The Business of Listening, discussion record with Business of Architecture.

Click here to listen to my full discussion with Rion Willard, from the Business of Architecture, about the ‘Business of Listening’, a topic I deeply believe in.

It is an area of architecture that I find more relevant and important than ever before, our conversation covers my approach to clients, being a teacher, setting up Studio B.A.D and how I see the role of architects in the 21st century.

Traditionally I feel architects have had a tendance to ‘know’ the solution right from the start but I believe we need to stand back, listen to what a project or client really needs and gaining the trust from the client. This in turn can give us permission as designers to be bold in our approach and our process, it also helps to get clients truly engaged with the process.

Our project at St Margaret’s church is a clear case when listening has been vital in unlocking the potential of the building and what it can offer the community. I think our clients on this project initially found it unnerving when we wanted to take time to listen, as they had expected their architects to come with a solution. We stood back and reflected on what we saw, not just with the physical building but also the community needs. By going through this process, the project has become richer. We were able to persuade the church to reopen the beautiful old church (previously condemned) and discover what the community really needed, since this exercise they have opened a café, a drop in area and second hand shop within the church. By not rushing the solution, this has given up the ability to go deep, aligning our design ideas with the business case of the client and giving solutions that work long term, our solutions for the church have future proofed an unidentified business stream for the church.

The piece around listening and communication is so important. As architects I feel we can’t be passive in all of this, we need to be thinking about the future and the impact our work will have, most importantly how we can have a positive influence. I believe we don’t have to always wait for the brief, we can communicate ideas out. For example, Studio BAD try to only work with existing buildings, pushing the idea of refurbishment and repurpose rather than new build, this stance has given potential clients alternative solutions that they might not have even thought of before.

By adopting this process of being a listener we are able to be influenced by cultural changes, it doesn’t always have to be about a physical change and designing a building, but as architects we can still have positive impact on our communities by working more in a curator role. Working on feasibilities can unlock potentials of buildings and businesses, I feel as a practice we can bring together people from different backgrounds to creating a richer discussion.

The importance of listening is not just relevant in the private sector, it is also critical to my teaching work. I have to really listen to students, learn who they are as people, their background, what interests them. By really listening I start to know what can unlock their potential, but one approach does not work for them all.

I can’t define what a career in architecture looks like now, I feel we should be more flexible on how we see ourselves, being more part of the conversation for positive change rather than just concentrating on the traditional architectural role. Students studying architecture now could go on to be an architect, or work for a developer, or be a developer, or set designer, architecture can be the bedrock for many other disciplines. By being more flexible on where an architectural degree can take you, I believe it takes the pressure off the need to complete all parts of the degree (which doesn’t suit all), helping to redefine what architecture is in the 21st century.

Why teaching matters to me, by Darren Bray

‘I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.’ –Albert Einstein

 

Since becoming a fully qualified architect I have always kept myself involved with academia, through part time teaching, reviewing exam work and acting as a visiting lecturer at various universities. The more academic work I have been involved with the more I have realized that teaching is important to me, it is part of who I am and what I do and has a positive influence on the evolution of Studio BAD.

Part of the reason I love teaching is that it invigorates me. Students often have a seemingly naïve or fresh way of approaching problems that keeps me from getting stuck into an architectural rut. They also challenge me to be better, to teach better, to design better, as they are not easily impressed by my work experience they do not just accept my word but want proof. I find that by having to justify my ideas and views it makes me think harder.

I feel lucky that my teaching work makes my outlook more current, in this academic world of theory I am exposed to people who would normally be outside my natural sphere of the practice and we all bring different ideas together. In this space theories are explored, this is a luxury many small practices do not normally have the ability to do, often the time spent on the practicalities of running a small practice take over from the time we should really dedicate to critical thinking.

As cliché as it sounds I do also really like giving back, teaching allows me to do that. I am hugely aware of the positive impact my teachers had on me, they helped shape me to become what I am today and I do believe that without their belief in me pushing me forward I would not be a successful architect now. If I can pass this positive impact onto just one of my students then I will feel I have succeeded.

Ecology of Communities lecture for PASS Portsmouth

I was delighted to take part in the PASS (Portsmouth Architecture School Society) series of lectures around the ‘Ecology of Communities’ last month. As a part time academic I feel it is important to continue to engage the next generation and to inspire those coming through. Others who have been part of this lecture series have included Piers Taylor, James Dale, Jo Hagan and Spark Architects. The whole series can be found on YouTube

 

‘In this time of uncertainty, we need more tolerance, compassion, and trust for each other since we all are one. Otherwise, humanity will face an even bigger crisis’

Ai Weiwei, Humanity

 

As a practice we have been fortunate to work on several community based projects, such as October Books, Bedford Place and St Margaret’s church, each quite different, with their distinct set of design aims, but all with driver to engage with their local community.

Recently we have been working on a feasibility for a mini masterplan of the Bedford Place district of Southampton. The area is set at the opposite end of town to the large shopping malls and has a reputation for being an independent district, with handsome Grade II listed buildings and with boutique retail offering and local restaurants. Due to the Covid outbreak many of the streets were closed to cars earlier this summer to allow for extra social distancing and additional outdoor seating. Initially this was a temporary measure by the council, done in haste and without much thought to the aesthetics, we were brought onboard to look at on-going street activation and animation.

Our recommendations included painting the concrete bollards, originally quite bleak but now bright and colourful, even acting as a draw to bring people to the area to see and engage with it. Our street activation plans have gone further to address the signage, put up street bunting, paint the road, increase planting and set up a series of events throughout the year to use this space. We see this as a huge opportunity for Southampton to create a distinctive district, with a unique sense of place which will draw people in, helping to improve the local economy.

This type of project is highly emotive, whenever there are discussions regarding reducing car access it makes people very passionate as we are a nation addicted to our cars. This is not a new thing, it is easy to find videos from Amsterdam in the 1970’s of locals getting violent at the new pedestrian streets, an area we now look at so positively.

It is however important to listen to the community and their concerns, to really hear what they are saying and reflect on their fears. As an architect it is important to not bring your ego or believe you know the solution from the start, I believe you can learn a great deal through listening and responding to issues, not only will you gain better community engagement in the project but it often makes for a far richer project.

Take a listen to the whole webinar here, it covers a lot more including an interesting Q&A session at the end which covers politics, dyslexia, collaboration, sustainability and even imposter syndrome.

The lecture can be seen here on YouTube. 

PASS lecture

The benefits of reusing and repurposing existing buildings

Recently I was invited to take part in the MESH energy webinar series where I talked about the benefits of upgrading and repurposing existing buildings. At a time where the conversation around the environment and climate change is happening across society as a whole, I am always surprised that the design sector is not discussing this issue in more detail and facing it head on with positive solutions.

We have been working on several varied projects that are reusing a current building. Just by looking at the statistics from Historic England, it is astonishing how damaging it is to build a new building when there is an alternative and environmentally better solution.

‘Compared to a refurbishing a traditional Victorian terrace, a new building of the same size produces up to 13 times more embodied carbon. This equates to around 16.4 tonnes of CO2 which is the equivalent of the emissions released by driving 60,000km’

The design approach to repurposing a building is quite different, each project will bring its own challenges and a successful refurbishment is able to turn these into opportunities. Within our ‘October Books’ project, which has repurposed an old high street bank into a community book store, it was not possible to remove the old walk in vault from the building so this was integrated into the interior design and is now used as the storage room with the old door kept in place as a feature behind the service counter.

Our St Margaret’s church project in Southsea, Portsmouth, is nearing completion of Phase 1 of their refurbishment, thermal upgrade, extension and repurpose to deliver a church that could meet the needs of its congregation. The building had no central heating installed, to retrofit this we decided the best solution was an air sourced heat pump and trench underfloor heating, laid in zones across the building. This solution gave us full flexibility across the floor space which was essential for this building. In keeping with the need for internal flexibility we have designed ‘mean-while’ solutions such as seating, screens and even a café on wheels, this allows the interior of the church to be configured and used as the community needs, with future proofing the design and also reducing the costs.

As we had to remove the old parquet flooring, to allow for the underfloor heating and a polished concrete floor, we were delighted that we were able to repurpose it and sell it on. Not only is this environmentally positive but it also raised much needed funds for the church building project.

In each project we believe the key to success has been achieved through two way communications, through deep listening we are able to really understand what people are saying which often unlocks the potential to a space.

The full webinar can be viewed here

‘If you help one person, you help humanity’ Ai Weiwei

RIBA Black History Month

The RIBA, working in collaboration with Paradigm Network, celebrated Black History Month with a special book club held throughout October. I was honoured to be asked to take part in this event, the importance of this movement is inclusion, everyone should be passionate about the accessibility for all to increase diversity and ultimately to drive our industry forward.

 

The month was about us all appreciating and celebrating the achievements from the BAME communities, and championing professionals from all backgrounds in all sectors of society.

 

For the Book Club we were all asked to nominate a book or song that has had a profound effect on us as a way of showcasing the inspirational work from Black and Asian talent. I selected the book ‘The Black Album’ by the hugely talented Hanif Kureishi.

 

This book transports me back to a specific time in my life, of being 23 in my final year of my architectural degree at Portsmouth School of Architecture. It represents a period of awakening for me, I remember it being a wonderfully diverse cultural era in the 1990’s in terms of literature, music, art, architecture, film and of course my education.

 

I find Hanif Kureishi has such a wonderful way of dealing with some complex social issues around race, religion, sexuality and modern culture, painting the world through wonderfully colourful words and descriptions. I think it’s fair to say, his work has played a huge part in my learning and what I do now in practice.

 

There was a free webinar on Thursday 29th October where all the design leaders participating in the book club discussed their selection and how it has affected their practice, an interesting insight into what motivates and inspires design leaders.

 

RIBA Event Details