Architect in Profile - Niralee Casson

Niralee Casson came to architecture slightly later than most, having already achieved a degree in law before deciding to make the switch. With her student loan already used up, she undertook all of her architectural education on a part-time basis whilst working full-time at Assael Architecture; in 2018, she was finishing her Part 2, starting her Part 3 and working all simultaneously. Here, we talk to Niralee about her switch from law to architecture.


Niralee Casson

is a Senior Architect at Assael Architecture

Please tell us a bit about your educational background in architecture.

I was incredibly fortunate that John Assael trusted and believed in my 21-year-old self as he offered to sponsor me through my architectural qualifications. Although this route involved working all of my evenings and weekends through my twenties, I gained invaluable practical experience that I was able to apply to my university projects. It also meant that upon qualifying as an architect in 2019, I already had seven years of project experience under my belt.

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture/design?

We moved houses a lot before I turned 10; four times with mum and six times with dad, and I loved it! Being involved in the choosing process, perusing plans and visiting other people’s homes was fascinating for me. And that is how I fell in love with architecture. After both parents settled in their respective homes, and my mind was turned to education, I became interested in logic and justice, studying courses that covered topics such as FGM, genocide and human rights.

The struggle to choose between law and architecture became difficult, and I chose subjects at college that would not prejudice one or the other. But, when I was coming to choose my university subject, sub-prime mortgages were failing, and the global economy was in the early stages of decline. The construction industry took a hit, and whilst law firms were not above the crisis, they were faring better than architectural practices, which is why I decided to study law first.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

In terms of inspiring me to make the switch from law to architecture – my dad. He has spent his whole career working in a job he doesn’t like, and that (weirdly) inspired me not to do the same. He is so talented and creative, but that has been wasted on a job that doesn’t bring him joy.

What has been your most notable project to date?

We recently received unanimous planning permission for three Build to Rent (BtR) buildings above the new Nine Elms Tube Station. Having worked on multiple BtR projects throughout my career, this design stands out due to the technical complexities of building over a station that is already under construction. In addition to dealing with vibration isolation, updated fire regulations, counter-terrorism measures and designing to already built foundations (the station structure itself), we were also constrained by TfL’s asset protection requirements. Despite being the most constrained project I have worked on, it galvanised the whole design team to work together to generate solutions, with the end result being a high-quality design we are all proud of.

On a different scale, my favourite project is a much smaller, simpler scheme in Brixton. It was the first project that I ran, which really improved both my design skills and my project management abilities. It was completed in 2017, and whilst visiting the area last week, I’m still incredibly happy to see my design realised in physical bricks and mortar.

How do you approach your projects?

I like to take a problem-solving approach as there’s no one-size-fits-all solution – it very much depends on the project or what stage it’s at. It’s important to understand all of the constraints from the beginning rather than later down the line. So, my first response is to assess everything, understand the risks or positives of a site, and then consider the best outcomes for the final design.

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

Clients. I read client statements all the time about how important sustainability is to them, but when money is on the table, they don’t want to spend it on sustainable technologies or solutions. We need sustainability to become part of the client brief so that it becomes a core focus from the start of a project and (hopefully), ultimately, harder to ‘value engineer’ out.

What is your favourite building and why?

It’s hard for an architect to have a favourite building; it’s like asking a chef to have a favourite dish! But, if I had to choose, my favourite place in London would be the Southbank. I particularly love the way the National Theatre has been designed to contrast against the historical buildings it surrounds and the opening up onto the Thames – walking from Waterloo to Blackfriars is such a pleasure. I also really admire Free Trade Wharf on the Thames, as each home benefits from multiple aspects and terraces, creating high-quality living for its residents and providing a real sense of community. Focusing on how a home will be lived in is how I aspire to design buildings.

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

I think it’s putting the community first. People become architects because they want to do something better for their local and wider community, create better streets and better places with better social care. But architects and clients rarely consider post-occupancy evaluations. This can teach us a lot for future buildings and placemaking.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Try to be proactive – think further than just what you’ve been tasked with doing, considering how your piece fits into the bigger puzzle. Undeniably, working from home has been quite difficult for younger team members who have not been able to benefit from overhearing conversations between colleagues, so I aim to encourage asking questions about strategic decisions so that our architectural assistants can gain an understanding of how the whole project cycle works.

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

In addition to all of the incredible projects we’re working on, I personally want to finish building my garden fence, attend an in-person design meeting or site visit, and enjoy a few real-life Friday afternoon work drinks!

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