Architect in Profile - Jean Hanna

Jean Hanna, Design Director at WWA Studios, has over 30 years’ experience in delivering large-scale projects for new-build and remodelled extra care, retirement housing and general needs housing schemes at a range of urban and rural locations. Here, she answers a few questions about her career and looks back on the path that led her to the position she holds today.

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Jean Hanna

is the Design Director at WWA Studios

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

I have been qualified for nearly 30 years! I have been fortunate to have stable employment with a steady progression to becoming a director throughout my career. Since qualifying, I worked for nine years in a practice in Monmouth before moving to Shetland and having a partial career break for six years with some freelance work. Since then, I have worked for Archadia, which has now merged with our sister company to become WWA Studios (West Waddy Archadia). Early on, the work was mainly domestic with some heritage. Now my specialism is in extra care/supported living accommodation. I have also become an active member of WISH (Women in Social Housing) and HousingLIN, a sophisticated network bringing together housing, health and social care professionals in England, Wales and Scotland to exemplify innovative housing solutions for an ageing population.

Have you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

No. As a teenager, I wanted to do something intellectual with an element of hands-on work. I only looked at architecture because someone else was applying for university courses, and I thought, ‘that sounds interesting’. In the end, although I applied for a mix of courses, including environmental science, I chose architecture, and I have no regrets about my choice; I have loved it as a career.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

For me, inspiration has come from three people who have influenced me and supported my career. Patrick Hodgkinson, my tutor at the University of Bath, and Graham Frecknall and Patrick Manwell. The latter two, who have been my employers, were both very enlightened and encouraging. I would not be where I am today without their support and encouragement. I consider myself to have been very fortunate in working with them.

What has been your most notable project to date?

Patching Lodge in Brighton, a 76-unit extra care scheme on a tight site with interesting apartment plans and a waveform roof. If not that, then Maidment Court, a combination of replacing a care home with a traditional three-storey new build with care suites and a new assisted living block of six/eight storeys in Poole. The project I remember most fondly is the Youth Centre in Scalloway, Shetland. It’s nothing startling in the way of architecture, but it’s still there and in daily use 25-plus years later.

How do you approach your projects?

Carefully and with enjoyment. I look forward to new challenges where I can use my experience and design skills to create a design that meets the client’s requirements, is fit for purpose and, hopefully, beautiful. Every project is like a 3D puzzle. I usually start with the plan, but years of experience have given me an understanding of the effect any decision has on the building as a whole and the surroundings. Good knowledge of the basics is essential. However wonderful the building is, it is no good if the plumbing and circulation do not work. My approach is to work on the plan, then move to section and elevation, then come back to the plan – it is iterative and cyclical.

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

Convincing clients of the long-term advantages of going beyond minimum standards in both sustainability and accessibility – especially those who are not the end-user. With climate change and increasingly-stringent requirements, including sustainability measures and retaining them beyond the inevitable, value engineering is becoming easier. We also need to address the accessible housing crisis. Too often, accessible housing becomes a poor relation; a sustainable house allows for all occupants, whatever their requirements.

What is your favourite building and why?

I don’t really have one. I applaud any building that is fit for purpose with good detailing. I believe these are more important than ‘architecture’ for architecture’s sake. If pushed, I would say the Pantheon in Rome for the elegance of the dome. We sometimes forget our heritage and view older buildings through the lens of today’s modern construction methods. The ability of previous civilisations to build structures that still keep us in awe today is truly inspiring.

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

The growing complexity of rules and regulations and the increasing difficulties of completing projects within budget in a climate of reducing fees. As ever, getting people to appreciate what we do and being allowed to do our job and not just be drawing machines. The role of the architect is more than pretty pictures. Architects face many challenges daily, from helping clients understand the need for post-occupancy reviews to keeping up to date with modern construction methods and products. It is a wide-ranging and varied world!

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

There is so much more to learn than when I started. However, that can be overcome with a bit of effort. The main issue will be university fees and the debt they will be in, especially given the length of time it takes to qualify. On top of that, the difficulties of getting relevant experience in a hire-and-fire environment. At WWA Studios, we have an apprentice, and I can see the advantages of this route into the career. Hopefully, the ability to undertake training this way will help solve some of the above issues.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Enjoy the job. Clients are paying for your work, but fees have been approved, and you need to stick to what is agreed; don’t get carried away with options. Seek advice but don’t be afraid to make mistakes – as long as you learn from them. If you become stuck, try and think of a solution; it may not be the best answer, but it will give a mentor something to discuss. Understanding how something will not work helps you comprehend how to make it work.

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