Blog, Meet the Maker

• Meet Architect Jane Duncan

This month celebrates The London Festival of Architecture. There is an amazing programme of more than 500 unique events and activities. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Duncan OBE ex president of the RIBA

Jane Duncan is a British chartered architect, with her own practice based in Buckinghamshire. In August 2014 she was voted president elect of the Royal Institute of British Architects, receiving 52% of the vote and became the 75th president of the RIBA on 1 September 2015; her term of office finished on September 1 2017. She is only the third woman to ever have held the post of President.

Did you always want to be an architect and if so why?

I decided at the age of 13 when it became clear during a school art project – my friends were drawing the pots of geraniums and I was drawing the buildings. I was fascinated by buildings, spaces and people. I drew them, read about and visited them, formed pottery buildings rather than ponies, and made crazy balsa wood models all through GCSE and A levels.

Do you come from a family of architects? Yes my father was an architect running his own micro practice. I was taken to the office as a child for a treat occasionally (actually the ‘treat’ was a Chinese meal for lunch) but I was mostly bored there. When a local older friend of mine went off to study architecture, and took me for a trip around his college studio I felt absolutely at home, and knew I had found my future direction.  My father however was not supportive and told me he thought it unsuitable for a woman. I don’t think the concept of reverse psychology was well enough developed at the time! My mother was very pleased with my choice and supportive.

Which architectural college or university did you attend?

My friend had shown me around The Bartlett School at UCL.  I only applied there, and was luckily accepted.  My first degree was Architecture, Town Planning, Building and Environmental Science – quite forward thinking for the 1970s.

It is a long and grueling course do you feel it is a good education and does it equip you for work in an architectural practice once you leave?

It’s not the least bit grueling – it’s really fun, stimulating, challenging and tough. A good architectural education certainly helps you tackle the physical problems and ethics of design, but should mostly just make you curious and come away with an ability to think creatively and laterally, and communicate well.  Those are the two most important skills for an architect.

I question whether some current courses still provide students with those skills, as they now have so few hours of contact time, so little technical content and so much emphasis on clever graphics.

I have concerns too about the costs of the courses. I received a grant, and would probably not have studied architecture if it had cost the same as it does today.  I also had to live at home to reduce the costs, and commute daily from Barnet to Euston.

What made you interested in Architectural politics?

I started in politics early whilst working, prior to qualifying, in a huge international engineering company. I joined the staff in-house union and ended up at the age of 23 representing 3000 architects.  I set up my practice after qualifying, had a family (at pretty much the same time) and dropped politics for a while, although I always did other things such as acting writing and directing for amateur dramatics, running a salsa club and pro bono community work. 

I was ‘spotted’ at an RIBA conference for small practices, where I stood up and spoke my mind on charging properly for our work. I was asked to join the RIBA’s Small Practice group which is where it all started 15 years ago. From that point I was drawn into the maelstrom of architectural politics, and loved it.

Did you enjoy being president of the RIBA and were you able to influence the way the profession works?

I enjoyed every minute of it – even the ‘events dear boy, events’ – the long, long hours (as I was still running the practice so worked 24/7) flying around the globe, creating new initiatives and working with a really super staff team and some great supporters. I ran for office on a triple manifesto pledge of pride (in our work) profit (charging to represent our value) and people (diversity). I think I have influenced all of these, and added a whole heap more including directing a new Vision Strategy for the Institute, making it more global in outlook, and bringing social responsibility and ethical practices back to prominence.

Are you still involved in architectural politics?

After I handed over the presidential reigns the role requires a year as immediate past president, and I took on chairing three major committees to complete work started during my presidency. These were a review of the RIBA Awards, a complete Constitutional review and the Expert Panel on Fire Safety after Grenfell. The latter is probably the most political work I have ever done, and this role will continue. I am also President of the Architects Benevolent Society.

What were the best parts of the job as president RIBA and the worst?

My highlight was meeting, getting to know and putting the Royal Gold Medal around the neck of my architectural hero Zaha Hadid . My low point was being phoned up by the press team 6 weeks later and told that she had died, and I was to be live on BBC World News in 20 minutes.  I had a whole evening of live interviews from around the world, whilst coming to terms with the awful subject matter.

Other than that I loved meeting people – students, architects around the world, construction industry groups, community workers and many MPs and government officers.

It was hard work though to represent the profession after Brexit though with a government who had no idea how to handle the unexpected result of the vote, and with Ministers moving off almost as soon as a relationship had been developed.

I understand that as vice president of the RIBA you were Equality and Diversity Champion. Did you manage to make the changes within the profession that you wanted?

I think I was a good facilitator for change both in the Institute and in the Profession. I had a fantastic support from dedicated staff, and we did many things for the first time: welcomed LGBT group events, created an international women in architecture day, developed role models for the profession from all the 10 protected groups, and then role model practices.  The most important change was to get all parts of the Institute and the Profession thinking – perhaps for the first time about unconscious bias, representation, inclusivity and awareness.

When did you start your own architectural practice? How many people were in the practice to begin with and have you found it difficult to grow?

I set up in practice almost as soon as I qualified. I was working for a lovely young architect and asked for a partnership or I would leave. I left….. and set up in my back bedroom.

The practice grew slowly and steadily based on workload, and a very cautious business attitude. We now have 17 to 20 staff many of whom have been here for decades including interior designers, architects, technicians and students. We have no wish to grow this, but take on projects which we will enjoy. I am sure that our clients don’t realise that we go to interview them!

Your practice specializes in residential projects along with educational, community, commercial and leisure schemes. What kind of work do you most enjoy?

The best project for me is a site for a new house – I can literally build someone’s dreams. It doesn’t get better than that really.

Compared with when you started, do you think it is easier for architects to set up on their own nowadays or more difficult? Why?

Both really.  There’s a lot more knowledge and training in business, but also a lot more in the way of constraint from building and employment legislation, data protection, health and safety etc.

I know this question is hard to answer, but what is a typical day for you?

Early morning workout (if I wake in time), breakfast and then: site meetings/ client meetings/planning meetings/staff meetings/consultant meetings etc. In between hundreds of emails, (ugh) and a little design work. Trouble shooting and administration for the practice, plus writing lectures, minutes, writing articles, judging awards and still travelling a bit for the Institute.

What do you like most about what you do?

Every day is different and there are loads of challenges.

What do you dislike most about what you do?

Not much – I have a ball

What advice would you give to a young woman starting out as an architect today?

Go for it! It’s the best, most challenging, difficult, inspirational, exciting career on the planet. Don’t take no for an answer and have confidence in yourself. If you’ve successfully qualified you are amazing and need to take no nonsense from anyone. Be yourself and make sure you work for a practice which allows that – even if you have to start one yourself. There’s lots of help if you get unstuck – so ask.

One of the reasons I am interviewing successful women who are over forty is that they have often had to take a career break, or had to slow down to deal with child care and or aged parents. Have you ever had to deal with either of these of issues and did it impact on your creative life or business?

Everyone on the planet has to deal with these things – including me and my staff. It’s not an imposition it’s life and that’s as important as your business. People understand and you need to understand that too if you have a business, with staff/clients etc. I have not had a career break to deal with any of them.  I think architecture is in your blood so you have to keep doing it to be happy. If you are happy you can cope with most things.

What are you currently working on?

I am running about 30 projects with various staff – new houses, mixed developments, churches, historic buildings, green belt sites. On my board at the moment (yes we still use drawings boards and pencils to do our initial thinking) is a large shop which we are going to replace with a block of flats.

What is next?

Succession planning, more travel .

Jane Thank you

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