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RIBA Role model: Caroline Buckingham

Caroline Buckingham

Caroline is a Shareholder Director at HLM Architects. In 2004 she was instrumental in the successful management buyout of the practice, subsequently growing HLM’s wide ranging business portfolio leading to a yearly turnover of £13 million with over 230 staff. In 2013 Caroline was appointed Chair of the Board of Directors at Llewelyn Davies, part of the HLM Group.

I enjoyed my childhood. My school fostered creativity, application and participation. Learning within that framework was easy. I was a busy, active child - climbing trees, go-karting, fishing, exploring – celebrating life with my friends. If there was anything going on I’d probably be the ringleader, getting people organised and up for things. It’s not dissimilar to what I do now in practice – I move things forward by joining the dots. Sometimes that’s a bit frustrating because you’re not seen as the innovator with the brilliant idea. But I am good at testing those ideas, identifying the strongest ones and then working out what it will take to bring them to life.

I get stimulated by variety and having a breadth of experiences. I love trying new things and believe that you can do pretty much anything it you put your mind to it.

I liked the challenges I faced at school and university. The design and technology A-Level was new at the time and it was not seen as ‘a girls’ thing’. I tackled the subject with relish! I am still someone who is stimulated by variety and I love trying out new things. I believe that you can do pretty much anything if you put your mind to it - and even if it doesn’t work out, the most important thing is to have tried. It’s that attitude that led me to travel on my own round the world for a year once I had finished my studies.

In Australia I worked for an architect in Brisbane and became very aware that everything is not as it is in your own little country. The sun was in the north and we had to design buildings that would withstand a cyclone. I learnt a lot from my year travelling round the world. It was an eye-opener being exposed to different cultures and it made me much more aware of difference.

I came back from Australia, got married and started a family – so I understand first hand some of the dilemmas women face in the workplace. I remember when my son had just been born, colleagues came round with a roll of drawings for me to get on with whilst he was asleep! In those days we didn’t have decent maternity leave and I think I just got on with it. The school years can be particularly hard because you’re juggling so much and the guilt can kick in. But I just learnt to set up my life to make it work. Sometimes I couldn’t do everything the children wanted in the week and we had to compromise but I set a clear boundary around weekends and focused on the family. Everyone has a different equation for making it work and that was mine.

I just learnt to set up my life to make it work. Sometimes I couldn’t do everything the children wanted in the week and we had to compromise but I set a clear boundary around weekends and focused on the family.

There’s no doubt about it - our profession is very male. When I started out almost all the people in higher positions were men and that’s still the case; I remain one of the few female architect directors in a large practice. Men of that generation can be less aware of workplace issues – for example around parenting - because they haven’t experienced them personally. It’s not that they are deliberately trying to be obstructive but they just don’t see it. There are topics I raise at a board level that I don’t think would get talked about otherwise. And that’s part of my responsibility as a senior woman in practice. Over time I’ve realised that people are watching, waiting for you to do things and wanting you to act – so you are inevitably a role model. If you’d asked me 10 years ago I wouldn’t have quite understood the affect we have on others.

The RIBA is our institution and I have quite a traditional belief that if you are part of a profession, you should stand by it and act as an advocate for it. The RIBA is not inclusive enough at the moment but we’re desperately trying to change and evolve. Some of the structures and meetings can be pretty daunting to work through and even the building at its Portland Place headquarters can seem austere and unwelcoming. I think the key is to take an outreach attitude, so that we connect more with the profession, talk about live issues and update them on the real progress being made.

Find out more about all of the RIBA Role Models.

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