The profession’s responsibilities extend beyond the physical environment to the political, argues architect-turned-contractor Siu-Pei Choi, in the first of a new series of columns
I left behind my life in architecture two years ago and have found myself reflecting on the move to work contractor-side, recalling my first days at Wates. Every new member of the company is made to jump through the obligatory training hoops, with online courses aimed to keep us personally safe on site – asbestos awareness, alcohol and drug awareness, hazardous substances – as well as to keep us within the law – anti-bribery and corruption, modern slavery, data privacy. In addition, Wates has its own code of conduct and a “respect for people” module for new starters, with the company mantra of “zero harm”.
To someone coming from the smaller world of architectural practice, it was a long way off from the accustomed norm of being handed a copy of the company handbook (if even this existed) to add to a mounting pile of “things to read” and a quick half-hour induction of where files are kept on the server. Induction at Wates was a different process altogether.
Working in construction, we take it for granted that we work within strict regulations which ensure – as far as possible – that contractors do work safely, and that we are responsible not only for employees of the contractor but also for those of subcontractors, and the wider supply chains. Mindful of fair competition, we ensure transparency in tenders. And as we all navigate our way through these strange times and find our feet in this “new normal”, we work hard to ensure employees are kept safe, and that we can maintain social distancing and clean hands.
Architects should look to play their role in ensuring that the systems we take for granted in the UK are implemented on all our projects across the world.
But as I look across the world at the new normal, it is hard to ignore the changing landscape on another level. We recognise, as architects and those working in construction, that we have a vital role to play in shaping the built environment and in turn people’s lives, in the work we do.
We should recognise, too, that this is not simply through the designs we create, but through the way we create them. Just as contractors already do in Britain, architects too should look to play their role in ensuring the sites they work on treat workers fairly, that safety considerations are not ignored, and that the systems we take for granted in the UK are implemented on all our projects across the world.
We should question whether the buildings we create for political regimes that use force to suppress democratic freedoms will improve the lives of those citizens
We should ask ourselves if, as a profession, we are willing to work in a country where health and safety standards are well below the zero harm for which we strive in Britain. We should question whether the buildings we create for political regimes that oppress ethnic minorities or use force to suppress democratic freedoms will improve the lives of those citizens. We should consider whether the built environment we create for future generations somehow make us complicit with governments that openly imprison and otherwise harm political opponents.
Of course, turning down international and prestigious projects is a tough decision for architects and other companies that work within tight margins and need to expand portfolios and client bases. And some might say the small influence we have will do nothing to achieve any significant impact. Many others will argue that if we don’t take the work then some other architect will happily step into the void.
But this is where we, collectively, can make a difference. As a respected profession across the world, it is possible to create an impact and, if not instigate change, at least allow our voice to be heard.
Autumn is when the Maggie’s night walk traditionally takes place, raising funds for the cancer care charity. After a hiatus last year due to the pandemic it is back on next month. Maggie’s lost its co-founder, Charles Jencks, two years ago but I hope that his generosity of spirit and belief that architecture can be used as a force for good will live on in the choices we make now – that we can use our voice as architects to speak louder.
Siu-Pei Choi is senior design manager at Wates Group. She originally studied at the Bartlett and worked as an architect at HTA, Fraser Brown Mackenna, Levitt Bernstein and Patel Taylor before joining Wates in 2019