This mature student in architectural technology has seen it all, but says what doesn't kill you makes you stronger

I'm a mature student in my final year of a degree in architectural technology, surrounded by young students who are terrified that they may now never get into a construction industry that seems to have collapsed overnight.

I've spent 25-plus years in construction, and I'm hoping that my experiences will show students in the building professions that this recession isn't the end of the world.

Mark Lomas

Surviving the first two busts

I left school in 1981, at the beginning of a recession which would see upwards of 4 million people unemployed.

Eventually, I found a job with Derek, who in the seventies had been a millionaire spec builder of small housing estates. When the banks called in builders' overdrafts, Derek was an overnight bankrupt.

By the time I met him, he had built up another business, building bespoke joinery for the next generation of hopeful spec builders.

By the early nineties, I had the cottage (or at least the mortgage) in Kent's stockbroker belt, having worked my way up from site carpenter to small-time local contractor employing some top tradesmen.

Then there was another recession and the negative equity crisis. I was bankrupt, the cottage repossessed…

But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I now had the time to think about moving forward and to develop my growing interest in green building and sustainable living.

Each recession gave me time to be creative; to become involved in community projects; to take courses on a whole range of useful issues, from business management to blacksmithing.

Most of all, they taught me to think for myself, to take nothing for granted.

Basking in the boom

So, when the economy began to pick up, I set up a successful construction-related design business, and then designed and stick-built my own timber eco-house, with no mortgage – working when there was work, to buy a pile of materials, then working on the house till another job came along.

We sold the house at the top of the market for a substantial "green premium", and that gave me and my partner the money to study full-time.

Glass is half-full

It's clear that construction is historically a boom-and-bust industry. But look at the sub-themes. Be in no doubt that recession opens up as many opportunities as a period of boom – there is no enterprise without change.

When the upturn comes, there will still be a skills shortage in the building professions. There will still be a shortage of houses that are fit for purpose, and pensioners living in fuel poverty.

There will still be a dire lack of practical people to rebuild this mess. The industry fat cats will still be dragging their heels over sustainable building.

As new graduates, our knowledge is bang up-to-date, unlike many in the industry who still "do it like that because that's how we've always done it". We have a real competitive edge.

Build on your skills

In the meantime, what can you do if you're not fortunate enough to go straight into a job or graduate placement?

Go and push a barrow around a building site for a summer – there will always be somebody building an extension or loft conversion. Learn some trade skills. Go skip-diving and build a shed. Actual building experience at any level will make you a better architect, engineer, QS or construction manager.

Offer your skills to a housing charity or community group. Check out VSO or Article 25 for volunteering opportunities in the developing world. If you have somewhere to sleep tonight, and food on the table, you're richer than 80% of people in the world.

Plan to take over the world

I was at a recent lecture by Will Alsop, who advised architecture students in this situation to get round a table with a few drinks and create architecture anyway. So draw up a manifesto.

My own suggestion is to include in your mission statement that any bank HQs that you might build in the future will have opening windows on the higher floors – purely for passive ventilation, obviously.

Stay busy and carry on learning – whether that involves another course of study or simply borrowing books from the local library.

Memorise the Building Regs, or transcribe them into iambic pentameter.

If you're a designer, then design buildings. If you're a QS, practise adding up numbers. Interviewers will ask what you did during the recession. Did you show initiative, street-smartness and a desire to know more, or did you sit around playing Pro Evo?

One of my young classmates made an interesting observation: “At least now we might be able to buy a house one day.” His glass is half-full. In construction, recession is simply a constant, like bad weather and overdue tax returns.

We learn to live with it, because it sure beats being an accountant.