as being well detailed and robust’, says Chris ‘vHH buildings are also designed to be sustainable. Most importantly, we create spaces that people like to be in. Clients come to us not for signature buildings, but for unique solutions, as they did when Jo and Birkin led the practice.’



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The nurturing of staff and the ability to understand and really listen to clients has remained at the heart of vHH, as has Jo’s desire for architects to ‘really enjoy the projects they’re working on and have a desire to see it through – to get out of it an education, but also a fulfilment of an architectural experience.’

 When Josh, Meryl and Chris became Directors one of the most important things they brought to the practice was, says Jo, ‘an awareness of how much jobs were costing us. As well as their energy and creative skills, what they showed us was how to deal with the real world. All of this was invaluable.’ Since becoming Partners they have been determined to reach out to a wider pool of clients, which has inevitably meant tackling larger and more complex projects and being open and able to work with non-traditional procurement, while still maintaining a design-led ethos.




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Jo and Birkin had decided early on that when it came time for them to retire they would not close the practice, but that it should have a future. ‘By the time Josh, Meryl and Chris became Partners in 2005 we’d made the decision – based on lots of detailed discussions with them – that they would eventually take over the practice. We felt that they had ‘got it’, that they were enjoying being a part of vHH and that they were more than capable of taking on every aspect of its development.’

Josh explains: ‘As directors we all found a natural affinity with the ethos of the practice and each other, and it was wonderful to be working in an environment where we were free to create change and influence its direction. As Partners we’ve been able to build upon our history, introduce new ideas and fresh thinking, but our remit remains the same; we design from the experience of those using our buildings, that’s what it’s all about!’


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With the recession and the radical changes in the construction industry Jo stepped down at the end of 2011. Birkin had already retired a couple of years earlier. ‘I didn’t feel able to respond to the different ways of procuring buildings, but the other three Partners were very gutsy in the recession and were flexible enough to accept the changes and work with a wider variety of clients, including contractors, more effectively than I could. We are both happy in the knowledge that they will cope creatively with the way things have changed and continue to evolve the practice.’


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