Niyati Jagirdar is an architect from Mumbai who focuses on human-centric designs which centre on what people want and need from a space. I spoke to her about being a woman in the architectural industry and why human-centric design is important to her.
What drove you to pursue a career in architecture?
I didn’t initially intend to be an architect, I actually wanted to be a doctor. I just ventured into architecture almost by accident, but once I’d started training, I completely fell in love with it. I spent a lot of time reading about great architects, their journeys and philosophies, and I learned a lot about the process of designing a great architecture. I became really interested in how design has evolved and how it affects everyday life, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. It may not have been love at first sight, but it is definitely true love!
Why is human-centric design important to you?
I believe that architects have the ability to make people’s dreams come true. It’s important to me that my clients connect with their spaces and enrich their lives and businesses in the process, and I love being able to make their dreams a reality. I think having the right space to work in is key to empowering our clients to move forward in their journeys.
More often than not, when architects become well-known, their work starts to become more about them than the client, and that’s what I want to avoid. I never want to stop putting the client first, because ultimately it’s their space that I’m helping to bring to life, it shouldn’t be about me. We put our clients at the heart of everything we do, and I really want to empower people to improve their lives and help them to work better by improving the spaces they are in.
What is your favourite kind of space to design, and why?
Definitely retail spaces and commercial spaces! The reason I started my practice was that I wanted to do retail, as there was no retail architecture in India at that time and I really wanted to explore that avenue. What excites me is that people inadvertently spend a lot of time in retailers and offices, whether that’s spending money or making money, so it’s important that space is really well designed and suits what the customer wants from it.
Taking 6 months to design a home is fine, but offices and retail spaces usually need to be ready quickly. These spaces are governed by rental and overhead costs, and more often than not they just want them ready quickly so they can start making money from them or running business immediately without a deep dive into the impact of these spaces.
For me, it’s important that the client is involved in all aspects of the design because I recognise the importance of having a space that works for its people and isn’t just thrown together quickly. If a client comes to me asking for office space, I will go back to them and ask about their organisational structure and other such details, which allows me to determine for eg how much collaborative space they need and that kind of thing, so ultimately they end up with space which has been tailored to their business needs and will last them well into the future.
Do you feel that it’s been more difficult to get to where you are in your career because you’re a woman?
Initially, it did take a lot of effort. For the first few years, I had to stand my ground a lot in order to get people in the industry to take me seriously as an architect. After a while, once I had established myself it got easier. As I evolved, I too stopped taking the gender difference negatively and instead dedicated my time to upgrading my knowledge so that I was on par with all the men in my industry. Their respect for me eventually grew because I stuck to who I was and I stood my ground.
Often, women find architecture to be tough, because you have to put long hours into your practice, and you have to balance that with your home life, which can be a lot of pressure. I understand that it’s the same in many other industries but that’s why it’s key to establish yourself and stand your ground and never give up because once you’ve built respect and credibility, I think it becomes easier to find a suitable work-life balance.
What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
I think there have been 2 really major challenges for me over the course of my career. The first is trying to strike a balance between knowing when you’re needed at home and knowing when you need to focus on your career. It’s really tough, like I said earlier, because it’s a high-pressure career, and you need to establish yourself. So to begin with, that was probably my biggest challenge, but now I’ve worked out how to shape my career in a way that allows me to have time for both my job and my family.
My other big challenge was adapting to think like an organisation. It’s easy enough to think you’ll be great at running an architecture business if you’re great at architecture, but actually, there’s more to it than that. You need to learn how to run an organisation, and that is tricky when you first try and get your head around it. We have conquered that challenge now though, and we have really good employee retention, so that’s really nice for us.