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.

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!

Building A City

So this is what I talked about at Coventry’s last Pecha Kucha night instead of ranting about the big society agenda:

Silly? Well, yes, a bit. But there’s not enough silliness in the world of Architecture in my opinion. It sometimes takes itself rather too seriously. I vote for MORE SILLINESS PLEASE.

[Being a bit of pedant, I noticed a couple of things that slipped out during the presentation that weren’t factually correct. Nerves must have got the better of me. Answers on a postcard… or in the comments below.]

The Pecha Kucha That Never Was

I got some way through preparing to speak at Coventry’s most recent Pecha Kucha night, organised by the lovely Janet Vaughan of Talking Birds, before I realised it was in danger of turning into a rant about the future of the profession.

But I’m not one to waste something when I’ve put some work into it. These are the notes I made as I was preparing. They are unfinished, and very much written in the style that they would have been spoken to a room full of people. It’s a bit opinionated but I’m in the mood for taking a chance so I want to share it.

I’m what’s known as a practice manager – it’s like an office manager with added marketing and business development duties but I work with architectural practices. I’m interested in web-based technology and communication, new media and how this is creating a new social agenda in the work of an architect, and also across society.
I’m doing this talk because I’ve met some inspirational people, particularly over the last 3 or so years, and because I feel that architects and urban designers are often a little bit misunderstood. I hope to dispel some of the myths about what an architect actually does.

In 2009, the government called for local authorities to involve local people in decisions that affect them. This “Duty to Involve” which incorporated “Community-led design” was scrapped in 2011, and replaced with a new guidance document which formed part of the government’s Big Society agenda. The resulting neighbourhood planning element of the Localism Act gives planning powers to local communities and parishes allowing them to have a direct involvement with developments that affect where they live and work.

Well, this is all very nice and encouraging and positive and lovely and if it all works, David Cameron will have a nice warm feeling in his belly… but in actual fact, community-led design has been going on for a long time already. A really long time.

Where once architects were the master builder at the top construction family tree, now they find themselves at the grassroots of development. They don’t just sit down in front of the people with the money for development and tell them what it’s going to look like, they have a hands-on role from the very beginning. They consider how a place functions and what sort of a societal role that building or place will have.

Good architects are good listeners. They have to be because the role of architect has evolved into urban designer, community planner, communications expert, translator of ideas, social curator, sociologist and in some cases, councillor and therapist.

Architects and urban designers must listen first, then put ideas together, then they share those ideas and talk about them, and then they make changes, then they might think about what it looks like, then they come back again and talk to the local community about their ideas, and they might make some more changes, and listen a bit more, and tweak something and show their new ideas……. and eventually they get to the point where something might actually get built.

Out of that process comes a development, a public square, a community centre, some new houses, a new village, a new city…… it has evolved from the local people who use them, play in them, live in them, asking for what they want. Telling the architects and urban designers how they use their homes, what they like doing at the local community centre, what they don’t do enough of and what they’d like to do more of, what works and what doesn’t work where they live at the moment. They are constantly teaching architects about habits and lifestyles. Lifestyles are changing at such a rapid pace, this isn’t possibly something that can be taught at university.

This process hands the power to communities. They are involved in the process of design and planning, and they take pride in it.

This sense of ownership is of enormous value. If local people have been part of the process, they will care for that place, that community hall, their new house because they are proud of it. And from that spirit of involvement, new communities form, new activities start taking place. It’s exciting and wonderful and uplifting and bellywarming……

And it’s been going on for years.

I want to reference some examples of where architects have been working directly with communities. Some of them are architects I know, some are architects I have worked for and with, other schemes are ones that I’ve seen and admire. Some are recent and show how architecture has evolved (particularly in response to the current economic climate), some show architecture that has been led by a team of social entrepreneurs with assistance from architects – which illustrates how architects have to adapt their role.

Bromley by Bow in London is a fascinating scheme highligted to me in 00:/ architects’ Compendium for the Civic Economy.

Brandwood End in Kings Heath by Axis Design Architects. A scheme design that was very much led by the residents. Have a listen to this audioboo from Podnosh and you’ll get what its all about.

Electric Wharf in Coventry by Bryant Priest Newman Architects. Community consultations during very early design stages, and the role of artists in the process are key to its success. There’s a fascinating case study on the project at Public Art Online.

Other examples that were pointed out to me with the help of colleagues at Axis Design include the work by Walter Segal (a “community architect” who developed a simple timber-framed housing system allowing self-builders to create a home quickly and cheaply) and Ralph Erskine’s Byker Wall scheme in Newcastle (a scheme which was redeveloped with participatory support from residents – most of whom were able to remain on site whilst the work was carried out in several phases).

There are also a couple of young practices of note – recent graduates who are doing things a bit differently to traditional practice. Make:Good in London, and Icecream Architecture – the latter travel the country delivering an architectural service from an old ice cream van. Both are innovative, fun practices who are very much community-led in their approach.

Well… that wasn’t a rant. And now I’ve written it all down, it’s actually quite interesting. Funny how things work out.

I guess it’s just not as packed full of laughs as finding tenuous links to architecture in Starship’s 1985 hit single We Built This City.

Resolutions – and why I’m not bothering

Every new year’s eve, it’s the same thing…. I’ll eat more healthily, exercise more often, moan less, do the ironing on a weekly rather than monthly basis, blah, blah, blah.

This new year, however, I’ve not bothered. I’ve realised that making resolutions is futile. It turns out I don’t have much resolve, which probably explains why I start every year feeling like a failure.

Earlier in 2011 I made the decision to stop using a ToDo List. I realised it was driving me a bit nuts. Every time I looked in my notebook (or online – I went through a phase of using various bits of the internet to make my ToDo List more interesting), my heart would sink. Oh god. There’s that task I’ve still not done…. urgh… I’m a bad person… I’m a failure…

But here’s the thing: I always knew I needed to do that task. Writing it down didn’t make me any more likely to complete it. In actual fact, it just wound me up and stressed me out seeing it staring at me. Every. Single. Bloody. Day.  

My ToDo List became the enemy. I would stare at it with a look of mild disgust. It would stare back at me with its hand on its hip and a smart-arse grin on its stupid smug little face. The words TAX RETURN! were leaping off the page every time I glanced downwards. It was the last straw. I tore the page out of my book and threw it away.

So enough is enough. Resolutions and ToDo Lists are dead to me. Instead I’m celebrating the arrival of 2012 by reminding myself of all the things I’ve achieved in 2011:

In the last year I have mostly been:
– improving my public speaking skills by presenting at seminars and conferences,
– improving my writing skills by creating content on the web on behalf of interesting and inspiring clients,
– learning to play the Ukulele,
– making light work of homemade curtains and blinds for my house,
– becoming my own boss,
– re-landscaping my garden and staying on top of maintaining it,
– seeing more of my family and in doing so, being reminded of their general awesomeness
and… AND!!…
– completing my tax return (see? I still managed to do it even though it wasn’t written down on a list. Amazing, huh?)

So go and trash that ToDo List, it’s not doing anyone any good. Have a happy, productive and satisfying 2012 instead.

Season’s Greetings… (and thank you!)

Firstly, apologies for the sickly sweet nature of this post but it needs to be said.

2011 has been a hectic year. I took the daunting leap into self-employment and although it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, and it’s taken some getting used to, the flexibility to select the people I work for, as well as striking a work-life balance leaves me knowing it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Numerous friends, family and colleagues have tirelessly supported me on my journey. I never fail to be astounded by how generous people can be with their time, advice and guidance. Every now and again a message of support, completely unprompted, arrives via [insert electronic messaging system of choice] to remind me that everything’s going to be OK and that there are lots of us out there just trying to do a good job and make an honest living and there, there, don’t cry… etc, etc.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work for some wonderful clients too. Clients who I can now call friends, which makes me feel like the luckiest freelancer in the world.

A special hat-tip to my closest friends and family too, who have put up with my whinging, grumbling and general moodiness, as well as celebrating with me when something I’ve worked hard to achieve works out well.

Thank you, each and every one of you (you know who you are) – it means the world to me. When it’s time to return the favours and the unwavering support, I’ll be here.

So… Merry Christmas one and all, and here’s to a fantastic 2012.


11 Years Later

Here’s some news:

31st August 2011 will be my last day at Bryant Priest Newman Architects.

I’ve had a fantastic time at BPN, but the time has finally come to say goodbye. I guess this might not come as a surprise to those who know me well and have been following my progress as a freelance consultant but a change has been brewing for a number of months, nay years, and I’ve just been waiting for the right time. As Moloko’s Róisín Murphy sang, the time is now.

Forgive me while I take a little trip down memory lane.

Back in the Spring of 2000, a mere slip of a lass was given a tip-off that an up-and-coming local practice were looking for a practice secretary. I was working for Glenn Howells at the time (during Glenn’s Custard Factory era) but I liked the taste of the industry and I was hankering after more responsibility. The 4-strong team of Bryant Priest Newman Architects sounded like an interesting option so I dropped them a line. In my ignorance, my CV and covering letter was written in everyone’s favourite font *cough*…. it looked friendly…. and I knew no better. Despite the Comic Sans, the invitation for an interview arrived and I went to meet the team.

Larry Priest greeted me at the door of the converted terrace house in leafy Bearwood with a warm smile and the words: “thank god you’re here, the last one was bonkers” and in a moment, I knew I’d fit right in. The job was mine and I loved it – the energy, the exciting projects, the staff reviews in the pub, the trips to Martin’s for a post-Bear curry. A few months later we were joined by technician Rob Smith and the team continued to grow. 2 years later and the practice had outgrown the house and relocated to The Flaghouse in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

More work arrived and yet again the practice outgrew its offices. This time, however, the move to bigger premises was slightly different. The practice had made the leap into property development and had bought a former jewellery workshop. Stripping back years of soot from the burners and removing ugly dividing walls created a light and airy open-plan office with the occasional nod to its industrial past.  Tastefully and respectfully refurbished, the building is a living working portfolio for the practice. Want to know what BPNs work is like? Go visit them – then you’ll *get it*.

Hiring bikes in Amsterdam

The room for further growth meant that in 2006, the practice reached the heady heights of 19 members of staff. Times were good, the work was great, we filled two floors of the building, we had an IT department, we took the practice to Amsterdam to gaze at the carefully designed Borneo Sporenburg housing project.  A year later and we took a trip to Madrid to be inspired by the green wall at Herzon & DeMeuron’s Caxiaforum.  Amazing memories.

Since then the practice has been through a huge amount. Disappointment of projects being halted. Coping with the trauma of Director Mark Bryant’s illness and helping him on the road to recovery. The difficulty of managing time and resources through a recession that affected the construction industry more than any other…. and yet they always come out the other side smiling and producing incredible work of an exceptionally high standard.

The offices at Mary Street have been a lovely building to work in and the energy in the building continues to grow as the top floor is now let to a number of creative start-ups. Things are moving on, the practice is responding to the economic climate, and I know they’ll continue to do well.

I’m humbled to have been a part of an amazing journey. I’ve got some fabulous memories and have made friends for life. If I’ve never shared the legendary Basket Story with you, remind me next time I see you. In fact, if I have shared it with you already, ask me to tell it again. It never gets tired.

So good luck BPN. Don’t forget:

  • If you can’t find something in the stationery cupboard, you’re probably just not looking properly.
  • If you find the tea towel walking round the kitchen, it’s definitely time to change it.
  • If Richard goes AWOL, he’s probably hiding in a box

*sigh* Happy days……What’s that? …… No, I’ve just got something in my eye…..

So moving forward, my freelance work has been an exciting journey so far and it’s time to be a grown-up and pursue my own dreams. I need to use my skills and knowledge in the industry to start making a difference.

So you’re probably wondering what is it that I’m going to be doing….. and the answer isn’t clear yet. I’ve got a number of opportunities that I’m following up and I hope to eventually whittle this down to one thing. I guess the answer is to watch this space.

I’ll have more time available from September onwards so if you need my skills, knowledge or network, let me know. I’m always willing to meet up and discuss opportunities so if you’re thinking about getting in touch, I’d love to hear from you. Just drop me a line or Skype me.