Ngaio Chalmers reflects on the changes that have shaped her and our industry over the past 15 years, the far-reaching impacts of greater diversity and inclusion, and the professional and personal power of proudly owning skills once dismissed as ‘soft’.

Writing this letter to my younger self has made me realise how much we as women bring to the process of design, especially in my fields of community architecture and urban design. Empathy, our ability to listen, our emotional intelligence. We weren’t educated to believe that’s what an architect needs. It’s taken me time and experience to understand the value of my skills, and what women bring to the profession.

Dear Ngaio,

Cherish the inspiring women who showed you the essence of architecture

You can’t know this yet, but the incredible women who lecture and tutor you at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa are exceptional role models. Treasure the guidance, inspiration and opportunities they give you because this will help shape you and chart your course.

Architecture won’t always be an easy journey, especially as you’re starting out. In the 2000s architecture and construction is largely male dominated, especially in private practice. In your early roles, the people leading practices and your projects will be forty-, fifty-, sixty-year-old men. You’ll learn from them and make the most of the opportunities they offer you. But you won’t see yourself in them. And they won’t all see in you the potential for a very different kind of leadership. That will emerge as the industry evolves and starts to better reflect and value diversity, inclusion and community.

In the early years of your career – especially after moving to Melbourne – you won’t be sure where you fit in. You will be overwhelmed at times by the scale of a much larger city and the industry’s focus on creating big, bold buildings and outcomes, rather than the collaborative process that creates them.

The lack of women you’ll see in practice, on site and in leadership will erode your confidence. You’ll notice their strengths undervalued: listening, empathetic and nuanced design, a feeling for space and how it’s experienced by others, critical and analytical thinking through a project’s many layers of detail. You’ll question your value. Wonder if you’re in the right profession. Feel like you don’t fit in. But as women and people of diverse cultures, identities and lived experiences insist on inclusion, our industry will evolve. It’s a long road and we’re all still on it, but it turns out to be a great journey to be part of. You won’t regret sticking it out.

For now, savour every minute at uni with the trailblazing women you’re surrounded by. Not everyone’s best friend’s mum runs her own architecture practice. Not everyone has a Sri Lankan lecturer who takes a group of students to her homeland post-tsunami to work in local practices and help with the rebuild. It’ll take years to understand just how much you learned from these experiences and the value they will bring.

Build the community you want to be part of

Residential architecture won’t feel like home. Keep looking. Trust your instincts and follow your passions. Civic architecture, travel, research, connection to nature, collaboration, people, community – all these interests will converge in unexpected ways. They’ll guide you towards community architecture and, increasingly, urban design, where you’ll find yourself as a designer.

Cherish your upbringing by your librarian mum and landscape architect dad in a home where books, research and the natural world are revered as precious. Your parents’ active roles in the community, working tirelessly to protect Te Raekaihau Point and the ridgeline of Oku Street, will influence the way you will value advocacy, listening and the processes of community engagement. Seeing this process and the outcomes – today these places are used as reserves and community amenity – will have a big impact on you.

It will lead you to work on a book about community building through community engagement with a male leader who values your attributes and insights. He’ll encourage you to design community facilities for regional communities, and that will reignite your passion for architecture. Talking with communities and ensuring their input influences designs as much as possible will enrich the projects you work on. You’ll be grateful for your boss’s mentoring, and you’ll notice him learning from you, too. This lovely reciprocity continues to this day.

Make it your business to bring diverse voices into design discussions

Growing up in Aotearoa, where Māori language, culture and design principles are such fundamental influences on architecture and life, will shape you more than you realise. When you move to Australia it will take years to build the relationships and connections to First Nations people and culture you’re looking for. Persevere.

Your first-time walking on Country with Taungurung Elders in Kilmore will be pivotal. You’ll feel space differently. Understand more about the value – to projects and communities – of embedding First Nations knowledge, culture and values into projects. Advice from First Nations designers at a growing number of industry events will build on this. Community architecture will open up engagement and co-design opportunities. It takes a long time, but decolonising projects and processes becomes a focus for our industry. When your practice forms an in-house group to embed meaningful co-design as the norm on all sorts of projects, jump at it. You won’t look back.

The lack of diversity you saw at the start of your career will change and will increasingly impact design thinking. Keep reaching out to like-minded people and communities that are as driven as you by diverse representation in the design process: colleagues, clients and groups like Parlour will eloquently express the multitude of benefits that flow when designers make it their business to bring diverse voices into the room.

Having kids will make you a better architect

Working in community facilities, there’s no other time in your life you’ll use them more than after you have a baby. You’ll be immersed in the infrastructure you love to design: visiting maternal child health centres, hitting the library for Baby Rhyme Time, playing in parks, catching up with friends in public spaces, using kinder and childcare and community hubs.

Nothing will be more valuable in helping you understand how these spaces work (or don’t), and the needs and values of the different groups they bring together. You’ll be watching kids make a space their own. Noticing how it’s not the shiny and new they’re drawn to but the intimate nooks and freedom to transform a space imaginatively. Remember that buildings themselves don’t need to do all the work.

This time will be your greatest teacher about community infrastructure. And your greatest reward. Because when you’re working on them, you’ll understand just how much they mean to people.

Build boundaries too

When your girls are aged one and three, you’ll work insane hours for a prolonged period on a major urban renewal project of national significance. You’ll find its focus on Indigenous engagement, regenerative design and strategic urban design incredibly exciting, and recognise it as an amazing opportunity to explore the nexus of architecture and urban design, which calls you more and more for its focus on long-term strategic impact. But the hours involved will impact family life.

It’s an age-old cultural problem in our industry that’s particularly punishing on primary caregivers, who are still predominantly women. You’ll rebuild your boundaries with better balance in mind. But you’ll know there are no easy answers to this one. You’ll genuinely love your work and the leadership roles you’ve earned in your practice and want to role model that passion for your daughters. On the other hand, you’ll treasure working part-time precisely so you can spend more time with them while they’re still young.

Value yourself

If I can offer one final piece of advice, it’s to value your skills and abilities and what you have to offer the architecture profession. Value the journey you’re on too, because this learning process will make you who you are. Parenthood will be similarly influential, as will losing a parent. Life’s challenges and moments of joy are our greatest learning opportunities, personally and professionally. They remind us that we’re all human, and that’s who we’re designing for.

Ngaio Chalmers is a Senior Associate at ClarkeHopkinsClarke Architects, an interdisciplinary design practice that’s certified carbon neutral and Climate Active and is Australia’s largest architectural BCorp. Ngaio is a senior leader and mentor, a community architecture specialist in the mixed-use sector, and a driving force of the inhouse Indigenous Design Group working to embed meaningful engagement and co-design across projects and sectors. She leads large, complex community and town centre projects involving a diverse range of commercial, community and government stakeholders. She made a significant contribution to the research and development of ClarkeHopkinsClarke’s community building methodology, Creating Vibrant Communities, and the book of the same name published in 2016. In Aotearoa she worked on a range of civic infrastructure from libraries to supreme courts and embassies.