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WIA award winners and apprentice star share top tips on business success

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The challenges of flexible working, construction’s male imbalance and site experience dominated the first in a series of wide-ranging AJ debates on business practice

Packed with useful advice for running a profitable studio, the event included tips on how: to brand a business; manage flexible working in a team; and ensure younger workers reach their full potential.

The speakers – AJ Woman Architect of the Year joint winner Michál Cohen, AJ Emerging Woman Architect of the Year Hannah Lawson and TV’s Apprentice star Gabrielle Omar – took turns in explaining their careers, sharing business acumen and advising others on the route to success. 

The event, sponsored by Roca, which took place at the NLA was the first in a series of talks, lectures and discussions aimed at broadcasting business intelligence on the roles, opportunities and challenges available to women in architecture.

At-a-glance: WIA event top tips

•     Be familiar with your strengths. If you need help with accounts, seek out support
•     Always keep an eye on costs and overheads
•     Flatten office hierarchies and keep younger workers engaged
•     Share accountability for finding new work with your team
•     Allow graduates early exposure to architecture’s business side

After explaining the roots of her 70 per cent female practice’s success, Cohen set out a strong argument for the importance of flexible working in managing a happy team.

‘We need happy architects, we need people who want to come to work and be fully engaged by what they do. We in our office will try so hard to give people that flexibility,’ she said.

Lawson – who became a director at John McAslan and Partners in her thirties and manages the company’s 25-strong Education and Culture team – agreed but stressed the potential challenges faced in smaller studios.

‘The industry is not flexible. Deadlines are deadlines and if you’re on site and someone needs to know where to put a piece of steel it needs to be done. You need a degree of critical mass to be able to fire fight. [This means] certain bigger practices are better at adopting flexible working.’

Apprentice star Omar – who established a her own design consultancy after being made redundant five years ago – made an impassioned speech about the importance of branding and communication in winning new clients and work.

She said: ‘I made some expensive [metal] business cards and there were no jobs. The next step was gate crashing every embassy party I could. For every card I gave out, because it was so different, people actually contacted me back. You have to have a brand but then you have to have a marketing strategy.’

We really need to re-brand ourselves as a profession

Looking at the wider picture, she added: ‘At the moment [architects] are in a place where nobody wants to hire us because they don’t know what we do or what we are. We really need to re-brand ourselves as a profession. Maybe we need a face, a marketing strategy, a brand.’

The only architect ever to appear on BBC’s flagship television programme will meet with RIBA president Angela Brady and chief executive Harry Rich on Friday to discuss branding ideas for the profession and ways to let the public know what architects do.

The AJ Women in Architecture debate at the NLA in London

The AJ Women in Architecture debate at the NLA in London

In response to audience questions, the debate moved on to look at finances, strategy and profit.

Cohen warned that at university ‘no-one tells you how to keep accounts or strategise properly’, adding: ‘We’ve learned so many new skills [while in practice] you wouldn’t believe.’

Lawson said she was fortunate to have picked up business skills from others in a big practice, but said younger workers brought insight too.

Later, asked whether she thought architecture was dominated by men, the Emerging Woman Architect of the Year prize winner said in the construction industry there was ‘definitely an old boys club that needs to be broken down’.

‘It’s not in architecture. It’s in the developers, contractors, quantity surveyors and project managers –the auxiliary firms. If I have been confronted by sex discrimination it is in those circles,’ she explained.

When questioned by a Part II student in the audience whether architects should have more opportunities to go on site while studying at university all three panellists agreed this would help break down preconceptions about the construction industry.

‘Somehow, if you see it for what it is, it dispels the fear. Because actually they are just big kids,’ said Lawson, adding it would be worthwhile speaking to contractors about potential opportunities.

She added: ‘Women labourers are few and far between but they run a tight ship. What I have seen them in the more senior positions they are really very good. The contractors are waking up and seeing what they are missing.’

Other points covered in the debate included the challenge of winning appropriate fees for jobs and the struggles facing small practices because of PQQs and the complexity of modern public procurement.

Did you know reading this article can count towards your annual CPD requirement?

Go to the AJ CPD portal


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