Alumni in Focus

Willy Findlater

Owner/Director ICDP Architects

Willy Findlater

Willy Findlater, Architect Alumnus of RGU, graduated from three degree courses in the 70s. By 1984 he was Director of Architecture on the board of Valtos, an international multi-disciplinary practice.

Over the past 40 years, Willy has established and run two successful multi-discipline and architecture practices. His latest project is making huge carbon savings in the burgeoning tyre remanufacturing industry in Scotland.

Willy graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Architecture in 1975, a Diploma in Advanced Architectural Studies in 1977 and a Postgraduate diploma in Urban Design in 1978. He undertook his part one and part two Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) training with the Scottish Special Housing Association in Edinburgh and the Department of Architecture and Related Services at Glasgow City Council respectively.

Following his Part three professional practice exams, he moved to the private sector and joined Valtos as a Project Architect, before joining the board. He was heavily involved in the regeneration of Glasgow and responsible for several projects working on listed buildings and structures together with projects in the Middle East, which gave him a good grounding in construction, building contracts, dispute resolution and multi-client relationships together with an understanding of how to run a business.

In 1986, he formed his own multidisciplinary practice (architecture, engineering and quantity surveying). Twenty years on he set up an architecture practice in 2000, maintaining some of his existing client relationships. This allowed him to develop new streams of business, the most interesting of which have been waste to energy and recycling projects. Since his Diploma and Post Graduate studies, he’s had a lifelong interest in the built environment, climate, and resources. He’s aware that recycling and Waste to Energy facilities are becoming very important tools to help combat the approaching environmental crisis. According to Willy, ‘in the 1970’s following the energy crisis, the received wisdom was that the planet faced a potential ice age crisis and not a global warming emergency, although the question of finite resources was well understood!’

Willy was inspired to start his own business after learning early in his profession that there is no such thing as a good job when working for someone else, even as a Director of an Architectural practice. In January 1986 with two small children under four and a further baby due in March, he knew he needed to increase his earnings capacity. As Willy puts it, ‘it was a ‘no brainer’ as I had learned that it’s easier to earn £10K each from 8 staff than to earn £80K in a job for someone else. The combined needs of family, quality of life, financial imperative and self-belief gave me the push required.’

So, he took a chance, borrowed £18K for working capital, rented an office in Glasgow, employed an experienced technician, made future plans with a Quantity Surveyor and Engineer and within a month had been appointed to refurbish a group of four Grade B tenements, originally designed by Alexander Greek Thompson, on a multi-discipline basis.

He established a second base in Canterbury with a friend from college and they were appointed for a range of residential, commercial, industrial, and communication infrastructure and data projects. Within four years they had expanded and opened an office in London and were offering professional services as Architects, Quantity Surveyor’s, Civil and Structural Engineers, Mechanical and Electrical Engineers and Project Managers on an individual or multi-disciplinary basis.

However, the mid 90’s recession took its toll, and it was partly this that led Willy to conclude that he would like to try his hand as being a more traditional design-based Architect. His current small, eight person staff at ICDP Architects now specialises in waste and energy projects.

The most unusual project Willy has worked on is the Sir Alfred Waterhouse Grade A listed family chapel on the Coodham estate in South Ayrshire. It had lain derelict since the 1980’s and was extensively fire damaged in the 1990’s and considered to be beyond repair. Historic Scotland opposed its repair and wanted it to remain as a derelict historic shell together with the rest of the estate buildings. A 15-year process ensued which culminated in its restoration and conversion to Willy’s design into a magnificent family dwelling in 2010 at a cost of more than £2 million.

In 2006, Willy’s firm began preparing a masterplan for an industrial site to the south of Glasgow which was to be the UK’s first zero waste materials recycling facility capable of processing one million tonnes of mixed waste streams annually, including all ‘black bag’ waste from the surrounding local authorities which normally gets sent to landfill. As a result, they were exposed to a large range of esoteric technologies, processes, financial models, specialist suppliers and the ‘dark arts’ of waste and energy approval processes.

Willy’s experience led the company to be appointed as architects and lead consultant for the UK’s first tyre, devulcanization and manufacturing project. Willy tells us that ‘globally there is a rubber apocalypse due to climate change and the agricultural pressure on forests. The UK produces 50 million waste tyres a year, with Scotland contributing 5 million to this total. And instead of being recycled or reused, many of those waste tyres end up being exported at a massive carbon cost to be burned abroad or are left to mar our beautiful landscape in unsightly, and often illegal, tyre piles. The project’s mission is to help solve this problem. Using innovative technology, the tyre processing plant will recycle or reuse every component part of the waste tyre, allowing Scotland to rid itself of its waste tyre problem and help the country on its way to becoming a zero-waste nation. Annually the plant will make carbon savings of one million tonnes. A brilliant and innovative project for Scotland and a significant achievement after 40 years in the game.’

Aware of his considerable entrepreneurial success, we asked Willy what key piece of advice he’d offer to our alumni looking to start their own business. ‘If you can, find a mentor or a successful example of who or what you want to do or be and try and understand what they do well. Set your strategic goals as close to the ‘stars’ as you dare and don’t fret over it. Work on your tactical plan including programme, milestones, finance, income and profit. Have FUN.’

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