New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Holly Lewis, co-founding partner, We Made That

Friday 04 December 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

David Taylor catches up with We Made That’s Holly Lewis to talk about RE-SET-GO, a new work experience initiative she has helped set up that aims to diversify the architecture industry focused on Black, Asian and multi-ethnic individuals, women, and those from lower-income backgrounds

Holly Lewis: Hi David! How are you?

David Taylor: Good, thank you. How are you?

HL: Yes, very good.  

DT: I wanted to ask you about RE-SET-GO, basically. Could you run through the scheme? What is it about?

HL: RE-SET-GO is a programme that we've put together with the London Practice Forum, particularly with IF-DO and Gort Scott, and the idea is that it makes space for under-represented groups in architecture and support. Because of the way the funding comes through, it is focused on the boroughs of Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Wandsworth at the moment. But we definitely see, from the level of interest that we have had already, even just from launching it last week, we can see that there is a kind of legacy that can go beyond those boroughs. But really as a group of employers, the London Practice Forum and ourselves, we’re really aware that we've got at least some of the tools to start to address the lack of diversity in architecture and in architecture practices. So that's what this is trying to do.

DT: When did you dream it up? I mean, what was the moment of realisation that this was a good, worthy thing to set up?

HL: We've been trying to think about how we can act beyond just responsibly but proactively in addressing the lack of diversity in architecture for ages. And I think maybe with the GLA Architecture Design and Urbanism framework it was put more strongly on our agenda certainly because we are working only in the public sector. So we're having to show that we're making efforts on that front at least. So we've been thinking about it for a while. And then we saw this grant opportunity through the – it's now called Stride – South London Innovation Corridor and thought: ‘oh, we can do that!’ We don't have to sit back and wait for the odd job here or there, or maybe offering a little bit of work experience alongside an individual commission. We could do something bigger, and with more impact, and with more people involved in the network if we had that bit of extra support. 

So really it was the prompt of seeing that grant call-out, combined with I guess a few years of actually thinking about what we can do. But it's not like it was already sitting there. But when the opportunity came up, we thought: hang on a minute, we could do something really good here. So I guess that’s where it came from.

DT: And it's 85,000 quid, is it, in this pilot programme?

HL: That's including the match [funding] from the practices that are involved. So all of the support and resource that comes from them. And I think that the grant from Stride is more like £40,000 or £45,000, so it's at least half from the practices as well. Everything else to deliver the programme is coming from the practices.

DT: So: you mentioned that there's been a terrific response. Could you elaborate on that? Have people been emailing and texting you or the whole group?

HL: We've got a contact email on the website (www.re-set-go.xyz) so people have been getting in touch through the website so far. We will be launching the work placements, which are either one week or six weeks, at the beginning of December and then we'll be launching the other programmes, so there’s workshops and mentoring that will be available, which will launch in the new year. But in fact what has been interesting is that people have been in touch wanting to have a placement or undertake some mentoring, but we've also had a lot of practices getting in touch saying: ‘we'd like to be involved in support of the programme’. So it's been both on the offer side as well as the participant side, which I think we weren't quite expecting. That's been an interesting response.

DT: Do you expect it to become much more of a pan-London scheme than just these four boroughs?

HL: Well, we can see the potential for that, for sure. And some of those people that have been in touch through the site have said: well, we're not in those boroughs but can we still be involved? So there's definitely interest on that front. We can't use the grant funding for that, but I don't think that means that we can't look at how this is a programme that has a longer life and a bigger reach than just the grant at the moment.

DT: Is it a resource issue for you guys, as a practice, to be part of this, in terms of running and organising it?

HL: We are keen to do that. There's a small amount of the grant which is supporting that, but it's not going to cover what we put in. But we are always thinking about how we're using the resources that we have in a responsible way. And this seems like a worthy use of that time.

DT: Absolutely!

HL: …So no, I don't think it's a problem. I mean, I'm saying that now, we’re not stuck in it yet, are we? (laughs)

It might become an enormous thing if we’ve got so much interest and trying to pair that with practice, but so far it feels manageable. We've set out that we think that we can involve 150 people across the 21 practices on the London Practice Forum so we think we can manage that number of transactions. We’ll see what it goes to from here, I guess!

DT: Why do you think architecture is such a bad performer in this milieu? In terms of BAME backgrounds. I mean it's a big question, obviously.

HL: It is a really big question, isn’t it? I think that you probably couldn't narrow it down to just one thing, could you?

DT: No

HL: But there is a sort of…I don't know if it is too controversial to say…I don’t think it is too controversial to say but there's a sort of elitist feel about it, isn’t there? It's a profession that has several barriers to get through to get to be an actual architect. And you have to be pretty committed to do that. And if at each point along that way you're facing bias, then I don't think we should be surprised at the end result of that. And so I suppose that's what this programme was trying to do; is just make sure that from 16 to 24 is where the programme is aimed at. And at start-ups and new businesses; that we’re trying to lower those thresholds, whether you're at school thinking about the built environment, or whether you're at University thinking about whether you should end up doing your Part 2, or whether you've qualified and you're thinking about whether you should start your business. That at each of those levels we’re trying to lower those barriers and help people over the barriers that remain.

DT:  What's your experience as an employer? Are you surprised at the low level of applicants you get for jobs at We Made That from this sort of background?

HL: I don't know if that's true, actually. So we are currently… I mean I don't have the data; it may be true.  But we have currently got a survey that we put out to anybody who applies to us at anytime, whether we are recruiting or not, because we get general, speculative applications, to try and make sure that we have evidence of what is the range of diversity of people that apply to us, what is the range of diversity of people that we interview, and what is the range of diversity of people that we employ. So then we would be able to say definitively: oh, we are not getting people in that are diverse, for example. But we need to really pin that down and be more specific about it. 

I think that, as far as I understand it, diversity becomes less diverse as you move through architecture, but I think there is still an issue of communication of architecture and built environment professionals at a school level, all the way through. But we are also supportive of the Accelerate Programme which is supported by Open House. I think that's trying to tackle that issue as well. So I think there probably is a lack of diversity of people that are applying but we are looking to see if that is true. And then those barriers get cumulatively impactful as you move through the profession.

DT: Yeah. Well, good on you for doing it. I think it's a really great thing. What are your main hopes for it in, say, the next year to five years?

HL: I hope that these first 150 people have a really fantastic time, and even whether they choose to go into architecture or not that they feel that they've had good value from it. We've got Afterparti involved for the alumni programme of new architecture writers from the Architecture Foundation helping us with evaluation and reflection and knowledge-sharing. So I hope that it becomes, first of all, valuable for those people; that’s number one. But also that it sets a model that we can carry forward together, either with the London Practice Forum or wider across the profession to ultimately mean that architecture is as diverse as the cities and places that we are designing for. Obviously, we are one tiny part of that bigger picture, but I think that by being deliberate and careful in the way that we are approaching it, and reflecting on the process that we will learn lessons that could have a bigger impact than just this programme.

DT: Brilliant. That's really great. Thank you very much your time, and well done again. Good luck with it!

HL: Cheers! Thanks very much! Good to talk to you.

DT: And you. See you soon. 

Check out RE—SET—GO.




David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


Diverse Leaders

#NLADiverseLeaders


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