Women in Architecture : Part 2 Architecture and Motherhood (a.k.a diapers and drawing boards)

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In our last issue, we interviewed several women architects and discussed the steps they are taking in their careers leading up to the setting up of their own practice. Spousal support and personal commitment appear to be the key elements for this career path to succeed. In this issue, we look at the challenges facing the architect and working mother to uncover how they strike a balance between motherhood and career; the equivalent of holding down two jobs at the same time and succeeding in both.

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INTERSECTION interviewed Lam Choi Suan, DR Rose, Thang Suh Chee and Ivy Jong to find out…

I : Intersection SC : Suh Chee DR : Dona Rose

I : Architecture and motherhood – do women consciously prepare for this when they begin their architecture courses?

Ivy: No, we did not plan for it, we let it come naturally. If we did think about it, we will never get anything done. The thought of having children frightened me then, not so much now. Instead of having a 20-year plan, women architects perhaps set goals that can be achieved in a shorter term.


SC: ..and there are many hurdles as well; the pregnancy, confinement and maternity leave and later when they are growing up..mine is two and half.

Ivy: It gets scarier when they grow up, especially during the “but you-don’t-understand-me” stage.

I : So there are more layers or hurdles in your career path, can we discuss some of your personal experiences?

Suan: The challenge for me is to maximize time spent with my two sons, Kee Xen and Kee Ren and still maintain productivity at work. I tried bringing them to the nursery in our office but it was too distracting. Then I tried to work from home and ended up doing more household chores than office work. Later, I worked half-day to focus and be more efficient, but it wasn’t as perfect as I thought. Nowadays, I just try to be flexible and go with the flow; I am glad that my boss (husband)….allow me lots of freedom in dealing with this.

DR: My pregnancy wasn’t too much of a problem as my office was very understanding; I was excused from travelling during my first and third trimester. The real challenge came after the birth of my son; Don Sheraz was so attached to me that I had to put work aside, which was very difficult for me.


Suan: I think I was very fortunate because once I became pregnant, my work load was reduced.

Ivy: Yes, the people in the industry are becoming more empathic towards working pregnant women nowadays. But I wasn’t so fortunate… my former office wasn’t as understanding. When I had pregnancy difficulties with my second child, I had a lot of trouble trying to get my colleagues to stand in for me in one of the projects despite making the necessary arrangements for them. In the end, I had to pick up from where I left off after my confinement. It was very upsetting.

I : Let’s talk about maternity leave..

Suan: I do not think all employers comply with current labour law; I extended my leave by another 2 months to spend more time with my boys.

SC: I think people are asking for more now actually. 60 days would be nice.

Min: I think the father needs to have paternity leave as well. Some European countries provide paternity leave ranging from two weeks to one month for the father; although I think it is un-paid leave.

SC: I think the father should be given the first week as paternity leave to bond with the new-born. My pregnancy was easy but I had difficulty managing Eunice. I came back to work earlier from my two-month maternity leave because I was so grumpy at home.

Ivy: So, it was actually more relaxing working in the office?

SC: Yes! (with a laugh)

I : During confinement, do you think about your projects that were handed over to your colleagues? Do you worry about your design not turning out you intended?

DR: Yes. Although I took care to hand over properly and explain, I was still worried…sometimes drawings do not convey some of the more subtle design ideas.

SC: It was easier for me because my husband works in the same office as me. My projects were handed over to him and he would cross check things with me.

I : How do the clients respond?

DR: Obviously we would hand over our projects to a colleague with enough overlap for the client to meet the person taking over during our maternity leave.

Ivy: ..but in architecture, pace can be intense and it is not easy for other people to take over our job at short notice. The clients can become pushy when the person in charge is on maternity leave; fixating more on project schedules and submission schedules.

SC: Ultimately the client’s message is pretty clear – that their projects cannot stop while you are on maternity leave, so a replacement is required to take over.

Suan: I was not worried, I trusted my colleagues and concentrated on a healthy pregnancy.


I : You are all working mothers – how do you balance these two time consuming jobs? Do you have special arrangements with your office? Husband? Parents?

Ivy: After I had Nick and Kieran, it became impossible for me to juggle work and family. So naturally, I sacrificed work to spend time with my family. There was no time at all at home for other things; my hands were so full at times, it was impossible to even sit down and drink a cup of coffee in peace.

DR: I do focused work while at the office so I can leave early to spend more time with my family. My husband and I share child-care responsibilities and now that I’m pregnant with number two, he takes over some of my responsibilities. When I’m busy, my husband would be the “back-up” to take care of Sheraz, the order of the day is flexibility.

Ivy: Traditionally, young Asian parents have extended families for support but I think our generation is more conscious not to take our parents as babysitters for our children for granted although it is good to have that support available. Otherwise there is very little time out…

DR: I know what you mean; these days, a 15-minute shower is a luxury rather than a requirement.

SC: During the first six months, the most enjoyable moment for me was breakfast after Eunice is dropped off at the baby-sitter and before we go in to work. It gets easier when the child is older and the father starts to get involved more; fathers have an initial fear of handling the newborns – perhaps afraid that they might break them.


Ivy: Our husbands are architects too – we tend to have the same working pattern, so there is a mutual understanding. But when the child gets sick, the first one who drops everything at work is the mother. It is a motherly thing, I guess.

I : ..so despite all the support available from family and the work place, the working architect-mother still has to work to find a balance. Perhaps we should end our interview here and take up the discussion with husband and wife teams of working architects in our next issue. Thank you all.

A quick bio-pic of some of participants:

Ar. Ivy Jong has been practicing along side her husband and fellow architect Ar. Sia Peh Swee at Atelier Timur Sdn. Bhd. since 2007.

Ar. Thang Suh Chee is born and bred in Kuching. Completed her architectural studies at the University of Melbourne in 2002. In 2003, together with her husband, Ar. Lau Ming Ngi, they joined Design Network Architects in Kuching and went on to become one of the directors in 2009.

Lam Choi Suan, from KL, is graduated from LICT and RMIT University, now self practicing together with husband at Intodesign Laboratory. Both have been working together since 1st year of study, returning to Kuching in year 2007.

Dona Rose Binti Amer Koesmeri is with Atelier Timur Sdn. Bhd.; a graduate from University Sains Malaysia. Her husband Royzaid is also an architect working with P.U Architects.

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This CPD will examine the roles and responsibilities of the Architect under the Housing Development Act (Act 118 Peninsular Malaysia 2007) and the Sarawak Housing Ordinance (1993) and related regulations. It will cover an overview of the two sets of laws in force in West Malaysia and Sarawak and point out the major differences. A brief outline of the certification process under the housing acts and ordinances and the management of quality in relation to this certification is reviewed. Managing common defects and complaint is also considered.

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