Architect, Architecture, Biophilic, Design, Diversity, Interview, Sustainability | 21 July 2020
Sumita Singha talks about her life and work.
Our second interview with Sumita Singha delves deeper into what makes her tick.
Sumita Singha was raised in Delhi, India where she lived in one room with her family. As a girl Sumita dreamed of life as an artist, however her father wanted her to practice medicine so she could be of service to society. In typically creative style she found architecture as a way to combine her artistic flair with service. Her humble beginnings were instrumental in forming the inspirational person she is today, driving her ambition and steering her towards a career in sustainable architecture.
After completing the entrance exams for both medicine and architecture she graduated in architecture. She was awarded the UIA UNESCO International design award for her 87page handwritten thesis and design for a low energy housing scheme and earned a Cambridge University scholarship becoming the first woman to study the newly established course in environmental design there.
For the past thirty years’ Sumita has worked on sustainable design and campaigned for equality. Establishing her own practice, Ecologic and the charity Charushila whilst also working as a non-executive in the NHS and as a member of Public Health England’s Sustainable Development Unit.
Twenty years ago, Sumita set up the RIBA’s Equality Forum, Architects for Change, when as chair of Women in Architecture the organisation was facing closure. This motivated her to create a larger group that would form an umbrella forum for different marginalised groups including Women in Architecture, Society of Black Architects, Disabled Architects Group, Architecture students. After securing funding from the relevant bodies, the forum was launched in 2000. She has been involved with the RIBA for the last 30 years, sitting on various panels, committees and task forces.
We were so inspired by Sumita’s story that we wanted to find out more about what makes her tick / the woman behind the achievements. To set the scene before our deeper dive, we began by asking her about her practice, Ecologic.
You can read our previous interview with her here.
Please can you tell us about your practice Ecologic and what your dream project would be?
Ecologic is a collaborative practice that works on projects with strong environmental and social values, we also undertake practice-based research on sustainability. We are an equal opportunities employer.
“My dream project would be to work on a large scheme that can bring about a healthy environment through design. ”
We’d create the design by collaborating with community groups and local government. We’d encourage walking and cycling though design and the use of public transport. There would be green spaces for people to relax and play, alongside schools, libraries, community and healthcare buildings. Working locally in small units would be encouraged. The streets would be thriving places where people could gather together to shop, eat and work.
What's the most exciting project you've worked on?
It was the project that I did with my charity, Charushila, in Palestine. We created a big play area with a garden, using whatever we found. It was so exciting. We had to work very flexibly and creatively due to restrictions on our budget, materials, spaces and ways of working. But after I left, the project took on a life of this own and nearly a hundred other projects were then carried out by the members of the community.
What does sustainability mean to you?
“For me, sustainability is a big term that includes not just environmental sustainability but also pollution, diversity, spatial justice, supply chains, ethics, equity, healthcare and many other things that are normally not thought of as part of the responsibility of architects.”
What does quality in architecture mean to you?
“Quality in architecture is about whether it can demonstrate the values of beauty, gain and goodness.”
These three values were first introduced by Japanese philosopher, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in the 1930’s during a world-wide recession in relation to improving education, but I have adapted them to reflect the importance of quality in design. While beauty is an aesthetic quality (and could be subjective), the other two standards can be measurable. “Gain” is the individual benefit and “goodness” incorporates societal and environmental values.
What do believe to be the greatest challenges facing architects today?
The profession of architecture is being marginalised.
“Collaboration is the key to tackling the marginalisation of architects.”
We are stronger together, it would be great to see RICS, ICE, RIBA and IStructE work together. Then there are other organisations such as the Design Council who are good at getting others around the table to promote good design. Planning reform and procurement issues should also be done collaboratively. Otherwise, there will always be someone willing to do the work for cheaper, resulting in poor design quality.
We have to celebrate the value of good design.
What design challenges excite you most and why?
“The design challenges that excite me are the “wicked” problems of aligning budgets with environmental suitability, personal with societal benefits and getting client's participation in design projects as an equal partner.”
Tell us about your work as chair of Women in Architecture.
When I became the Chair of Women in Architecture, the first thing I did was change the name of the group from Women Architects Group, WAG to Women in Architecture, WiA. I transformed what was formerly a discussion group into a campaign group. We invited researchers from Scotland to talk about their research comparing different professions.
“It was clear that architecture was the worst profession for women.”
We invited different women architects to speak about their work and started working on the RIBA Employment Guide where Equal Opportunities did not feature. I did all this in a year while working to set up Architects for Change.
In your experience, what are the challenges faced by members of historically underrepresented groups in architecture?
We produced the research report about why women leave architecture in 2002, the same issues continue to plague the profession — lack of progression, systemic discrimination, absence of childcare provision, etc. Black and Minority Ethnic people also continue to face indirect discrimination, which is even worse if you are a woman. Architecture also does not make it easy for people with various disabilities to practice.
“Practices should commit to an equal opportunity policy and reduce gender and ethnicity pay gaps through career progression.”
Different ways of working such as home working which have worked so successfully in the pandemic will also enable people with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities to contribute effectively while maintaining a good work / life balance.
Can you share a career highlight outside of architecture?
I’m happy that I’ve been able to continue in my artistic career too, and I take on commissioned projects. A 14 feet high ceramic mural designed by me, located in my old school was inaugurated by Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II when she visited India. It was nice to meet her and the mural which was inspired by the school’s motto, “Light to Lighten” is still there. My paintings and photographs have won many prizes and have been exhibited widely.
Tell us about an interest outside of architecture and how it influences your design work.
I love gardening. I’ve used that knowledge in my projects for Charushila. Biophilic design where plants become a part of the interior and exterior spaces also influences my projects with Ecologic.
What are you passionate about?
I love anything to do with nature and people.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
“To be authentic and honest.”
Which living person do you most admire, and why?
I admire David Attenborough for his lifetime of work in making us aware that we share this planet with other creatures.
Which book changed your life?
“Money or your life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. It taught me that doing good and being happy is better than just making money.
What makes a home?
“People make a home, it doesn't matter how big or small it is or what style it has.”
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
A very hot bath.
What makes you laugh?
Children usually make me laugh with their candid observations about life.
How do you relax and recharge?
Sleep first. Then painting, gardening and reading.