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Ferhan Azman ‘I’m the architect – on site, I make the builders feel it.’

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Ferhan Azman, founder of Azman Architects gives her thoughts on working on site

Ferhan Azman studied architecture in Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul, before moving to London in 1988. She has worked on large-scale commercial developments including Canary Wharf, and in 1993 established her own practice, Azman Architects, which has completed projects for Alexander McQueen and Konditor & Cook. Her house for Isabella Blow won praise from English Heritage, was widely published and was nominated for an RIBA regional award. Here, Azman gives her thoughts on taking drawings off the page and on to site.

I advise my students to start working as soon as they can.

Of course, it’s very difficult to find time - but I did. I wanted to. When I was studying in Istanbul I did two afternoons a week in an office. That was when I was in year one. I was 18 years old.

Being able to design is the defining characteristic of what it means to be a good architect - but it is not the only component. You must be able to build your design.

You must be able to administrate your design. You must be able to produce construction information. Regs. Planning. Client. Budget. To be able to pull all that together - to service your design - that’s what being a good architect is.

You have to have your working drawings in order if you want to get anything built.

Ask yourself: ‘What is it I am drawing? What does each line represent?’ There are no lines in building - so what do the lines on your drawings really mean?

I never, ever make a decision on site.

Why not? Because you can only see the big picture on your drawings. We are trained as architects to draw to scale. For example, you might be advised that a light fitting needs to move. But if you decide there and then, well - you might hit a joist. It could be anything, that’s just a small example. And it’s not only a technical matter. You need to ask yourself: ‘What am I trying to achieve with my design? How will changes affect my vision?’ The point is, you should say: ‘I’m going to think about it.’ Then go back to the studio and think about it. We’re thinking about the big picture. You must trust in your vision.

I am still learning.

You are always learning. When I set up my first practice - with Joyce Owens - we really began to learn how to build. We learned about construction from everyone; from our builders, even sometimes from our clients!

I always say to the younger architects in the office: at the moment, you know very little about building so don’t pretend that you do.

The builders on site will find you out immediately. Ask them to help you. They’ll show you.

In the old days, it was much more adversarial.

Architects would think: ‘How do I avoid getting screwed here?’ But my attitude has always been: ‘How do I get these people to help me build this?’ I see the builder as part of the design team. But you must bring them into the team first. You have to talk, ask them, ‘How can we do this?’ As the architect, you don’t have to know every screw size. You’re not the builder. That’s one for them. ‘You tell me, mate!’

Sometimes you have to compromise on a detail if your builder has made a mistake that can’t be rectified.

On one job I did, the steelwork was installed in the wrong place. It couldn’t be moved. But I worked with the builder to find a solution. When you do this, usually the builder will then give you more elsewhere on the job.

Sometimes it can take a while for a builder to catch on.

They then realise: ‘OK - that’s what she’s trying to do.’ I’ve done 50-odd houses. When it’s someone’s house you’re working on, often the client is inclined to go to site and say to the builder, ‘Can you move that there, or do that like this…’ But I tell my builders, ‘If you take instruction from a client and it results in bad work, I will not certify payment for it.’ And I say: ‘Ask me! I am the architect.’ But you must make yourself available - and approachable.

I’m the architect - so when we meet on site, I make them feel it.

But I also make the builders feel they are crucial to the job. It’s a partnership. They are building my project. But I won’t submit to them if my builder has done something wrong: I can get very upset. I feel physically unwell. But I say: ‘Wait: we’ll sort this out. We’ll get there.’

Sometimes I say to my clients: ‘Remember the projects of ours that you liked?’

‘Do you think we did them by doing what my client told me to do?’ I tell my clients: ‘Give me your brief. Tell me what you want and I’ll give you what you need.’ Yes, you can tell me what materials you like, and which ones you don’t, but don’t tell me the height of the worktops - unless you’re 6 foot 7!

I enjoy going to site.

You must enjoy going to site. I enjoy the action. My basic 3D drawing is coming alive. It’s fun. It’s great fun. The process is very enjoyable. Architecture becomes an art when you learn to fully harness all of the skills and craft on site.

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