Public practice: how conservation led me to a career I really value: building design

Having followed an academic and professional path that, at first sight, has been quite a ‘curly‘, I have now found personal and professional alignment in the public sector and building conservation. While it may not have been an orderly trajectory, I realize that it has resulted from and grew out of questioning and finding value.

My interests have always spanned the personal and the political, the micro and the macro, and the structures that determine how and where different communities can inhabit. Some of this stems from being told that I am an ‘ethnic minority’, while I am part of the ‘global majority’, and that I have lived and traveled all over the world; a lot is due to my upbringing, and thinking, reading and talking with different people.

After struggling to deal with many questions and contradictions while working towards my Master’s in Architecture, and co-founding a spatial arts practice, completing a Master’s in Cultural Studies, and working in various customer service roles, I returned to architecture, motivated to work in the delivery of social housing. I have worked on housing for clients of local authorities and housing associations, familiarizing myself with planning policies, Building Regulations and the history of social housing in the UK.

This was while living on the Brandon Estate in Southwark and visiting other impressive London estates – all planned, designed and delivered by London County Council (LCC) and other ambitious public architecture and planning departments throughout the 20th century. These experiences shaped my thinking, which was further complicated by meeting people who were resisting the demolition of their homes.

Later, I found that working on a listed building consent request for a small community project was a refreshing change. While investigating Longfield Hall, formerly owned by Lambeth Council, I discovered that it had been the home of The Theater of Light and Darknessthe first black-led theater company funded by the Arts Council, and the Brixton Black Theater in the 1970s (an important aspect of the building’s historical interest not mentioned in the List Entry).

>> Read also: How I found a fulfilling career as an architect

For various reasons, I had not felt before that the heritage sector was a place where I could fit in. But I realized that it was a space where I could more directly integrate my training and interests: philosophy and cultural theory; history of architecture, design, crafts, and construction; and planning policy and law. I was also motivated by a thought: ‘Couldn’t I learn to understand and work properly with the most important existing buildings in the country and then apply that knowledge to the ‘least valued’ existing building stock?’

I graduated as an architect while working on the transformation of a derelict Grade II listed building into a new private members club, from conceptual design to construction. It was a rewarding and challenging experience, supported by being in the Heritage and Culture sector of a leading multidisciplinary practice. The company’s portfolio includes a number of very high-profile projects for public and private sector clients. I attended the RIBA Conservation Course and started discussions on the sustainable modernization of historic buildings.

For almost a year I also spent one day a week at Harrow Council managing and reporting on their Design Review Panel. This included reviews by the Greater London Authority (GLA) Mayor’s Design Advocates, for projects run internally by Harrow’s Economic Development team and partly funded by the GLA Good Growth Fund.

One of these was for the Harrow Arts Centre, focused on bringing redundant ancillary buildings and spaces back to use, in the environment of the Grade 2 listed Elliot Hall. The integrity of the staff and panel members, all trying to optimize the schemes on behalf of the local population, he clarified that he wanted to work in the public sector at a more strategic level.

Through the Public Practice programme, I became the Heritage and Conservation Leader in the Royal Borough of Kingston, where my role is now permanent. I love having a job where I can demonstrate and develop my passion for the historic environment and creating sustainable and inclusive places for all.

No day is the same working on the council. In a minute I’m reviewing a planning application, or working on the evidence base for the new Local Plan; Next, I’m scheduling a series of new conservation area assessments to be developed internally with local groups and residents, or talking to other officials about a council-led capital project; then report back to councillors, or go on a site visit, before going back to my desk to write a committee report.

Being part of a Public Practice cohort meant being part of a support network of like-minded people, all getting a crash course in ‘how local government works’ while jumping right into big projects and assignments. While we had our different specialties, we found common challenges. Aside from navigating the politics and governance structures of such large organizations, the biggest of these is having to do all of this with limited resources, against competing priorities.

What I enjoy and appreciate most about my role is the variety, the challenge, the opportunity, and the responsibility. I was conflicted with the idea of ​​having responsibility for the built environment when I was in college. But my job is to be collaborative, critical, optimistic, resourceful, creative, and balanced; and ultimately not only to preserve some of the country’s most important heritage assets for future generations, but also to help establish what is most valuable to the municipality.

>> Read also: We need to retain more of our existing built environment, but not through a Grade III listing

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Ellis Wilder

Hey there! My name is Ellis Wilder, and I'm a student at the University of Calgary. When I'm not hitting the books, you can usually find me writing articles for sports and travel blogs. I've always had a passion for exploring new places and experiencing different cultures, so I love sharing my travel stories with others. Whether I'm hiking in the Rocky Mountains or exploring a new city, I always try to capture the essence of the places I visit in my writing. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy reading my articles as much as I enjoy writing them!

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