From her home studio in North East England, Grace Choi has found that lockdown life has opened up unexpected opportunities to engage more globally as well as to build strong connections in her local community.
What is your work from home space like?
A couple of years ago, following a failed attempt to secure a rented office space by the River Tyne, I decided to build a studio on the small patch of land next to our Victorian home in North Shields in the North East of England. Little did I know that I would be forever grateful for the space I now retreat to. Built on a shoestring budget, with local tradesmen, this no-frills space allowed me to work flexibly and develop ideas about flexible working before COVID-19 struck.
I was driven by the fact that I needed to be around for my children but also wanted to grow an emerging architectural practice. With no family support available during school holidays, something had to give. I’m keen to champion the fact that women (particularly mothers) can stay in and lead practice. I’m frustrated to see poor representation and diversity in the senior levels of my profession.
The studio is small and simple. It’s accessed one way through the house, but also has a front door to the side street and another to an internal courtyard, currently dominated by a trampoline. It’s an open space with a large workspace consisting of a re-used oak dining table and a piece of worktop, cut to size to mimic another. The length of the room is lined with OSB floor to ceiling shelves that have been filled with books, files, models and samples. There’s a pin-up wall at the end of the studio that’s currently showcasing every project on the drawing board in a bid to remind me of the work I need to focus on. The floor is scattered with organised piles of brick and timber samples and post-it note-covered sanitary ware and lighting catalogues.
What work do you do here?
I run a small practice, with a team consisting of another architect Rob, my husband Matt and ad-hoc freelancers when required. We love to work with community-focused organisations that have a social impact. Alongside this we have a variety of projects ranging from residential extensions to warehouse conversions and church adaptations.
Two projects were on site at the time of going into lockdown. Being residential projects, with clients living on site, works were quickly suspended. Another three projects had returned from tender in readiness to start on site. These jobs have also been postponed.
In the meantime, I’m currently working on a detailed design package for a Community Centre in Gateshead, which fortunately recently secured funding, and another for a residential project. I’ve also just been given the go-ahead for a Covid-19 emergency-funded food waste cafe warehouse refurbishment, which will be the next design to move onto.
As well as practice, I sit on the North East regional council for the RIBA as Equality, Diversity & Inclusion lead. Through this role I launched a group called Change the Record, consisting of an initial cohort of 40 advocates who have signed up to pledges to create, challenge, support, call out and promote E, D & I issues we face in practice and education. At the moment this is taking the form of online Zoom talks called JEDI talks (Just Equality Diversity and Inclusion). As we were already covering issues like flexible working and equality, we’ve been able to continue the debate online about the realities of working from home as we all face lockdown. This has been a much-needed open and honest forum to share experience and intel. Whilst we’ve retreated to the safety of our homes, Zoom has allowed us to connect and learn from advocates in Hong Kong, London and Glasgow as well as local advocates in the North East, which has been an unexpected advantage.
Did you work from home pre-COVID-19? If so, how has your remote working changed in the last few weeks?
My workplace set-up has been unchanged, but it’s unusually quiet without Rob around. We realised early on that contact and conversation during the working day is a motivating factor and helps us focus. So, every day starts with a 9.30am Zoom or WhatsApp video call, with a coffee in hand.
I find a day can really drag without the variety of change, so I try to work on different projects, speak to different folk and mix up the week as much as I can.
Having the family permanently at home has had an impact. My husband works out of a separate office space in the house and my sons are doing remote learning. The oldest is 14 and youngest is 10. Initially the pressure of remote learning felt quite intense, but sharing the parental load and relaxing about hitting Google classroom deadlines or getting everything right has helped. Unpredictable disruption constantly breaks into the day. I’ve had to adjust my mindset to cope with this and take breaks to pull myself together when this occurs.
The kids are pretty good at picking up hints to know when they can/cannot disturb me. Usually a certain look or arm waving lets them know that it’s not a good time. I’ve perfected the art of doing this out of Zoom sight.
Meal times have become a highlight of the day. I stop for an hour at lunchtime to enjoy the family, get some fresh air and walk the dog. The evening meal marks the end of the working day for everyone.
Have there been benefits?
I’m loving finding new connections with the local community. Social media has allowed our local streets to exchange and share things when anyone’s in need. We’ve been organising coordinated takeaway deliveries, food bank donations and doorstep family photographs. I’ve discovered neighbours I never knew before lockdown. One neighbour even enquired about a future project over the garden gate.
The simple things in life have repositioned themselves to be of priority: the kitchen table is the focal point of the home, we care about our neighbours and shop locally to support our businesses. There’s something about the fact that we’ve all been reduced to a refined way of living that has made us more equal, removed ego and allowed us to be more transparent about our lives. I hope this is something we can keep hold of as we emerge out of lockdown.
Relationships with clients, contractors and consultants have also improved, when we let our guard down. There’s nothing quite like seeing each other via a video call at home, with unwashed hair and laundry in the background. There’s been more goodwill around, supporting each other to keep going.
What have been the biggest challenges so far?
Having to furlough a staff member has meant that I’m juggling the practice workload as well as family. Needing to make sure that everything’s in order never goes away. I’ve turned into a list fanatic. From grocery shopping lists to work programs to drawings lists, it’s all on my desk.
Constantly re-evaluating the next steps for the business is a challenge, as it involves updating everyone and plans change regularly. There are times I need to stay away from the news as it can all get a bit much. I need to be careful to switch off and leave work. Emails don’t get checked out of working hours. I don’t need to be available all the time (note to self).
Have you discovered any tools (particularly technological or otherwise) that have been particularly useful for remote working?
Zoom has obviously made remote meetings, catch ups and gatherings possible, which is great. I’ve enjoyed Friday night drinks, pub quizzes and catching up with friends and family.
However, I must admit, Zoom fatigue is now hitting. Communication can be hampered by those who get anxious with the technology and in large group settings it can be difficult to say what you need in the slot you manage to grab. A simple phone call can never be under-rated.
We’ve also been using web-based Miro to review presentations and carry out design reviews. This is one tool I’m pretty sure we’ll continue to use in the future.
What strategies are you using to switch off from work?
I have rediscovered several favourite places to sit in the house and garden, which vary from a dark corner kitchen seat, sunny bay window or garden bench. They’re all places of rest, where I can drink tea, switch off, read and cuddle the dog, depending on my mood or noise level in the house.
I’m fortunate enough to live within walking distance of the River Tyne and stunning coast. Looking out into the sea has always lifted my spirits and often helps me see things with a fresh perspective.
Cooking, walking, sketching and finding silence have all been forms of therapy. I’ve even started playing the piano again after 30 years of avoidance.
Grace is an architect and director of Grace Choi Architecture, based in the North East of England. Grace represents the RIBA NE Council as the elected Equality, Diversity and Inclusion champion, leading the Change the Record campaign. She also sits on the RIBAJ magazine’s editorial panel, is a visiting tutor at Northumbria University and student mentor.