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Diary of a Part 1: The small practice

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Spending two years at Cousins & Cousins allowed Part 1 James Barber to build his professional confidence

Taking an extra year to work at Cousins & Cousins after finishing his Part 1 at Canterbury School of Architecture allowed James Barber to build his professional confidence, learn the intricacies of the planning process and return to his studies better prepared.

I think it’s almost common knowledge that what you learn in architecture school is not a direct representative of working practice.  So when you do finally graduate you have this kind of self-awareness that the three years you just spent producing beautiful perspective sections and exploded axonometric drawings might not actually be very useful when applying for a planning application for a side extension.  I think this leaves students feeling slightly apprehensive about starting out in practice.

One of the biggest challenges for me was learning how to work efficiently. Working in practice it’s really about streamlining the skills you develop at university and knowing the extent and quality of work required for a particular task. Of course it would also help if you knew what tasks are expected of you before starting out! I didn’t know anything about the planning process, or what was required for tender, and those are surely the bread and butter of the architectural assistant.

I was also fortunate to work on a pavilion while in practice and so I could see a project through all the stages of design. From producing the initial concept renderings to drawing each custom panel of glass ready for cutting, it’s great to see the project quickly take shape from concept to construction in only a few weeks.  It’s a steep learning curve, but I was lucky enough to be in practice surrounded by people who all invested a little of their time to teach me, collectively sharing the burden of my inexperience.

In my second year at Cousins & Cousins, I felt increasingly confident in practice and my responsibilities grew proportionally. I was lucky enough to actually run a job in Chelsea, extending the first and second floor above a restaurant into two dwellings, entirely from planning through to Tender issue.  For a project in Cannonbury park, I was also able to produce construction details and setting out drawings for issue, working closely alongside the project architect.  I would definitely recommend students spending a second year at their practice, as its only really towards the end of the first year where you really get into your architectural stride.

I do think university does many things right, and I’m thankful for everything I learnt there.  But the profession is inherently a complex one, and I suppose it difficult to prioritise the teaching of all the skills and quality’s necessary.  I feel I may have been better prepared if there was perhaps less emphasis on  individualistic design and artistic pursuit, and more on the practicalities and collaborative nature of the profession.  I feel like architectural education in general is perhaps a little too detached from reality, and this makes the transition into a professional environment more difficult than it ought to be, for both the student and employer.

James Barber, Part 1, Cousins & Cousins

Mentor: Ben Cousins, Director, Cousins & Cousins

A good candidate will become an important part of our office culture, combining an open mind and an energetic keenness to learn. James has certainly brought that to our practice.

Part 1s don’t tend to have on the job experience and so often send us beautifully crafted CVs which try to stand out from the crowd. Whilst we appreciate this, and actively seek candidates with these skills, we are also reading between the lines for potential.

The Part 1 student job might be their first contact with an architecture office, so there is a lot to learn. It takes time to understand the procedures that are in place in order to design, detail and build a project. James proved he was capable from very early when working on projects such as the Seven Lochs Wetland Park competition and the Glaze pavilion for Clerkenwell Design Week. All Part 1s need to learn to efficiently manage work load and understand the dynamics of the practice, organisational strategies and the best ways to communicate with colleagues.

Universities afford time for individual reflection and procrastination which is great, but project deadlines don’t offer this luxury, so quickly learning to understand and prioritise important facts and tasks can come as quite a shock! A year in practice is also a real education. More collaborative work at university would certainly help bring them closer to the real world office environment.

On the flip side new graduates are often more au fait with latest tech so there is an element of reverse mentoring in the hire of a Part 1 which can be a great asset to the office. Great Part 1s ask great questions, they are hungry for information. This attitude can make more experienced architects pause to think about why and how they do things. James is a highly valued member of the team and though we are sorry to see him go we look forward to hearing all about his achievements in his Part 2. I think he will feel confident heading back to study with the experience he gained in practice


Tutor: Allan Atlee, Head of School, Canterbury School of Architecture, University for the Creative Arts

The first degree in Architecture at UCA sets out to equip our students with the skills, attitudes, habits and stamina needed for lifelong learning and activism. We set demanding architectural challenges for our students - 3 or 4 significant projects in each year. Each introduces and develops precise thinking, making and doing skills and presents students with the opportunity to learn about the ways in which individuals, objects, communities and organisations can affect the city and bring about change at varying scales.

James’s portfolio, including his refined and restrained final project set in Athens, is testament to the range of skills that a creative arts education provides. At UCA students are encouraged to negotiate diverse material, digital and conceptual processes in the studios, workshops, galleries and labs on campus. The initiative-taking and resilience that such negotiation requires is a skill set well suited to getting things done in practice irrespective of its norms or current preoccupations.

Our recent alumni return to the School every year to present their year out experiences and their developing practice to current students. The diversity of experiences is truly astonishing and confirms our School’s belief that our courses equip our gradates well for an increasingly turbulent and shifting world.





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