Holly Porter is founding director of Surface to Air Architects, having studied architecture at Cambridge University (BA Hons, MA) and the Royal College of Art (MA). In 2005 Holly set up Chicks with Bricks, a proactive network connecting young women in the construction industry to their female peers and role models. Holly realised there was a severe lack of female role models in the industry and was determined to create a network where she, and other like-minded women, could meet those who were making pathways in construction.
“…I chose the name ‘Chicks with Bricks’ because it exemplifies what I want the events to be – lively, fun and slightly tongue in cheek, but with a clear mandate for intelligent discussion. We are not the ‘barbie dolls’ of the construction set, and we are by no means ‘men bashers’…”
Holly, please could you tell us about your career to date and what got made you want to become an architect?
As somebody that likes variety and challenges in everyday life, I was drawn to architecture as a diverse career day to day; from designing theoretically; to building practical 1:1 models; to leading teams on construction sites and presenting to, engaging and listening with clients.
I’ve always wanted my own business and started my practice, Surface to Air at 24. Surface to Air focuses on the residential and education sectors, product architecture and excellent client engagement. We’re currently delivering projects from 1 million to 44 million, and I’m very excited about the future of the business.
What are the statistics like for women entering architecture and construction and also for retention in their later careers?
It’s a brilliant time for women in the architecture and construction profession. There are fantastic opportunities out there. However, 12% of the construction industry is female. Of this, only 4% are trained professionals. The rest are in admin and support roles.
Interestingly, the stats for women entering architecture are high – almost 50/50 in architecture school. The issue is retention in the industry. Low salaries, the 24/7 nature of the profession combined with project based work makes it difficult to combine with a good work / life balance, and can be hard to afford.
Please can you tell us about the inspiration for setting up Chicks with Bricks and how you went about gathering support from across the sector and beyond?
When I was 24 years old and starting my own business I couldn’t see any role models for who I wanted to be in ten years’ time. I wasn’t sure if they existed, but I found loads of amazing women without a big profile in the press, and I thought other women could benefit from this forum.
We work closely with other diversity groups in the industry, such as the CIC [the Construction Industry Council], NAWIC [the National Association of Women in Construction] and RIBA [The Royal Institute of British Architects]. Chicks is proactive network; promoting success and achievement, not negativity. Events feature rapid, quick fire, high quality speakers with a chic, lively atmosphere.
I chose the name ‘Chicks with Bricks’ because it exemplifies what I want the events to be – lively, fun and slightly tongue in cheek, but with a clear mandate for intelligent discussion. We are not the ‘barbie dolls’ of the construction set, and we are by no means ‘men bashers’.
What has the response been like?
Fantastic – the first event attracted 200 people to the Royal College of Art Senior Common Room, and we continued to draw similar numbers to our tri-yearly events with access to over 2000 women in our network.
What are the challenges that still remain and what action is needed to tackle these?
Women in the industry need to stand up to the challenge; be prepared to be role models and actively engage with young women interested in entering the industry. They need to take every possible opportunity for marketing, interviews and PR to promote what they are doing.
Women in the industry need to have a voice. Not necessarily by promoting a feminist agenda, but by building a higher public profile on a visible platform so that young women have access to women at the top on the industry.
This is the message supported by our speaker at the next event, Marta De Sousa with her #BuiltByHer campaign. It’s about a rebranding of the industry, going into schools and showing 16-18 young women the varied and exciting opportunities available to them within construction.
What is your advice for girls and women who want to get into the sector?
Don’t be afraid to be yourself. You can be a feminine woman and also an intelligent architect. They are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to act like a man to succeed in construction.
What is next for you and Chicks with Bricks?
Were very excited about the future of Chicks and will be launching our first international event at MIPIM 2016, tying in to the international construction market and engaging top level decision makers across the UK.