Simone de Gale
What steps are involved with becoming an architect?
Firstly, you have to degree in architecture, followed by a diploma and an examination to show that you are an independent consultant. That also includes two years of work experience in an office. I went to two different universities: Westminster was a very good university as they have a lot of technology and computing, whilst East London was really good to study at because instead of technology, they focus more on the ‘build ability’ of buildings. When you are training, you create models and make one-to-one structures. They focused a lot more on hand drawing and have a more romantic take on architecture; it was a nice contrast to Westminster. The Architectural Association is actually one of the best places to study architecture. I loved it there because I felt a lot more independent and I was encouraged to be confident about my particular style of architecture. It is quite a long process but once you are qualified legally, you can call yourself an architect - if you don’t go down that route, it’s illegal to call yourself one. Once you are qualified its wonderful because you can be an independent designer, set up a practice (which I did), and you’re able to gather a lot more experience that you might not get working in a larger company.
When did you realise you wanted to be an architect?
I was 12 years old. My grandfather was an architect in Jamaica where he’s from; he was a very successful architect. My family came over here to the UK in the 1960’s. My dad and his four brothers all work in construction today, so I was brought up around the most beautiful interiors. I was very close to my dad, so I had always been keen to work with him. When I was young, I decided to become an architect so I could follow a similar path.
And now you own your own architectural practise – how did you go about this?
I set up the company straight after university in East London. I didn’t originally set it up as an architectural practice because it is against the law until you are qualified, so instead I set it up as a design company in order to make design alterations to homeowner buildings. We did that for about a year. Then I approached the Architectural Association and said, ‘I have done all of this work - can I do my examination with you?’ I ended up doing Part Three there. It was because I had been doing lots of independent work, which is what Part Three was all about; being able to advise clients and people in the construction industry. Once I had finished my qualification, I changed the name of my company to Simone de Gale Architects. It was wonderful because I was living in Croydon where I grew up, and suddenly had the opportunity to move to Kensington, where I live now. That is when I decided to set up the company in Belgravia. It’s a beautiful area and you have some exquisite buildings there, the history goes back centuries and the buildings endure that. We have been going strong ever since, and now have a team of eight. We work on lots of different projects, for example, large-scale residential projects and luxury hotel projects abroad in the Caribbean and Mozambique. We have got some commercial projects completed in London and New York. We also do some retail work in the UK and we’re looking to extend that.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day is going in about 10:00am where my team is already working on projects. I sit down and respond to my emails, my clients, team members and enquiries. Just making sure processes are done in a timely hour. I would then talk to designers and see how the projects are moving forward and advise on where to go next, just to make sure everyone is happy with their projects. I may meet a potential client over lunch and in the afternoon I would look into projects myself and draw up some designs to progress a couple of them. In my evenings, I normally do some networking; go to some events, property events and lectures to make sure I am always up to date with legislation.
What I am focused on at the moment is growing the scale of my team and our projects. We have been doing large-scale residential projects for three years and that is our bread and butter. It could be anything from ten new private flats to a hundred flats in a variety of locations. My intention is to grow in order to keep up our name and reputation.
At the moment, I am also balancing work and my business with another project. I actually have an invention that came out of my architect design. It’s armour for vehicles that are used for the army. I have a lot of contacts and one of them is a scientist, who told me, ‘this is a technology that could be used for defence’. This was in 2010, and since then we have patented our technology and are now at prototype level. In the beginning, I struggled to find time as I am the CEO, but now I have a team behind me and I have gained more knowledge on how to be a businessperson. I’m also more relaxed now. It’s a very enjoyable experience that I don’t really see as work - it’s my career and what I like to do, that’s a wonderful feeling. I always strive to be excellent in the field of architecture, excellent in the work we produce, our proposals and innovation. The more we do, the more confident we can become.
It’s one of those careers where you can visibly see the results of your efforts, which must be pretty motivational.
At the start it’s very rewarding. Because I am a woman, I find that I hire a lot of women. The field of architecture isn’t really led by women, so it feels good to be encouraging women to become excellent designers and gain confidence.
What skills do you think naturally make a good architect?
Whether you are a girl or a boy, you should be good at maths and art. You should always have a creative head. In some circles, architecture can be seen as art, but I think it’s a strange form of art; you are not expressing you artistic self, but instead designing a building for people to go and use and that’s the bottom line. It needs to comply with lots of regulations such as structural regulations, fire regulations etc. It is a type of art, but is a serious industry to be in. You should always have a sensible head on your shoulders.
Apart from the rigor of the qualification process, have you faced any other challenges?
There are challenges – in particular, I am a black female from a Caribbean background, and I had challenges at university with regards to where I’m from and who I am. Some tutors may favour others, but I’m not sure why that is. If you are an architect, it’s often presumed that you’re a white, middle-class man and that has always been viewed as what a successful architect is. That is changing. For my Part Two, I won a bursary award from the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. Stephen Lawrence was murdered when he was a teenager, and was from a Jamaican background. He wanted to be an architect, so they set the Trust up specifically to support people from ethnic minority backgrounds. When I met with them, I thought they were such a breath of fresh air. I have always been a confident lady but, in some cases, I wouldn’t say how I felt about certain things. The trust gave me so much support. I was able to present my work to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge after I set up my business and was able to go on lots of trips once the Olympic buildings were under construction. They gave me real confidence. I once proposed a question in one of their lectures asking, ‘Why is it that the industry is perceived as being a white, middle-class man?’ I was so nervous about asking it, but they just responded to the question. They really helped me speak my mind and be who I want to be. I am still in contact with the Trust and I am now one of their ambassadors. It’s very important to me, because it’s my own way of giving back to them. I sit on their Building Futures board, which means I advise them on what’s going on in the industry and on their programmes.
I saw an interesting article on a survey conducted last year that stated that one in five women wouldn’t recommend architecture as a career path to other women. What are your thoughts on that?
I would definitely dispute this. We are at a point in our society that we have to continue to challenge and push that theory. It can be testing, but in my opinion it is a duty that we have as women that we have to do. It is the only way to penetrate that system. As I said, I had some problems with my background at university, but as soon as I started working, people came to me for the expertise. They weren’t really concerned by me as a woman or a black woman because they were more interested in my expertise and what work I could do for them. Even the media are opening more and more doors for women to put themselves forward and represent themselves. We have women journalists. I have a particular interest in Sky News as I have been asked to speak on there a few times. I see so many women come into these fields. Women journalists, engineers, many industries that have been male-dominated, but I would encourage women to continue to put themselves forward. This is a challenge we have to face and this is a reality, but if we are persistent, we are opening the doors for the younger generations and that is what is most important. You must be bold, confident and assertive in everything you do.
What is the one piece of advice that could apply to any career that you would like to pass on?
If you believe in it and if it’s in your heart, then go for it. Anything worth having is a challenge, but if you work hard you will get to where you want to be in life.
Ever wanted to know what it's like to own your own architecture firm? Simone de Gale, Founder of Simone de Gale Architects, reveals her top advice for budding architects.
A-Levels: Maths, Art, Economics and Accounting
University of Westminster
University of East London
Architectural Association, School of Architecture
"I see so many women come into these fields. Women journalists, engineers, many industries that have been male-dominated, but I would encourage women to continue to put themselves forward."
What did we learn from Simone?
Going to different universities for different parts of your qualification is a good idea – Simone liked the different styles of teaching and learning;
Maths and art are good subjects to have - and it's a good sign if you're interested in both of these;
But it's also considered a serious industry to work in - you will spend a lot of time making sure buildings fit certain regulations, so need to have an element of sensibleness;
It's important to give back to those who help you along the way in your career - Simone now works on the board of the Stephen Lawrence Trust, who helped her as a young woman;
Women need to continue pushing themselves forward in different industries, and to inspire future generations