Hi Ho! It’s Back To Work I Go!

A few months ago I looked into the possibility of going back to work. I was aware that our twins are more than ready to start socialising more but taking them anywhere on my own is tricky. Returning to work seemed like an ideal solution – they get to spend time away from home and be around other children, and I get out of the house and engage my brain in a different way. I was considering going back to freelance and had some really interesting opportunities offered to me, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted the security of an employment contract. Freelance work is risky and that’s not a position I could afford to be in.

Then an email landed from my old pals at BPN Architects. Their practice manager was moving on and was I available? It’s been 3 years since I left and, well, the timing couldn’t have been better.

At that point, Childcare wasn’t in place and it was a very stressful mission to find somewhere we liked who could take both kids on at short notice, but I lucked out (again) and some places came up at a lovely local nursery.

And so, a few weeks later, I feel like I’ve landed on my feet. I’m going back to a job I know well for a couple of days a week, and the children are going to be around some fab new people which I’ve no doubt will help them develop in new and exciting ways that they simply couldn’t do at home.

Freelancing as an independent consultant was exciting and fun, and I’m grateful to all those clients who gave me the opportunity to enhance my skills back then. There will still be the odd bit of stuff I do for myself (I’m lecturing on the Part 3 course at BCU again this October) but it’s back to work for me, and I’m really bloomin’ happy about it.

An Apology…

…to every boss I’ve ever had.

When I worked for you, I was conscientious and thorough, I often put in extra hours and I fell asleep at night safe in the knowledge that I’d worked as hard as I could that day.

Well it turned out I was wrong. I could have worked harder. I wasn’t giving it 100%.

I know this now because for the last 14 months I’ve worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I rarely sit down, my mind goes at 100 miles an hour and I can multitask like, well, like a mother of 14 month old twins.

So here is my apology: I’m sorry for letting you down.

Architects and Business Management

Architects become architects because they are creative people, they want to design buildings and places, they want to make a difference, they want to influence and improve the overall quality of the built environment, they want to draw, they want to get stuck into the technicalities of how a building is put together.

The majority of architects didn’t spend 7+ years studying architecture because they are attracted to the idea of running a business.

The degree and diploma (RIBA parts 1 & 2) form the majority of their studies and include a year’s practical experience in between the two courses. Part 3 is the shortest part of the qualification process which is often undertaken over a period of 6 months, however, a minimum of 24 months practical experience is a requirement before being accepted. This is why it takes at least 7 years to qualify, and that’s assuming parts 1 & 2 are completed through a full-time Uni course. Part 3 is focused on professional practice and management (business management and project management) and yet post-Part 3 architects aren’t always fully prepared for what’s involved with running a business. This is easy to understand –  you wouldn’t expect a newly qualified doctor to be able to perform complex brain surgery the day after their graduation.

What I’m asking is: if all architects finished their studies with a more thorough knowledge of all aspects of business management, might the entire industry be more highly valued?

In my opinion, studying architecture should include modules dedicated to business management throughout parts 1 & 2, not just part 3. Exactly how much do architecture students learn about business matters as it stands? Finance, HR, Law, Marketing etc.? As I understand it, it’s all covered in Part 3 – they have one or two lectures on each topic, an extensive reading list, a written exam and a final oral exam. They also have to prepare a case study. It covers the basics.

So for example, what about the work involved with preparing a set of accounts for a financial year end? Ask any newly qualified architect what WIP stands for – I doubt many could tell you. What about marketing and communication? It would be useful for every architect to know how to structure a basic press release for example, but could they?

I’ll be fair. A newly qualified architect can’t know everything there is to know about business management AND building design which is why Continuing Professional Development exists. But, and this is a big BUT, not enough in the way of business management is offered as CPD because the formal CPD programme has predominantly been highjacked by sales reps selling building products. Don’t get me wrong, some CPD events are dedicated to business and practice development, including finance, contract law, etc., but architects can pick and choose what they do to in order meet their CPD obligations – so if you’re not interested in finance, or marketing, why would you do a course about it?

According to RIBA, the majority of chartered practices are small (micro in fact) with no more than 10 members of staff. Chartered practices make up about half of the practices in the UK. Maybe every practice, large and small, should employ a business manager? Architects can move away from time-consuming issues that don’t relate to design. Instead they can ensure their clients get the best possible service and product because they are able to devote their full attention to fee-paying design projects, thus improving efficiency. However, for many small practices this is a luxury they can ill afford.

Going back to the educational system, perhaps the answer is to split architectural studies into different strands? After parts 1 and 2, those who wish to specialise in practice management study for a year with business managers. Those who have an interest in technology might study with software developers… those who have an interest in planning and urban design study with Town Planners… and so on.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that the industry is reaching crisis point. Fees are at frighteningly low levels and design quality is suffering as a result. When it comes to winning work, the procurement process for public sector work favours large corporations over smaller practices (whaddayamean you only hold £5m PI?!). Design competitions for high-profile private sector clients are attracting record numbers.

Let’s not forget that the country is still trying to fight its way out of a double-dip recession, times are tough and very little is actually getting built, but architecture as a profession isn’t going anywhere. We just have to change how we do things to respond to more challenging times.

Not a lot has changed in the industry in 175 years so maybe it’s down to education? Or maybe it’s down to attitudes – how much value does the Carbuncle Cup, for example, bring to architecture?

Here’s an idea… is it time we stopped the architectural naval-gazing and looked to new and emerging industries to learn how to do things a bit differently? Web developers are doing rather well at the moment. Let’s give that some thought.

I used to have a fully functioning brain, now I have twins

In February I became a mother to two very beautiful babies, a girl and a boy. I spent 8 stressful nights in hospital after a difficult delivery. I battled and battled and battled with breast feeding (and lost. I managed 4 weeks before switching to bottle feeding). As parents, my husband and I are still a long way from getting enough sleep. And yet I still feel like the luckiest woman alive to be blessed with two perfect children.

The entire journey, as any new parent will tell you, is one of extreme highs and the lowest of lows. As someone who has battled depression in the past I’ve probably come closer than most to post-natal depression, though I’d strenuously deny it if a health professional were to put me on the spot of course.

The biggest surprise of all, however, is that ‘baby brain’ isn’t a myth. My brain doesn’t work like it used to. I can’t complete tasks and I get really cross with myself for getting halfway through something and moving onto the next thing too soon. (The playful amongst you might question why I haven’t chosen to finish this post at this precise moment – but I’m not sure my sense of humour is what it was).

It’s not just forgetfulness though, I’m just not the person I was. My brain doesn’t process tasks like it used to. I’m always thinking about the next thing. It’s weird – a new level of emotion has caused part of my brain to just stop working properly. That part where things are stored in my short term memory is over capacity and so something has to give. I’ve never had a brilliant memory, but now my the whole ability to process tasks is properly broken.

All of this, plus my desperation to stay in contact with the outside world has been almost impossible to manage. It’s been a very challenging journey to date and I can’t see it getting any easier. (word of warning: NEVER tell a parent of twins that “it gets easier”. It doesn’t. It gets to be a little more predictable, and more fun, but it’ll never be easier.) But my beautiful children are healthy and happy, which despite having a broken brain, ultimately means I’m winning. The low moments are becoming fewer, and the highs are getting higher, and somehow I find myself almost 5 months into parenthood and able to get myself and the two littlies dressed and fed everyday. We even leave the house sometimes.

Microblogs and Content: Does Anyone Care?

What happens when a personal blogging project stalls? If the expectations for the blog rest mainly with the person who came up with the idea in the first place, does anyone else notice, or care?

Telling Storeys, the microblog I created a few months ago to photograph, document and share the buildings of Birmingham has had an interesting run so far but I find myself in a quandary.

The idea started life with me striding around the city armed with just the camera on my phone, randomly snapping pictures then researching buildings with the limited resources I have (a couple of architectural guide books). I then published the photos with a description onto a Tumblr blog and using the scheduling function I would line up several posts at once, and arrange for a tweet to be automatically sent through a dedicated twitter account whenever a post goes live. The system seemed to work well.

So far I have attempted to keep things very simple: one photo and no more information under the image than absolutely necessary – name of the building, location, architect, year of construction and any other facts that I deemed to be interesting. I didn’t want the site to become too cluttered and I figured a photo and brief description was enough to pique the interest of the reader, and might encourage them to seek out further information themselves. I was hoping to inspire readers to just be a bit more interested in the architecture of the city.

Fast forward a few months and things are a little different. The more observant will have noticed that activity has slowed almost to a stop. I had a break for a couple of months, then realised I had to start spreading my remaining content out – stretching it to 3 or 4 posts a months (ish). Over the last few months, opportunities for me to photograph buildings as I walk around the city have become virtually non-existent which leaves me with no more content for the site. You see, I hadn’t ever thought that I would be finishing the year 8 months pregnant with twins (waddling a couple of hundred yards is a challenge – striding around a city taking photos is definitely off the cards).

Originally I thought Telling Storeys might tire because of the time it takes to upload photos to Tumblr and look the building up, but this, as it turns out, is the easy bit. It’s the old problem of simply not having enough content to sustain the idea.

So, what next? Well, I’m not going to be able to solve the content generation problem myself for a good few months at least. So is there an easy way that the site might self-generate (good quality) content? Should I ask people to submit images to Tumblr and just see what happens? It might be interesting to see where it takes itself.

Alternatively, should I try and find someone to help me by taking the site on for a while? With more content and more people shouting about it, I know it could do well – I had a really positive response when I set it up so it has potential.

Or finally, does anyone really mind if I take a few months off and drop back onto it when I have more time? Am I worrying too much? After all, this is a project that was created purely out of my own interest in Birmingham’s architecture. No-one is paying me to run the site, but a couple of hundred people seem interested enough to follow the tumblr and twitter accounts, so there is a certain pressure not to let them down.

I know I got myself into this, but what would you do?

Putting it another way: help!

Financial Management in Architecture

I was delighted to be invited to guest lecture at Birmingham School of Architecture at BCU recently. Ruth Reed, Programme Director of the Prost-grad Diploma in Architectural Practice needed someone to talk to Part 3 students about Financial Management in professional practice. I have over 10 years of experience working at management level in small practices, a large proportion of which […]

Madin Birmingham

I’ve got a bit of a thing for the work of John Madin. He’s the architect responsible for several of Birmingham’s more well known buildings (Central Library and the Natwest Tower on Colmore Row to name but 2) and the practice’s portfolio is full of wonderful examples of the brutalist style of 1960s architecture.

Birmingham isn’t well known for its architecture, and some might argue that it’s always suffered from an identity crisis – constantly reinventing itself and obsessing over becoming the next [insert name of high profile city]. In order to address this, Birmingham ought to celebrate itself for what it is: a culturally diverse city with a fascinating industrial past and a collection of buildings which cover a broad spectrum of architectural styles.

But Birmingham City Council are determined to demolish the city’s finest example of brutalist architecture. In 2003 and 2008, English Heritage recommended that Madin’s Central Library should be statutorily listed. In 2011, the World Monument Fund called for its protection. Nevertheless, the Government’s Heritage Minister agreed to grant the library immunity from listing.

I understand the city’s concerns about this part of town, and that they feel the library effectively blocks pedestrian routes through to Centenary Square. I know the council have concerns about the state of the building because hasn’t been well maintained. I understand that this is no longer a building fit to operate as a library – I’ve talked to the librarians who work there. I understand that there is a commercial value in the land on which the library stands and they feel a new development would add value to the city.

I get that.

But I also think that they haven’t considered the impact on the feel of the city when much of the 1960s architecture is removed to make way for new development. Yes, this is largely an emotional factor and I’m no urban designer, but I know it’s REALLY IMPORTANT to give a city a vibrancy through a variety of architectural styles.

Most importantly I’m very uncomfortable knowing what the environmental impact of removing the library and surrounding buildings all together and replacing them will be. Have the council considered carbon emissions? I can’t find anything online to suggest that they have, and that has me very worried.

I know my former colleagues at Glenn Howells Architects have worked hard on the new plans for redevelopment of this part of the city…

But it’s not the only option. Redeveloping the area and retaining the library would still create jobs and have an economic value for the city.

This is why I’m tweeting and blogging and talking to people about this petition set up by Alan Clawley from Friends of Central Library calling for the council to reconsider their decision.

I want my council to be brave and to be proud of its brutalist architecture. I desperately want my council to stand up for itself and say:

“Hey everyone! Look at this huge great big brutalist building we have – pretty cool huh?!”

As you can tell I feel pretty strongly about this so if you agree with any of what I’ve said, I urge you to sign it too. There is more information over on the petition page:

PETITION: NEW USE FOR CENTRAL LIBRARY