Architect in Profile - Paul Foster

Paul Foster is this month’s exclusive Q&A profile. The Associate Director and Healthcare Lead at Sheffield-based practice Race Cottam Associates (RCA) discusses his current portfolio and shares more about his inspiration together with advice for aspiring architects.

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Paul Foster

is an Associate Director at Race Cottam Associates (RCA)

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

I studied architecture at the University of Nottingham and completed my Part 1, 2 and 3 in a local practice. In 2008, I joined RCA as a qualified architect and it’s here where my career’s really progressed, first becoming Project Director, then Associate before my current role as Associate Director and Healthcare Lead. RCA has a strong reputation for healthcare architecture, and this quickly became my specialism; designing these complex, essential facilities that will benefit millions of people is incredibly rewarding.

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

It was construction that I was initially drawn to; when I was very young, we had work done on our home and the builders completely inspired me! As I moved through school, this evolved more into design and architecture. For me, being an architect provides the best of both worlds. Being involved from start to finish, I work with stakeholders to devise a concept that responds to the brief and site, manage the technical delivery and oversee design on site as it emerges in built form. This complete cycle, and seeing a completed project being used as intended, is so fulfilling.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

I admire many architects, so it’s hard to choose one singular influence. For me, it’s not about the individual, but about the buildings, spaces and landscapes that are created. On a personal level, my former RCA colleague and mentor, Tim Robinson (who recently retired), had a considerable influence. Tim patiently tutored me when I joined the practice and I’m exceptionally proud to now follow in his footsteps as healthcare lead.

What has been your most notable project to date?

Again, it’s difficult to choose one as every project is notable and rewarding in its own way. From the early stage of my career, the new pathology facility at Sheffield Teaching Hospital stands out. This multi-phased and complex project sought to rationalise the existing laboratory directorate and involved consultation with over 20 stakeholder groups. The final design was not only highly sustainable but also flexible to allow for future growth and technological changes. A current notable project is an integrated health hub in Belper, Derbyshire. On behalf of Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust, this redevelopment scheme is particularly challenging due to its location within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, conservation area and Flood Zone 3, as well as being adjacent to a listed building!

How do you approach your projects?

Always with an open mind and no preconceptions. I seek to understand the aspiration, requirements and functionality first before preparing a response that addresses all these as well as any site-specific contexts. I also strive to quickly develop engagement and positive relationships with all stakeholders by encouraging strong communication, open dialogue and respect. It might sound obvious but when the project team works collaboratively towards a common goal, I find you get the most enjoyment and results. Lastly, establishing key milestones, timeframes and budgets is essential for managing expectations.

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

The initial capital cost coupled with the unfamiliarity of new technologies is the most common barrier. The industry is making great progress but there are still some developers, contractors, clients and even designers that are reluctant to embrace change. Achieving net-zero carbon is one of our industry’s key goals and we’re working hard to widen the conversation. In healthcare, this is particularly challenging as we have to balance existing estate constraints, backlog maintenance and specific servicing and Infection Prevention & Control (IPC) requirements, with the need to prioritise spending on clinical need.

What is your favourite building and why?

I’m sounding very indecisive here but I genuinely don’t have a favourite. I actually think this is one of the challenges for architecture; there’s always going to be the ‘Marmite factor’, i.e. what represents great design to one person could be utterly disliked by another. When I was at university, one particular building I admired was The Therme Vals hotel and spa in Switzerland by Peter Zumthor. It was the response to the context and quality of space, light and craftsmanship that appealed.

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

To me, the challenge is threefold. Firstly, there’s the conversation about net zero as mentioned earlier and how to make this more part of the mainstream conscience. Secondly, the upcoming Building Safety Bill and how this will affect future design and construction. Finally, the constricting of fees and programmes. A ‘race to the bottom’ culture is still too prevalent when negotiating design fees and really doesn’t benefit anyone. Similarly, design programmes are becoming too squeezed. There’s often not enough time to actually think and design.

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

The traditional route to qualify as an architect is long and expensive, so can be both off-putting and prohibitive. I’m encouraged to hear of more flexible ways of qualifying, be it part-time or apprenticeships, but there’s still a long way to go. I also think access to real-world, practical experience is essential and more businesses, not just architectural practices, should engage with students from a young age. I spent a year working for a multi-disciplinary engineering design consultancy before starting my degree and looking back, this was invaluable as I had a different perspective and wider knowledge from which to approach my studies.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Try to gain as much practical and site experience as possible. When I was newly qualified, I found it invaluable acting as project lead (with support where necessary) on a small- to medium-sized scheme because it gave me an excellent grounding and overall responsibility of design, coordination, project management and contract administration duties across all RIBA stages. Finally, embrace new technologies, keep learning, ask questions, but don’t discount traditional methods for communicating ideas – sketches and models can be really useful tools.

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

From a practice perspective, the aim is sustainable growth of our health sector portfolio. The last couple of years have really highlighted the vital importance of healthcare services, so we’ll continue working with our trust partners to transform, upgrade and design state-of-the-art, sustainable facilities that will serve new communities long into the future.

On a project level, I’m excited to see significant progress on two major schemes where we’re acting as architectural TA. A new pathology facility at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, which is part of the ambitious Building the Leeds Way programme, is about to start on site, and for the University Hospitals of Leicester, we’re just commencing RIBA Stage 2 on a large rebuilding programme to upgrade and reconfigure services across its three main sites over the next five years. Other ongoing schemes include the recently-approved health hub in Bakewell, Derbyshire, and a new main entrance and paediatrics reconfiguration at Hull Royal Infirmary, which will complete later this year.

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