Architect Jane Briginshaw tells Matthew Richards how on earth she manages to run her own practice, lecture at a university and be an active local councillor
Why did you set up your own practice?
I worked at Burrell Foley Fischer for four years, and like any full-time job, there was high pressure. I was project architect on the refurbishment of Hampstead Town Hall. It was a big, complex scheme, and it's the one I'm most proud of in my career – just to have got through it! But for a year I was a local councillor and worked full-time, and it was impossible to do both. So I decided it was time to work for myself, and set up Planalto Architects in 1999.

What's a typical week for you now?
I try and do all my site visits on one day, which is usually Wednesday. The three projects I'm working on are all private residential schemes in east London, which is very handy. You can have all sorts of high-minded ideas, but when you do site visits, you're reminded of the realities. Friday is devoted to teaching architecture at Greenwich University, and I spend a lot of Thursday preparing. I do a lot of council work on Monday, and also have council meetings on three nights.

How do you find new work?
It was easy when I started my practice, because I set up on the basis of projects I already had.

But at a certain point you have to go and get work. I find publicity for the educational and political causes I'm involved in doubles up as PR for my practice, and I've started advertising in local property magazines to attract property developers. At first I thought, "I don't want to do all this residential work; I might get typecast." But you've got to bring home the bacon.

What are the best architecture schools?
I'm glad I went to Oxford Brookes – the former polytechnics are now really good places to have come from. They are the universities that are really innovating. In the past, I thought, "maybe I should have gone to Durham or York". But places like that are very traditional and inward-looking.

I'm trying to help set up courses at the University of North London that are much more outward-looking. Instead of sitting on campus working on projects, architecture students should go out and attend parliamentary select committees and council meetings.

Why is architecture still male-dominated?
The gender ratio is worse on architecture courses than on other university courses. The profession has talked a lot about widening access, but there have been no structural changes. Architecture is not particularly well-paid. It often falls back to the cliché of a man earning the living and his wife looking after the kids at home.

You worked in France – what was it like?
Social housing is much more glamorous and innovative there than it is here. The two practices I worked for both had a "social conscience" – they cared about people's welfare.

What have been the highs and lows?
The high points are every time one of my projects goes on site. There's nothing else like it, seeing the reality become the way you imagined it. The low point is worrying about money.

Personal details

Current jobs
Principal, Planalto Architects; lecturer, Greenwich University; Labour councillor, Wandsworth
Employment history
Worked in Paris for architects Chemetov and Huidobro, 1989 to 1995; worked for Burrell Foley Fischer, 1995 to 1999; set up own practice, Planalto Architects, in 1999.
BA, Oxford Brookes University
Tooting, south London