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AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize: Punching above their weight

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This year’s AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize is still open to enter – here are five students making a big impact at their practices 

For the third year running, engineering consultancy Curtins is collaborating with the AJ to organise the AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize. The competition celebrates an outstanding Part 2 or Part 3 architecture student who has helped take an architectural practice forward, or demonstrated a good nose for business on an independent project. Find out how to enter here.

To explore these issues, the AJ has spoken to leaders at four leading practices about how entrepreneurial students have made a significant business impact at their firms. 

Niralee Casson, Assael Architecture

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‘The way we operate is we give young people lots of responsibility very early,’ practice founder John Assael says. ‘We’ve got people in their 20s and 30s working on £60 million jobs.’

He singles out Niralee Casson, a Part 2 student from the Cass School, as ‘commercial, savvy and just fabulous’, as well as an example of someone who helped the business by securing a major project. 

Assael says Casson ‘rescued’ the large Taylor Wimpey-backed Linton Fuels project for 114 homes in Wandsworth, London, after the associate director leading the scheme fell ill and was then called for jury service.

In the midst of the crisis, Casson stepped up and took charge of the project using her client interaction skills, such as chairing meetings with Taylor Wimpey and helping it secure planning permission.

Niralee rescued a project for 114 homes after the associate director leading the scheme fell ill

‘She was able to step in to keep the client happy, operate efficiently, and she did most of the work on the scheme herself,’ says Assael.

‘The client wrote to me afterwards and said he was delighted with her performance – he didn’t even realise she was a student. She didn’t bottle it and she made us a lot of money, which was brilliant.’

Jonathan Stern, Allies and Morrison

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The firm’s managing partner Jo Bacon says that one standout student is Part 2 architecture student Jonathan Stern also from the Cass School.

Stern worked over a two-year period for practice partner Paul Appleton on the delivery of two projects involving planning in two different ‘sensitive urban contexts’. These projects included a retirement home in Bath, known as the Upper Bristol Road project, and a residential 140-home development on the Worthing seafront in West Sussex.

‘With these sorts of sites you might expect a project architect to be required,’ says Bacon. ‘He was working above the level where he would normally be [at his stage] in project work and also in life at the practice.’  

On the Worthing seafront development, Bacon says that Stern took the initiative to encourage the integration of the firm’s architecture and interiors teams on the project.

She adds: ‘The PM/QS consultant is now recommending us to another client as a result of [Stern’s] proaction.’

And she says that, within the practice itself, Stern’s business skills have excelled.

This has included taking it upon himself to organise a seminar with the other Part 2 students and Allies and Morrison’s management team, including Bacon, in order to broaden their knowledge of the business side of the practice. 

Ben Robinson and Roma Gadomska-Miles, Hawkins\Brown

Ben and roma webcrop

Co-founder Roger Hawkins says everyone at Hawkins\Brown, including students, is ‘given a voice’ and is ‘not just sat in a back room’. 

He highlights two Part 2 students who have had an impact on the commercial side of the business.

Ben Robinson, from the Manchester School of Architecture, won an RIBA Silver Medal Award in 2015, and has since worked on the Cardiff Innovation Central science building for Cardiff University.

Hawkins says Robinson had a ‘key role’ on the £26 million project, which has now been granted planning permission and is about to start on site. 

In particular, he credits him with taking forward the use of BIM technologies at the practice. He says Robinson, who excels in digital architecture, explained BIM to the client and also used some of his own software to model the building. 

Hawkins also praises Roma Gadomska-Miles, a Part 2 student from the Royal College of Art, who he says is effectively running the Central Surgery Sawbridgeworth project in Hertfordshire on her own.

‘As a practice we don’t have much experience in primary care or medical facilities,’ says Hawkins. ‘But she’s taking the initiative to bring in other expertise to our office in order to support this new area of work – and business – for us.’

Hawkins says Gadomska-Miles has had to demonstrate how the room layouts meet specific medical criteria in order to get funding, and has ‘spearheaded’ this new market for the practice. The project has been granted planning permission and is awaiting the ‘final bits’ of funding before it starts on site. 

‘We gave her the project,’ Hawkins says, ‘but she had the foresight and the nous to say: “We don’t know enough about this, we need expertise.” She has gone out and made those contacts.’ 

Michail Desyllas, Zaha Hadid Architects

Michail desyllas webcrop

ZHA associate Melodie Leung says that, in addition to being a talented designer at the practice, Michail Desyllas, a Part 2 graduate from the University for the Creative Arts, has also shown his entrepreneurialism by co-founding a business of his own.

The startup, AiBuild, is developing 3D printing technology for large-scale objects on a scale that is both fast and cost-effective.

She credits Desyllas for being able to ‘juggle’ working for both his company and ZHA.

‘This is something that he does above and beyond his job,’ says Leung. ‘His passion is for the research; it’s [about] finding ways to create a business like this so it can have a more sustainable contribution to the construction industry.’ 

As well as being a talented designer at ZHA, Michail Desyllas has co-founded a 3D printing business

She adds that with AiBuild, Desyllas has ‘to find creative ways to market, partner [with other companies]and give exposure to what they are doing, which has a lot of potential’. 

Desyllas also worked to partner AiBuild with ZHA on two projects. The first, the ‘Puddle Chair’, a prototype sofa, was designed in collaboration with ZHA principal Patrik Schumacher; the second was a sculpture for Milan Design Week 2017. 

Leung says: ‘He is a standout just because of his passion for what he’s doing on every scale. He’s also a strong designer on our team.’

  • Shortlisted entries will be invited to present their projects on 9 October in the M by Montcalm Hotel in Shoreditch, east London
  • The overall winner will be announced on 3 November at the AJ100 Club breakfast in London (all shortlisted entries need to attend both days)
  • The deadline for entries is 1 September 2017
  • To enter, visit graduateprize.architectsjournal.co.uk

Catch up with last year’s joint winners, Charlotte Knight of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Jayne Rosen of Tony Meadows Associates

Curtins logo small

Curtins logo small

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