Architect in Profile - Marion Room

In this interview, FC&A speaks with Marion Room, Director of DMWR Architects. Marion’s career spans from studying at the University of Newcastle and the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, to working at renowned firms like BDP and Sheppard Robson. Now in Manchester, Marion shares her passion for creating high-quality spaces that blend art, sustainability and functionality.


Marion Room

is a Director of DMWR Architects

Please tell us a bit about your career background.

I studied as an undergraduate at the University of Newcastle, which included an exchange programme to the Bergische Universitat Wuppertal in Germany, and then as a postgraduate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, where I also studied for the RIBA Part III exam.

I spent the first half of my career in a practice in London before returning with a young family to Manchester to continue my career with the benefit of wider family support nearby. I worked at BDP, Sheppard Robson and tp bennett before joining DMWR as a Director last year.

Have you always wanted to pursue a career in design?

I was good at art from an early age, gaining a top GCSE pass at the age of 12. There were no architects in the family, but the idea of linking art to a career in architecture stemmed from around this point, and subject choices at school were chosen to support this decision. At this stage, I had formed my own vision of what it would be like to be an architect. To some extent, the reality of being in practice is different. However, the early motivation to create high-quality spaces for people to enjoy is still a fundamental part of my ambitions.

What has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

As I gained exposure to notable architectural movements during the course of my education, I was drawn to the principles of Scandinavian design with its mix of minimalism, functionalism and connection to the natural world. These factors are of increasing relevance today as we focus on approaching the built environment with particular emphasis on sustainability and wellbeing. From public placemaking to private retreats, we need architectural solutions that promote healthy lifestyles for ourselves and conserve the earth’s resources.

What has been your most notable project to date?

There are many I could refer to, but a poignant moment came soon after making the significant mid-career move from London to Manchester. I was given the opportunity to work on HOME, the £20m theatre and arts complex at First Street, backed by Manchester City Council. This new facility replaced the iconic Cornerhouse venue, which I had spent time in during my upbringing. The responsibility I felt in being part of the team delivering the right vehicle for this well-loved arts group in my own city was immense!

Aside from the cultural significance, this project is also the most fascinating I have worked on from a technical point of view. Located adjacent to a railway viaduct, the brief for the theatre required complete acoustic isolation from surrounding internal and external spaces. A box-in-box construction was devised, with a concrete outer skin completely separated from the inner steel frame, which supports the staging, cantilevered seating and counterweight pulley systems for the scenery.

The acute geometric challenges of constrained site access and a very tight building footprint, and the requirement to achieve a 500-capacity theatre with optimum sightlines to all seats, made for a fascinating project experience that has equipped me with the valuable knowledge of being able to ‘read’ the design of other theatre buildings when I visit them.

How do you approach your projects?

The vision for any project is the key driver. Grasping this vision and keeping a clear view of this throughout the process is key to measuring the success of the outcome. This requires some resilience. Conveying the client’s brief successfully in a visual format to achieve buy-in is the primary challenge for the architect, but this enables the creative engagement that brings the project to life.

Maintaining fidelity to the vision throughout the process is a significant challenge when negotiating hurdles such as budget, programme and supply chain. But this enables a secondary form of creative engagement, which is equally stimulating, to find ways around the hurdles to encompass all of the constraints of the process without compromising the original aspirations of the brief. As architects, we need to stay strong!

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

At a very high level, this would be the unification of approaches to ensure the common goal of reducing the impact of human life on the planet.

This approach needs to be achieved at a global level and then applied at a local level, respecting cultural significance, through responsible methods of construction and appropriate use of materials and processes.

We are facing considerable challenges in terms of financial resources needed for positive outcomes and the restricted timescales required to land the message in the right way to impact change.

What is your favourite building and why?

One building that had an early impact on my appreciation of architecture is the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (pre-modifications in the late 1990s) built between 1968 and 1973 by architects Bickerdike, Allen, Rich and Partners.

I undertook music lessons here as a child, and the uncompromising Modernist concrete form, with box-in-box performance spaces linked by generous circulation areas bathed in natural daylight, resonated with me long before I had the vocabulary to articulate my reactions to an architectural form such as this.

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

We face many challenges in relation to environmental issues, but there are ways to achieve positive outcomes from what we initially perceive as hurdles.

Balancing our responsibilities towards the environment with our duties towards clients means responding to climate change through new and innovative ways, e.g. developing new methods of recycling materials or considering the adaptive reuse of existing buildings. As architects, we are able to identify unseen solutions, such as creating new typologies to enhance placemaking and social value.

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

Undoubtedly, this must be the costs associated with studying and qualifying versus remuneration prospects in practice. There are proposed changes to the current education route under consideration. Hopefully, the outcome of these will give more weight to apprenticeship routes with a diverse offer enabling students to gain exposure to specialist areas, such as MMC, ESG and AI, to equip the next generation with the skills the profession needs in order to face the future.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Decide on your strategy for gaining experience. Would it benefit you more at this stage to take full responsibility for a smaller building on a shorter programme or join a larger team to contribute to, and benefit from, exposure to some of the complexities of a larger commercial project? There is no right or wrong answer to this, but it’s good to be clear about identifying the right vehicle to support your growth.

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

We are building the practice here in Manchester and have some good opportunities to make an impact on the local market. We will be completing the construction of a 23-storey, 548-bed PBSA scheme in Leeds and progressing a number of similar projects. Watch this space!

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