The architect on site – one woman’s reflectionsJill Gleave 10 August 2023
Sole practitioner Jill Gleave offers a suite of practical tips and advice based on her own site experiences. She shares these reflections to help equip young architects as they venture onto site and to shine a light on the highs and lows of traditional architectural practice in a rapidly changing world.
on site: colloquial definition – noisy, dusty, muddy, giant jungle gym, did I say noisy? typically full of energetic men talking loudly and working on noisy machines and playing loud music, all of which appear to be essential ingredients in the making and crafting processes that are sensational when finished.
Architecture is complicated. An architect usually has several projects on the go at once, typically at one of three different stages. In the beginning, we work with clients to produce the most fabulous concept and resolution. We then seek planning approvals (which may well be a torturous and soul-destroying process), before proceeding to the third major stage of a project and the subject of this writing – building on site.
Site is a cacophony of noise and if you want to make your architecture sing, you have got to get in there and conduct.
I put a lot of energy into establishing my sites as respectful and creative workplaces. Following are some insights that I have gained over the past 30 years.
Site is where the magic happens…
The building site is a place of great opportunity. It is a joy to see a project realised, and working closely with the builder and tradespeople is a chance to make the most of their knowledge and skills.
- Site is where a thinking builder might suggest a different way to resolve a detail with beautiful results.
- Site is where an enthusiastic electrician can engage your clients with the lighting design and make a world of difference to the lighting of the spaces.
- Site is where a practical plumber might discuss the layout with a perfectionist tiler and create a clean resolution to an otherwise awkward junction.
- Site is where the spaces take shape and tweaking the planning with the builder can make the space flow sensational.
- Site is where your architecture is realised.
Site, the last frontier…
Site is also where an architect can experience trying times due to persistent preconceptions due to our profession, age and gender. The scenarios described below are drawn from my experiences:
Scenario 1: Ringing the department of Fair Trading to get an Owner Builder’s licence and being told by the operator to get my husband to call back as this was man’s work.
Lesson: There are times when it is important to call out outdated expectations of women. I was angry when I spoke to this man’s manager and became even angrier when the manager denied that such a response would have been offered and I must be mistaken. Women have respect and rights today because of a thousand instances of standing up to prejudice. Do not take it for granted.
Scenario 2: When first administering my own jobs, and trying to discuss work required with tradespeople, there were builders who paid no regard to anything I had to say. Indeed, one builder insisted a 20mm gap in a wall was meant to be there.
Lesson: Realising that the respect I was shown on previous jobs whilst in the employ of a male architect was due to his presence. Be prepared to refer to the regulations, tighten up the paperwork and make it contractually clear what you expect.
Scenario 3: As a young architect, walking into large project site offices, I was often met with centrefolds (magazine pictures of naked women) plastered all over the walls. While this is not so present and visible today, site remains a male domain that relatively few women venture into.
Lesson: I mean business from the moment I get to site. I am practical and purposeful. Dress code should be suitable work attire.
Scenario 4: As a student architect, working on a large site, I was staring up at an unfinished ceiling grid, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. The ceiling contractor looked across and said, “Oh – you spotted that, we haven’t put the framing in properly but we’re going to fix it.”
Lesson: There is power in silence and observation. Allowing the contractors an opportunity to reflect on their work is important.
Scenario 5: Recently as an obviously older woman, when meeting a consultant on site for the first time with my assistant graduate architect, he referred to her as ‘the teenager’, undermining her contribution to the project.
Lesson: The beat goes on… and we must remain vigilant and ready to empower all women on site.
Have a productive attitude
Acknowledge and introduce yourself to the people working on the site. These people have unique, specialist skills. You need them to understand you are not a threat and that you are open to their suggestions and opinions. They also need to know that you will be looking at their work, closely.
Let’s face it, the builder and tradespeople are turning your drawings into a beautiful three-dimensional full-size incredible building. Share your vision with them as much as possible. Explain what you are trying to achieve, with the spaces, the views and the plumbing and lighting. I am always surprised and delighted by the thoughtful detailing and resolution of problems independent of my drawings when we are all working towards the same goal. Remember, the builder owns the site during construction, so ring before you visit and confirm the day and time of your visit. It’s just good manners!
Don’t let an opportunity pass to learn. A question doesn’t have to be a declaration of ignorance.
The old saying, “there are many ways to skin a cat” applies to many of the decisions made on site. Open up the conversation so that you can work through the options.
Communicate your intentions clearly
Architecture gives us the opportunity to create buildings beyond the confines of standard building process. At times, on site the accepted processes of the trades may be contrary to what you are trying to achieve. In these instances, it is important to communicate your intentions clearly, so that your buildings are not compromised by a single-minded commitment to standard work practices.
A loss – I designed dual chimney flues referencing federation details. The builder stuck a diagonal brace out to the side of my beautiful vertical elements, forever holding them upright with a standard construction detail, and instantly destroying my architectural intention.
A win – I designed a bath on an angle enclosed by a curved wall. The plumber on the job refused to install it and threatened to walk off the job until I promised to pay additional fees to square it up to the wall if the radical design failed. Twenty years later it is still there; and is still a delight!
The National Construction Code is our bread and butter – keep up to date
Builders are practical people, and while I despair when the Council codes and Australian Standards get upgraded and I need to re-learn the clause content and reference systems, it is our job to keep up to date. I have always found it empowering to be able to refer to the regulations and to be able to quote the relevant clauses to assist in understanding why some details are required and why some decisions must be followed.
Builders do not spend as much time behind a desk reviewing these documents. Give yourself a rest from the stress. Learn the codes and keep up to date with the amendments. If you can’t remember them, it is not a big deal today – look them up on site or back in the office and show the builder, both on site and in your documentation details.
Put it in writing
Always check your assumptions about questionable work when you are back in the office. Write an instruction to fix it and then re-inspect to make sure it has been done.
Be prepared for bad behaviour
Do you need specific skills on site because you are a woman? My answer – for the last 30 years and up to now – YES. You will find your own way.
My personal approach is non-confrontational. I refuse to engage with energy that is designed to diminish me, especially in front of my client. I don’t have a big architectural ego, but I know that I work hard and have regard for my client’s best interests at all times. SO, if someone on site is being aggressive, I have found it is a good sign that you need to look at their work more closely. Chances are you are being distracted away from a glaring problem.
Your time on site is about you as a communicator – drawing, writing and speaking. Develop your own repertoire of these skills and allow the builder on site the opportunity to communicate with you. To this end, learn the terminology for structural elements and use them in your notations and discussions.
If you find yourself out of your depth, get back to the office and document all interactions in writing so you can better understand the situation and devise a way forward. In a world that demands immediate answers, push back a little and take the time you need.
Protect yourself! Be clear about contracts
I have a very frank conversation with my clients several times before they decide which contract to sign with a builder. Architecture is a profession with codes of conduct and as a registered architect, I am unable to oversee or comment on the work of a builder when I am not administering the contract. Fundamentally, you shouldn’t be on site unless you are administering the contract between the builder and the client. If you are on site without an administrator role, you can still be held liable for every element of poor workmanship that you walk past on site, whether you see it or not. Protect your ability to do future work as an architect. Just say no (with many well wishes and expectant enthusiasm) to any further involvement once a builder is engaged without you.
Alternatively, as the Contract Administrator, you have responsibility and authority. Be prepared to use the contract tools if the builder is not respecting your documentation and jeopardising the project. But don’t use it to strangle the builder’s workflow.
Be prepared to walk away if necessary
Clients are integral to the process. Take them with you on the journey. Again, it comes down to your communication style, but it is essential to keep them in the loop. They are usually amazing and incredibly supportive; however, some clients under financial and time pressure can undergo personality makeovers and become unrecognisable. Whilst this is often manageable and you are the person best placed to help them, make sense of the variations and delays, make sure you can always walk away from your contract with your client. Sometimes just having this in your back pocket can help you get through! Remember – you matter.
Congratulations! Your time, financial, emotional and creative investment has come to fruition. Take a moment to enjoy your unique achievement; that noisy, boggy site has become a building with an address and a purpose.
I hope you can make the most of my recollections and coping strategies. As a woman architect working on site, my communication and creativity are my greatest gifts. I wish you well. May your career be full of inspiring architecture.
Jill Gleave is the Director of Human Spaces, a small practice located in Berowra Waters. She studied architecture for six years part-time at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) while working full time in the architectural offices of Whitehead & Payne P/L (where she initially became a secretary in order to get her foot in the door before engaging with a very large drawing board and a blue clutch pencil), and Gruzman Architecture (where she was paid $75/week for the very real privilege of experiencing how inspiring residential architecture can be).
She has met and mentored many fabulous students as a tutor at UTS in architectural construction, and endeavoured to share her love of architecture with her broader community by curating several years of the Institute’s Architecture on Show series as part of the Hornsby Festival of the Arts. Jill is also an active participant in the AMWF (Architect Mental Wellbeing Forum), which she believes will greatly benefit the creatives in the profession.
The majority of Jill’s work involves the architecture of homes for inspiring clients with a sustainability agenda in remote and difficult-access areas. Jill is passionate about the water cycle in buildings and its impact across boundaries. Her interests include kayaking and saving wetlands.