Amid the Covid gloom an urban design practice, launched less than two years ago, has expanded rapidly throughout lockdown.

Edge Urban Design has gone from two staff to seven this year and achieved its five-year objectives within two – with little or no marketing.

The firm, launched by Hannah Smart and Sarah Murray, had operated in Ms Smart’s spare room until taking offices in Thame town centre in Oxfordshire in March. But within two weeks lockdown forced Edge to temporarily abandon its new home.

However, demand for its urban design and masterplanning work among large and small housebuilders has continued to grow and more staff were taken on throughout lockdown, sometimes without meeting in person.

A ‘transition period’ is soon to begin to get back to the office.

Ms Smart, 35, winner of the Futures Award at the 2018 Oxfordshire Property Awards, said: “We had a few weeks of quiet time where I felt like I was retired. It was like everyone had panicked and it felt a bit like a Christmas break.

“Then things slowly stared to pick up in April and May – amazingly as we’d gone into lockdown. It was quite interesting the way different businesses responded to what was happening.

“The very traditional ones, which didn’t like working from home, struggled. They had to buy laptops and all the other things. Newer ones like us were able to be more nimble.”

Edge works with developers and land promoters and Ms Smart said land promoters who, because they work at an early stage in developments, were able to continue to operate.

But a key reason for Edge being able to buck the trend according to Ms Smart, is staying loyal to clients.

She said: “We have a very close relationship with clients and we have become friends I guess. A few promoters and developers had financial issues so in some cases we shared the financial risk with them, like delaying invoicing them until the end of the year.

“So we have developed more flexible relationships. That approach has gone down really well with them.”

Work, she said, has come to Edge, rather than the team having to go in search of it through marketing.

She said: “It feels a bit embarrassing to say we haven’t had to do any. People have just approached us. They look at work we’ve done and they come to us and say ‘we want some of those’.”

Urban design, she said, has been seen as a secondary discipline by some architectural practices but one which has allowed Edge to spot an untapped demand somewhere between planning and architecture.

Ms Smart said: “There was clearly a gap in the market to fill and it’s definitely worked for us. We are not like Savills or Barton Willmore, offering everything.

“We are more about advocacy and storytelling. We deliver the strategic thinking, the big picture on the box rather than how the bricks come together.”

Edge launched in September 2018 after Ms Smart, who headed the urban design team at West Waddy, was faced with a choice of  becoming a partner or launching her own business.

Then her deputy, Sarah Murray, unaware of Ms Smart’s plans, announced she was about to leave so the two made the leap together.

They targeted the midlands to steer clear of treading on any local toes and much of the current work is repeat business from midlands clients.

The two directors are now supported by:

  • Tereza Kadlecova – urban design assistant
  • Greta Leonaviciene – urban designer
  • Astrid Guthier – urban design assistant
  • Sarah Middleton – urban designer
  • Sophie Evans – creative producer

The team was assembled largely throughout lockdown. With their international connections – including in Sweden, Lithuania and Germany – staff are allowed to work from abroad for periods of time each year.

Ms Smart is keen to stress there is no positive discrimination at play among the recruitment of Edge’s all-female team, ranging in age from 22 – 35, and is keen to consider men in its recruitment.

She said: “I think when people see we are female directors they have gravitated towards us. They see what we do and think ‘we want to be part of that’. We are not excluding men.”

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