Jennifer is an architectural assistant who is with us for her first year of office experience, which occurs towards the middle of her five years of university studies.
As part of her course at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff, she is required to keep a diary of her experiences with reflections on what it all means.
With Jennifer’s permission, here are some extracts from her first few months.
October: Practice culture
When applying to practices over the summer, I targeted small and medium-sized firms with a conservation and heritage focus. Of these, I was particularly interested in working at RAISE Architects due to the ‘design studio’ approach, as my previous work experience in larger corporate practices felt like the exact opposite of why I wanted a job in a creative industry in the first place.
My main goal for the year has been to improve my technical knowledge, as it is something that I've struggled with at University. I consider that architectural education could be vastly improved by having a greater focus on the technology aspect earlier on. Thus far I haven't experienced any work of this kind, although it's early days, and I'm hopeful that the team's enthusiasm to help me progress will continue throughout my experience.
November: I’m not an architect
My first project was an extension and internal alterations to a cottage in the Lake District. Having only been in my position for a couple of weeks, I was still feeling a little shaky with my computer drawing proficiency, and it made me half-think I was being given too much responsibility and that perhaps I’d oversold myself at the interview. After presenting a number of concept drawings, I was asked to develop two of them in more detail. The client selected one of these to progress to the next stage and eventually submit to the council for a pre-application enquiry.
On reflection, I think I had doubts about my ability and my new-found level of responsibility because I was unprepared for life in practice. The work I have carried out so far has given me more confidence, and having supportive colleagues has made a huge difference. Being 'dropped in at the deep end’ has been vital in developing my confidence and I've learned a great deal in a short amount of time.
Last week was intense. It was a combination of a big project going out to tender and every member of staff working on numerous deadlines for projects, at the same time as answering phone calls, dealing with admin bits, printing, folding drawings, and making coffee. I didn’t mind being given the monkey work as I usually get to work on a variety of all stages of a project, and amongst all of this my small input was made to feel appreciated and valuable.
I enjoyed the brief break from responsibility and, on reflection, I realise that although working on ‘important’ things and having more of a “design role” is helping my development, the pressure of getting it right can be overwhelming. Especially as a new assistant who still doesn't quite feel like they know what they’re doing. This isn't something I've expressed to the team, and I continue to try my best at every task with more and more faith in myself each time, but the time-out has highlighted to me my feeling of being under-qualified once again.
January: Fresh thinking
At university we work on one project at a time, for what seems like forever, whereas in practice we often switch from project to project, sometimes several times a day. This is good because I’m able to gain a breadth of experience across different types of projects and stages. It also means I have no time to dwell on insignificant details or ideas, and forces me to be efficient in my decision making, which has been a struggle for me in the past. Continually sharing and dividing the work with colleagues means I now have to consider things like legibility and access to my drawings far more carefully, and I found that my productivity has vastly increased working in this way.
I have been working on a new farmhouse project with three colleagues. The garage/annex and outbuilding are my responsibility, while the main house, barn and grounds are shared between Julia and Liam, with David helping out as necessary. To help guide me through the process, my work has been organised to follow closely behind the progress of my colleagues, so that I can learn the principles applied to the main house and apply them to the garage/annex and outbuilding. So far this has been an incredibly efficient way of working, and has allowed me to learn quickly by shadowing the more senior members of staff and then applying their techniques and design methods to my own. It has helped to keep consistency throughout the design, and has meant less time is spent explaining any developments across the team.
Today one of our projects was featured in The Daily Mail and The Times. Our client purchased the coastal site in Wales for a reported £2.2m, with the intention of demolishing the existing (ugly!) bungalow and replacing it with a strikingly contemporary cliffside house. This week the planning committee will hold the final meeting to hopefully reach a decision but although things were looking hopeful, there is now concern that the articles will fuel local opposition. The newspapers published the earliest planning drawings and images, before the residence was set back further into the cliff and the balconies and materials altered to ‘dissolve more into the landscape’.
A project that started on site in August 2017 has recently been experiencing some contractual issues. This has highlighted to me how much the architect acts as a mediator between client and contractor, and how delicate the relationship can be. I think too much responsibility is put on the architect's shoulders to have to be the go-between, especially concerning legal matters. Every architect I have known has been a creatively driven individual who excels in design-based thinking, and I find it difficult to equate this with the skills required for dealing with legal matters.
March: Office matrix
Although almost everyone in the practice will be involved at some point, a core of two or three people carry out the majority of the work on each project. The project runner will be a director or architect, who takes control of the project from the very beginning and is responsible for client liaison, programme, coordination of the project and the main design work, with assistance from a part I and/or II throughout.
RAISE team members tend to be well-rounded in their skill set and, being a small office, there are no in-house structural engineers, building services engineers, landscape designers, or other specialists. The office is laid out with everyone sitting around one table to encourage discussion and teamwork. As issues arise they are verbalised and solved as a team, with various members of the office being more experienced in certain technical areas than others, this allows problems to be solved quickly and efficiently. This allows everyone in the office to learn and develop from the problem, even if they aren’t directly involved with the project.
My most recent project is a small replacement dwelling on a farm in Knutsford. The design features a split level, timber clad single-storey house with a curved green roof and a carport. The client has a much larger second project with RAISE on the same farmstead a short distance away. The speed at which the project is developing makes me think about my contribution to the design process. I think as an architect it is important to work as part of a team, but I have come to realise that a big component to being a team member comes from the ability to self-organise and think independently.
This, in combination with an increasing self awareness around my own skillset and strengths, allows me to know what questions to ask, when to work with a senior member of staff and when to trust my own ability to solve the problem. At the beginning of my experience I was less confident in my own abilities but in recent months I have been less self-doubting. As a result I have discovered working independently tends to lead to a correct decision on my part or a far more valuable discussion and faster progress.
I have been working at RAISE for eight months now and, looking back, I can see how I have evolved in this short time. I am a lot more confident in my own abilities, with taking on responsibility and I have achieved my goal of improving my technical knowledge, supported and nurtured by the team.
My only criticism would be that the office is so busy and the workload can feel immense for such a small team. I feel there hasn’t been much room for me to receive support in my university studies. Aside from the essay work, for which I received a lot of help from Julia, I have had to find opportunities to ask about details that correlate between my university design work and office project work, whereas other students in the year, working at larger practices, have been able to receive more feedback on their personal work.
Despite this minor criticism, the most exciting part of working at RAISE for me has been improving my technical knowledge through doing. It has been an element of architecture I have struggled to grasp at university. Being given a wide range of responsibilities in such a short time has enabled me to achieve my goal this year and I feel well prepared for the future.