Claire Miller

Architect

Would you give us a little introduction about yourself and the work you do here with Askew Cavanna?

My name is Claire Miller, I’m an Architect and I’m 32. I’ve been qualified for two years and I’ve been working in the industry for ten years. I’ve been at Askew Cavanna for about 10 months and we do a whole heap of work that includes housing, offices, charities and buildings for community groups. It’s a really interesting range of projects but they always have a focus on sustainability, community values and giving back through architecture.

You have an impressively varied background in the creative industry. What lead you to architecture?

When I was at school my understanding of architecture was that it was quite difficult. You had to be good at maths and science, and I wasn’t good at either so I kind of ignored it as an option. But I had a teacher in design technology who was really supportive and encouraged me to do design. I initially went to university to study product/3D design. The course mixed product design, furniture design and interior design. All involved looking at how people relate to things and spaces. It was the interior design side of my course which fascinated me, and it was my tutor who said “if you want to be an Architect, you can do that”. So when I finished that degree I looked for a job in architecture and luckily someone took a chance on me. After working for a few years, I decided to go back to University and start the long process of Architecture study. It was quite a good way to approach the course, because I thought about furniture and how people relate to small objects, then a room and then figured out the construction of the building. I’m quite passionate about telling people that there isn’t a linear root to architecture; if you’re good at design and your good at communication and listening to people, they are all skills that make a good Architect. It’s not only necessary that you’re really good at maths. You can work around it.

And why Bristol?

Short answer: my husband (laughs). He is from Bristol. I’m from Birmingham and I’ve always wanted to live in a city, so he persuaded me that Bristol was the place to be and I love it. Bristol is really creative, there’s lots going on if you’re into music and art. My husband is a toy designer, so we are both really creative. It’s a good size and has a great centre and many opportunities to meet and interact with creative people. The location of the office is pretty much ideal for getting involved in everything and everyone who works in the office is in various committees or groups, whether its theatre, construction or art. The office is especially a good location for St Paul’s Carnival, you can come in and use the toilet and then get back on the street partying!

Do you have a favourite part of the creative process? One you find the most stimulating/intrinsic to your work?

My favourite part, and I think the most important part, is talking to people. It’s not one element, it continues throughout the whole process. When you first meet people and they’re trying to explain to you what they want, often (with us) they haven’t worked on a project before. Its intimidating if you haven’t done it before, if it’s a house, an office or you’re a charity and you’ve raised money and suddenly you have to spend a lot of it. So it’s really enjoyable (and difficult) for us to encouragesomeone to feel comfortable that they’re doing the right thing. For me, I think it’s the relationships that you build with people. When you get to the end of the project and you remember the initial conversations where clients were perhaps a bit tentative about what they wanted, but then they have moved into the building and they’re just so happy and grateful. It’s very rewarding.

We’ve seen that social mobility is something really central to you personally. Can you explain to us about why social mobility has become so central to the work you do? 

Again it’s probably because of how I got into architecture. I’m not from a middle-class background and I didn’t really know about architecture, so I saw it is a path for people that were really intelligent and wealthy. I’ve ended up doing it and I’m very passionate about it. I love my job and I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I just want to encourage people to follow a career in anything that they would like to do. I like to get involved with schools and tell students that if they’re good at englishand good at talking to people and good at drawing you can do Architecture, similarly if they’re good at maths and science, they can do architecture. It’s just about giving people the opportunity and making them realise that they have the potential if they want to do it. I also mentor with the Fluid Diversity Mentoring Programme. I’m mixed race and the number of people in architecture from a black/ethnic minority background is proportionally small, particularly in high level positions. The mentoring I do focuses on encouraging people to first of all get into architecture but also encourages them that they can progress to become senior staff members. I think with a more diverse professional workforce in the construction industry, the built environment will only benefit, so it’s kind of for the greater good (without sounding too hippy trippy)!

It’s so great to see you’re working with and giving agency to young people (generation place, redesigning lawrence hill roundabout). What hope you do see for the future of our youth?

That was a great experience! It was a week-long summer school. At the beginning of the week the kids hadn’t met an Architect or an Engineer, or really considered the fact that they had the ability to effect the spaces where they lived, or went to school. By the end of the week they were so confident at giving presentations. It gives me a lot of hope. I think it’s not about telling young people “you can’t do this” or “you can’t do that”, it’s about giving them the opportunity to try new things. Their ideas were crazy, but it was great because no one was shutting them down. No one was saying ‘that’s silly you can’t do that’.

It seems that sustainability is at the heart of your work ethos here at Askew Cavanna. We’re really interested in it too, is there a project you could tell us a bit about?

A lot of our projects do, like you say, but probably the Soil Association. It’s an office building that we recently completed in town. It is a 4-story 1960’s building and we completely re-furbished all of the inside. The Soil Association is the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use, and they are recognised globally. From the outset the client was amazing, because obviously they have sustainable and ethical aspirations. Everyconversation that we had with them was about sustainability. For example, the carpets that are used are recycled yarn created from discarded fishing nets that have been brought from some of the poorest communities in the world. Whether it was looking at the right type of natural ventilation and making sure there was enough daylight so that people feel comfortable at work, we looked at different workspaces and desk heights to encourage wellbeing. It was just a really open conversation about the future of office environments, sustainability in terms of material choice and how you sustain a healthy working environment. We completed that project last month.

We also want to be a sustainable Practice. Chris, the Director, brought and refurbished our offices here and wanted to create a space where young start-up companies can have a chance to be in the centre of Bristol and flourish. We also consider things like printing and ink cartages, how much paper we use, where we get our coffee from and how we re-cycle our tea bags. We consider our impact on the environment. Those decisions aren’t just imbedded in the buildings that we design, we really try to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

In a world so threatened by the affects of global warming, do you ever feel disheartened with your work?

I used to. That’s part of the reason why I came to work here. I’ve worked in a number of companies that are quite big and commercial, and on a variety of projects from football stadiums to offices and retail projects. They’re all interesting in their own right, but for me I wanted to work on architecture that was doing a bit more in terms of sustainability. I enjoy working at Askew Cavana because everything that they do and the way they work, and the projects that they work on are saying something about their place in society and how they feel about the environment. I feel quite excited that I’m in a position where I’m able to do something about it. Little steps but positive ones. For me happiness and feeling like you’re doing something good is really important. I’m in a position where we can do a housing scheme and a key consideration is its environmental impact. That’s a small thing globally, but in terms of an area in Bristol that can be huge, and so I feel good that I’m in a job where we can make small but positive change.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

There’s so many hard parts! The hardest part of the job is probably also the best part of the job which is dealing with different types of clients. People who have never carried out building projects before can be quite emotional about it because it’s a lot of money and it’s a big thing to take on. It’s difficult to manage expectations and lead discussions throughout the whole process, so that you get across the wealth of information needed, but don’t overwhelm people. It’s really hard and you can sometimes have meetings where you come away feeling like the client isn’t happy or enjoying the process. It’s a challenge, but I really like a challenge so it’s not too bad!

We assume your job isn’t your life…do you have any other hobbies that you do to wind down from the stresses of work?

Living in Bristol there is loads to do. I dance in St Werburghs a couple of times a week with a really great dance group. Lots of sports; yoga, kickboxing, just generally things to keep me fit. I go to a lot of gigs, music is a really big part of my life. I really like live music and there’s so much on offer here, particularly here in Stokes Croft. I also enjoy home time, I think it’s really important to have a good balance of work and play, architecture in particular can be really demanding and you can let it consume you. It’s really fun and you could always just keep on going, but it’s also important to ‘press stop’ and enjoy family time, and then it makes the work time better.

You said you dance, so you’re using your body a lot and thinking about how you interact with space, do you think that’s helping with your Architecture practice? 

Definitely. I think that’s why I make the effort to do different things, it encourages me to think in alternative ways. Because of my design background, I think I’ve always come to architecture from a different perspective, so things like dance and drama have definitely helped me.

Is there a philosophy that you live/work by?

Just to be content; I’d go as far as to say happy. Happiness is really important, and that’s why I ended up trying out so many different types of design (I have worked on set design for music and tv, and tried design journalism before studying architecture) because I was trying to figure out what made me happiest and what I enjoy doing the most. I feel like if you enjoy doing something then you’re going to do the best that you can, and if everyone was doing a job where they were doing the best they could then it would be a pretty great world.

Is there a moment in your life that you can pinpoint that you had a significant revelation (to do with your work/job/goals)?

There’s two, in terms of life and in terms of career. In terms of architecture that was definitely when I met my tutor who told me that it didn’t matter that I wasn’t great at drawing, because I could find other ways to communicate my ideas, like make a model and photograph it,  so I was like, ok, I can do architecture, I can figure it out. That was quite amazing. And then in terms of my life, my mum passed away about 5 years ago. It was quite a sudden situation, and I was working constantly all day and all night, not giving any time to myself. It was a real reality check, that I needed a balance of both because life’s too short. Since then I think I’ve had a really good balance of working hard and really enjoying life as well.

Is there a piece of advice (big or small) you would like to give to young creatives/professionals?

Have faith in yourself. Particularly with design and the way you study it you get critiqued by people all the time, and then you get in to real work and people are going to continue to comment on your ideas. It can be difficult because you’re constantly up against people who are questioning what you do. Listening to this, being able to take comments on board but maintaining faith in yourself will help you learn how to get better. If you don’t have that then I don’t know how you would keep going really

Interview conducted by Emilia Ford, Leuca Smith and Beth Hine

Biography

Claire Miller is a charismatic and passionate Architect working for Askew Cavanna Architects, Bristol. She has an impressively varied background in design helping her to approach everything she does with a multi-dimensional mindset, paying attention to the minute details as well as the bigger picture. Social mobility is at the centre of Claire’s ethos and she works tirelessly in education to give young being the agency and opportunity.

www.askewarchitects.co.uk