Nikola Yanev

"I recommend going to a session at the Careers Service once you have had a go at doing a CV"


CompanyPurcellLocationCambridgeSizeMediumCourse BA ArchitecturePositionPart 1 Architectural Assistant

About Purcell

Purcell are among the UK’s leading heritage and conservation specialists, and the projects undertaken involve working with existing buildings, most of which are of high historic significance. The practice was founded in 1947 and has since grown to have a network of 14 small and medium-sized offices throughout the UK as well as another 4 in Asia Pacific. Purcell are currently no.9 in the AJ100 and employ over 300 staff, and is therefore among the largest practices in the UK. The Cambridge office, where I work consists of about 25 people, creating a welcoming medium-sized atmosphere.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Site visits. It’s always great when you go to see the building that you have been doing drawings of in real life and experience it. I find site visits very beneficial as they often involve additional measurements or surveys of the building, and so build our understanding of what the existing condition is. Going on sites with colleagues is a great learning experience, as there I have the opportunity to ask questions on the go about how the building is made and how our interventions would actually fit in the existing confines.

What are the best things about working in this type of practice?

Due to Purcell’s structure you don’t necessarily get the feeling that you work in an Extra Large practice of over 300 people. The Cambridge office where I work is the second biggest and the size of it means that it is a very welcoming environment for a Part I. My time in Purcell has been the best of both worlds. I have been exposed the structure and methodology used in a large practice, but also I have benefited from being in a small studio where you know everyone and you know who to speak with regarding a variety of technical or design problems that need to be resolved. The size of the studio generates a close-knit team of people.

Before joining Purcell I was intrigued by how cities work and people’s daily interaction with the urban fabric. I wanted to gain skills that allow me to professionally evaluate the characteristics of our surrounding cityscape, teaching me what qualities to keep and what to enhance. At Purcell my knowledge of the existing urban fabric has been increasing on a daily basis. Due to the fact that our work is mainly conservation and refurbishment of existing buildings of historic significance I have learnt how to unpick a variety of layers in their fabric, and also how to introduce new design solutions within existing constraints in a way that the proposed design is sympathetic and respectful of its historic context. The belief exercised by the projects I am involved in is that ‘protection’ should replace ‘restoration’ – a response to John Ruskin’s cry against the false restoration of buildings to an arbitrary point in the past. Therefore, conservation is seen as prolonging the life of existing buildings by developing a sensitivity of design decisions so that our proposals are as least destructive and as honest as possible.

Furthermore, one of the experiences I have enjoyed the most is the numerous possibilities I have had to go on site. The great thing about our projects is that when you go on site you have an actual building to start with, which is quite exciting to experience and understand its relationship with its surroundings, so that you can develop accurate design decisions. Moreover, as we develop a project we find ourselves going back to site a number of time in order to make sure we have gathered all information we need and surveyed any additional details.

What type and stage of projects have you been working on and what are your main roles and responsibilities?

I have predominantly been involved in projects that are in Stages 3 & 4 of the RIBA Plan of Work. What I have enjoyed in my experience so far is that from the beginning of my placement I have been mainly involved with one main project – the refurbishment of St John’s College New Court E Stair in Cambridge, which I have seen through Stages 3 & 4, and which will eventually start on site in summer 2017. The project team is one partner, one senior architect and me and therefore I have had a depth of experience because I know each design problem we have worked on and what we have proposed as a solution. Meanwhile, I have also been helping with a variety of other projects in the office as well. I have had good Stage 4 experience, where a tender package is produced for costing, because I had the opportunity to work on three projects of different scale and see how a large, a medium and a small project are run during the same RIBA Stage. Now I have better understanding of what information is necessary to produce a tender package for either a small or large scheme. Moreover, I have also had some Stage 5 experience on a project we currently have in construction. It is a church in Cambridge, which we are refurbishing and also adding a new-built extension to it. I have been helping the project architect resolve contractor queries and produce construction drawings, and I have also had the opportunity to go on site what the real space we have been drawing up actually looks like.

What knowledge, skills or values developed at SSoA have you brought into practice?

It is difficult to point out a single skill. I think at SSoA we develop a whole-rounded attitude to approaching design problems, which is valuable in practice. Something that I haven’t necessarily noticed that I do but was mentioned by my colleagues is that whenever there is a design problem, I go away and do a little bit of research and try to develop a few options as a possible solution to it. This is an approach they have appreciated. Another valuable skill is that in order to visualise something I try to sketch it out, draw a quick 3D view or just work something out on trace before committing to CAD, which is always good starting point of discussion with colleagues and helps solve some design problems.

What knowledge, skills or values have you acquired or developed during your time in practice?

Working in a conservation practice has been an immensely enriching experience. I am learning a lot about the historical significance of buildings, key characteristics of certain time periods, and theoretical and philosophical ideas of conservation and how these are applied to current projects. My time in Purcell feels almost as a specialist course that is giving me all this additional knowledge of this field of architecture that I didn’t necessarily know existed while at university. Therefore, I feel I have learned a lot in terms about conservation and understanding the fabric of buildings, in addition to the architectural knowledge gained at university. Alongside conservation, I have also been learning about the project procurement processes in architectural practices, and I have gained further understanding in how a project is led through the different RIBA Stages of Work and what each one of them means.

Is practice what you expected? Describe any surprises or challenges that you’ve encountered.

Working in practice is definitely different from university. I feel I have been introduced in a very structured environment that ensures work efficiency. There are various people who have different strengths that can come into play at a different stage of a project. Moreover, the practice environment definitely helps build communication skills as all projects you would work on have a project team, therefore the design process involves a lot of negotiation and discussions between colleagues and consultants. Working in practice is definitely enjoyable, and it does feel a bit new in the beginning working 9-5 and having spare time in evenings and weekends, which is a nice convenience to have.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Site visits. It’s always great when you go to see the building that you have been doing drawings of in real life and experience it. I find site visits very beneficial as they often involve additional measurements or surveys of the building, and so build our understanding of what the existing condition is. Going on sites with colleagues is a great learning experience, as there I have the opportunity to ask questions on the go about how the building is made and how our interventions would actually fit in the existing confines.

Where do you see yourself in future?

Hopefully, after my year-in-practice I will be coming back to Sheffield to undertake my Part 2 studies. While doing my MArch degree I hope to go on Erasmus exchange at TU Delft in the Netherlands, where I hope to gain additional exposure to architectural trends in Europe that I can bring back to Sheffield. I hope to take this knowledge of conservation that I am gaining now forward during my Part 2 and test what I have learned in practice with my university projects. Upon completion of my degree I hope to be involved in projects that creatively reimagine our existing urban realm so that the underused and abandoned buildings around us could be modified to suit contemporary needs.

What top tips would you offer architecture students who are applying for Year in Practice placements?

Get a bit of well-deserved rest after submitting your Year 3 portfolios, and afterwards start applying immediately to practices. Naturally pick a few firms that you really love, and push yourself to design your CV, cover letter, and samples of work so that they present your drawings and architectural aspirations well. I recommend going to a session at the Careers Service once you have had a go at doing a CV and speaking with the person in charge of architecture CVs as he/she gives good advice.

Once you have a CV, cover letter, and samples of work ready – send to your favourite few practices … but don’t stop there! Send to as many as you can – there are many architecture students looking for placements at this time of the year and some people might find it harder than others to secure a position. So keep sending to places. Follow-up your application a week later with a phone call to check if the practice has received it. And hopefully, sooner rather than later there would be a few practices getting back to you for interviews.