Ask the Architect: Damien Lee of WGP Architects

Damien Lee of WGP Architects answers ADF’s questions about what drives him, and how he has tackled the challenges posed by the pandemic

What made you want to become an architect?
I grew up with architecture in the blood. I was fortunate to travel for holidays in Europe as a child with parents (one of whom was an architect) who opened my eyes to my surroundings, and started the process of teaching me to look. My mother jokes that if my father had lived until I was older, he might have put me off architecture because he knew first-hand what a tough profession it was – blissful ignorance is often the best way to start!

What are the best and worst things about practicing in London?
The worst things about working in London (and the UK) – the restrictive, almost stifling controls over development – are what drives one of the best things: the ingenuity and creativity of the responses.

How have you adjusted to new ways of working during the pandemic?
Responding to this question at what appears to be approaching the height of Covid’s second surge, and being one half of a working couple, holding together home school and professional roles, I am finding it a long haul. There is no doubt that the new skills we have learnt in the last year are helping us be more effective this time round, and it will be interesting to see how the changes influence work habits in the post-pandemic future. However, for me, nothing compares to the buzz of working together in a creative environment – I cannot wait to get back into the studio!

What is your favourite sector to design for currently?
I believe the skills of good architects are transferable between sectors, and transcend the trend toward professional specialisation. Involvement in a range of sectors keeps things fresh and stimulating. This approach accepts a reliance on the specialist knowledge of the consultant team to deliver excellent buildings, but buildings are so complicated that this is inevitable even for those that limit themselves to a specialisation. My time at Eric Parry Architects has given me a broad spectrum of experience, including residential developments, schools, and commercial developments. At WGP I am enjoying a change of diet, including a push to advance the quality of design in the care home sector – a typology that I feel has not received the attention it deserves.

What made you want to join WGP?
I had known (directors) Phil Waind and Sonya Gohil for a long time, and had admired what they, and partner James Potter, had achieved – building up the firm from nothing over the last 15 years. They have plans to expand to the next level, and saw me as having the experience of a larger practice, and design pedigree, to help them achieve that goal. After more than 14 years at Eric Parry I was ready to spread my wings. It’s not the sort of offer that comes up often, so I took the leap.

Do you enjoy getting involved with subcontractors on schemes to get the details right?
I find working with and learning from the craftspeople and technicians who are at the coalface hugely rewarding. One of the great thrills of being an architect is seeing, from the centre, this great web of interconnected organisations and people, all striving towards a common goal. It also focuses the mind when working up a detail late into the night that if you get it wrong, you can cause a lot of people a lot of difficulty! The best contractors are the ones who see that value in bringing the architects and the craftspeople together and actively facilitate that process.

Are you a ‘BIM junkie’ or is it an obstacle course?
Having been closely involved in the transition to BIM in my previous firm, I am well placed to support WGP Architects on their journey. It is a challenging process, but an inevitable shift, which will undoubtedly pay dividends in quality and efficiency if we are able to manage the misconceptions that remain prevalent in the industry. The key is to understand BIM as an information management tool that reinforces the core architectural skills which remain unchanged. At its best, it brings the design team closer together in the collective endeavour of designing and delivering buildings.

What’s the best project you’ve been involved in?
The opening concert for the Brighton College Music School, designed by Eric Parry Architects, was a hugely cathartic and emotional handover for a project that I had poured my heart into for the better part of four years. It taught me hard lessons from both the best and worst the construction industry has to offer. The end result is a jewel of a building that I am proud to have been involved in designing.

Do you think that restoring and reusing older buildings should be considered as ‘architecture’ as much as creating shiny new landmarks is?
There’s no question about this. Not least because in the ‘old’ countries of Europe, new buildings account for only a fraction of the built environment. So if we are going to address the societal issues of housing,  deteriorating school and hospital infrastructure and so on, whilst minimising our impact on the environment, we must work with what we already have. The ingenuity and creativity of the architects working in the UK, as created by the restrictive boundaries within which we operate, mean that we have developed the skills to lead the way in adaptive reuse.

Is architecture sometimes about being a good diplomat rather than a great designer?
It requires both these things, along with many other complementary skills. The best are polymaths, who recognise architecture is a collective enterprise. It requires the complementary skills and knowledge of others to help architects to achieve their vision. Of course, all the effort is not worth much if the work doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny. It is way too hard a business to waste the effort on delivering mediocrity.

What’s your big goal for 2021?
We’ve had such a bleak year, but I am confident that the glimmer of light on the horizon will materialise as one of the brightest springs in living memory. The pandemic has slightly delayed WGP’s plans for expansion, but we are aiming to come out the other side running.

Damien Lee is a director at WGP Architects