Life as an architect – ViewVo mentor James Munro tells us about life inside an architecture firm

James Munro, Director at Granit Architects, Clapham, London

Life as an architect

Life as an architect, how exciting can it really be I hear you ask yourself? Well quite, is the answer. This is not so much a story about how to become an architect – you can find that out on the old Interweb – no, this is the inside story. The story about the person you need to be to be a good architect, and the people you get to meet. The good, the bad and the downright weird!

The man who is about to reveal all is none other than James Munro, director of Granit Architects in Clapham. He has been a qualified and practicing architect for the last 20 years. So the first obvious question has to be:

Q: What on earth makes you stay? What is it about running your own architecture firm that keeps you coming back for more?

A: Without hesitation it is the human interaction, the constant and long process with clients and staff that keeps it all interesting. It means that even if we had a project with 10 Victorian terraces in Putney, we would have 10 different experiences. I genuinely enjoy coming into work in the morning, which is far more than many of my friends can say. Being happy in my career choice also makes up for the fact that you are not earning anywhere near as much as most people think we do. Considering the training is sometimes up to seven years there are certainly other jobs that will pay you far more for that amount of training.

Q: Having said all that, with the benefit of hindsight, would you do it all again?

There is a surprisingly long pause for thought here.

A: The answer is a yes, I would do it all again, but I would still caution anyone going into architecture to do so with open eyes; it really isn’t all about drawing pretty and innovative designs. What you need more than anything else are people skills. What you are dealing with more than anything else in this job is in fact people. Sometimes you feel more like a marriage councellor than an architect. You would be surprised by the amount of couples who are about to embark on a massive house build or renovation, who have never ever talked about what they like before. “What, you like pine floors in the kitchen? I hate pine wood!” But generally speaking you are improving people’s lives, and there are few things more rewarding than that.

Q: In terms of market trends, what are you seeing at the moment? What is changing? Does everyone want to have mega eco friendly houses these days?

A: I wish that was the case but sadly no. It is still very much a “nice to have” rather than a necessity for people. The biggest driver for change is in fact building regulations. Since the Grenfell tragedy people are desperately trying to find a secure solution to make sure it never happens again, and that is clearly very hard. Eco friendly houses are much more of a thing outside of the city. People who are living “off the grid”, either by choice or by necessity, are much more interested in sustainable living. But things are happening within the regulatory world in terms of sustainability too. Gas boilers will no longer be allowed in new builds from 2022. Instead they need to be powered by renewable energy. So things are happening in that area, just not very quickly.

Q: And for the laymen like myself who primarily see fantastic architecture and design on TV through the likes of Kevin McCloud and George Clarke, what have they done to the architecture profession or the ideas of it?

A: They are clearly very bright and clever people, and they should be praised for their passion for sustainable living and so on, but I do sense the viewer misses so many parts of the equation with these programmes. A project, no matter how small, always has a team behind it and I don’t feel like they ever give enough credit to the entire team. But maybe that doesn’t make for interesting viewing, who knows. Generally speaking though, TV personalities like George and Kevin are great for broadening people’s horizons in terms of design.

Q: Ok, so let’s get to the nitty gritty; what are some of the weirdest requests you have had from clients?

A: Well we did have this one client who worked in the “female medical field”, shall we say. He wanted the entrance to his house to be shaped round and painted red, as a nice reminder of his chosen profession.

Or  The Man with a Plan: He wanted us to build a house for his wife, two children, a nanny and two dogs. When we asked to meet these people the answer was: Oh no, I haven’t got any of them yet, but I will.

You do genuinely meet all sorts of people, but that is absolutely the beauty of it.