One of our Senior Architectural Technicians, Stewart McGill, has had a fascinating architectural career thus far, joining CMS with 30 years of experience in the industry.

With many of those years spent working for large international companies, we caught up with Stewart to get his perspective on transitioning to working for an SME. Read on to gain an insight into Stewart’s experience.

Stewart McGill - Architectural Technician

What did your journey to becoming an architect look like?

I studied at Oxford Brookes University for 3 years and then joined Chris Wilkinson Architects (now WilkinsonAyre) for my year out. The studio was in Clerkenwell, London, amongst a lot of other fledgling practices. Then I went back to university and completed my post-graduate diploma over 2 years.

So the education process took 6 years in total… then you’re out in the big wide world! After those 6 years, you need to do at least another year to gain experience before you’re eligible to take the RIBA part III examination, which is why it’s said to take 7 years to qualify as an architect.

After qualifying, I went back to Chris Wilkinson Architects, who grew from a small 6-person practice to establishing an international reputation. One of the main projects I was involved with at the start of my career was the Jubilee Line extension, working on the maintenance depot in Stratford and the Stratford International Station at the end of the Jubilee Line.

Railway

Can you share some other project highlights?

Working on the Dyson factory was really cool, because it was at the very beginning of the Dyson journey. The company had big plans to expand, and so we were designing for both their needs at the time and anticipated requirements far into the future.

The Explore-At-Bristol science museum was a lot of fun because there were so many interesting, unique aspects to the project. We created two separate galleries – one was the ‘Challenge of Materials’ gallery in which we developed a glass bridge to span across the atrium, suspended on 2mm diameter wires.

Artist Ron Geesin, who used to do light shows for Pink Floyd, hooked up the suspension cables to sensors so that as people walked across the bridge, the tension in the cables was converted into a sound and light show, responding dynamically to users crossing the bridge. That was the really cool bit!

For the other gallery ‘Making the Modern World’, we helped curate the exhibition. This meant we could visit the science museum stores in Earls Court and the Wroughton Airfield near Swindon, looking at all the rare objects people don’t usually get to see. They were a real treasure trove of amazing items, from pieces of the original Forth Road bridge to a collection of what looked like every type of bicycle that ever existed!

We designed plinths to support the Apollo 10 model, Stevenson’s rocket, Crick & Watson’s DNA model and Nick Ut’s camera, among other items. I was very fortunate to attend the building’s official opening by the late Queen and meet her majesty.

Another unique project was Southmead Hospital, where we worked with MI5 to design a series of earthworks that would ensure security for the air ambulance landing area and the storage of nuclear medicine elements. I designed the hospital’s main entrance and roof structures and worked with an Austrian artist to suspend art installations from the atrium roof, which formed an abstract clock in neon rings and linear tubes. To access them, we had to use the tallest telescopic MEWP available… standing on a wobbly narrow tower 50m high in the air was nerve-wracking – definitely an experience I’ll remember!

Bath, Somerset

eihat was your next step after London?

After London, I worked in Bath for Feilden Clegg. They had a national reputation, so their work profile overlapped with the sort of projects I was used to doing. Fielden Clegg were one of the first companies who really put sustainability and green issues at the forefront of the ethos of architectural practices. Whilst there, my highlight was working on a project for a through-school (a combined nursery, infant and public school). The best thing about it was getting feedback from the pupils via the headteacher about how much they loved their new buildings! It was really rewarding.

What was your main takeaway on the topic of sustainability?

A lot of people think green architecture is just about bolting on photovoltaic panels or using timber, and that doesn’t necessarily give you a sustainable building. Rather, it’s looking more closely at energy consumption and even modern insulation. With this example, you might think modern insulation isn’t a green product since its petrochemical based, but the overall balance actually comes out in its favour. So it’s not always obvious what makes a building sustainable.

What’s it been like to transition from a large international company to an SME?

One of the limitations in larger practices is that you tend to get pigeon-holed. You become specialised in one area and end up repeating the same thing over and over again. I wanted to experience more variety, which is something a smaller practice could offer.

In large companies, you also lose that interpersonal interaction, whereas coming back to a smaller scale office reminds me of the environment I worked in when I was first starting out. You have the ability to communicate and have a relationship with everyone at all levels across the company, which is really valuable.

There’s also the multi-disciplinary element of working at CMS.  I find this really interesting as it enables more immediate collaboration than you would have with external consultants, allowing for a very diverse portfolio of work.

Another key reason why I wanted to transition from a large company to a smaller one was family related. Bringing up a family is challenging in London, and being at CMS has given me a better work life balance.

That said, my earlier work at large practices gave me a great range of experience including large infrastructure projects Wessex water, care homes for the Anchor Group, and the GWR mainline from Paddington to Bristol, all valuable experience that I’ve been able to bring to CMS.

Architectural drawing

Why did you choose a career in architecture?

Back in my school days, I went to an RWA summer art exhibition in Clifton, and in one little room there were architectural drawings and models and they captured my interest. It was the combination of both art and science that I saw in them that appealed to me. I had an interest in lots of subjects and wasn’t sure which way to jump when it came to specialising, and architecture allowed me to embrace both art and science.

While I was at Chris Wilkinson Architects, they wrote a book called ‘Bridging Art and Science’, and it presents a philosophy that really appeals to me. Architecture isn’t just a case of producing an enclosure that meets an area required; it’s about bringing contemporary culture to building design and enabling it through understanding technology and how this is best applied.

What are your favourite types of project to work on?

Projects that benefit the most people, like school projects. To me, one of the gifts we have is being able to create a positive environment for people and help enhance their learning capability by giving them right kind of space. A good design with decent light levels and acoustics can allow them to focus on their education and enjoy the experience. The quality of our environment can hugely affect our mood and wellbeing, so design can go along way to improving quality of life in these ways.

What key skills would you say are needed to be an architectural technician?

An inquiring mind and critical thinking skills! You need the ability to sift out the essence of a brief, distil the requirements and understand what’s important. I’ve found that often a client’s perception of what they want isn’t what they actually need, so an architect can take them on a journey from their original idea to a more fulfilling solution. Architectural training teaches you to do this and meet a client’s real needs, delivering them the best end result possible.

Stewart McGill - Architectural Technician

How would you describe your work to someone interested in a career in architecture?

Architecture is hard work, but it’s very rewarding. There’s a lot of problem solving involved, but when you reach a resolution to all those problems, the sense of satisfaction and achievement is brilliant. It’s also varied in that you can be office based one day and knee-deep in the mud the next!

What interests you about the future of the construction industry?

I think a combination of progress in technology and material development will lead us to technical solutions that can contribute towards responding to climate change. Buildings are a huge part of that, both new and existing, and I think if we can come up with ways to improve existing buildings, we can go a long way towards redressing the balance.

If you would like architectural support on a project, please get in touch to explore how we might be able to work with you. We would be delighted to hear from you.