Ask The Architect: Aqua Architecture

Alia Beyg of Aqua Architecture answers ADF’s questions on running a ‘niche’ practice, and what the future might hold for her firm

Why did you become an Architect?
From a young age I loved to draw, and I became fascinated by design, so a career in architecture allowed me to do what excites me. Furthermore, architecture that improves the environment for everyone – regardless of socio-economic status – really resonates with me.

What do you like most about the job?
Creative and ‘out of the box’ thinking is my favourite part of our design process.

The Aqua design team and I work meticulously on our layouts and designs to enhance what we create, working to improve both user experience and net value. We translate that into our practice’s mission, which is to maximise value with efficiency and smart design.

Our Herringswell Gym residential conversion, in Suffolk, is a good example of where we have added value and maximised the design efficiency through changes to the layout and planning of the approved scheme. This timber-cladded conversion of a gym building has been further enhanced by incorporating green strategies, such as a courtyard garden, green terraces, and bat homes.

What is the hardest part of your job running a ‘Niche’ Practice?
Creating exciting architecture has always been the company backdrop, however integrating creativity into basic low budget projects can often be a challenge. We overcome this through our design process, which starts with creative exploration of ideas to determine the best proposal within the project context. Despite limitations from commercial boundaries, we manage to make each project unique, with its own brief. As a result, our practice has been fortunate enough to take forward a wide range of project types within the residential and mixed-use sectors.

How would you describe your Modus Operandi as an MD?
I always like to encourage teamwork and innovative thinking. Creating design excellence is never an individual task, hence why I collaborate, advise and mentor the teams around me, in order to create collective solutions. Without input from my associates and colleagues, the proposals would not evolve to their full potential and utilise all the talent of the workforce. As a result of this, I believe good communication and coordination is a key focus in my daily work life, not only for our clients but also for the benefit of the end users.

What’s been your proudest achievement so far?
We have delivered several unique projects, each being exciting and interesting in its own way. I am proudest of the diversity of our projects, styles and concepts.

My personal favourite project currently is the Premier Gate development, located in Woking’s town centre. This scheme integrates green design strategies to create a large massing with a conscientious approach to climate change and quality spaces.

How has working remotely been so far for you, and navigating the pandemic?
These are challenging times, which has forced us to think and work differently as a team. The work environment changed drastically over the past few months, but we very quickly transferred the team to working remotely, sharing and communicating via technology, and minimising the impact of coronavirus. We actually found it to be a more efficient way to work, cutting out travel time and cost. Although it makes the process slower, I may consider these changes over a long term perspective to enable the team to be partially working from home, or having ‘home work’ days.

At the same time we are aware that the industry is slowing down drastically, with little certainty for the future, hence we would like to work efficiently to ensure that we make it through this time as a team.

Do you take a Proactive or Reactive approach to clients’ briefs?
Always both. The balance between high quality design, innovative and green design, as well as keeping within budget, is challenging. In addition to aiming to exceed clients’ expectations, we integrate proposals from other specialist consultants to provide good multidisciplinary coordination. As a result, delivery of our projects are carefully orchestrated to inspire as well as comply, within budget constraints.

Is your role as a Client Advisor as important as your role as a Designer of Structures?
One cannot be done without the other, as they are deeply connected. Our residential projects are mostly private residential blocks, or mixed-use schemes, hence we are designing for private developers as well as their local communities.

What is the most satisfying sector to work in currently?
All sectors have their own excitement. However, our current focus is sports and hospitality combined within housing schemes, for a more holistic approach to the work-life balance. Recently we are advising clients to consider a different approach to their development, to provide an asset for the community as a whole.

How do you go about integrating residents’ views in social housing designs?
Public consultations during the planning stage, as well as design reviews with local authorities enabling input from local communities, allow us to refine and redesign schemes to a higher quality.

Social housing has similar parameters to the larger housing schemes we deliver. For me this is all about practical applications of design efficiency, housing standards, lifetime homes, and sustainable living, to name a few. The design approach should reflect what’s best for the community, never be about just visual impact alone.

What is the next big challenge for you?
Our next big challenge will be to expand the business and go international, as well as continuing to be greener – these are two priorities for us. We are exploring potential projects with our international partners. We would also like to retain a green design focus, considering climate change and sustainable impact on all our schemes; the main challenge is to deliver these goals within commercial constraints.

Is there potential for architectural beauty in Micro-Housing?
Micro-housing units are essentially self-contained living spaces with efficient layouts, hence the beauty and flair is mostly in the functional detailing. Combined with good indoor and outdoor amenities, they present a co-living urban lifestyle. The architecture should ideally portray this idea, however, this is not the only solution, or an ideal solution to housing demand.

As a design studio we have studied many typologies and styles of residential developments. On each project, the team spends a lot of time exploring various ideas and options – on 2D and 3D platforms, as well as sketching and refining the scheme. This process leads to the architectural beauty and flair we aspire to, from micro units to mansions.

Do you anticipate more collaboration with other practices?
Certainly. From the start we have focused on creating multi-disciplined consortiums, including collaborating with specialist architects, to bid for large-scale projects. Building on my experience at large international practices and the RIBA, I would combine our practice expertise with other industry specialists to create expert design teams.

What are your hopes for this year and beyond for you and your practice?
Currently we are completing several projects that are going from detail design to construction, however we anticipate some delays considering the current circumstances.

We hope the future will be exciting for Aqua, as we continue to reach our business goals and objectives, and take on the global arena.

Alia Beyg is founding director and CEO of Aqua Architecture