SCN speaks to five female members of the architectural team at Mactaggart & Mickel Homes about their roles, balancing home and work priorities, and why designing houses is not ‘plain vanilla’.
Nicola McGuinness – architect
Joined Mactaggart & Mickel Homes in 2016. Has over twelve years’ experience in private practice as a project architect working on residential, education, retail and mixed use developments.
Susan Wilson – architect
Joined Mactaggart & Mickel Homes in 2016. Prior to that she spent seven years as company architect for another major housebuilder. Earlier experience was in private practice in Ireland and Scotland.
Sarah Carruthers – graduate architectural manager
Joined Mactaggart & Mickel Homes in 2015 after completing a university degree in architecture.
Joanne Young – architectural technologist
Studied in England. After graduation, spent six years working for a leading oak frame house builder in Hereford. Moved back to Scotland in 2016 and joined Mactaggart & Mickel Timber Systems
Jodi Webster – architectural technologist
Graduated in 2014 and spent time in private practice, specialising in retail sector. Joined Mactaggart & Mickel Homes in 2017.
- Why did you join Mactaggart & Mickel Homes?
The main reason I joined Mactaggart & Mickel Homes was for the exposure to different facets of the industry and the opportunities to develop different skills sets that private practice couldn’t offer. As a multi-disciplinary company, Mactaggart & Mickel embrace collaborative working. There are also a lot more women in senior roles than I have ever experienced elsewhere, which is very encouraging.
I left private practice because sometimes you can get pigeon-holed – or at least I did. I was going to site three days a week and not getting to draw as much as I would of like. In my role at Mactaggart & Mickel I have more dedicated time to draw. It’s a great design team to be a part of and I get to use my Autocad and 3D skills.
I’m a timber frame designer, based at Mactaggart & Mickel’s Timber Systems division at Bellshill. My background was in bespoke oak frame design but I am now learning about doing things on a much larger scale. This is a great way to develop my technical skills.
After university, I knew I wanted to grow my technical knowledge quickly on completion of my Part 1 qualification. That’s why I opted to join Mactaggart & Mickel Homes rather than go into private practice. Although I have not worked elsewhere, the team are very supportive and encourage you to widen your skills.
- What are the benefits of working at Mactaggart & Mickel?
There’s lots of project management as well as the formal design element. One person from an architectural perspective works on one project whereas in private practice there would be a team of people working on one project. You learn much more about how a business works, the commercial and planning processes that need to be progressed in tandem with what we do.
The flexible working hours, exposure to different facets of the industry, being involved in a wide variety of tasks and the good remuneration package and benefits. The collaborative approach means an idea can be reviewed by all from the outset and you quickly understand if it is viable or not.
I was able to negotiate a four day week with a previous employer – instead of a proposed pay cut due to the recession – and Mactaggart & Mickel were happy to keep to that working arrangement. That flexibility is hard to find in architectural world, particularly for more senior positions.
Mactaggart & Mickel’s approach to flexible working is a huge benefit particularly when you have a family.
I may be in the early stages in my career but Mactaggart & Mickel has welcomed my professional expertise since I joined. At MacMic everyone is valued for the skills they bring. Whether you are male or female is irrelevant.
- Housebuilding at the volume end of the market is arguably not highly regarded in architectural circles. What’s your take on this?
At university housebuilding was seen as ‘the dark side’. Younger people often don’t aspire to work within the house building industry because they see it as a standard product with much less scope for creativity. This is a real shame because good quality architectural input could transform some of the housing developments going up around the country and besides it can be a very varied and rewarding job.
The work may not be as technically challenging, but the challenge for us as designers is to push organisations to build homes that will ensure flourishing communities for generations to come.
I care about helping people. I want to build nice communities, and have a genuine desire to do this through my architectural expertise.
Everyone’s home is important to them. MacMic realise this and I think they strike the right balance between great design and commercial aspiration.
There is still some snobbery around housebuilding as a place to build your architectural career.
Housebuilding is the ‘reality’ of architecture. The home is where most people come into contact with architecture – it affects us all. It is essential that we produce good design to allow us to build strong communities which can make a positive impact on people’ lives, as poor design can have a detrimental effect on society as a whole.
My role here is so varied. I am an architectural manager, which consists of being an architect, design manager and principal designer, and it’s clear that my own skill and experience are developing faster because of my exposure to so many different facets of the business.
Engaging with architectural students about the importance of having architects performing this role within a house builder is so important.
- Will the tide turn and housebuilding be viewed in a different way?
I don’t think there is any sign of this happening any time soon. Although maybe the fact that Nicola and I are both here is a sign that things are changing. Perhaps we, as the housebuilding industry, need to do more, to engage with universities and students considering architecture as a career and emphasise the difference they can make and the importance of this role. Housing affects us all and homes and communities that are not well designed can have a negative effect on people’s quality of life, health and so on, which in turn will affect our economy. Conversely, if people are proud of where they live, they look after their homes and they form stronger communities which has a positive impact.
It’s important that architecturally-qualified people are involved in planning housebuilding as well as the homes themselves. That was not always the case in the past and good design seemed to fall further down the pecking order. But once you can demonstrate that it can be done well, with lasting benefits for society, then others will follow.
You have to be resilient and fight for good design at times. I believe many architects – female or male – currently working in private practice would enjoy working in this sector – but it is not being sold to them. They hear ‘housebuilding’ and immediately think ‘standard product’ and look elsewhere. My advice would be – take a closer look.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between university and real life. Whilst studying you are asked to design quite grand ideas; for example I was ask to design a transport hub for Robin Hood Airport. It’s an exciting thing to work on but when you get into the real world you soon realise that it isn’t necessarily the day-to-day job.
If housebuilding was promoted to architectural graduates you would see a real benefit – for them and for the sector. Housebuilding is an excellent way to gain experience very quickly and it’s very varied. Looking at it as a timber frame designer, you are often working on multiple projects at any one time, different house types, private housing and social housing. It’s very fast-paced.
There are not many great examples of volume housebuilding in Scotland. Most are a bit bland and look very similar to each other. I can see why this would not inspire a would-be architect to go and work for a housebuilder. Perhaps we, as the housebuilding industry, need to do more, to speak to these considering architecture as a career and tell them: “You could make a difference here.”
Catch up with the rest of Scottish Construction Now’s International Women’s Day feature here.