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Tuesday29 July 2014

From drawing boards to debt: Polly Damen

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Assael’s associate director on working abroad during a recession and how the attitude to female architects has changed.

Polly Damen (40)

Polly Damen studied at Bath University from 1988-1992 then worked in Hong Kong and France. She is associate director at Assael. She has two children and works a four-day week.


I’ve lived through two recessions in architecture. The first was only Europe-based so I went further afield and got a job in Hong Kong. But this time it’s affected the whole world. Sometimes a recession is good for architecture. It knocks you back to reality.

Architects had become complacent. Before there were a lot more trips for the offices, and more power lunches — fees just came in. Recession kicks everyone back into action. It makes everyone more competitive. You feel grateful you still have a job and you all pull together.

Now everyone in the office is told to look for work, not just the directors — that’s changed. It’s everyone’s duty to get the money in — you can’t leave it to accounts. You can’t just sit back and do a drawing. In a recession, people are depressed. When colleagues leave, the spring in the step of the office goes. Now it’s picking up again. I hope we’ll remember the hard times.

This last decade has been fantastic for architecture in terms of exposure to the public. I think programmes like Grand Designs and events like Open House have really opened up the eyes of the public to the profession and that’s great. It was a closed profession when I was younger. No one really knew what was going on. Now the public is aware of what we do and appreciates what we do.

I think architects are still very much the lead consultants, chairing the meetings, but I think the whole “starchitects” thing is wrong —it tends to be the same five or six firms, and there’s plenty of young talent out there. Nor do I think the public like the same people taking up swathes of London.

Sustainable design is still a bit of a box-ticking exercise for a lot of architects. Developers worry that going green will cost money and just want to get a stamp of approval. It will get to be a bigger and bigger issue. At the moment the criteria are so confusing. Sustainability needs to become part of the whole philosophy of design.

Attitudes to women architects have changed a lot, but the only way you can manage to work with young children is by having an understanding, flexible employer. I work four days and for different hours and it hasn’t stopped me being promoted. But a lot of employers won’t give you that flexibility. I consider myself very lucky.

In the future, I think we’ll all be working from home; offices will become redundant in 10 years, although there will always be a need for meeting spaces.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I agree, it does take a flexible employer to allow the 4 day a week thing. I can't imagine many will give a damn if you point out that after tax and childcare costs you end up with less money than staying at home.

    Fortunately I have one, makes it a rather better work experience...

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