My Interesting Job: Architect

My Interesting Job: Architect

Ever since drawing houses at the age of 12, Jan Norman has been passionate about architecture. Now after twenty years in the industry, she has crafted a career that has taken her from design student to Senior Associate Architect. Yet with training taking an average of ten years to complete, becoming an architect is not for the faint-hearted. Here Jan shares her career path, the pressures and rewards of the industry and why she loves a housewarming.

I Always Wanted To Do Something Creative
I originally wanted to be an air hostess but by the age of 12 I was drawing houses. Although I wanted to be an artist and go to art school, I was persuaded to get a profession.

Architecture Is A Marriage Of The Technical And Art
My older brother studied architecture and when I saw the course, I realised it was really creative. I went to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and their architecture degree contained a course called Experiment Aesthetics – based around quite abstract art – where you could do sculpture, painting and video.

Postgrad Students Pull All-Nighters
I did my postgrad at The Bartlett School of Architecture in London. It was a two-year course which was very intensive. The Bartlett is one of the best schools in the country and attracts huge amounts of talent. The competition’s very fierce and students have to work very hard. It’s not uncommon to pull all-nighters to get projects done.

Becoming An Architect Requires Commitment And Stamina
It takes about 10 years in total to become an architect. I did a four-year degree, had two years out between degree and diploma, then did a two-year diploma. After that I worked for another year, then did my professional exams, which took a further year. It’s one of those degrees which quickly weeds out those who aren’t 100% into it.

The Rise Through The Ranks Looks Like This
You start as an Architectural Assistant between your degree and diploma. Once you’ve done your diploma you become Assistant Architect. After your ‘part three’ exams, you become a Project Architect. You then work up to associate and director level. I am now Senior Associate Architect at design firm, 318 Studio.

You Need More Than Drawing Skills
To be a good architect you have to be able to naturally express yourself in any given medium. Being able to draw well by hand, and draw perspective, will enable you to communicate ideas clearly to clients and builders. You also need a quick brain for maths to work out space and geometry.

Communication Is Key
You’re coordinating teams of people, so you need to be an effective communicator. You also need good people skills to work with clients. In the work I do – which is private residential – we work closely with families. A project can take a number of years from start to finish so you get to know families very well. You’re essentially creating something that reaches their dreams - you want to make something they're in love with.

It Can Be A Juggling Act
Obviously there’s the client to keep happy, but you’re also trying to give the contractor what he needs and keep the consultants on board too. Trying to keep everyone happy can be a lot of pressure.

It’s Not A Man’s World
The industry isn’t male-orientated, it’s more evenly split. In my office, we have – and try to maintain  – a good balance. In terms of career progression, the same issues affect any profession where women have to take time out to have children and then don’t achieve the top spots. As a result, some leave and set up on their own, but that’s not just in architecture, that can happen in any career. In my case, I went back to work fairly quickly after having my children.

Female Architects Are Getting The Recognition They Deserve
Female architects are finally getting plaudits. Elizabeth Diller and Zaha Hadid are amazing role models for women. There are also some exceptional architects like David Chipperfield and Jamie Fobert who design beautiful work.

The Secret Of Good Architecture Is This
Creating an interesting composition of volumes, space and light lies at the heart of good architecture, mixed with good detailing and a simple palette of beautiful materials. My signature design style is minimal but warm – natural materials and textures mixed with some interesting pieces of furniture or art.

The Swimming Pool Starts Here
The client procures a site which is the blank drawing we work from. Depending on location, we look at the design and make sure it suits the environment. For example, if it’s in a conservation area, it needs to meet certain criteria to get through planning. We put together 3D models and work with the client on their brief. What do you they want – a cinema, a swimming pool? What are the functions we need to include? When we’ve got to a stage where the client is happy with the proposals, we’ll put in for planning permission, which can take a couple of months.

Before You Lay A Single Brick
With planning permission in place, we go into the detailed design phase and put together palettes and images of the interiors. We select a contractor and go through building regulations approval. Then we can finally get started on-site. There’s a lot of organisation before you start the building process. It can take a couple of years on-site, being in design meetings with clients and contractors, working with interior designers to ensure the client’s needs are met. Eventually, you get to the point where the client can live in it.

A Housewarming Is My Highlight
I love it when clients are really happy with their houses. Often they’ll have a housewarming and that’s when the hard work is done and you see people enjoying it. These are the best moments.

My Average Day Looks Like This
I get up early and sort my family out. I ride my bike into work, and often have meetings on-site or in the office. I have young children so I leave to pick the youngest one up from school and take her home. After she’s gone to bed, I continue working. On an average day I work around eight hours.

Being a mum and working is a juggle – I try to keep on top of everything and do the job well.

Skiing Is My Stress Buster
I actually find designing quite relaxing. But to completely get away from all the stress, you can’t beat skiing. That feeling of being on top of a mountain ­­– you just can’t think of anything else as you fly down it. Family time, wine with friends and Pilates, also keeps me balanced.

The Start And The Finish Are The Best Bits
I enjoy the design side at the beginning. I also enjoy the end of the project when you see your hard work come together. However, the middle bit contains a lot of slog, organization, firefighting and problem solving, which can be stressful.

We Are The Face Of The Project
If there are any problems, we usually have to report them back to the client. For example, you've got a deadline but the subcontractor is late and the clients are getting upset. This kind of thing happens in the industry and you just have to manage the situation.

Architects Tend To Be Workaholics
My husband would say I don’t have a good work/life balance - he thinks I work too hard! I probably do. It can be difficult with young kids as you’re constantly trying to juggle. Plus architecture is a difficult job to take lightly. It’s the kind of job you’re really committed to – to your projects and contractors – so it’s hard to say, “I’m taking today off”.

The Design Legacy I’d Like To Leave
I want clients to really love the designs and feel their dreams have been fulfilled with well-considered, thoughtful architecture. It’s a great part of the job when what started in your imagination actually comes to life in front of you.

Anyone Wanting To Become An Architect Needs To Know This
Understand that it’s hard work, so strive to do your best. And remember, although there’s a lot of slog, it is also enjoyable and exciting.


Visit 318 Studio to see more of Jan’s work. 

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