Architect in Profile - Mark Ellson

After winning several student design awards and graduating with first-class honours from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Mark Ellson joined Holmes Miller as a Part 2 Assistant in 2005. Flash forward to 2022, and he sits at the helm of the practice as Holmes Miller’s Director. Here, FC&A learns how Mark went from a budding architectural assistant to the leader of an award-winning architecture practice.


Mark Ellson

is the Director at Holmes Miller

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

Initially, my Part 2 role at Holmes Miller focused on working in the conservation and modernisation of listed buildings within Glasgow city centre. As I progressed, I began specialising in public-sector projects, particularly the design and delivery of new primary and secondary schools.

As part of this, I was seconded to the Scottish Futures Trust to aid the Scottish Government in its plans for a Learning Estate Investment Programme. I was also part of the team that delivered a new international school in Shenzhen, China, for Merchiston Castle, a prestigious independent boarding school in Edinburgh.

I’m now leading Holmes Miller’s London and south-east England studio, helping develop a portfolio of schools, leisure centres, public buildings and residential developments across the UK.

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

Absolutely. From an early age, I always had my head craned towards the skyline – whether walking around Glasgow city centre (where I grew up) or on holiday in a far-flung corner of the world. The process of shaping the built environment within which we live, and crafting a building that will hopefully serve many generations to come, will always fuel my passion for architecture and design.

What has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

Understanding how people use and experience buildings brings significant inspiration. As architects, we are ultimately aiming to create spaces that bring excitement, safety and comfort and that are uplifting and encourage curiosity.

A recent trip to Paris allowed me to revisit the Pompidou Centre by the late Richard Rogers – a building where the experience of navigating between galleries is as equally as intriguing as the art on display. I also particularly admire Sackler Crossing at Kew Gardens, London; Museum Island in Berlin and Marseille Museum and Harbour – all of which are fantastic examples of contemporary architecture.

What has been your most notable project to date?

If I had to pick one, the Harris Academy in Dundee shines through as the most notable. Working with Dundee City Council, I led a team to design and deliver the 15,000m2 facility for a school community of 1200 pupils and staff. The project was an enormous undertaking and embraced best practice by providing a series of flexible and adaptable teaching spaces. It features enhanced leisure facilities, including a swimming pool and sports hall and an SEN/enhanced autism department, providing specialist support and guidance to pupils. It was a career-defining project for me and showed how forward-thinking design could benefit educators, students and the wider community. It was also my first job as an associate at Holmes Miller, which added a little extra pressure.

How do you approach your projects?

I have always designed my projects from the inside out – it is the intricacies and relationships between spaces and the experience of the user as they move through and inhabit the building that I believe creates meaningful architecture. This takes even greater priority now that we know the internal environments we create are proven to influence our wellbeing and comfort.

As a practice, we have also invested considerable time and resources in our approach toward sustainability. As part of this, we established ‘Sussed Sustainability’ in 2020 with two sustainability experts, which informs policy and helps us implement the latest in sustainable design, operational and embodied, to mass architecture. In a little over a year since it was launched, it has brought huge benefits and pushes us to recognise how the drive towards sustainability has changed every aspect of our work.

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

We must question the need for ‘new’, which is a difficult but important question for architects. Utilising the built environment already in existence to its optimum, whilst rejuvenating to perform better ecologically, needs to be the focus and the immediate challenge that designers confront. Being one of the few Passivhaus-focused practices in the UK, we also see a real dearth of talent and expertise in this area. If we are going to fulfil our net-zero ambitions as a country, this will need to change, and we’ll need a lot more focus on creating intelligent architecture by fusing design and technical prowess.

What is your favourite building and why?

From a practice perspective, I’d say a visit to Hellerup School in Copenhagen was a particular highlight and has been a source of inspiration for several projects within our practice – including the new £60m campus we’re designing for Craigie High School and Braeview Academy.

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

Whilst there will always be a place for ‘landmark’ buildings, at a community level, architects must design civic, cultural and education buildings with increased intelligence, re-establishing the profession at the centre of the design journey. It is crucial that every project decision is made with a holistic vision, ensuring aspects relating to climate, wellbeing and the resilience perform for years and decades to come – only the architect can balance these demands and needs to do so with grace, enthusiasm and passion.

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

Now is the time to diversify – the profession is evolving rapidly, and the notion of the traditional ‘project architect’ is changing. Our studio now employs wide-ranging skill sets, from building technicians and visualisation experts to digital construction teams and environmental physicists. The architect is now the conductor, drawing together specialists and fusing them to create a balanced final proposal.

Studios across the UK need these specialist teams to push the sustainability agenda forward, inform clients, drive digital estates and interconnected, responsive building solutions, and portray design ideas through immersive design technology.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Never stop drawing – your next project idea could easily stem from the sketch you produced and filed years ago. Adaption to new remote working techniques has fuelled rapid progression towards digital design and 3D collaboration; however, human interaction remains key, and the ability to evolve ideas through sketching is highly valued.

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

It’s been a great year so far – we’ve opened a new design studio in St Albans and brought on lots of new clients.

Looking ahead, we’re working on some fantastic projects across the UK, which we should be completing later this year. This includes handing over the circa 10,000m2, 10-storey London South Bank Technical College in Lambeth.

The £27m project is the first new technical college of its kind in the UK. It will play a key role in tackling the country’s skills gap in STEM-related fields – which is estimated to cost UK businesses billions of pounds each year in retraining, recruitment and temporary staffing fees. Phase one of the college is set to open this summer (2022), and as part of that, we are currently overseeing the technical design and delivery of the project.

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