In Conversation With… Philip Ruffle

As part of our firm’s 40-year anniversary celebrations, we’ve been talking to some of the key figures involved in making Munday + Cramer tick. Phil Ruffle is head architect here at the practice, and heads up its architectural design team. He also happens to be one of its Directors, too. Earlier this week, we managed to nab him for half an hour, and talked to him about a wide variety of topics, ranging from his earliest influences, to where he sees the future of architecture headed. Here’s what he had to say…

“What first drew you to architecture?”

“I know that, by the time I’d chosen my O-Levels, as they were then, I wanted to be an architect,” Phil starts. “I remember I’d been for some work experience with Essex County Council’s architectural team when I was thirteen or fourteen, so I reckon that was pretty formative.”

What, though, was it about architecture in particular that piqued Phil’s interests so much? “I think it’s because it gives an opportunity to be creative, but to do so within an ordered, structured approach – within a framework.” He says. “And it must appeal to my character traits, as it’s never run in the family! The closest I can think of was a relative who was a carpenter, but no architects.”

“Who would you say are your biggest architectural influences?”

“I was training in the mid ‘80s,” He starts. “And I finished up in ’92, I think it was, so I was drawn to the prominent architects around that time – Norman Foster and Nicholas Grimshaw – I really appreciated their approach to modernism; the light they introduced and their uncluttered approach to buildings.”

Interestingly, though, when it comes to broader cultural influences, Phil admits he’s not averse to the more abstract, either. “I really like artists like Piet Mondrian, which makes sense with his precise lines and geometry.” Phil says. “But then I also really like some of Salvador Dali’s works, which couldn’t really contrast more starkly, when you think about it!”

“How different was the industry when you first started?”

“The main difference was the technology, without a shadow of a doubt” He says. “At university, all my training was carried out by hand. My first experience with CAD [Computer Aided Design] was actually at Munday + Cramer.”

Were there any other differences? “I suppose the environmental focus has been the other big one.” He ponders. “It’s obviously – and rightly – much more of a focus these days than it was thirty years ago, say. We only ‘woke up’ to it in the early 2000s, really. You know, there was no lifecycle modelling or anything like that, everything was much more short-sighted in that regard.”

“How has Munday + Cramer changed since you joined?”

“When I first joined, the CAD we used was a 2D system.” Phil begins. “Then, around the year 2000, I think, we got our first 3D system, ArchiCAD. This helped benefit the clients as much as anyone else, it helped them better visualise what we were thinking of in our heads.”

“Size-wise, we’re much bigger now, as well.” He adds. “I was the practice’s fifth member of staff when I joined back in ’94. Now, we’ve got around 30 members on our team. It’s been great to see that kind of growth.”

“What are the most challenging aspects of being an architect?”

After thinking for a moment, Phil says “It’s actually probably the depth-of-knowledge that’s required,” He continues to explain. “You’re constantly learning and developing, and building on existing knowledge. There’s the design itself, then the technical aspects, the communication side of things, and then even the ability to negotiate, too.”

We put to him whether this might be part of the reason he still loves the profession after all this time? “Oh, absolutely,” Phil agrees. “It keeps the job fresh, and because the technology is always developing, as well, it means you’re constantly on your toes, so to speak.”

“What interests you most about the direction architecture is headed in?”

“I think mainly it’s the increased impetus on environmental design, on doing our bit to help out the planet. And it’s interesting,” Phil continues. “Because so much of the onus at the minute is on developing these ultra-efficient, super-sustainable new-builds – which is great, of course – but I’d love to see more being made of improving existing building stock.”

“So many of the country’s older homes are energy inefficient,” He says. “And huge savings could be made by improving what we’ve got already, rather than focusing solely on what we’re building now.”

“Are things back to normal for the industry now, post the worst of the pandemic?”

“For the design team, at least, I think the idea of ‘normal’ has actually changed, now.” He remarks. “The pandemic proved that we could do ‘working-from-home’, but there are still elements where it’s lacking.”

We asked where those weaknesses were most apparent? “Probably the comms side of things.” Phil says. “A lot of design involves independent work – designing and things like that – but it’s much harder to organically bounce ideas off of one another on Teams than it is in person.

“I think that a hybrid-working setup might be the best option, moving forward. It’s flexible, enables organic group activity when needed, as well as the increased focus, and lack of distractions, that remote working enabled.”

“What words would you have for any school-age/younger people looking to get into architecture?”

What nuggets of wisdom, then, did Phil have for tomorrow’s budding architects? “I always say that it’s a challenging career, but an immensely rewarding one at the same time.” He says. “It gives you a chance to be creative but logical, and not too many professions offer that. Plus, there’s always the nice bonus of getting to see something you first thought of in your head become a physical reality!

“Don’t be put off by the lengthier training, either.” He adds. “Parts 1 and 2 of your training will take five years, but if you really want to do it, then I’d always say go for it.”

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