New London Architecture

NextGen: Finding Your Place

Monday 01 July 2024

Dominique Staindl Staindl


Dominique Staindl, founder of South Facing, reflects on the NLA’s NextGen conference "Finding Your Place," focusing on talent in the built environment sector's expertise and career paths.

It’s a funny premise, the NLA’s inaugural NextGen conference theme of Finding Your Place, because my answer to its provocation is '' No. Yes. I don’t know. All of the above, and now, please.

Examining ‘the importance of generalised qualifications versus technical expertise’, the talent on display from those who stood to speak gave a far clearer message than the jumble in my head. We have an extraordinarily large cohort of individuals that make up this industry, no matter which side of the specialism-generalism fence they sit on. 

Kat Hanna of Avison Young, a NextGen advocate, opened the event, asking about the skills needed for a better built environment. Moving the emphasis off the sector and employer and onto the perspective of our (yes, reader, that’s mine and your) future leaders: what are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations? ‘Maybe that will give us the skills they need’, I wonder, sitting in a crowd of a hundred peers, ‘whatever gets them here, and keeps them believing there’s hope to reboot this antiquated industry’. 

A stark reminder that this isn't about age but a recognition of attitude and appetite to make a difference, eight NextGenners give us their elevator pitch on generalised experience. They point to the power of continued generalist education and the inherent creativity in connecting ideas from seemingly disparate silos, and to my great delight, they each emphasise the importance of communication. 

My chest puffs with pride. I couldn’t agree more.

They share their capabilities to decipher technical detail into digestible explanations for clients. Great! How misconceptions about our industry in general can lead to political underemphasis on the importance of the quality of its delivery. Boom! How sharing vulnerably opens pathways for new connections with unexplored audiences. Woop! And how, even on the same team, unempowered interpretations of the brief can affect our one liveable planet and thousands of lives. Yup!

Neil McLaughlin of Purcell can quip that his employer’s 72 years of essentially retrofitting buildings, long before the Retrofit campaign, reminds me that while we might ‘commsify’ and rebrand ideas, the essentials and first principles remain. 

When every single action has a carbon response - even this blog and the link you found it through - we’d better make sure our communications count. And if someone could also crack the code to running effective and efficient meetings, that would also be very helpful, remarks Hanna. 

Then a question from the audience grabs me. It was long-winded but focused on taking agency to redirect clients to a better brief. Yeah, duh, I assumed everyone was doing this. Hang on. Interesting concept. You never only have one client. You have three: 

  • A handful of humans who make a profit from others
  • The planet, which has already long overpaid
  • And the communities that don’t know what they’re paying for or for how long.

I’m sure someone clever has already said this far sooner and more eloquently than me just there, but that was my ah-ha moment for the day. On cue, Helen Ng of Jacobs links the power of adaptive knowledge and the importance of informal learning. Very good for generalists, apparently. I would know.

In the second act, dedicated to Creating Better Places, we learned from Robbie Kerr of how ADAM Architecture is evolving the discovery process on historic buildings to develop the principles of classical and traditional architecture fit for modern life. On the flip side, Kathryn Firth, Director in Cities, Planning, and Design at Arup, showed us how their work on the Phoenix development in Lewes takes a more modern housing development model and gives it passive design principles needed for climate resilience.

However, results of a mid-way poll of the room prior to the case studies jolted me back to reality: 80% of respondents, of whom roughly 50:50 were NextGenners themselves, were considering changing sectors. Yikes. That’s not good, and we can’t afford to lose any more talent. Are we asking the right questions about this? I’m genuinely curious, as I too have skin in the game.

How good is our industry at letting people explore roles and new pathways with financial security and leadership support within the built environment? There’s plenty to play with - the whole world, when you think about it. Are we loose-fit enough in our role structures as well as our designs? 

And can we entice bright thinking earlier in the process than post-graduation? Apprenticeships are back in favour. Employers are happy to have many-needed hands on the tools, and school leavers have alternative paths to being saddled with debt before emerging into adulthood.

But a closing statement from Edyta White, the Skills Trainer at Peabody, brings everything back to the central activity. ‘You need to connect in person and also through networking. Your champions are people in the industry who can advocate for you when you’re not in the room’.

Surprisingly, it was the end of the day when someone mentioned the election. Alex Govier, Partnerships Manager, Public Practice, mentioned a piece they have released analysing all party manifestos. While housing comes out full steam ahead, there’s no reference to placemaking or design quality.

It looks like leaders of all types have a job to do.

Dominique Staindl Staindl





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