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The Challenge Of Architecture
To me, one of the most appealing aspects of working as an architect is the variation in the job. Every project is different, and day to day you could be working on drawings, overseeing construction on a building site or meeting with a potential client. Variation keeps you on your toes, helping you to progress and lead a full and interesting life. In my two and a half years at university I have designed a range of buildings, from a small shelter all the way up to a theatre and primary school. Choosing contrasting projects is hugely useful as it helps to build up a wealth of architectural knowledge. However, it can lead to situations where you feel out of your depth and lacking in proficiency and ability. This happened in my most recent project, which was to design a lighthouse, lifeboat station and ranger’s station on a tiny island at the mouth of the Mersey and Dee rivers.

Third year is supposed to be difficult for all students, it is the final year of your degree so the expected output is ramped up, as well as the scale of the tasks you undertake and their challenge. During this semester a number of difficulties arose for me which all contributed to this project being the most challenging I have tackled at university by a long distance. Now that I have completed the work, I will look back on the experience positively as I have learnt a lot and I’m hoping my next project will go a lot better, it is unlikely it’ll go worse considering how much I have progressed even since September. Through this post I will explain what went wrong and how I could’ve resolved the issues faster or prevented them altogether. Hopefully this will help you if you’re struggling with a design to take a breath, step back and evaluate where you’re going with it. I’m sure many architecture students and architects have been in my position.
Site
Hilbre Island is a tiny island near Liverpool which is rugged, organic and very rocky. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest with approximately ten uninhabited buildings on. My studio group were given free rein to choose where on the site to locate our buildings, and I picked its Northern tip where a dilapidated historic lifeboat station is situated. I was determined to incorporate this old structure into my contemporary scheme, which was an awkward curse when I started designing, although hopefully I will gain marks for managing it in the end. The reason behind the site increasing the challenge of this project was its complexity, the lack of geographical mapping data and the effort required to reach it.

In the past most of my projects have been in Liverpool, at a maximum of half an hour’s walk away. This has allowed me to visit the site multiple times to measure, take photos or sketch. In contrast, to reach Hilbre you have to walk to the station, catch a train, then walk six kilometres over an expansive beach to the island. Also, the island is cut off from the mainland at high tide so the trip can only be made twice a day at specific times. I was only able to make two visits, resulting in a lack of clarity regarding the site.
Adding to this lack of clarity was the size and complexity of the site. In my other projects that have been in urban locations the sites have been small, with my buildings only just fitting into the boundaries. However, on Hilbre we had to choose where to position firstly our self defined site and then the building scheme itself. This added another layer of difficulty to the project. Also, the organic, rugged setting had large topographical variation, which coupled with inaccurate mapping data made it challenging to produce a suitable, realistic scheme.

Making preservation of the Old Lifeboat Station a key factor in my scheme greatly increased the difficulty due to the lack of space surrounding it. When comparing maps and my own experience, I realised that in reality there was a lot less space around the historic monument than the maps suggested. This made space planning and designing much harder, since I had to condense the spaces into a smaller area than I would have liked.
Time Pressure
Deadlines are a constant in an architect’s life. There is always one perched on the horizon whilst another rushes towards you at breakneck speed. At Liverpool University, the academic year is split into two semesters, and architecture students undertake one project during each semester. Normally, the final hand in for first semester is after Christmas, so you have the whole of the holiday to complete and refine your work. However, this year the hand in was before Christmas, which created chaos during the last week of the semester. I am not bemoaning the decision, in fact I think it was a good call because it allows more time for the final semester’s project which is hugely important in getting placement opportunities. Despite this, inevitably my work suffered due to the lack of time and a necessity to rush decisions which I should’ve considered in more detail. My presentation was a little rough around the edges, and I even pulled my first ever all nighter to try and boost the quality of my output.

The speed of the project also contributed heavily to an increased stress level throughout the semester. This probably clouded my thought process on a number of occasions, and reflected negatively on the design as it progressed.
Unusual Concept
It has been noted that a lot of the work from this semester looked similar, probably due to the studio undertaking a number of group activities together. My scheme heavily contrasts the norm, which may or may not be a good thing, only time will tell. In university you are always told to experiment and push yourself, which I certainly did with this scheme. My concept was external lightness and delicacy and internal assurance and protection. The idea behind the building was to quietly place it on the island and have it seem to float on the landscape. Internally, heavy structure and warm, welcoming interiors would protect the Old Lifeboat Station and visitors to the island from Hilbre’s harsh conditions. Writing the concept is easy enough but expressing it through architecture was a lot more difficult.

I worked tirelessly to try and achieve the concept on the tight space surrounding the Old Lifeboat Station, all whilst having to explain my concept to tutors that didn’t seem to understand it. I explained it very poorly in a particularly terrible tutorial (read about that experience here), which resulted in me falling behind schedule and having to take a few steps backwards in order to move forward. This was the most stressful part of the project, and it made me completely doubt everything I’d done up to that point. It was in week 7/12, and I was close to rewriting the concept and changing all my work. I made some vital decisions during that time, and thankfully I think they were correct. I decided to stick with my original concept whilst making some changes to my design to improve it. I am now pleased that I went with my gut instinct because it motivated me to work extra hard during the rest of the semester in order to prove that my concept was suitable and the building a success. I will find out when I receive my mark how well I’ve done, but whatever the result I can at least take comfort from the fact that I didn’t reject my own ideas.
Lack Of Early Tutelage
Throughout my time at university the weekly pattern has been relatively constant. At the start of a project you are assigned a tutor who you see once a week for about half an hour to discuss your design. You then have another opportunity during the week to see another tutor (who may or may not be your own) to gain further help. This year, the system has changed, in my opinion for the worse. You are not assigned a tutor, so regular feedback from someone who knows your scheme is eradicated. At the start of every tutorial you have to explain your idea and design to a different tutor which wastes time and can result in a variety of often contradictory feedback. Also, during this semester my studio attended a number of workshops, visits and lectures instead of having tutorials. Whilst they were useful, it meant that our first standard one on one tutorials occurred relatively late in the design process. I had already gone quite far with a particular design, with complex models and diagrams, and when I showed it to the tutor he described it as a B&Q shed. In hindsight he was correct so I am thankful that the tutorial took place. However, if it had occurred earlier the issues could’ve been resolved before I had progressed so far and a lot of time wouldn’t have been wasted.

My most recent project has been the most difficult to date, and I’m sure there will be some that are even worse in the future. It won’t always be easy, but the hardest challenges are often the most worthwhile. I have learnt a lot during the last semester about managing time and stress, and how to tackle an awkward natural site and lack of tutorials. If I were to repeat the project I would definitely do a lot differently, however at the end of the day I’m happy with what I’ve achieved. I will find out in February whether the hard work has paid off…