John Nsiah: It is important for the youth to be able to see that there are people like them up there.

John Nsiah joined HTA as an architect in 1992 and currently leads the business development team, with key roles in strategic marketing and business winning. In November 2020, John became a partner, reflecting his significant contribution to the growth of the practice over the years. Sarah speaks to John about The Black African Caribbean Collective, his journey into the architectural profession, allyship and diversity within the workplace and schools.

Sarah Osei: So let’s start off with you, what is your role at HTA?

John Nsiah: I’m a partner for New Business. I’m responsible for managing all the work winning activity of the practice, but my role has sort of evolved from just being about work winning. My role at HTA is really about new business development and networking activity related to trying to find new business. It’s about trying to position HTA in the best possible way to be able to satisfy our new and existing clients as well as finding new opportunities for the practice where we can put to use our best skills. 

We are a housing practice. Our ethos is really about making great places for people to live. So it’s finding like-minded clients that really want our services, working with communities across the UK, to be able to deliver the best possible housing that we can deliver for them. It’s a nice flexible role which enables me to be at the forefront of what the practice does. It’s not strictly architecture, even though I’m a trained architect, but my role has changed every sort of five years or so in significant leaps and bounds and that has revolved around the growth of the practice. The role gives me the flexibility to be involved in projects from the start, it gives me control over what the practice does. 

SO: You said you studied architecture, tell me a bit more about how you got to where you are now.

I’d say you could count on one hand, the number of black people that are in my kind of position, right now.

JN: I was interested in architecture from a very early age. I got given a picture book of great buildings and architects, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater left a lasting impression on me. From then I knew I needed to be an architect and so growing up in Ghana, I ended up going to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, School Of Architecture, Kumasi. At the time, the school was the only one in sub-Saharan Africa accredited by the Commonwealth Association of architects so when I relocated to the UK, it was a straightforward transfer to complete my part three exams at the University of Westminster. After that, I worked with a practice who was focused mainly on hotels. Unfortunately, the recession hit and I was made redundant.

Now looking back, oblivious to race issues back then, it’s very clear that our architectural tutoring and historical references were of white architects. So all the imagery we saw was to deal with the greats that you would learn about if you’re doing architectural history in the UK. Whilst I was training, there was a white architect practising in Ghana, called Kenneth Scott who did some notable buildings in Ghana, and his own house and that inspired me a lot. 

Scott House by Kenneth Scott. North Ridge, Accra, Ghana. 1961

I then got a call from an agency saying there was a studio in Camden looking for somebody who had Microstation experience and luckily, I was one of the very first people in the UK who had used Microstation. They also wanted someone who had lived on an estate in Waltham Forest or nearby, as they had a big regen project going on. The practice turned out to be HTA. I found a practice that had values that I had embraced and shared. I think they were the first practice to actually go to the communities and ask them what they actually needed and that really was it, I was sold.

In November 2020, I was offered a partnership, which is excellent news and puts me in a great position. It’s the beginning, for me, of responding to what are quite shocking statistics about representation, and about the lack of black people generally. I’d say you could count on one hand the number of black people that are in my kind of position, right now. I think there’s Armstrong Yakubu who is on Fosters and Partners, and there are a few others but we’re not many. It is important for the youth to be able to see that there are people like them up there. So it’s a great privilege.

SO: I absolutely agree, so tell me why exactly was BLACC@HTA formed?

JN: Following George Floyd’s death, the black people in HTA, were impacted by the events. So we got together and a number of us decided we’re going to form the black collective to give us a safe environment and for us to be able to come together and share experiences while shaping and influencing the practice’s policy. We felt that HTA had a lot they could offer and a practice our size with a strong external voice could start to make a bit of a difference. [BLACC was formed] to help us create increased awareness within the practice, to get people on board in terms of the understanding of what the real issues that impact black people are, and to find ways of improving representation within, starting with HTA and beginning to influence externally. We have a very active program. We are very determined to get our action plan going. 

The Black African Caribbean Collective at HTA.

SO: A couple of members of BLACC@HTA are recent graduates and new members of the practice. Have they added new perspectives in any way?

JN: They’ve already made loads of impact. In fact, the last BLACC meeting we had we reflected on our outreach plan we’ve got in our Manchester office. We are very keen for HTA to come into schools and do some awareness activities about the built environment. Shawn Adams and Yeni Ope-Ewe had a lot to say about what we were trying to do. Yeni suggested that we might want to leave the young people with contact names so that if they wanted to learn a bit more about the built environment, they could then follow up. 

We are also trying to increase awareness of successful black people externally. Last month Selasi Setufe from BFA was part of our Tuesday talks. BLACC is working closely with our marketing team, to have slots to feature successful businesses and people. We have to make this the norm, so it’s not the exception. Shawn has already been involved in some of our bids. We got shortlisted for the Thamesmead Peabody competition, and we got to bring on board POor collective as part of the team. Increasingly too, we are moving to start to work with the likes of Kristofer Adelaide Architecture and Gbolade Design studio. We’re working really hard at an overarching diversity and inclusion framework that will enable us to be able to see where we are now and to be able to map our progress over time. To think of it as a point where it’s natural. It feels comfortable to be there because we have an active voice. 

SO: It’s interesting you speak about schools because, in a recent lecture architect, Sumita Signha explained that the percentage of black students in the UK studying at Part 1 is 6.4% and then dropped to 2.7% in part 3, what do you think happens in that transition? How do we actively change this?

I’ve always thought if all clients insisted that they wanted to see a practice’s makeup to be able to win jobs, and wanted to see how the practice is structured, it would make a big difference very quickly.

JN: I think it’s a combination of things. People get to that stage and they look at what their careers are going to be and they click on the companies’ websites and they can’t see anybody like them and they think ‘is this really what I want, where I want to be’. Architecture is also not cheap, it’s expensive. I think the grant situation changes quite a bit between part one and two, which makes it even more difficult for people that don’t have the support or the financial means to be able to carry on. All of that needs addressing, the structure of the course needs addressing. People have mooted the idea of apprenticeships, we’re one of the very first practices to take on apprenticeships but it’s not being done across the board. 

Getting more black people involved in teaching is important, but it’s kind of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation as well because there are not that many black people that can go in and go become the lecturers and tutors. So, we’re back to this thing about using the collective voice again to encourage others to say ‘don’t give up just yet’. It’s not an easy one to solve.

I think the RIBA and institutions like AJ have a big role to play. I’ve always thought if all clients insisted that they wanted to see a practice’s makeup to be able to win jobs, and wanted to see how the practice is structured, it would make a big difference very quickly. I’m not saying that we’re perfect, we are beginning this journey too. There’s a heck of a lot to do. It’s still a long journey to be able to get that kind of representation to improve the statistics but we’ve got to work together.

SO: I’d say that often, we go into a realm of architects not collaborating enough with existing communities. How does the idea of HTA becoming a diverse community translate into working with existing communities, housing and estates? 

JN: The practice has had a long-standing history and successful track record of working with communities. They’re always at the forefront of what we do, we always put them at the heart of the work that we’re doing. However, there are always improvements one can make, there’s always a way of improving the way you work, the way you engage with residents, the way you understand what the issues are, the timing of when the engagement happens, and where we’re constantly evolving and improving on that. A number of our people that we design for are people like me, who have a heritage going back different eras. The standards we apply and the way our understanding of the housing we give them should really reflect their own experiences and a lot of that doesn’t happen because that until very recently, teams weren’t as diverse as they should be.

We have dedicated stakeholder engagement teams these days and we have innovative ways of working using the current technology and social media platforms. But as a practice, we want to deliver social value. It’s about the way we engage with those residents. So we have an initiative called ‘Beyond Boundaries’, where we work with the youth on an estate or in a regen area, providing them with opportunity. We’re working with Blueprint for All, formally known as The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. I suppose the point is we are always trying to improve on the way we’ve done things in the past. We’re very determined to be able to do that and to do that properly. At the moment, we’re working with quite a lot of local authorities and we’re working with Be First in Barking and Dagenham, looking at regeneration of a number of estates. Our key purpose is to be able to understand what the community is looking for and to be able to reflect that in the solutions that we come up with. 

SO: During the BLM protests, people came to us to ask what to do next, what to read or how to change but how do we get to a place where we ALL know what to do?

JN: The problem is not our problem. The problem is not the making of black people. The fact that we’re black doesn’t make us experts in solving that problem. That’s why allyship is incredibly important. BLACC completely understood that from the beginning and we’ve enabled discussions that have never been to take place in the practice. 

One of the very first things that we did was having a race survey which all the staff participated in. Our HR manager Stephanie Warner took charge of it all. We needed to create an environment where it became more comfortable for everybody to be able to talk about it and one of our strategies was doing the survey. We’ve also organized a series of anti-Racism training sessions, which were compulsory for all staff to attend and then an Inclusive Leadership Programme attended by our Partners and Associates. That enabled people to start to find that space to start to talk freely about what their concerns are and the things that really impact them. 

But the only way it can be resolved is by working together by working in allyship with the people that can affect the change. Quoting Banksy’s analogy: 

‘Like a broken pipe flooding the apartment of the people living downstairs. The faulty system is making their life a misery, but it’s not their job to fix it. They can’t – no one will let them in the apartment upstairs.’

I think that’s kind of where we are. The only way we can get people to understand that is by having regular conversations and highlighting the issues as they impact on us. It’s not us, it’s not them, it’s together. I mean we’re all learning as we go along. As I say, we’re not experts. I think we’ve made that very clear. BLACC can’t provide the answers for HTA. We can say what’s going on, how we feel and the impact on us. We can join in the conversation but then we need to find a way together that addresses these issues. 

SO: What advice would you give to young people, particularly people of colour, that are on their path to becoming architects?

JN: I think perseverance comes to mind, reaching out and not suffering in silence. Be more flexible with your capacity and ability. Use all the platforms you can, to make that noise yourself, make the voice happen for you. A bit of self-promotion doesn’t hurt. I come from a culture and upbringing which used to say as a youth, you’re not supposed to be heard, you should be quiet and submissive. But that’s all changed now. So you must grab the moment, I’m proof that it’s possible.