Architects get busy building new careers


ARCHITECT FLORIAN Leavy makes hats and chairs, fellow practitioner Maeve Staunton is in Cambodia studying important works of modernist architecture and architect Derek Trenaman is building a straw-bale house in Sligo.

All three offer examples of how architects have had to rethink what they do after high levels of redundancy. It’s thought that up to 50 per cent of architects and architectural technicians in Ireland have lost their jobs in the past two years.

“It was scary heading into unemployment,” says Leavy, who used to work with Denis Byrne Architects. “It was very unsettling. I didn’t realise how much of your personality is bound up in work.”

Yet in the 10 months she was out of work, “I did all the things I said I’d do if I had time”. That was partly down to her mother, she says, who is always busy and would be on the phone asking what Florian had been up to. The answer was, a lot.

Her first port of call was FÁS, which had established a number of new courses for architects in response to the devastation in that sector. Through them Leavy did free courses in how to set up a business, CAD (computer aided design) and Photoshop. The latter two would have cost thousands of euro in the real world, she says.

And she did start her own business as a BER (building energy rating) assessor. She ran this from a studio she shared with a photographer.

“When you are unemployed the structure of the day is completely destroyed so I rented a desk. It was not expensive but it got me out of the house. I needed that structure and I find the social connection of work is critical.”

Leavy’s BER work built up to a level where it became her day job and she fitted the FÁS courses around that as well as a furniture making course in UCD as part of the Now What programme run by, and for, architects.

“I got involved in that doing unpaid projects. It was brilliant. There were loads of different types of projects with so many architects. It was nice to be back and get a buzz from working with other people.”

A group of them established a book club of artists, architects and engineers who met every Wednesday in the Library Bar. “I learned so much through that. We’d take different chapters from different books and look at things, such as how the theory of Gaia connects back to elements of sustainability, or how George Orwell’s theory of Big Brother makes us view the world in a certain way.”

After 10 months out of work Leavy applied to go on a graduate programme, funded by the RIAI and working with the OPW, and her courses helped her to get a job on the programme.

“All the experience I had gained helped. I could do CAD, which I hadn’t learned at architecture college, and I was right up-to-date with BER guidelines. Also, the things I did while I was unemployed didn’t let me lag. That’s a really hard thing, when you get out of the practice of just working.”

Derek Trenaman, who was let go from Murray O’Laoire Architects, is now using his hands more too, through buying and converting buildings and helping other people to project manage their building projects. “I am a trained carpenter and have a long history of building, because I learned from my father. I put new vigour into old buildings and sell them on,” says Trenaman who has built his own home in Dublin.

His next personal project is to transform a derelict cottage he bought in Sligo and create a zero-carbon home but he now also helps non-builders to update and add to their own homes.

“I train people to do their own self-building project,” says Trenaman who does this by getting the client to be the main contractor and helping them to choose sub-contractors and to organise them.

“A lot of people are in professions where they are project managers and understand the process of commissioning,” says Trenaman. “I take those skills and empower them to do it themselves. A lot of people want to do this but have a fear because they don’t have the knowledge. I give them the knowledge.”

It only works for those who are passionate about building and are prepared to put in the time, says Trenaman, who is working with a solicitor and traffic engineer at the moment, to help them revamp their Dublin home and add an extension. You have to be the type of person who will get up at 7am to insulate an attic, he says. He reckons those who take on such a project will (with his advice anyway) save around 40 per cent on a standard building cost.

Trenaman, whose company is called Ceardean, derived from the Irish word for artisan, has enjoyed the change from a desk architect to a self-employed architect, builder, project-manager and mentor. “I love physically building. It was always one frustration as a normal architect in a company; sitting at a desk when I love getting exercise.”

Until last September Maeve Staunton worked for de Blacam and Meagher and plans to go back there but felt that as the only person in the office without a mortgage and a baby – and having saved up some money – this would be a good time to go travelling the world to “make me a better architect. You can sit in an office all day long drawing and studying but you need to go and see these places.

“The recession was a catalyst to do things I wanted to do,” says Staunton, who went to Cuba and Vietnam and had plans to visit China, Mexico and India but while passing through Cambodia – to see the 12th century Angkor Wat ruins – she was stopped in her tracks by the national stadium in Phnom Penh.

“I was so surprised to see such a high-class European-style building in Cambodia. It was better than anything I’d seen before.”

Its architect, Vann Molyvann, who trained in Paris in the 1940s, became state architect and designed many buildings in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge regime took hold and he went to live in Switzerland.

In recent times his buildings have come under threat. His national theatre has already been pulled down and others are on prime land which developers want to build on. So American Bill Greaves has set up the Vann Molyvann Project to measure, draw, and photograph the buildings, as there is currently no record of them. And Staunton has joined him. “The more I draw the buildings, the more I realise what a genius he was,” she says. “They were built in the 1950s and 1960s, and all of them have green technology to keep the buildings cool. He also managed to tie in traditional Cambodian-style with modernism.”

The task of documenting buildings by Molyvann has also given Staunton a new perspective on her work: “It proved to me that I loved being an architect.”

As with Leavy and Trenaman, the experience that she has gleaned during the recession will add to Staunton’s knowledge of architecture.

And while she will return home with an insight into how such buildings were designed, she has also found the experience has “given me a lot of confidence in myself – finding out that I could just land in a city and go out on my own and make friends completely from scratch. It has been fantastic in that respect.”

E-mail Derek Trenaman at and, to find out about volunteering for the Cambodia project, e-mail