Director at Glenn Howells Architects in Birmingham on the challenges and joys of working in a profession that has no rules and her love of New York and sandwiches
Why did you choose construction as a career?
I am creative with an active, problem-solving mind, so becoming an architect was a natural fit for me. I have always been aware that construction is a male-dominated industry, but I grew up in rural Ireland with five brothers – they taught me how to handle myself.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
Probably working on Paradise Birmingham with Argent. I have been so fortunate to have been working on this masterplan since my first few weeks at Glenn Howells Architects, back in 2010.
Phase one completed last year and the huge transfer trusses have just been installed for One Centenary Way (the first building of phase two). It has already transformed this edge of the city and it is so rewarding to walk through and hear passers-by commenting on how fantastic the place has become.
What has been your biggest career challenge?
We have had numerous complex projects and clients, which have really pushed me and my thinking, from building over live highways to repairing and adding to famously historic settings. But my biggest (and most fun) challenge so far has been overseeing the development of my team.
It is not what we train to do as architects but, for me, it has been reaffirming to understand that every person wants to do a good job, no matter how big their role is in the team. My job is to help them do that by guiding them along the way.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Our approach to training and teaching new architects. I studied at Queen University Belfast and I remember being told by the head of school, in my final year of BSc, that he “didn’t want to see any third-year student back here (at QUB) next year” and that he would “not employ an architect who trained for seven years in one city”. it is a thought I often call upon.
I believe that it is important to meet and be inspired by as many people and places as possible and push yourself as a designer at this early, creative stage of your career.
What is the most helpful advice that you have been given?
We are working with Urban Splash on the redevelopment of Port Loop in Birmingham and Tom Bloxham, the founder of Urban Splash, said: “We are not delivering units; we are delivering people’s homes.” It is important to always remember this.
Name your favourite building in the world?
It’s not one building but a city: New York. My brother lives there and I have visited numerous times with family, friends and university, all with completely different experiences.
My favourite moments have to be that jaw-drop experience as the Manhattan skyline revels itself on arrival from Brooklyn/JFK, the food from the little street delis, the subway trips, the walk along the highline, the huge buildings where hundreds of people live or work and that, every day, thousands pass, and millions see… it’s just awesome!
(NB I do recommend the walk over the Brooklyn bridge in the morning, then walk back over the Manhattan bridge to see the sunset. It is magical to watch Manhattan coming alive.)
Which famous building do you most dislike?
Again, it’s not a sole building but under-used spaces, and Birmingham is full of them! The bellies of highways, pedestrian subways, vacant warehouses and viaducts in the Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth… the list goes on.
Which famous building do you wish you had worked on?
The Empire State Building in New York. It was constructed in 13 months and, at that time, was the world’s tallest building and the first to exceed 100 floors. What an amazing piece of innovation! Who wouldn’t want to have lunch on a steel girder 1,000ft in the air?
What single piece of advice would you give to someone starting out in your profession?
There is no rule book in architecture, we are in an ever-changing and evolving landscape and with that design, trends and skills change.
A few decades ago, we didn’t know what Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) were available to us, what “BIM” even was, and we wouldn’t have dreamt to purposefully expose all the services in buildings.
Unlike other professions, there is no right or wrong answer in architecture, and we have the freedom to challenge the past – and have some fun doing that!
Who do you most admire in the construction industry?
I can’t say there is one single figurehead that I admire in the industry as there is such a wide net of talent and inspiration out there. But almost every day I am influenced by other architects, my colleagues and our clients.
What is it like being you?
It’s a bit mad, but I’m passionate about what I do. There is no real boundary when you are an architect, our job is also our hobby, and life tends to centre around that.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Give everything and everyone a chance – you never know what might come out of it.
What do you think your best quality is?
I will always give everything a go, (no matter how bad I know I’ll be at it).
What trait do you most dislike in yourself? And in other people?
Talking over people, I hate it when people do it to me and I hate it when I realise I have just done it!
Name three things that you like
Ireland - the countryside and the people. It will always be home to me.
Birmingham – watching its constantly evolving landscape and participating in the city
Tell us about a secret skill we don’t know that you have?
I like to think I have a hawk-eye when reviewing drawings
What is your most prized possession?
My late granny’s emerald ring
Early bird or night owl?
What is your favourite food?
Sandwiches, any kind… I like them all!
What would your superpower be?
Telepathy… it would save a lot of time
Shauna Bradley is a director at Glenn Howells Architects