Settled back in to her family home in Hampshire during the COVID-19 crisis, Sarah Ackland has enjoyed many aspects of lockdown life – time with family, long runs, online life drawing classes and reading freely without wondering if it’s going to be ‘useful’.

What is your work-from-home space like?

In London I have a warehouse conversion to myself, a big teak table often covered with my current work, plants sitting on shelves and my sofa muddled with books while old tea cups scatter the scene. It’s a space I have carefully begun to sculpt since taking the leap to live alone at the start of the year. Little did I know what was down the line and come the end of March, a quick phone call to my parents and I was packing my books into crates and loading up the proverbial Volvo – I’ve moved in with my parents.

Back in my childhood bedroom, I have a big desk overlooking the garden. I thank god that my mother painted over the baby pink walls to white last year and after a major clear out, the space does have some sort of serenity and hasn’t been turned into a gym. My Vogue magazines line the wall adjacent to me, a collection from my teens I can’t bear to part with. Frames of pictures of family members surround me, and old Friends box sets and a toy boat my grandfather made sit on top of my bookshelf. Within the bookshelf is also a staircase he made for a dolls house – he couldn’t quite get the scale right though. A crate sits at the end of my bed, still full of the books I packed to bring home, except now nearly half of them align to the ‘read’ side of the box, with still half to go.

On my desk I have the now well-travelled iMac I took from the muf studio. It’s covered in my usual array of post it notes quoting musings I have read from books and tabs telling me to respond to emails. My desk is littered with findings from the beach. Postcards of Picasso paintings lean against the screen from a January field trip with the Welsh School of Architecture to Barcelona – I suppose that might be the only trip out of the country this year now! A small model I made in my fourth year sits next to it – I found it in my cupboard and a ‘touchstone’ from an early week of my first year of university. A large stone I rescued from the shore of Llantwit Major beach sits on the windowsill. I studied in Cardiff and have a special love for the Welsh Coast. These little collections of things I have uncovered in my old room all help me to settle back in. Everything is slightly precarious and cluttered.

What work do you do here?

I work the first half of the week as an architect for muf architecture/art, which is led by Liza Fior and Katherine Clarke. We aren’t great at routine but we are managing a team Zoom meeting once a week and drinks towards the end of the week. muf has always accommodated and valued flexible working, as a female-led studio, so although the first phases were a little chaotic, this is not unusual for us. Chaos is part of the process.

Part W work happens throughout the week, with emails flying around the odd Zoom as we prepare our campaigns. It is voluntary so we fit it in where we can and try to support each other. I miss gathering around a table to discuss and share ideas!

For the latter half of the week I am forming my PhD thesis at Newcastle University. As I am based in London this was always remote work, but it has been an adjustment to not have access to a library and face to face contact with my supervisor Katie in London or Newcastle. The hardest thing I have found here is the lack of connection to others. Without the muf studio, my architecture friends in London, a quick vino or a coffee, there is no-one to bounce ideas between. No girls book club to discuss ideas. I was also undertaking my fieldwork looking at transformative spaces for women in architecture and within architecture, and therefore this is slightly on hold now.

Have there been benefits to working from home? Can you describe them?

I have to admit, as an extreme extrovert, I love working from home with an excuse to just stay in and recharge with my sisters. I am now 200 metres from the beach and as an avid runner this has been a luxury. That being said, I have cut my mileage in half without a commute run and friends to train with; and no races to work towards for that matter. Perhaps the 100 kilometres per week I was running in London had me more tired than I had realised. I’m enjoying the change of pace.

I have always worked from home a lot, but now I feel I have a lot more headspace without meetings to go to or a commute to the studio when I am needed at muf. This period has allowed me more focused periods of time to work. Daily anxieties are quieter. I always find it beneficial to be at home, just to be able to do some washing, eat some different food, and sit at a different desk. I hope the pandemic has allowed employers to realise that there is much benefit to working at home for staff wellbeing and mental health as well as sharing the load of domestic-work labour.

What have been the biggest challenges so far?

As women we naturally often take on the worries and fears of others; perhaps that is why the female-led countries are responding to this crisis with a more careful approach and saving many lives. Therefore, I have also found the biggest challenge to be finding balance in a household, checking in on family members, realising that tears over a broken tea cup are really tears of fear and frustration over the new volatile situation that we find ourselves in. I have struggled to decide that work can wait and a movie night might just help.

This leads me to my next point … I have found myself seeing this lockdown as a great opportunity to do all the things I have been wanting to do, and arguably I have been very productive during this time. But I think the challenge is also to enjoy and allow oneself to put the pressure to produce aside and to also unwind. 

What has been surprising? (either positive or negative)

Following on from my last point, I have been enjoying having nothing to do and being able to read freely without wondering if what I am reading is going to be ‘useful’.

Have you discovered any tools (technological or otherwise) that have been particularly useful for remote working?

The Flora app, which grows you a tree while you concentrate. I’ve never had a problem with concentration but during the lockdown have found my screen time has shot through the roof, so giving myself two-hour blocks where I am ‘growing a tree’ and don’t feel I have to reply to messages has given me some reprieve.

What strategies are you using to switch off from work?

I always enjoy routine and have found this very uplifting in these times. I often call a friend around 6pm to stop my working day. Tuesdays I take part in a group call with my run club, followed by a life drawing class with Brixton Life Drawing (look them up on Instagram – you can join worldwide and it’s great). I have been taking part in the Architecture Foundation’s 100-Day Studio lectures, which usually start around 7pm. I enjoy working in the evenings, but I am using this time to read rather than produce writing/drawings; this has allowed me some more headspace.

What strategies are you using to lift your spirits and maintain mental wellbeing?

Routines/Yoga pants/Running/Dungarees/Candles/Drawing and Reading!

I have a really structured morning routine. I get up early and do strength workouts, shower and meditate for 20 minutes. I have found meditation to be an incredibly beautiful tool to ease anxiety since I learnt with the London Meditation Centre back in October 2019. Following this I always have my homemade granola with a hot lemon-ginger-honey and a cup of tea while I start work. I also run 9-10 kilometres daily, usually around midday to my grandparents to wave at them through the window and this has been truly uplifting. They are self-isolating completely but are relentlessly cheerful. Otherwise, I have remote therapy once a week, which keeps me sane, and I take some time on the weekend to read (something not for my studies) and go on some longer runs, which has really kept my mind in check. On Saturdays the Ackland household get dressed for dinner, which has been a fun way to get us out of our dungarees – the lockdown look of this household.

Sarah Ackland is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, architect at muf architecture/art, and design tutor. She is a member of the Part W core group, an action group of women campaigning for gender parity across the built environment. Her PhD research focuses on Women in Architecture and the urban fabric.