An architect in government: the AJ talks to Aminossehe
In her first interview since leaving HOK to lead the UK’s regional property strategy, Sherin Aminossehe reveals the challenges of being one of the few architects in central government
What does your new role entail?
I’m responsible for creating and delivering the property strategy for the mandated civil estate in the English regions and outer London, alongside all the departments. This will be done by consolidating or exiting short-term leases and making better use of long leases, PFIs and freeholds, and through workplace transformations that will see a number of departments all working under one roof.
The government is one of the largest freeholders, as well as the largest tenant, in the country, so there’s room to make the estate more efficient and sustainable, while also delivering savings. We talk about joined-up government and this is its physical embodiment.
It’s quite a change. What tempted you to leave HOK?
It’s not often that you get the opportunity to influence the property strategy for thousands of buildings and I’ve always had a wider interest in policy, planning and the economics of development, so when I heard about the job I knew I had to apply. To me, it’s one of the most interesting jobs in property, combined with the chance to decrease the national deficit by billions over the next decade – it can’t get more exciting than that!
There is not a need for an in-house architectural department
Why is it so rare for architects to work in central government?
There are not that many ‘traditional’ architecture roles within central government, as there is not a need for an in-house architectural department. Saying that, I have never been a traditional architect. I didn’t leave the Bartlett thinking that I wanted to design bespoke houses or museums: I’ve always loved the bigger picture.
What roles are there for architects in developing the regional property portfolio?
There will continue to be a greater number of refurbishments than new builds, but that doesn’t mean there are no opportunities, just a different emphasis. In keeping with the spirit of straightened times, there is a great chance to think differently about retrofits, re-using office buildings as housing or schools and, of course, new ways of working. There is a lot of room innovation and creativity, to look at buildings in a different way.
How do practices get involved and will there be opportunities for smaller firms?
We currently use existing frameworks such as the Homes and Communities Agency’s, which has a wide range of firms. However, we are committed to creating opportunities for smaller firms and will be looking at that in more detail over the next year.
We’re advising departments to work to an average of 8m² per person and eight desks for every 10 employees
How will your selection of sites tie-in with the Localism agenda?
Our initial focus is on the Central Civil Estate, and in particular on the two property pilots in Central London and Bristol. The journey throughout 2012 for these pilots will be about trialling solutions, delivering quick wins, demonstrating success, and ensuring we begin to tackle inherent inefficiencies. Lessons from these pilots can then be used to drive efficiencies across a range of locations, while ensuring solutions are bespoke enough to meet local needs.
There is also potential to connect this with departmental land holdings and local government estates, creating a direct link with the Localism agenda through regeneration and growth opportunities in partnership with local authorities and stakeholders.
Is design important to the Cabinet Office, and if so, how?
Yes of course it is; good design is essential in many ways. Perhaps in times of austerity there is even greater need to focus on it, particularly in terms of function.
We believe that property, and thereby good architecture and design, is an enabler of change. For example, if you had a very attractive yet difficult building, the only way to get the most out of it is through good design, allowing it to become an efficient, modern office space that creates new ways of working. It’s also worth remembering that the Cabinet Office co-sponsors the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award.
Are there new ‘private’ models, such as the white collar factory, that can be used by government for workplace strategies?
The white collar factory can mean different things to different people. The model that we would aspire to would be David Rosen’s Tea Building by AHMM in Shoreditch, with its efficient and great workplace design, rather than the battery farming, call centre version. As part of the national property controls, we are advising departments to work to an average of eight square metres per person and eight desks for every 10 employees.
Sherin Aminossehe, head of Regional Strategy within the Government Property Unit (Cabinet Office)