How did you first get into architecture? Can you remember the moment you decided you wanted to be an architect?
Believe it or not, it all started with buildings. One of my favourite places to visit as a child was the Avoncroft Museum of Historical Buildings; I found it fascinating to go inside a medieval townhouse, then a windmill via a prefab! My dad was a builder, so I used to mix the mortar and watch as bricks turned into walls and timber into roofs and floors. I liked art and technical drawing, so I guess when I put all of that into a bowl and gave it a good stir, out popped architecture.
What do you wish you’d known when starting out?
I think part of the excitement you feel when you start out on your career is the thrill of the unknown. At the beginning of your working life, you need enough knowledge to achieve a basic level of competency and to hopefully secure a job, but not too much, so that your desire to learn and experiment is ceaseless. However, one thing I do wish I’d known is just how fundamental good communication is, not just in your career but in all aspects of life.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I’d probably tell myself to work in more companies before setting out on my own. I believe that knowledge is something you learn and experience is something you gain (over time) and the quickest way to obtain knowledge is by listening and working with those who have been there and done it all before.
What’s been your biggest achievement in your career so far?
The easiest thing to write here would be the creation of Architect Your Home as I am enormously proud of that, but I believe a bigger achievement has been to still be in business after 26 years and surviving the recession of 2008.
Who is your biggest role model?
This is easy – my role model is John Robinson, the founder, and owner of the womenswear retailer, Jigsaw. When we first established our architecture practice, my husband Hugo and I didn’t have a huge portfolio of work so we almost had to start from scratch. Through a series of chances, we met John, and without any retail experience to our names, he decided to engage us to design his next shop.
He didn’t try us out on a little backwater boutique, but instead, with an enormous show of faith, enlisted us to design a site next to the Conran Shop in South Kensington. What he introduced me to were excellent, unique qualities, such as the courage to take a punt and the belief to give people you like a chance without the reassurance of experience. This, along with his incredible honesty and integrity, set the benchmark for all that I have tried to achieve.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
I sincerely believe that the places in which you live and work have an enormous impact on your life and well-being. A home is a sanctuary, a place that should enhance your life and where you should feel at ease. A home can also act as your workspace and as such should be bright and comfortable and, above all, inspiring. What I love about my job is that I have the opportunity to help people enhance the quality of their lives by helping them improve the environment in which they live and work – how cool is that? It also gave me the opportunity to design my home, with Hugo which is a pretty awesome thing to be able to do.
Architecture is still largely male-dominated – why do you think that is?
Architecture is a wonderfully creative profession that requires fine attention to detail and an in-depth knowledge of construction. It also requires a significant degree of confidence, as you as the architect are the ‘lead consultant’, organising all the associated professions working alongside you. Many of these, for example, structural engineers, quantity surveyors, and building contractors are also male-dominated professions, therefore I would say some of the time women feel like they don’t fit into this environment. To tackle this, I think that girls could be more strongly encouraged from a younger age to go down the design and architecture route by their parents, their siblings, and their teachers. Friends are a huge influence too, especially at a young age.
What advice would you give to other people thinking of starting their own business?
My biggest piece of advice would be to get some business advice. It is so important to understand from the outset what you want from your business and where you want it to go. You need to ask yourself – is it going to be a lifestyle business that runs along happily and earns enough money to pay the bills, or is it going to be the next Fosters, for example, and employ over 500 people? This will help you to understand how your business can be structured and how you can fund its growth.
Many architects start out on their own because someone they know has asked them to do a project, but often they have no business plan, no time-keeping system, and no ability to say no. I know only too well, as that’s exactly what I did in the beginning and it’s not a commendable business model as all you end up being is busy when what you should be is profitable!
How would you encourage other women to pursue a career in architecture?
A career in architecture can be very rewarding. There is such a wide variety of projects that you can get involved in, from multi-million-pound office towers to modest boat sheds. I would encourage women to gain as much experience as possible in different sized practices so that they can find out where their skill set and interest level fits in. Also, different practice sizes mean that you can find one that suits you and your commitments – if you don’t, then the great thing is you can go out on your own and join Architect Your Home!
Where would you like to see the industry in five years’ time?
I would like to see architecture at the forefront of the construction industry. We are a creative force and should be driving change and innovation within our sector. In five years, I would like to see an architect involved in all construction projects but to do that the industry needs to make itself more relevant to the end-user, listening and adapting its service to make it something that people want, rather than remain solidly stuck in the past providing the same old service they always have.
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