Ask the Architect – gpad London

Claudia Iannantuoni from fast-growing commercial and residential practice gpad answers ADF’s questions on what makes her tick

Why did you become an architect?
I come from Brianza, northern Italy, an area with many interior design and furnishing workshops. My uncle and grandparents were designers, and taught old-style furniture design at an evening school. They used to bring me there as a kid and let me play with pencils, crayons and watercolours while showing me the basics of perspective drawings. Although I didn’t know at the time I wanted to be an architect, I had an early introduction to seeing perspective and working in this way was always in the back of my mind.

When I started my training in Milan, I quickly became very passionate about buildings, even more than interiors, and it is the exterior and detailing that I now love working with the most.

What do you most like about the job?
You’re always learning because it’s never the same. Each building is different and throws new challenges at you. The fact that it’s never easy is in some ways the best part. There is always something new to investigate, something to solve, and every time you finish a project you’re richer. It just keeps engaging you, and you can never predict how a day will go.

You also have to keep abreast of new developments, as technology and styles keep evolving. In the past we used to go through cycles of ‘looks’, but these days the industry around the world is much more experimental. There’s incredible versatility and scope in the industry.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Co-ordination can be hard, however it’s also just as intriguing as it is complicated. The challenge is combining the aesthetic you want to achieve with all the technical aspects of the structure. Especially when refurbishing or extending, you tend to uncover surprises that throw you curveballs; you then have to adjust your original thinking to suit what you find.

What is your proudest achievement and why?
Being selected among the finalists in the competition for the regeneration of Old Street Roundabout! A small team at gpad created a design in our own time. We sat down together after work, purely for the excitement of the challenge. Don’t get me wrong – we invested a lot of time in it, but given the calibre of participants involved we were very pleased to be among the four winners selected.

What’s your biggest challenge currently?
We recently had a large office project in Leeds where the detailing and design were trickier than expected. We were proposing to extend as well as refurbish, and the exposed aesthetic we wanted was harder to co-ordinate than usual.

Other than that, I’m still learning to combine motherhood with full time work. I’m lucky to be at gpad as it’s a really supportive and flexible environment for this.

What innovations have recently made the job easier?
It’s hard to imagine a breakthrough that would have as big an impact as BIM. It’s completely transformed working on large-scale projects, making co-ordination so much easier. Not all software is the same, but in general it eliminates manual error; especially working in 3D, you can slice the building and make sure all the junctions and every single corner is working, allowing for quicker turnaround of sections. It’s still relatively new and not everyone has a full grasp of it yet, but it will be implemented more and more.

What are your favourite materials?
I’m really into timber and concrete at the moment. They’re both beautiful raw materials that can add warmth to a project. I have a more long-standing love for brick facades though. A brick can be used in so many ways, to create texture and patterns across a surface. You can do anything with it and the results will always be different.

What can we learn from overseas architects?
Your background influences so much of what you do; not just where you started your professional career but also where you grew up. Everything you’ve seen and the environment you live in come through in your work.

You always learn from other architects. Some countries are pushing green building credentials more successfully than others, and countries generally have different responses to the same subjects or challenges, so it’s important to keep up to date and see what people around the world are proposing. Even universities across the world teach architecture with different emphases. I’m of course speaking from the point of view of an Italian in London, but it is very rare to find a practice here without people from another country.

What will the next “big thing” be in the industry?
Technology and automation will become more and more integrated into buildings. It’s already happening of course, and I see it picking up pace. This will create its own challenges, as I don’t think everyone is ready to fully embrace buildings with more and more automation yet. There aren’t a lot of people in the industry at the moment who have a full understanding of how to integrate all the different systems, like security, into a building, but we are definitely on our way there.

How can you see an architect’s role changing in the near future?
We’ll have to be more like magicians! In all seriousness, our job is increasingly to be the leader, to juggle, to combine and to oversee all the different elements and expertise coming together. It’s easy to say you want a certain look, but it’s a different thing altogether to ensure that result is achieved.

I think universities should focus on this more, preparing the next generation for the practical challenges. Some courses are more technological than others depending on what you want to do as a professional. You may want to work more on interiors or concept, but having an understanding of construction is invaluable with the transition to the work environment.

How big an emphasis do you put on using technology when designing buildings, or do you still use a pencil?
It all started with pencils and it still goes on with pencils. I of course now translate my sketches to CAD almost immediately because the detail is amazing, and otherwise you’d have to sit there for hours drawing. But for the initial thinking and coming up with a concept I still need a pencil in my hand.

Do you think that clients have an accurate idea of what you do?
Commercial clients more so than private ones. There’s a lot more to what we do than just what the client sees. Behind each plan is hours of thinking, drawing, phone calls and meetings. We have to think of the building as an entity, effectively a machine, every part working with the rest. Occasionally a client can’t see how changing one thing has bigger knock-on effects.

What are your goals for this year and beyond?
I hope to make the next step soon and take the lead on more projects in the not-too-distant future, but that all depends on how the firm reorganises around new projects. We’ll see, but hopefully soon!