Architect in Profile - Nathan Craig

Nathan Craig, an Associate at Marchini Curran Associates, shares his unique path from engineering to architecture. Discover his inspirations, challenges and insights on sustainable design, construction complexities and adapting to a rapidly-changing industry.


Please tell us a bit about your career background.

Before architecture, my career began as an engineer. Upon leaving school, I was unsure of what career was best suited for me, and I was not eager to continue academic study. I preferred the idea of getting into work as soon as possible. I attended a local college where I gained myself a BTEC qualification in practical engineering skills, which then led me to be employed in an apprenticeship scheme at Rolls-Royce.

I continued my apprenticeship at another engineering firm, Slack & Parr. Based in Kegworth, South Derbyshire, they provide precision engineering equipment and solutions for the man-made fibres industry, as well as aerospace and automotive industries. My role was working as a CNC machinist on the shop floor, and then subsequently found myself in their design office as an engineering draughtsperson. Initially, I trained in pen-and-ink engineering drawing techniques on large, manual drawing boards before progressing to the CAD software packages.

Have you always wanted to pursue a career in architecture?

Architecture was not something that had crossed my mind in the early days of my career. It was only after I had developed a sense of satisfaction from working in the design office at Slack & Parr. I would see my drawings being manufactured on the shop floor and become something physical and tangible.

I decided to take on the challenge and make the switch to architecture after a few years of working in the engineering industry to continue the pursuit of that same feeling of designing and then seeing that design being made. The biggest hurdle I found in switching careers was the entry requirements set out by the RIBA-accredited universities. At the time, there was a heavy emphasis on A-Level qualifications and very little opportunity for any other qualification or experience. However, I was very fortunate to have been accepted for a place at the University of Nottingham.

What has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

I tend to find inspiration from various sources. It can often come from looking at many technical details on very small-scale projects, such as bespoke, one-off residential buildings in remote, hard-to-reach locations such as cabins, sheds etc. These sources are interesting because you can often see some very clever designs due to the project’s constraining factors, such as budget, site and a client’s openness to something unique and personal.

Other sources of inspiration can often come from more unusual sources, such as automotive or aerospace design. In these scenarios, the engineering for such extreme situations usually results in a form that is something very interesting or unusual.

Nathan Craig

is an Associate at Marchini Curran Associates

What has been your most notable project to date?

During my time at MCa, I have been closely involved in one of their largest projects in the practice, which is still ongoing and has recently started on site. It is a significant redevelopment project based in the heart of Oxford city centre.

Looking back through my career, one of my most notable projects was a small commercial laboratory for Nottingham Trent University and Boots. I really enjoyed this project due to its technical requirements to perform as a series of small commercial laboratories and cleanrooms. It was also small in scale, so I had the opportunity to draw many of the technical details. I have often found that projects with more constraints are the easiest to design.

How do you approach your projects?

I always approach my projects first off in thinking of how they can be constructed and assembled. When you can think of how something is assembled, then you gain a much better appreciation of how you illustrate the necessary information and presentation of your drawings. Onsite experience has taught me a few things that have always stayed at the forefront when starting out.

Secondly, once you understand a client’s brief, visualising how each space interacts and flows from one to the other in three dimensions is also a good start. Sometimes you can get wrapped up in looking at the 2D plans only and easily forget you are designing in three dimensions.

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

I believe the biggest challenge is convincing your client of the benefits and, therefore, the likely uplift in cost associated. Currently, Building Regulations stipulate a minimum level of sustainable performance, so anything over and above is going to carry a cost – typically as additional time, fee and physical building elements and services. You can sometimes have a client who is on board from the outset, which makes the job easier, but sometimes it is not always the case. In situations where the client is not interested, you as a designer must be really switched on to the sustainable solutions out there that you can work into your design without adding cost or time.

Another big challenge I foresee in the industry is the more common approach for the re-use and re-adoption of existing buildings. There is always a risk of some unknown with existing buildings, and, therefore, how you can convince clients to retain elements rather than opting for demolition. And looking even further ahead, existing buildings planned for demolition could become sources of building material for re-use, such as brick. This is extremely good from a sustainable perspective; however, it becomes trickier when considering the quality of a material, the performance, the quantity, and to have it then warrantied and approved from a building safety perspective.

What is your favourite building and why?

This question reminds me of when someone asks you what your favourite band is. I do not think there is ever a single stand-out answer for me. It is always shifting and evolving, but being a former engineer; I do find myself admiring projects with an engineering and technical quality to them. Some examples are the International Space Station and Concorde. I like how the resulting form is very much driven purely by the engineering design being pushed to the limit and, in the end, what is produced is something very aesthetically pleasing to look at. This admiration for engineering is very akin to the high-tech style of architecture.

However, the most notable building that had the biggest impact on me was the Jewish Museum in Berlin by Daniel Libeskind. I remember visiting this building quite vividly; it was a very jarring and memorable experience.

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

Adapting to a very rapidly-changing industry. Regulations are constantly changing, so it is essential for all architects to remain up to date with any new developments. Similarly, technology is changing quickly, and it is about understanding the developments so we can make the most of the technology. There is a lot of talk of AI now in the creative industries, which some believe will remove much of the creative process and, therefore, put their job at risk. For architects, I do not believe this to be the case, AI will have its moment to help generate new ideas that inspire us, but it will not make the profession obsolete. As an architect, there will still be the human element/requirement of the process of checking and approving work before it is issued out to clients and the construction. The human element of mediating between various individuals is critical. The profession is very adaptable and must remain so.

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

The profession itself has such a broad spectrum of tasks, challenges and statutory requirements to understand, as well as the roles of other professionals within the industry that are often integral to the delivery of a construction project. From my experience, there were so many facets of the role that were not taught early on within the academic course.

As new technologies and software are making our jobs easier and quicker to draw what would have been complex projects in days gone by, we can find ourselves relying too heavily on those new technologies. Too much dependency on digital methods can run the risk that we end up ignoring or forgetting – and in some ways limit ourselves – what we design is physical, requiring some thought to how it is constructed, performed and functions.

More recently, I think some of the biggest challenges for students now is gaining the full experience in a work environment in a post-pandemic world. Many practices are now operating a hybrid method of working, i.e. half their time in the office and half at home. I learnt most of what I know through general conversations within the office environment. It is surprising how much you absorb from those situations.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

Get as much involvement with live projects under construction. When you are there on site and see things in the flesh, it is much easier to appreciate the complexities of construction. Having that site experience can really help you when it comes to designing the next project. For me, the first and biggest lesson I ever learnt was to make sure you think about brick dimensions when drawing up plans!

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

The project I am currently working on has recently started on site after many years of design, thorough planning and some delays. Demolition is underway, with construction not far off, which is always reassuring to see those years of work coming to fruition.

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