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Profile: AJ/Curtins Inspiring graduate Vanessa Lee

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AJ/Curtins Inspiring graduate prize winner Vanessa Lee talks sandcastles, office refurbs and piggeries in India

It is tempting to wonder just how many architectural careers Lego has spawned. Vanessa Lee, named last week as winner of of the inaugural AJ/Curtins Inspiring Graduate Prize, certainly remembers her early interest in the colourful building blocks. Indeed, Lee, a 30-year-old Part 2 graduate at London practice BuckleyGrayYeoman, also recalls creating little worlds out of seaweed and rocks at the beach. Later, in school, Lee discovered a talent for creative and scientific pursuits. ‘I loved art, but I also loved maths and physics, so architecture was a natural choice of career,’ she says.

Lee went on to study architecture and landscape architecture at Sheffield University, graduating in 2007. After a short spell at a local firm, she joined BuckleyGrayYeoman the following year while studying for her Part 2 at London Metropolitan University.

Lee’s first major job for the practice was the refurbishment of Citadines Holborn – a 192-bed Apart’hotel near Covent Garden for Ascott International. Delivered on a tight budget, the graduate’s success at seeing the project from the competition stage to practical completion marked a breakthrough. ‘That was the first one that really grabbed me,’ she says. ‘Until then I had been working on smaller projects, but Citadines was a major refurbishment.’ Refurb has proved a strong suite for Lee.

Her highest-profile scheme to date is Henry Wood House for flexible office provider The Office Group, which saw a 16-storey, 1960s office block transformed into a mixture of co-working, social and serviced office spaces. Impressive as these projects are it was Lee’s sanitation project for an NGO in Agra, India, as part of a London Met initiative that set her apart from the other finalists. The project encompassed both macro and micro interventions.

She recalls: ‘At first it was only loosely related to architecture. We set up micro-finance models that allowed the women we were working with to start businesses. The aim was to help them make enough money to build a toilet.’

On a wider scale, Lee looked at how to improve the drainage system in order to deal with monsoon rains and how to create clean water. ‘They had a lot of pigs foraging in the open sewer, so my local intervention was the creation of a piggery.’

Agra’s government used Lee’s research to develop a pilot scheme. The judges singled out this ability to marry research with practical outcomes as particularly impressive. When asked what advice she would give to aspiring graduates, Lee stresses the importance of keeping an open mind.

She says: ‘Don’t go in with the fixed impression that you are going to be designing every day. The reality is that architecture is also a business. You have to address what your client needs.’

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