Architect in Profile - Jon Ackroyd

Jon Ackroyd is this month’s exclusive Q&A profile. Jon is an Architect, retrofit champion, Carpenter and Founder of Ackroyd Lowrie, an award-winning, east London-based practice. Here, Jon discusses his inspiration, how he learnt to harness the power of dyslexic thinking to forge a successful career, his advice for aspiring architects and how Ackroyd Lowrie is supporting future generations.


Jon Ackroyd

is the Director and Co-Founder of Ackroyd Lowrie

Tell us about your career journey. How did you get started in the field of architecture?

As a child, school was difficult. I couldn’t articulate my thoughts in writing and would muddle up my words, but it wasn’t until I was nine that I was diagnosed as dyslexic. I found solace in drawing, so art GCSE was an obvious choice. Here, I learned about Richard Rodgers, a well-known visionary Architect who was also dyslexic. This inspired me so much that, when I turned 17, I walked into an open day at Rodgers’ firm, asked for an internship and got it. And so began my career in architecture.

At the Richard Rodgers Partnership (as it was known then), a colleague encouraged me to apply for my bachelor’s degree at Cardiff University, and this was the start of my formal qualification. These early interactions not only shaped my interest in sustainable design, but also showed me how thinking differently was an asset.

Were there any pivotal moments or experiences that solidified your decision to pursue a career in architecture and design?

A pivotal experience that shaped the direction of my career was my time at Architype. Architype is one of the UK’s leading sustainability practices, and the more projects I worked on with this emphasis, the quicker I realised this is what I wanted to specialise in.

While at Architype, I set up the research and innovation group with a colleague, Gareth Selby, to develop radical ideas around sustainability in buildings. Innovation was part of Architype’s ethos, and they later brought in Research Specialist Lisa Ann Pasquale to further develop knowledge. Together, we undertook Government-funded, post-occupancy research on the performance of schools in use, as part of the Technology Strategy Board.

This research really grounded architecture in reality for me. It taught me the importance of analysing data and real opinions to properly understand how buildings do and don’t work.

If you hadn’t followed your passion for being an architect, what other career path would you have pursued?

When I returned to London, I moved into a warehouse community in Vittoria Wharf on Fish Island, Hackney Wick. Here, makers and creators were working side by side, and this unity inspired me. As well as designing buildings, my research at Architype had taught me the importance of understanding how they are built, so I undertook a City & Guilds qualification in carpentry. My love of making things meant carpentry or construction could’ve been an alternative career.

I believe it’s really important for aspiring architects to understand the practical aspects of the profession, and gaining hands-on experience is the best way to achieve this. Ackroyd Lowrie has its own academy to bring students from different backgrounds into paid apprenticeships and onto BTEC qualifications, and part of this training includes hands-on learning, such as bricklaying and carpentry.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

Richard Rodgers was extremely influential on my career and my view of my dyslexia. From him, I learned that my dyslexia wasn’t the curse I thought it was. Rather, it’s the reason why I’m creative and can think around corners rather than in a straight line.

Nature is another huge source of inspiration. The simple elements of light, sun and water show how structures can work and how sustainable cycles are created.

Then there’s also Jane Jacobs, Author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a remarkable book about urban planning, neighbourhoods and why cities do or do not function.

What’s been the most memorable project you’ve worked on, and for what reason?

Alva Coachworks in north London. This was a really ambitious retrofit to transform a Victorian tram repair depot into pioneering film and photographic studios and an event space. We wanted to celebrate the building’s heritage and character while also achieving the client’s vision and reducing energy consumption. This involved overcoming many hurdles, including adjusting the building’s height, upgrading the 100-year-old sawtooth roof, designing custom roof trusses to support sliding acoustic partitions and installing a unique hydraulic ramp for access, to name a few.

It’s memorable because midway through the project, funding was put on hold, and it remained in danger of not being finished. Due to the imagination of the project team and the sheer resilience of the client, it succeeded and proved a real lesson in overcoming adversity. The result has been described as a ‘wow-factor’ space, and Alva Coachworks was highly commended by AJ Retrofit and an AJ Specification exemplar project for technical merit.

On one of my early projects, we ran into difficulties with the contractors on site. The roofing had failed, water was pouring through the building, and the construction team wasn’t accepting accountability. This taught me two things. One, I needed to know more about how buildings are built, and two, how to manage very complicated and difficult issues with people.

To resolve the situation, I created my own methodology, SOCIAL, which teaches how to communicate efficiently by combining professional and personal journeys. To begin, we need to ‘slow down’ and prioritise self care, which allows us time to ‘organise’ thoughts and do any necessary research. We can then ‘communicate’ clearly and effectively, ‘implement’ and ‘action’ accordingly and, ultimately, ‘learn’ from the situation to avoid future occurrences. So much in our industry demands a fast pace and immediate response, but this isn’t always the right approach. I teach our staff and academy students this method to help achieve a positive work-life balance.

Could you walk us through a typical workday in your current role?

I get up at 6.30am, and my wife and I jump into a freezing-cold plunge pool! I liken this to drinking four cups of coffee; it’s a great way to get energised and grounded for the day ahead. We’ll then have breakfast with our kids, and I’ll head to work. Depending on what day of the week it is, the activities vary. Mondays are always organising, planning and internal meetings; mid weeks involve external client or consultant meetings and design reviews; and on Fridays, I have one-to-one meetings with the senior team before a lunchtime teambuilding social. Most days, I also swim in the London Fields Lido as this gives my brain a chance to reset and is often when I get my best ideas.

What is your favourite building and why?

I’d read about Luis Barragán’s Capuchin Convent Chapel in Mexico City, but it wasn’t until I visited that I realised what a master Barragán was of controlling space and light. Standing inside, seeing the light come though the window and feeling the sensation of the sun of my face was quite a magical moment. It felt like God was shining in the room. Photos of this building really don’t do it justice.

If you were hosting a dinner party to discuss architecture and design, and you could invite three individuals, either from the past or the present, who would you choose to join your conversation?

For a heavyweight ‘titans of architecture’ discussion, I’d invite Michelangelo, Walter Gropius and Zaha Hadid. I think it would be fascinating to see how a classical master, a modernist and founder of the Bauhaus movement, and a famously opinionated, avant-garde leader would debate!

For a more informal evening, it’d have to be Samuel Mockbee, Cedric Price and Jane Jacobs. These were all visionaries, and I’d love to talk to each of them about how we’re still adopting their ideas in our designs today.

Looking ahead, what exciting projects or initiatives can we anticipate from you in the coming year?

Project wise, I’m working on a major, mixed-use retrofit scheme in Camberwell that will repurpose a civic building into new homes, community and commercial space. The first of our co-living schemes completes imminently in Harrow and will be followed by the launch of our white paper discussing opportunities in this rapidly-growing market.

Most central London local authorities, as well as the City of London Corporation, have introduced a new policy to prioritise retro first, so we’re also working on schemes to reimagine old buildings and encourage alternative uses, such as hotels, retail and leisure. I’m also excited to progress our work at Dagenham Farm with Growing Communities. Here, we’re developing a series of outdoor classrooms to increase their outreach programme and better facilitate urban regenerative farming.

In terms of Ackroyd Lowrie, this year, our first graduates from the academy will begin either a full-time university Part 1 course or our own Part 1 apprenticeship programme (in collaboration with London Southbank University). We’ll also release series three of our successful podcast, Urban Forecast, and continue hosting our networking series, Breakfast Club Briefings, both of which connect politicians, planners, developers and property decision makers to discuss the future of cities and how urban spaces can work better for their inhabitants.

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