Caroline Sohie of Arup spent four months as resident architect on a charity project in Ladakh, India. Here, she explains the value of such placements
What's the history of the project, and can we have a geography lesson on where it is?
Arup began working on the project in 1997, and it is due to be finished in 2011. It's a big project, with a temple, public hall and a residential area as well as a school for three- to 18-year-olds. It's being built by UK charity the Drukpa Trust which responded to a request from community elders. Ladakh is an enclave of Tibetan Buddhism, a semi-autonomous district in the Western Himalayas between India and Pakistan. They call it "Little Tibet" – the landscape, traditions and culture are all very similar.

How did you come to be resident architect on the project?
I had been working on the project in London for two years. A group of seven of us came together every two weeks to work on it on a voluntary basis. There was a selection process based on how well I knew the project and my skills and experience in general. Next year, someone else will go for the summer building season.

What was your working life like in Ladakh?
I worked very closely with the local construction managers. I had to communicate and translate the drawings done in England. There were lots of unpredictable elements, because the local materials and methods were different. Details had to be modified on site. I'd do sketches, then see it being built before my eyes. I also had a strategic role: the local people were skilled at building work, but I was there for planning ahead.

There were no limits to responsibility. I wasn't just the architect, I was an ambassador for the project to tourists and to local people. I had to work closely with the community and came in contact with many influential people, including the King of Ladakh and the High Lamas.

The project embodied a holistic approach to architecture, working in harmony with the environment, traditions and the future

What was the most rewarding aspect?
It was an incredible experience on all levels. As an architect, it was marvellous to feel you're guiding a site and seeing it become a reality. When I was there, we had to inaugurate the first block of the school [in September], so it was great to work with the local people to make that happen. And also seeing the children using the place. You don't often see the transition between construction site and operational space.

Would you say the experience has changed you as an architect?
I learned flexibility, how to analyse a situation quickly and not panic in complex situation. As an architect, I learned about tactility and how to assess if a piece of wood is good enough. And the project embodied a holistic approach to architecture, working in harmony with the environment, traditions and the future. Because the world is becoming more specialised, I think it's vital to have the holistic picture.