Architect in Profile - Gareth Woodfin

Since graduating from the Welsh School of Architecture in 2002, which included a year out in practice working for Travis McEwen Group (now Architectus) in Sydney, Australia, Gareth Woodfin started his UK professional career at Capita.

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Gareth Woodfin

is Studio Director at HLM Architects

At Capita he worked primarily on healthcare projects for two years prior to travelling to New Zealand, where he spent another 18 months working in a small firm designing private residential properties. Upon returning to the UK, Gareth completed his RIBA Part 3 qualification in 2006 and rejoined Capita to work on education projects for a year. He then joined HLM Architects’ Cardiff studio in 2007, where he has worked in numerous sectors but predominately in the education sector. Gareth was made an Associate in 2012 and promoted to Studio Director in 2017.

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

From the age of 10, I wanted to be an architect and, as such, selected my GCSEs and A-Levels to maximise the opportunities and potential of university courses. It is a bit of a cliche, but I loved playing with LEGO as a child and had a passion for woodwork, often designing and creating furniture/objects. I remember my father saying one day: “You should be an architect.” When he explained it was someone who created and designed buildings, I remember replying…”that is what I want to do”.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

It is difficult to decide on one as there have been so many architects and sources of inspiration that have influenced me throughout my university studies and 15-year career. Architects such as Renzo Piano, Santiago Calatrava and Rem Koolhaus spring to mind for their elegant forms, sketching style and consideration for the environment in which their designs are located. Herzog & de Meuron has also become a firm favourite.

What has been your most notable project to date?

There have been numerous projects that I have had the pleasure to be involved in. However, if I had to name one, it would have to be the Penarth Learning Community in Wales. It is a fully-inclusive £48m education facility, featuring a secondary school for 1270 pupils. This includes a sixth form, an all-through 3 to 19 SEN school for 250 pupils and a separate respite and residential facility to support the SEN school. The project has been extremely successful and I’m very proud to have been part of the delivery team. More recently, I was involved with the Techniquest extension in Cardiff Bay, which was another phenomenal project I am very proud of.

How do you approach your projects?

I am passionate about thoughtful design – creating buildings, spaces and experiences that are sustainable and improve the wellbeing of the users and people visiting them. To ensure this, I believe extensive consultation, communication and a full understanding of the site and the wider environment are critical to any successful project delivery.

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

Corporate responsibility – it is about improving the way that businesses respond to the needs of stakeholders and ensure the sustainability of their activities. This means that it is relevant to companies of all sizes within the industry supply chain, including clients, designers, contractors and the suppliers of materials.

Thoughtful planning and design can have a major impact on reducing energy use and pollution over a building’s entire lifetime. The number of more sustainable solutions is growing rapidly and many of these can provide substantial financial savings, as well as environmental benefits. This is particularly the case when they are considered at the earliest possible stage of a project and where long-term benefits are fully considered.

Project budgets need to address the ongoing initiatives; too often, we find sustainable initiatives are ruled out due to budget constraints.

What is your favourite building and why?

Again, it’s difficult to pick out just one, however, some of my favourite buildings are the Tate Modern (initial refurbishment and complementary recent extension); The Eden Project (building in the landscape) and pretty much anything designed by Renzo Piano and Peter Zumthor. And if I can mention a local HLM project, it would be Ysgol Pen Rhos Primary School, which was the winner of the RICS 2020 Social Impact Award and Project of the Year.

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

Rather than stating the obvious Brexit and ongoing COVID-19 issues, I would say navigating the transition into today’s digital age. With technological advances coming in at high speeds, architectural firms have to do their best to stay on top of everything or risk losing their hold in the market. However, new hardware and design tools require extensive training and periods of transitions and adjustment before they can be used effectively, both in the office and the construction sites. At HLM, we recognised this and it was part of the reason last year that we launched our ‘Thoughtful Design Toolkit’ – an innovative suite of tools that uses technology and data to help designers to better deliver the needs of building users, improving the outcomes for clients and the people that use the places and spaces they create.

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

As a result of the pandemic, I think students will generally find it difficult to find year-out placements and jobs following graduation, as well as the loss of education last year. I would also say not having been able to travel, which is a large part of architectural courses and experience, especially year-out in practice. The economy and industry are definitely picking back up, but I’m sure a lot of nearly qualified architects are still seeking employment following inevitable redundancies within the profession last year.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

I would recommend they gain as much experience and knowledge of all RIBA Stages in multiple sectors and not to be afraid of moving between different sized practices in their early career to gauge where their passions lie. Soak up as much advice you can from your colleagues/peers, and do not be afraid to voice your thoughts and ideas.

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

After 15 years in Cardiff, we are currently refurbishing and extending our studio to accommodate the return of our staff from remote working. We are delivering projects in all seven sectors that we provide as a company – including asset and workplace; defence; education; healthcare; hospitality; leisure and culture; justice and emergency services; and living and communities – with four projects currently on site and due for handover this year. These include Pencoedtre High School, Staybridge Suites Hotel and two Ministry of Defence projects.

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