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Women in Spatial Design: My Journey through Construction

Annette Gathingo, BA (Hons) Architecture Graduate & Real Estate Consultant.

I am Annette Gathingo, an Architecture Graduate currently working at Hollis Global, a leading international Real Estate Consultancy in London. I have been in the Construction Industry for four years having first worked in Nairobi, Kenya, which is where most of my work experience has been based so far. I'm currently a freelance Spatial Designer both in Interior Design & Architecture.

Interestingly, I aspired to become a Dentist for the majority of my childhood. By the time I was winding up my high school education, I was certain that a career in medicine would not suit me. I had no Idea where to go from there until my summer art teacher suggested that I study Fine Art in university, because she noticed my talent in her classes. From there, I specialised in Interior Design in my second year of university and subsequently found myself pursuing an additional undergraduate course in Architecture.

I was also heavily inspired by my travel escapades and growing up, I was a fanatic of design and home makeover shows. I never thought of it as a career path but it was meant to be.

Architecture & Interior Design - How did I get here?

I studied my high school education in Kenya, where I took Maths, English and Geography as relevant career subjects. The rest were sciences or languages - in total, I studied eight subjects, which is standard in Kenya. I went on to do a BA in Fine Art, majoring in Interior Design at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya.

I could have opted to take a Masters in the same subject, but instead I studied a BA (Hons) Architecture degree at Ravensbourne University in London, UK, before undertaking the postgraduate course in Liverpool, UK. Through my Interior Design course, I worked part-time for two companies in Nairobi and freelanced on and off.

Annette Gathingo, 'Refurbishment Concept' - Production studio turned Events Gallery space for local artists in Shoreditch.

Often times, you do not realise how much of an influence you have as a player in the Construction industry, until you revisit the spaces after the dust has settled. You can see people actually living their lives and carrying on with their day in this space that was previously just an accurate translation of your drawings. It still takes me aback when I have those moments.

"Designing spaces - whether for living, working or entertainment - is crucial to the thriving of any society or culture. Turning people’s visions into reality and being an important part of their growth - whether it is designing their new home, a refurbished office space for a start-up etc. - is very rewarding."

Annette Gathingo, 'Refurbishment Concept' - Fashion studio within a Flagship Retail Store for Stella McCarney.

Typical Days at Work

As a real estate consultant based in London, my day typically involves either assisting with ESG and technical due diligence reports, site progress inspections for new builds and refurbishments as well as partaking in building surveying exercise for clients who want to sell or buy property including warehouses, office blocks and retail space. I also remotely consult for small businesses and entrepreneurs based in Nairobi; pertaining to spatial design, site feasibility and project sustainability.

The pandemic has demonstrated that maintaining a client base in different regions is doable and that is my constant aim. I value my role in Hollis for our ability to work in the same manner with staff based across the UK and Europe. We are heavily intertwined and are often working remotely with other offices on the same projects. No day is the same and I am always up for a challenge.

Our work allows me to engage with Civil and Mechanical Engineers, Quantity Surveyors and Land Surveyors as well as Legal Teams, Security and Commercial Cleaning personnel.

Annette Gathingo, 'New Building Concept' - Heritage and Cultural Centre in Babylon, Iraq. Project inspired by the vernacular courtyard.

It is always a battle getting everyone on the same page and, unsurprisingly, most conflicts are based on the budget and timelines, but we all have to remember the client comes first.

My CAD (Computer Aided Design) skills have improved and continue to do so. Learning design software is an exercise that never ends. This is especially true in this era of beautifully curved parametric designs and BIM (Building Information Modelling) collaboration, where people work together on the same project while in different locations. I have also captured how to break down industry terminologies to clients to paint a clear picture of my thoughts and vision, without being too technical. My presentation skills are also an added plus, more so nowadays, as it’s much less intimidating than it was during my first internship.

Image: Annette Gathingo, 'New build concept' – Council Housing Scheme, Fish Island.

"I personally love technical drawing. I can sit for hours just correcting and criticising my own work. At the end of the day, those documents have to be approved for the project to break ground, and it is this tension that is often exciting and interesting to work through. The relief when a design is approved always brings a little celebration."

What are some challenges you personally face at work?

The biggest challenge I have faced as a Freelance Spatial Designer is ageism. Getting a big budget project in your early twenties is not a walk in the park and it won’t happen to everybody. In fact, you will be privileged if it does. I have learnt to set realistic expectations on my growth in the industry. As a young lady in this field, it takes great effort for people to take you seriously. Moreover, by virtue of most clients being male, it also makes it more difficult to a aggressively pursue certain projects without igniting opinions of ulterior motives. It is a harsh reality that is unspoken but prevalent in this and many male dominated industries.

On the other hand, a hurdle I have faced has been carrying out building inspections because I have a terrible fear of heights. It took some practice to meander through wet slabs and steel reinforcement, but I am much better at it than I was a couple of years back.

Annette Gathingo, Project Work - Concept Development through sketching and model making.

Woman in Construction - How do people react?

They are surprised. I don’t blame them as I am short and petite - 5ft 1” - and look nothing like the “traditional” Architect. However, the reaction quickly changes to one of curiosity about my career and the choices that led me here.

Existing as a female in the construction industry is not for the faint hearted. Your presence in meetings, client presentations and site visits can occasionally raise an eyebrow. I have been in sessions where a contractor will not maintain eye contact, presumably because my decisions are not seen as vital. I try not to dwell on such occurrences.

I think women have started to realise how powerful we are. Many industries have seen a growth, albeit very gradual, in the number of women taking up space in the office. What we need now is to encourage ourselves to go for the boardroom seats. Many women in the industry are still underpaid by a huge margin. Our contribution is still not weighted in the same way. So our challenge is now more so to constantly provoke companies in ensuring that women are not staying at junior level, but actually climbing the ladder.

What advice would you give a young woman thinking about a career in your role?

I would say go for it! Do not be governed by fear; be willing to learn from others and from your mistakes. Don’t dwell too much on seeking perfection. Design is subjective, so be willing to welcome the opinions of others about your style of working, but don’t sweat the small stuff! As a woman in a male dominated industry, you have to be assertive. It is rough out here, so be prepared to work twice as hard.

LinkedIn: Annette Gathingo

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