Meetings and responsibility

In April I’ve been invited along to attend more external meetings and discussions for a couple projects I’ve been working on. I want to discuss the impact that being involved in these discussions has had on my practice mentality and what it has done for my professional development.

Firstly, being able to attend design team meetings has made the communicative side of architecture seem far less daunting. My attendance in these meetings have resulted my greater awareness of the current stage of a project and through being directly involved in the design discussions I have found myself more confident in my design decisions. I’m sure the directors are also aware that the greater level of responsibility has had an impact on me professionally and has resulted in an increase in my general confidence around the office as well. I’m pleased to have been given opportunities to represent Design Engine and it has been great for my morale early in my architectural career.

Secondly, I feel I can now appreciate, first-hand, the contributions made by all members of the design team. I feel that one of the greatest benefits of attending meetings as a part one is talking to people from other professions in the industry. By discussing projects with consultants in the design team I have been able to start making links from what I’ve learned from University and colleagues to real life situations. For example, from listening to the M&E consultants at one of the last design team meetings, I now can more competently understand how ventilation and heating strategies might work for a large residential building in the south of England. I’m hoping in the long term that attending more meetings like these can greatly increase my knowledge of a wide and varying range of architectural systems I can apply to future projects. I feel that experienced architects in the practice have collected most of there knowledge of these systems through talking directly with consultants.

Another thing that has been a beneficial experience is seeing the architect-consultant dynamic first hand. I can now compare this professional relationship with that between the architect and client which I have already experienced in my time in practice. Architects tend to employ different psychological and tactical approaches to discussions depending on the relationship to the people involved – this I have discussed in an early journal entry. My experiences have been no different and the formalities of discussion can vary widely depending a number of circumstances including the scale and nature of projects, the relationships between clients and consultants and the topic of discussion. My experience in being able to directly learn and study the architects role in a design discussion has particularly motivated me to want to be involved in more advanced communicative roles.

With my director away during the Easter break, I was put in the position to attend a number of small meetings with the project manager for a library scheme in Winchester. From attending previous meetings on this scheme and being involved in more of the correspondence on this project, I was more confident to negotiate the project through this period. Before Joining Design Engine, I would have said my greatest fear was dealing with the more practical and communicative management situations in practice. I think through being more involved with external parties from the start of a project that I have overcome a degree of the unsurety that I’ve had in these situations.

The meetings and responsibilities in practice has also made me more aware of the importance of practical education in Architecture. By being thrown into these situations in real life I have been able to grow in confidence and resolve. With the experiences I have gotten so far I am becoming more appreciative of Cardiff University’s system for architectural education and Design Engines management of younger recruits.


Early stage project bureaucracy

At the end of March, during a Friday feedback session with my practice, I learned the full in-detail history of a project I’ve been working on since January. So for this next journal entry I want to focus on this projects politics and bureaucracy, and their implications. The project is for a new CDT department building for Stowe School in Buckinghamshire. Design Engine won the project last June by winning an invited competition but since winning, the process has become steadily more complex.

Design Engine were notified by the school after the project had been won of a main benefactor who was essentially funding the whole project. The benefactor was keen to have the main input, with the agreement of the school, on what the building would be like. However, the first hurdle Design engine were thrown was that the benefactor wanted to remain anonymous and therefore we had to speak through the school in order to communicate throughout the Design Process. Because of this most of the discussion was held between the estates manager and head teacher of Stowe. This caused a great deal of delay and unsurety in getting this project off the ground as Design Engine couldn’t communicate directly and coordinate the main client. Therefore when the school came to talk to the benefactor, the professional architectural conversation was lost. This created more ‘to and fro’ with design options than a normal project might. it took to the end of December to put together a scheme completed to the end of stage 2.

In January, Design Engine received news that the main benefactor for the scheme had pulled out after we had already spent half a year designing there new building. The school were now looking to build a smaller scheme with their own funds. This forced us into a complete redesign for a smaller building on a new plot which is where I was brought into the project. Having designed a whole scheme already Design Engine didn’t want to spend anymore time on a new scheme if we weren’t getting paid for it. This left us with an awkward position deciding on whether to continue with the project at a lower fee or withdrawing.

Design Engine decided to continue with the small fee for the design of a new building without the benefactor. During this time, another issue was created through internal conflict within the school. Communication between certain members of the school were at a low point which made getting any design decisions confirmed difficult and then unexpectedly the estates manager resigned. This may have actually proved beneficial and created the one thing we should have had all along which is direct communication with the person who we are design the project for. By the end of March we had designed a whole new scheme up to the same point as our previous scheme.

I have learned a lot whilst working on this scheme specifically relating to the politics of a project rather than the design side of things which I have had more exposure to. I’ve been able to discuss with the director at my practice about what each change has meant at each stage and how we have dealt with it. I would like to take this further and be involved in meetings where I can understand the developments as they’re happening first hand which I think maybe more of an experience I will be involved in later in my career. However, being able to shadow these meetings is something I have brought up with the directors so I can understand these processes better.


A comparison of two project scales on site

At the start of March I went up to Oxford to shadow the project architect working on our Oxford University project. The project was for a new teaching accommodation facility and the refurbishment of an adjacent existing listed building at St Peter’s College. The project started on site in December and is due to be completed in October this year. On my visit the steel frame had almost finished being erected on the new build and insulation, door fittings and electrical fittings were all being installed in the areas being refurbished. By visiting this construction site I hope to see the projects transition from paper to reality and I feel more site work will help me improve my design work where I will be more confident on how certain detailing works.

My previous site experience, at Richard Hopkinson Architects, involved snagging ceramic tiles and brickwork on Lewisham Southwark College. This was a large scheme next to London Waterloo station nearing completion at the time. The contractor working on the project was Balfour Beatty who are a large international construction company. They had a large workforce on site in order to accommodate the building’s size. I found that in order to coordinate this workforce they had a lot of complicated site management procedures in place. This included vast amounts of programmes and schedules in the site office down to the electronic access system that recorded the times of who entered and left the construction site during the day. This initial experience was fairly overwhelming with so much going on on a large site at the same time and of course was a completely new environment for me. It also came as a shock to see so many imperfections on site and that it isn’t always as precise as the drawings produced in the office. While on site my boss and I made observations on the previously unforeseen problems  that had occurred during the construction phases in which new design solutions had to be produced for. This showed me how stage 5 is not as straight forward as building everything produced during the design stages as I initially thought. I was able to start seeing how a keen eye for detailing can go a long way in preventing issues down the line and I’m becoming aware of the impacts that even the smallest of details can have on a project. I’ll will be sure to take this into consideration when I undertake these sorts of tasks further on in my career.

In Oxford I was expecting a much smaller work force working on site. The hired contractor for our St Peter’s College project is Edgar Taylor, a small Buckinghamshire based construction company. An initial observation was that there was a lot less management needed on site to coordinate the workforce than the London project. It didn’t take to long to be shown around by the site manager and to navigate the site to check up on the individual processes that had taken place since the previous visit. My involvement in this visit was to take observations for my own personal development. As I haven’t been involved with this project before, or been on site visits for Design Engine, I spent time before heading to Oxford reading through the stage 4 report and tender information. I also took the opportunity to discuss some of the contractual elements of the project with a colleague to get a greater understanding of the project up to its current state. This process was useful for me to so I could understand the transitional periods between work stages and so I could start to see a project develop through stage 5. Overall these site experiences are helping me to understand project timelines in later stages which I can take into consideration in early stages.


Site photos of St. Peter’s college showing the erected steel frame of the new build and the ongoing refurbishment works
(Photographer: Sean Bailey)

February 2017, Communication in Practice

February 14th Marks 3 months working at Design Engine. My 3 month review was a great chance to review the work I’ve done work at my new practice and consider what I want to accomplish in the coming months with the directors. It was also a great opportunity to hold a discussion one on one with the directors. During the review I received some very positive feedback. I have been told that my work has been exceptional so far and that my work ethic has been a real asset to the practice. Obviously I am very happy with this and personally I feel I have reached the work standards I have set myself. However, the review was also a great opportunity to make a request to shadow a site visit and perhaps work on further stages on a project. This is an area I have mentioned before that I am lacking in. The directors were very helpful and have told me to organize a site visit to an Oxford University project next month. I would like to be able to write about the coming experience in my next journal entry.

During the course of this month I have continued work on the Salisbury Cathedral School masterplan competition. I worked on modelling numerous design options for part of our bid and developed them with the help of the directors. This work was presented in an interview document which was to be presented on the 21st of February. I was also tasked with making the site model and design options for this interview in order to communicate our ideas physically. During the course of the next couple weeks I printed all the local site context on the 3D printer, continually developing my knowledge of what the printer could achieve and how it works. For the first time I have started to explore the nature of using models to communicate ideas in practice. It has been extremely refreshing being involved in model making environment as my previous practice didn’t make models. Interestingly, even though I’ve heard making models is considered to be a typical part one job, the directors are often found at the model making tables. They find models to be one of the most important methods to communicate their ideas and make up a lot of the design process for Design Engine buildings. I have been impressed by the effectiveness of the models I’ve seen around the office and agree that Design Engine use them to full potential. I have found that I am enjoying making models here a lot more than I have done in University. I have even started to apply this to my design project for Cardiff and to great effect.

Before the interview for the Salisbury project I sat down with 4 of the directors and 2 senior associates where the tactical approach to delivering the project was discussed. This was an interesting meeting which was comparatively similar to a critique in University. I was intrigued particularly at the language aspects of our approach. Small communicative nuances can make a large difference in architecture depending on who you are speaking to. For example, when the question was raised that the client might ask what sort of architecture we deliver, the directors agreed that ‘contemporary modernism’ wasn’t suitable terminology for such a conservative client and rather ‘contextual modernism’ might be more appropriate. However, this phrasing still have negative connotations in the eyes of the client. Even though architects aren’t trained to be business professionals or communication experts, I think it’s still crucial to start developing these communication skills early.

As a follow up from this session, the whole practice was involved in a feedback session were a professor of linguistics and English from Lancaster University come to talk about ways how we approach discussion in more depth. This was to inform younger and perhaps foreign members of the practice on how to engage in architectural conversation with all people involved in the architectural process.


January 2017, January Review

The end of January marks my two and a half months at Design Engine. I would like to reflect on and evaluate what I have learned through my experience so far before the February short course in Cardiff. I would also like to briefly reflect on how I have developed in a professional environment.

Since working at Design Engine I have developed an array of new technology based skills including Vectorworks, 3D printing and have started working on Apple based operating systems. These skills have given me a new depth in my approach to design and gives me more options and flexibility in ways I can represent a scheme. Developing technology skills is a continuous aim in order to keep up with a constantly developing technology fueled profession.

I’ve started becoming more aware about the business nature of the profession, especially when this has been combined with University work. I have become more compelled to focus on conversations to do with finance and procurement of projects in practice. With many recently post part 3 architects and a few still studying for this stage of their career in the practice, this has been an easy topic to bring up in conversation. I am still new to the practice but I hope that this can help prepare me for more responsibility and involvement in later work stages further down the line.

My first involvement in January was an initial meeting with a client, with one of Design Engines directors. The client happens to also be a member of the board of governors for the Winchester University scheme we put into planning in December. I’ve started to see patterns, through such meetings and discussions, in how a new job in practice can be procured through large networks between architects and clients. Prior design success with a client can lead to larger, more prestigious work, therefore good client relationships can be extremely important to sustain a practice workflow.

I’ve learned that success in specific sectors can land a practice on a design framework which aims to provide specific work for proven architects. At my last practice, as we were a young business, less project experience was likely a major issue in preventing us from being on such a framework which made trying to procure larger schemes in certain sectors difficult.

When I was applying for positions, I wanted a job close to where I grew up. This was to be able to compare my views on places I know well with an architectural mind as opposed to without. Being involved in projects in towns I grew up near, Winchester and Salisbury, has been very eye opening and has helped show me my development in the way I think. For example, for a master planning project in Salisbury I’m currently working on, I’m now recognizing the existing context of the area in terms of it’s typologies and how contentious areas are for new planning proposals. Before I wouldn’t have been immediately able to recognize these aspects of design. These now second nature abilities are showing in my design approaches and creating logically neater schemes. Similarly, I am hoping that when I start more site work I will be able to start immediately recognizing the nature of good and bad detailing.

salisbury-cathedral-model-1-1250-crop  imag0361

December 2016, The Lead Up To A Larger Planning Submission

In December I worked largely on visual work, for a large college expansion project worth £35M in Winchester which was close to a planning submission. I worked on visual impact assessment renders to show the planners our scheme fit well within the existing context. This also helped me, as a new employee, to get to know and understand the scheme better. These images were sent to the Winchester College planning consultant, the external landscape architects who coordinated their proposed landscape arrangements with us, and the local planning authority.

As I had produced previous graphics for this project in my first week, I was in charge of making the necessary tweaks as the design changed. Because the office has a limited number of high performance graphics machines it made sense for me to work mainly on the other graphical work as well in the run up to planning. Other members of the project worked on CAD drawings and compiling necessary reports for the design access statement (DAS). My graphical work included visual impact assessment renders, elevations and the final proposal renders which were included in the final DAS.

The in house team working on this project held a number meetings in December to coordinate the scheme with all members of the project and to outline the upcoming strategies and potential design changes before the planning date. These meetings would consist of the practice director managing the project, a senior associate leading the design, another architect, a part two assistant and myself. This dynamic allows for a number of tasks to be done within the given time frame that are appropriate to the experiences and skill sets of the people involved. I

Interestingly, during the time I was working on Winchester College another similarly sized project was underway in the practice for a Winchester University scheme which had the same planning deadline. By checking the progress of the two similar schemes running alongside each other it helped me to easily compare, evaluate and understand the processes needed to finalize a planning applications for these large projects – larger schemes than I have worked on before at this stage.

The previous projects I have worked on finalizing a planning set for, prior to joining Design Engine, have been under £1M schemes. From this recent project experience I have learned that a greater deal of communication and coordination between external parties are needed for larger projects. By being involved in these larger projects I’ve become aware of the extent and range of services external parties can offer that may be utilized to help compile necessary reports by the end of this stage ie. flood risk assessments, BREEAM assessments, highways reports, noise/ vibration surveys, arboricultural reports, listed building report, etc. Some of these reports may not be needed for smaller schemes or where not appropriate. I would be keen to use this new information from this stage to progress to the next stages of design and I hope to develop more experience in the later stages of work.

Our final documents were sent off on the 16th of December to the Winchester College planning consultant The planning consultant checked all the drawings and reports for our client so we could make any changes before submitting the final application to the local planning authority.


November 2016, Management In a New Office

On November 14th, I started working for Design Engine Architects in Winchester. My first couple of weeks at Design Engine involved working on elevational renders and small CAD tasks for two projects – a college extension in Winchester and a large residential scheme in Lyndhurst. Graphical work typically is done by the part 1 and 2 students and is a good starting point for new members of the team, like myself. I was challenged initially with the task of familiarizing myself with Vectorworks so starting on small CAD tasks helped ease myself into using the new software. The Lyndhurst project was submitted for planning on the 25th of November where my drawings were included in the design access statement. After this deadline, I was put back on the Winchester College scheme producing visual impact images that will be sent to the planners later in the month.

The first thing I noticed at Design Engine was the different office dynamic compared to my previous experience. With more work coming into a larger practice there is a greater need for a good management and support system. Design Engine consists of 5 directors and 3 senior associates to facilitate high work demand and among support staff there is a graphic designer, a marketing director, an IT manager, a receptionist and a finance manager. In my previous practice, I would have been involved in all of these things apart from finance, as well as my main work, to keep up with the needs of a growing practice.

Additional key roles are allocated to individual members of the practice such as a health and safety manager (first aid), a CPD organizer and an environmental damage manager The offices ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certification is familiarized to new members of the practice. Overall a lot of key practice responsibilities can be dispersed to a greater number of people in a larger practice which enables the practice to be more methodical with its management. This helps to maintain greater levels of success and quality control in all areas of the workplace.

An individual project will be given to a team within the office. The team may change over time due to project intensities over its timescale. I was allocated to two different groups in my first couple weeks to projects nearing planning submission which meant the work load for those projects was higher. General resources meetings are held between the directors in order to allocate time and resources to projects with more strained workloads. I continued on the Winchester college scheme till the end of the month as it neared planning submission which is typically when the intensity of a project tends to increase.

In order to relay information of ongoing projects to the rest of the team, a weekly feedback session is held last thing on a Friday. This is a chance to allow the rest of the practice to know what is being achieved and what stages projects may be on. This is also a chance for one or two people to talk in detail about a project that may have passed a milestone in the past week. Monday morning is also set up to share what meetings and arrangements are due to happen in the coming week. This allows members of the team to be aware of important upcoming events and avoid organizational conflicts.

October 2016, Richard Hopkinson Architects

For my first entry I want to share a few of my previous practical experiences. I have selected two similar projects I worked on at my previous practice as a comparative reflective study. This journal entry will be slightly longer than later entries to cover an extended period of time in practice.

Before joining the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff University I worked at Richard Hopkinson Architects (RHA) for a year and seven months. I began my time here in October 2014 after I had finished my undergraduate degree. This was with a great deal of curiosity and nerves as I hadn’t had any substantial experience in an architectural office environment before.

In my first week, I started on a small 4 bedroom housing scheme worth £500k in Tonbridge. Looking back at all the projects I worked on at RHA, this was the best thing for me to have started on. The director of the practice, Richard, talked me through a great deal of the initial stages that the project would go through. He importantly took me along to initial client meetings. Although we held meetings in a professional manner they felt very informal at times which I was told was common for small scale domestic jobs. My boss explained how vital a tool good communication is in these meetings to achieve a successful end product. My starting role was to prepare client presentations for upcoming meetings, including graphics generated from sketch-up models that I built in the office. The project progressed slowly after the first meetings and design meetings were held weekly until January when we held the first pre-planning meeting. I was told it took a long time between the first client meetings and planning stages. I later realized this for myself after another similar project took a much shorter time to get to a final planning submission. By February I was working on final planning drawings and the design access statement to submit for planning after a second positive sounding pre-planning meeting. Unfortunately, this particular project never passed planning.

I learned a great deal from this project about the first stages of the RIBA plan of work. I learned how the architect-client dynamic works alongside each design stage as well as the relationship between the architect; the planners and their role within the design process. I started developing a practical vocabulary and  learned of the drawing standards in the profession and what is expected in a planning proposal. Through observing the whole initial process I could see that good communication with the planners is the key element for a successful end result and a foundation for later stages. Perhaps we misinterpreted pre planning advice given to us at an early stage in this project which lead to a negative end result. Importantly, I now had an introductory understanding of real life time scales of projects in practice.

The project on Rodney Avenue wasn’t the only project I was working on during this period. I prepared design presentations and consultation boards for an educational project in Eastleigh and produced rendered visuals for our client on the Yarrow Training Hotel in East Kent. This project was already underway on a design and build contract. I think I would have found multiple projects running alongside each other a lot more challenging before working in practice and during this period I dramatically improved my organizational and time keeping skills.

The second project I want to share was the last project I worked on at RHA and was for a small house in Tunbridge Wells. I came into the project a lot more confident and aware of local planning processes and the documentation needed to formulate a final planning application after my initial experience designing  the house in Tonbridge. After two months on the project I had put together all the necessary planning documents and we submitted the application. This was a lot quicker than the Tonbridge scheme. The house got called up to a planning committee meeting at the town hall in which I attended to decide the fate of the application. The meeting lasted an hour and a half and was a vital experience for me to hear from all the people involved in the planning stages so far in one room, as well as members of the public voicing their concerns. After much debate with my drawings being presented to a room of around 40 people including a jury panel, council members, highways officers, planners, neighbors etc. the jury passed the house for planning.

The planning committee experience helped me to understand the associated democratic and perhaps bureaucratic elements involved in the planning stages. It was a great introduction into planning politics. Perhaps the good end result can be accredited to a better level of communication among everyone involved, including a better relationship with the client and the planning officer involved.

I feel that working for a smaller practice has been more beneficial for my early development as it has come with a high level of responsibility that I may not have been involved in at a larger practice. The small schemes have also been beneficial in easing me into the professional world of architecture. I will be keen to experience a larger practice for my next placement to understand the differences in practice organization and to compare the nature of working on larger schemes. I also hope to gain more site experience in order to become more aware of the later stages of work in practice.