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Teresa Borsuk: 'This award makes you realise you're a role model'

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Woman Architect of the Year Teresa Borsuk talks to Laura Mark about tackling the housing crisis and getting to the top in a large firm

How does it feel to win the Woman Architect of the Year Award?
It is a complete shock but a great honour. It feels like quite a responsible position. I was originally quite ambivalent about the award – as I think a lot of women are – because you feel that what you want to be recognised for is what you do, not what gender you are. Going in for the award was quite difficult for me to agree to, but my office persuaded me. You then realise that you are a role model – especially for younger women. They realise that someone has done these things and that it is possible, and that is the purpose of the awards. It is great.

There is a lot of debate about housing at the moment. What needs to be done to get more homes built?
There are so many aspects – it is not an easy answer. We need to loosen up on the greenbelt and some of our regulation. Planning laws and the whole procurement process have become negative for the creation of housing. It is not proactive and things take too long. There are lots of new models like PRS. Maybe there should be caps or taxes on the value of homes. Housing is key to people’s wellbeing.

Are housing developers concerned about good design?
They are varied. We work with a lot of developers who are very interested and concerned about good design because they have to sell and the properties they create have to be attractive to people. If the marketplace is large they have to add something to that. Then there are volume housebuilders and in their own way they are concerned with what sells. The question is, is what sells good design, and that is another big debate.

Have you noticed a drop in the number of affordable homes being built?
The key thing is it is not the quality of housing which is an issue – it is the amount of affordable homes. If we had more it would be affordable. It is a real problem. It’s a problem for the young people in our office. Finding somewhere affordable to live in inner London is really tricky.

Is it more difficult for women to get their voices heard and move up to management level in larger practices?
It is, but the most difficult time is when you are younger and making your way. It is the horrible clash in architectural careers when you’re childbearing years are just when you are climbing the rungs of that ladder. The trickiest thing is coming back and feeling you still have an important voice and that you still have a position. That is where we need to focus our encouragement. In our office we do all sorts of things to encourage women to come back to work after having children. It is only a hump. People lose confidence. They think they can’t offer the time. Historically there has been a tendency towards a macho culture of long hours. We have to break that. It is happening. In our office we are 50:50 and there is a very healthy work/life balance.

Tenacity, energy, and fairness are essential to good leadership

What has your approach to leadership been?
Being clear and direct. It is like bringing up children. You have to know what is good, what is bad and your boundaries. You can’t be a moody leader. You have to be encouraging. Even in difficult times you have to pull people through – things don’t always go right. Tenacity, energy, fairness, and just being straightforward are essential.

You’ve raised the levels of women in your practice to 50:50. How did you do this?
When I started at Pollard Thomas Edwards, we were in a Georgian house. It was a much smaller office. It felt like a home. That was the founding partners intentions. They wanted people to feel at home in the office. What that extended to was to have a balanced workforce – like real life. They worked very hard to have an equal workforce and it was much more difficult in the early 80s because there weren’t that many women architects. We don’t have a quota. We recruit on the basis of ability but women beget more women. People know of our practice as a place where women are comfortable. The men are very comfortable as well.

What effect do you think being a woman architect has had on your work?
The emotional intelligence that women can bring to a project is key. A lot of what we do is about relationships with people. Women are incredibly observant and responsive to people’s needs – right from the client to the people building it on site.

Is establishing a career more difficult for women architects?
There is the historic tag of architecture being a male-dominated profession. But it is just those difficult childbearing years. I’m sure we can do something about the length of the profession. By the time you start you first real job you are 28, you just get going and then you go off to have children. That is the most difficult bit.

Discrimination is not happening where you expect it

Have you ever experienced discrimination in your career?
Yes, within an office. It was from an architect on one of my first jobs. I was the first woman they had ever employed and I think he just found it particularly difficult. I don’t think he knew how to handle me. But that gave me broader shoulders. I thought if I could cope with that I could deal with anything. When I was studying we did a six month placement on a building site and I worked on the Natwest Tower. There were 500 men and me, and not once on that building site did I experience any discrimination. It doesn’t happen where you expect it. This is sometimes flabbergasting. Often because it is not happening where you expect it you make excuses.

What role models are there for young women architects?
The AJ has done a great job at highlighting them. We’ll have soon had three women presidents at the RIBA. Zaha is evidently out there. What is coming out now is that these role models existed years ago, they were just never acknowledged, like Eileen Gray.

What do you think needs to be done to help women in the profession?
We need encouraging employers who will help women through those tough years. Women need to be stronger about the balance of who is caring for their children and make sure there is a balance between both partners.

Do you think the quality of the built environment suffers from a lack of female architects?
There are women architects having an influence over the built environment. However I do feel you can tell when something has been designed by a male architect. I could go around housing schemes and point out whether they have been designed by a male or female architect.

What do you think of the other award winners?
They are astonishing. When you look at all the shortlisted women it is a fantastic portfolio.

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