Architect in Profile

Xuhong Zheng has worked at Hawkins\Brown for the past six years and completed her Part III qualification at the practice while working on a diverse range of projects across the residential, education and workplace sectors. Here, FC&A talks to Xuhong about her time before Hawkins\Brown and finds out more about her passion for architecture.


Xuhong Zheng

is an Architect at Hawkins\Brown

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

Prior to working at Hawkins\Brown, I worked and interned at several other architectural practices, including ADEPT Architect in Copenhagen, Kohn Pedersen Fox and Pollard Thomas Edwards in London. I completed my Part I at the University of Edinburgh and Part II at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL.

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in design?

I wanted to be an art teacher as a kid, but I later decided to explore a career beyond the classroom. Architecture seemed like a good balance between creative and practical thinking, but to be honest, I entered it not really understanding what it was about. It has led to a challenging but really rewarding career which has broadened my perspectives and interests. I’m still passionate about education – promoting creativity, hands-on design and making. I lead Hawkins\Brown’s involvement in the RIBA National Schools Programme and also run architectural design workshops for children and young people as part of ‘muprojects’.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

The work of Olafur Eliasson’s studio has been a continuous source of inspiration for me, particularly the experiential quality of his work as well as explorations in colour and light. I like that his work spans across art, installation, architecture and research.

What has been your most notable project to date?

I’m currently working on the Brunel Engine Shed in High Wycombe, which involves the sensitive refurbishment of a Grade II Listed building and a new contemporary extension. The disused, deteriorated existing building is the first thing you see when you come out of the train station, so I’m excited to see the transformation of the site when construction begins later this year. Another project I’m proud of is a research project I completed last year that investigated the relationship between light and wellbeing, exploring creative design approaches that could have a positive influence on occupant wellbeing. The integration of research with design practice is crucial, and I’m still learning how to engage in both.

How do you approach your projects?

It’s important for me to do a lot of research at the beginning of a project to understand the historical, social and local context, and interrogate the different aspects of the brief. I enjoy engaging with the client and end-users by carrying out briefing workshops, listening and understanding their needs but also working together to share ideas and consider different ways to solve the problem. I recently took part in a pro-bono project for an outdoor education charity where we stayed at the centre for several days, took part in their activities to really understand how they work and we ran different types of briefing and co-design workshops with the staff there – it would be great to be able to do this type of user engagement more.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

Balancing budget expectations and sustainability targets can be a challenge. There is more work we need to do, measuring and reducing whole-life carbon rather than just operational carbon – I’m keen to learn more about this, using Hawkins\Brown’s emission reduction tool ‘H\B:ERT’ on recent projects.

What is your favourite building and why?

The Barbican Centre and Estate in the City of London – for its bold vision of inner-city living, its beautiful Brutalist use of concrete, its maze of elevated walkways and sunken gardens and water pools. The whole place is both exciting and calming, depending on which part you explore. I never get bored of it.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architects today?

Of course, the COVID-19 crisis has presented many challenges – we’ve quickly adapted to working remotely but, going forward, architects will need to consider how the design of workplaces, schools and public spaces may need to change. It’s also important to make sure we continue to focus on reducing carbon impact, designing for mental as well as physical health and wellbeing.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for architecture students at the moment?

Working in the studio and having the company of other students kept me sane during university, so I can imagine how difficult it must be for architecture students right now who are working at home and may be feeling disconnected.

What advice would you give to newly qualified architects?

Keep asking questions even if you’re worried about sounding stupid – learning continues throughout your career. Pursue your interests and express what you’re passionate about, it may not seem relevant to what you’re currently working on, but if you’re determined, you’ll be able to build it into your work.

What can we expect to see from Hawkins\Brown over the next year?

We have a number of projects that won planning permission this year, so we will be progressing work with these. You’ll also be hearing about our continuing work on Whole Life Carbon and developments to the H\B:ERT tool.

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