RIBA Future Architects: Barriers
I was 14 when I decided to become an architect and it would be dishonest if I said I have never questioned my decision.
Being an architect feels nothing like what I imagined it to be, even while I was at university.
On the one hand, our work can be exciting, collaborative and even political which is thrilling, on the other, it can also be removed from design, repetitive and even frustrating.
This is because the success of the projects we help shape is measured less in our design skills and more in the way they address the needs of those who will inhabit them… and given that humans are complex, so are projects.
And to solve complex challenges, there is nothing better than a growth mindset. The kind of inquisitive ever-expanding one that flourished when working in a diverse environment.
Lack of diversity:
Prior to setting up my own architectural studio I worked in regeneration roughly for ten years. In that context, I quickly became aware of the advantages to be found in building teams where individuals holding a range of views and experiences complemented rather than replicated one another.
·In order to work successfully with each other, this type of groups seemed to adopt open lines of communication, a shared sense of purpose and mutual respect from day one.
And the backgrounds and uniqueness of each individual acted as a levelling factor where everyone’s experience was as valuable.
Asking questions and owning up to mistakes was encouraged and assimilated as part of the process and all viewpoints were heard to make sure our solutions were both robust and considered
when it came to community engagement this approach helped us reach out to local stakeholders who in seeing us felt comfortable opening up and adding value to the project.
However, despite the many benefits, I could find, I found that many people around us (even within the office), saw this as too much of an effort when compared to recruiting people who looked like them, share similar backgrounds, and “got them”.
I doubt they even realised how this was impacting those of us who were different and those applying for work; however, it does remind me of the start of my journey.
social capital barrier
When I first decided to become an architect, my mum was not sure. She worked as a secretary for “the” communications company of Spain and as part of her role she had to deal with contractors on a regular basis.
Mum worried that an introvert who does not shout, would not be able to communicate with the site team to get them on board. (in case you wonder, i found humour to help)
But mostly, she worried that nobody in our circles was an architect and since it was a profession reliant on contacts, I would be on my own and potentially struggle to take off.
Many years later, having moved to the uk on my own, I must be honest and say that she was right to highlight this to me. Social capital can be a determining factor to help you progress in your career and today I want to share how I built mine to create a new role for me at a point when my career got stuck.
After many years feeling undervalued but unable to move on due to personal circumstances, in March 2013 I took a day off to attend a conference organised by the National Association of women in construction which was chaired by a former colleague.
At the conference, I met women working in all kinds of senior roles within the built environment and talking to them I realised how valuable that was.
I had never considered joining a network but this one was amazing.
A few months later I became regional chair and very quickly I was connected to women who were at the top of some of the country’s largest construction companies as well as top house builders, developers and a lot more. My volunteering (which took place out of working hours) helped me grow my network exponentially and built my confidence and skills.
I was invited to contribute to a paper by the Smith institute, launched in parliament by an MP, to day-long conferences by the institutes and even round tables organised by the industry press.
After a year doing this, I used the social capital and skills I had built outside the office, unsupported, as a bargaining chip when negotiation a promotion and a pay rise, and I got both.
This is why I would advise my younger self and you to 1. Join multiple professional Networks (architectural and beyond) 2. Attend industry events (many are free or discounted for students) 3. Connect with the rest of the industry and beyond (through social media 4. Find a mentor (I’ve mentored at fluid by built by us since 2013 and at women in architecture since January)
Now, should the company where I worked have a different culture, I might have not needed to go that far, and This will lead me nicely to the next barrier I would like to discuss
Culture of place:
The wider Construction industry and architecture in particular, have a culture of long hours and uninterrupted availability which historically have been seen as a prerequisite when it comes to progression.
However, as the workforce now includes a wider range of individuals who want to thrive but would not want to disregard their responsibilities beyond the office, finding out about the culture of the place prior to applying for a job is something I would advise you to do.
You could do this by researching the company online but also approaching former and current employees via social media.
Over the years I have found the following questions useful
1. Is the recruitment process transparent?
2. How open is the leadership?
3. Is there a clear roles/pay structure within the company?
4. Do they have a high/low staff turnover?
5. What are the core company values?
6. Are they a dynamic, people-centric, process-oriented, or results-oriented company?
7. Are there groups within the company focused on specific areas of knowledge/ expertise?
Investing the time researching companies will help you
Linear path illusion:
Life is not linear however the traditional career path of an architect is rather inflexible and pushes us think that our lives need to adapt to fit in. This is not only quite limiting for anyone who needs to work flexibly and has familial aspirations, but it has a direct impact on the diversity within the profession.
I often meet new graduates who are unaware of the many opportunities the wider construction industry has to offer to architects and always seem surprised to know of the many roles (often better paid than studio-based ones) that can be found client or contractor side.
Having worked client and contractor side, gave me access to first-hand exposure to the very different points of view and an understanding of the challenges they face but also the expectations and preconceptions they have when it comes to working with architects.
Tips: 1. Look at your career as a long term project 2. Think of each experience as a piece in the puzzle 3. Consider lesser known paths to get you closer to your goal 3. Take inspiration in other industries to create opportunity
Finally, and I have only left it to the end for emphasis, when it comes to discussing barriers for architects, the one i encountered most is language. But I don’t mean the obvious…
after all this is my linguistic family tree (slide)
I am talking about the language we use to relate our ideas, our insight, with the profession and the wider industry as well as those we are designing and building for.
During the years we spend at university, we are encouraged to use a language that is academic and technical. This is a language intended to communicate with our peers and, should not be underestimated because companies (especially those with low levels of diversity) still use it when recruiting and can become a real barrier.
However, a common misconception is to assume we can use that language with our clients, community stakeholder and on site.
Architect-speak (as they call it) will not only mean very little to those outside the profession, but its unintended consequence is that by using it we will lay a barrier separating the profession from the team we are meant to be leading. They could feel excluded from the conversation and react by limiting their interaction with us and this is not good… despite this, you would be surprised how many in the profession ignore this and miss out
My first job in the UK was at a company that designed and built high end domestic projects where the joiner was as much a colleague as was the senior architect. There I learned that on site they did not care about the concept, only that the drawings they received could be printed on site and had clear notes to build from. It was a truly humbling experience.
Years later, my tips to overcome the language barriers I have been discussing are very simple and can make a huge difference when it comes to feeling confident in your role:
1. Work on your empathy 2. Study the language of those you want to communicate with 3. Adapt your language to your audience 3. Listen to what is not being said
RIBA Future Architects, Fluid Mentoring, WIA Mentoring, Makers and Mentors
FAME, WIA, NAWIC, Paradigm, Let’s Build, Architecture LGBTQ+ ,ACAN, Part W, Urbanistas, BFA, Built by Us
3. Find construction wide resources:
4. Support the next gen, volunteer at:
RIBA Architecture Ambassador initiative, Inspiring the future, B.E.S.S.