How architects are making workplace culture more inclusive

Written by: Helen Castle
Published on: 4 Nov 2020

In 2020, the social inequities of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have shined a light on the pressing need for a more inclusive architecture profession. Five practices describe how they are stepping up with an onus on more robust recruitment and retainment processes and greater transparency and accountability.

In a watershed move in mid October 2020, RIBA launched its Inclusion Charter, inviting members to support a more inclusive profession. The charter asks signatories to do more than endorse or pay lip service to EDI, it calls on them to implement targets and action plans, and to report publicly on their progress. Progress is fostered by RIBA through best practice guidance and support.

Grace Choi of Grace Choi Architecture

Grace Choi, Director of Grace Choi Architecture in Newcastle and EDI Champion at RIBA North East.

Grace Choi, Director of Grace Choi Architecture in Newcastle, EDI Champion at RIBA North East and leader of the popular JEDI Talks series, recognises that for a lot of small and medium practices this guidance and support is essential. Without the HR expertise available in larger practices, EDI targets need to be ‘tangible and attainable’. ‘Inclusion needs to be deeper than quotas. It is a matter of cultural transformation that requires involving all staff.’ Inclusion Footprints are also part of RIBA’s EDI strategy. The footprints provide the opportunity for everybody in a practice to get involved in creating a more inclusive culture – including those who are not senior leaders in a position to sign up to the Charter. They are tips for everyone. They encourage individuals to participate in diversity and inclusion activities, such as mentoring, events and training, as well as looking out for colleagues going through life changes.

Many of the practices already pioneering change, who have put diversity at the heart of what they do, are led by women. This is no coincidence, as despite the 50/50 intake of female students at undergraduate entry stage, women remain at the margins of the profession – in the minority in senior leadership positions. This was highlighted by Professor Elisabeth Kelan in the ‘Architecture of Gender’ event during September’s Inclusion by Design Festival: the ‘leaky pipeline’ on the way to the top means only 20% of partners in practice are women. Women’s pivotal role in EDI is no surprise to Grace, as diversity and inclusion is: ‘relational. It requires a self-awareness to develop what is missing and an emotional intelligence to communicate in a way that is appropriate. You need to disarm people to help them engage, while considering everyone in the work environment.’

Here, Mairi Laverty of Collective Architecture, Chithra Marsh and Stephen Anderson of Buttress, Simone de Gale of Simone de Gale Architects, Angela Dapper of Grimshaw and Grace Choi describe how they and their practices have set about nurturing inclusion in practice through recruitment, retainment and accountability.

Opening up the conversation – Collective Architecture

Collective architecture

Staff from Collective Architecture celebrate its 10th Birthday at Barrowfield Park, adjacent to the Glasgow studio, May 2017.

Larick Centre 7

Collective Architecture, Larick Centre, Tayport, Fife, 2020. This recently built community centre provides a flexible space for sports, arts, business and tourism.

Acknowledging the urgent need for inclusion in the architecture profession and wider construction industry is the first step towards diversity. Collective Architecture, based in Glasgow, is one of the founding signatories of the RIBA Inclusion Charter. Its Practice Director Jude Barber is a longstanding champion of EDI: she is a member of the RIBA’s expert advisory group Architects for Change.

Mairi Laverty, Project Architect and Employee Elected Director at Collective Architecture, explains that as a 100-percent, staff-owned studio, its management is ‘transparent and open’. Inclusion is a central part of its ethos. Fortnightly meetings offer staff at all stages the opportunity for ‘a platform with shared intellectual and financial ownership providing fair and equitable involvement’. The practice is owned, governed and managed via elected/selected roles and groups that include the Board of Directors, Board of Trustees and Management Team. Its 47 staff are broken down into teams of about 10. This provides everyone with a voice in smaller groups. With ten out of the 22 qualified architects being women, they are almost achieving parity. Jude and Mairi are two out of five directors on the Board, while many other women across the studio provide strong role models through teams, management, support and the Trustee Board. The practice is effective at: ‘attracting young females to stay in the profession and seeks to ensure people from all socio-economic backgrounds are encouraged and retained in the studio’.

Mairi concedes that, in the past, like a lot of other practices recruitment tended to be informal rather than open: a lot of Part 1 placements were awarded through staff’s teaching activity. Recently, more formal recruitment processes have been put in place with structured questions and consistent interview scripts. The studio’s attractive collaborative culture is well known among students and qualified architects. It receives a lot of CVs, which are kept on record. At the last Burn’s Night celebration in January 2020, the international character of the practice was reflected by the expanse of nationalities present. This is a trait that it wishes to continue to build and expand on.

Committing to a talent pipeline – Buttress Architects

Meeting room buttress

Chithra Marsh (second in from the right) collaborating with colleagues in a meeting at Buttress Architects, March 2019.

office life at Buttress

Colleagues review a project at Buttress, July 2019.

Stephen Anderson, Director at Buttress Architects in Manchester, describes the last couple of years as ‘an awakening’ from an inclusion and diversity point of view. Rather than being driven by external forces, such as clients’ expectations, the practice has been motivated to make themselves more inclusive by their own ‘internal attitude’ guiding the type of organisation that they want to be.

This has been facilitated by what Chithra Marsh, Associate Director, refers to as Buttress’ ‘personality’, that allows them to be ‘open about how we do business and attract staff’. A renewed focus on inclusion has entailed ‘a lot of learning and listening to younger staff’ as well as ‘research and reading during lockdown, thinking about race and also neurodiversity’.

Stephen describes how they are implementing a learning development strategy ‘to nurture and develop staff from entry point to departure, working with individuals to put mechanisms in place to be the best that they can be’.

This commences with recruitment. Buttress has taken back responsibility for recruiting staff from agencies, which Stephen refers to as a ‘blunt tool’. They now ‘run their own campaigns, with a more nuanced understanding of wording of advertisements’. Informal interviews are organised for Part 1 and 2 students that enable them ‘to show their character’ and ‘express a genuine desire to work for the practice’. It is all about ‘capability and personality’. Efforts are made to look beyond just the job description and seek to understand the individual and how their life experiences have shaped them. This approach worked recently where an individual proved to be a good addition because of their ‘self-awareness and enthusiasm to learn’.

From appointment onwards, the development cycle kicks off with inductions, design and technical reviews, conversations about projects and appraisals. To better identify development needs across the practice a cohort of staff have been trained as coaches. To embed coaching fully in the culture, all staff will be learning coaching techniques. External coaches have also been appointed for the five directors to enable their development, where Chithra concedes ‘there was previously no accountability beyond the consensual at board meetings’.

Stephen and Chithra recognise that Buttress is a long way off being culturally diverse. Even though it has a 50/50 gender split across the business, the board is only 15% women. The directors acknowledge how important it is to have a good gender balance in leadership. Some female staff have been actively encouraged to join a cohort provided with leadership training. As a practice, they are ‘determined to understand where the current barriers lie and create opportunities for all their current and future staff’.

Creating an inclusive practice from scratch - Simone de Gale

Simon de Gale

Staff at Simone de Gale Architects on an office outing: meeting and interviewing Sou Fujimoto, designer of the 2013 Serpentine Pavilion, at the launch of his exhibition at Japan House, High Street Kensington, June 2018. Simone is centre right.

Simon de Gale architects in Georgia

Simone de Gale Architects on a trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, to visit projects and coordinate with the client team, November 2017.

For London-based architect and RIBA Board Member and Honorary Treasurer Simone de Gale, the desire to be independent and in control of her own destiny led to her starting her own practice from the beginning of her career. In 2009, on completion of her Part 2 studies, she set up as an architectural services company, completing ‘small projects for friends and other contacts made through recommendation, referral and repeat business’. Once she had a handful of projects, she applied to the Architectural Association to complete her Part 3. On qualifying in 2012, she was able to change the company name to Simone de Gale Architects. The practice has since grown into ‘a fully-fledged architectural practice, with a mixed portfolio of commercial, retail and residential projects in London and internationally’. With an international focus on Hong Kong and USA, she has further plans to grow the practice in Europe and the Caribbean. For the last two years in London, she has been prioritising gaining more significant projects at greater volume in Kensington, Chelsea, Westminster and the City.

Having developed ‘a robust and clear vision for her company’, Simone finds that potential candidates and staff align with the ethos of the practice. The onus that she places on best practice and clarity has been formally recognised by the Mayor of London's London Healthy Workplace Award (September 2020). This she describes as acknowledging: ‘a set of commitments and actions we have made whilst developing the business to create a healthy workplace environment and to recruit, retain and develop staff. The practises range from continual professional development, salary review and one-to-one regular engagement with each staff member. We also arrange events and outings to art galleries and talks as a group.’

Simone actively encourages staff to benefit from the improved legislation that have been introduced for families, such as The Shared Parental Leave Regulations 2014. These are incorporated in the practice’s Employee Handbook, so that staff are aware of their rights and feel comfortable to come forward and discuss them with her.

Aspiring for full accountability – Grimshaw

intersectionality event

Architecture LGBT + Intersectionality event at Grimshaw’s offices in London, October 2019.


MEGA, Grimshaw’s minority ethnic group, gathering in the atrium of the practice’s London office, 2019.

For Angela Dapper, Principal at Grimshaw in London, the aspiration for inclusion is at the heart of Grimshaw’s culture: ‘diversity is integral to the practice’s approach – among partners and teams alike. When Nicholas Grimshaw set up the studio in 1980 it was as a like-minded group of creative people. Diversity is intuitive. It is about people, making everyone feel welcome.’

At Grimshaw, diversity groups, representing LGBT+ and a minority ethnic group (MEGA), are led by individual members of staff at varying career stages. The lens of each group represents their interests, internally and externally. Angela chairs the Umbrella Diversity Group that embraces all types of diversity, leading diversity initiatives across the practice. The group recognises the need for a broader approach, which encompasses social mobility and disability, allowing lessons from the different groups to be shared.

The practice’s recruitment processes have been informed by its engagement in social mobility and mentoring with charitable organisations such as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. Grimshaw staff reach out, to a full range of secondary schools and universities, and run workshops for GCSE students in its London office. An external working policy frees up staff to use their paid time to undertake this valued work.

Angela describes the overall impact of this activity: ‘By offering mentoring to a consciously diverse mix, the necessity to recruit beyond leading schools, where staff might teach, became apparent to the partners, who are now aiming for diversity at the top.’ This has led to supporting Part 1 and Part 2 students through collaborations with the London School of Architecture and the University of Sheffield and through apprenticeships. The practice was part of the foundational Trailblazer Group for apprentices, currently they have four apprentices on placements at Oxford Brookes University and at technical colleges undertaking computational design.

Roles at Grimshaw are advertised internally globally. The messaging in job advertisements has been stripped down to make language more inclusive – avoiding terms like ‘highly pressurised work environment’. The amount of required skills have also been pared back, as accomplishment can often be a barrier to a full range of candidates applying. Flexible working is also offered to ensure that applicants with caring responsibilities for children or elderly parents are not excluded. The practice is ‘conscious of not just selecting someone for a single role, but to fit in with overall strategy and culture. They might, for instance, be recruited for their communication skills.’

Grimshaw has directly addressed the issue of retainment, with an exodus of women previously leaving practice when they started families, by asking them what they needed to stay. What they found was that financial incentives had a significant part to play. Individuals are now offered a financial bonus on their return from maternity or paternity leave to help them ‘overcome the fear of coming through the door’. This is further shored up by ‘role model behaviours by senior staff’ who pave the way for everyone.

Grimshaw has now reached a 50/50 gender balance among their staff. All appointments require women on their shortlists. Angela, though, acknowledges there is still work to be done at a senior level. The practice is also ‘holding itself to account’, seeking to use the ‘the momentum of Black Lives Matter to effect meaningful change’ by ‘understanding the status quo in terms of measuring where they are on ethnic diversity as well as on gender equality’, building on its ambitions to be a truly ‘open culture and safe workplace for all’.

Inclusive practices creating inclusive environments – Grace Choi

YMCA cafe Tyneside

Grace Choi Architecture, community café at the YMCA Tyneside, North Shields, providing training to the long-term unemployed, 2017. Photo: Matt Wilson.

ReFuse cafe, Durham

Grace Choi Architecture, sketch for Re-F-use café, Chester-Le-Street, County Durham, currently at RIBA stage 4.
In architecture, creating inclusive workplace cultures changes lives beyond those in the profession, it has the potential to radiate out to wider society through design.

For the first twenty years of her career, Grace Choi worked for acclaimed practices with developer clients in a manner that often conflicted with her own values. She offset this with voluntary work with homeless organisations. She was, though, unable to shrug off the fact that she did not feel that she was contributing in her professional life socially or politically. A homeless person brought this message home to her when he asked her why architects do not use their skills better. The catalyst to starting her own practice in 2010, and her concerted efforts to making a difference to the community, was a trip to Haiti where she saw for herself the physical consequences of extreme deprivation.

Starting up as a sole practitioner in Newcastle, Grace was able to work directly with local enterprises and charities. This has resulted in projects like the accommodation and café for the homeless at the YMCA Tyneside, which was longlisted for the MacEwen Award and shortlisted for the RIBA North East Awards in 2018; a women’s refuge in Gateshead; and most recently the Re-F-use food waste warehouse and café in County Durham.

For Grace, ‘core values have to be social. Diversity and inclusion have to be among us as people, if we are going to take them into projects’.

With thanks to Mairi Laverty, Chithra Marsh and Stephen Anderson, Simone de Gale, Angela Dapper and Grace Choi.

Text is by Helen Castle, Publishing Director at RIBA.

For an opportunity to hear from experts on a range of diversity and inclusion subjects, and to participate in an equity, diversity and inclusion action planning session, join the RIBA Inclusion Charter Workshop on 30 November, 10am-1pm.