Sofie Pelsmakers – Interview for Women in LoLo

Sofie Pelsmakers – Interview for Women in LoLo
7th March 2018 Mae Oroszlany


Alumna – University College London

Assistant Professor in Sustainability at the Aarhus School of Architecture, Denmark.

At what age/when did you first become interested in architecture and science/engineering?

In secondary school, I became interested in architecture and space and I studied modern sciences in high school in Belgium where I grew up. However, I did not thrive in most of our science classes. As an educator myself, I now know that how I was taught and examined (taught to pass exams, focusing on recall) did not support my natural learning culture. This undermined my confidence, determining what and where I would study. It was not until I arrived in the UK that I thrived as a student, where critical enquiry and lateral thinking were integral to my educational path. In the UK, I was also able to pursue the study of the architectural sciences as an intrinsic part of creating beautiful and comfortable spaces and places. It felt like “coming home” – it suddenly all made sense and I felt I had a purpose (not just designing nice spaces for the well-off).

What was your career path to arrive at this point?

I first studied my Bachelor of architecture in Belgium and then worked for a few years in architectural practice in London. I then read an MSc in Architecture in advanced environmental and energy studies and I worked for another year before I started teaching on the same MSc to pay my way through my postgraduate diploma in architecture for two years. I then taught at the engineering and architecture school at the University of East London for a decade prior to joining LoLo in 2011 for the four -year MRes and PhD programme. I could not have done this without the EPSRC scholarship; I always had to work to be able to afford to study so “being paid” to study was a privilege I never took for granted or will ever forget.
While it was unusual to leave a permanent academic post, I never looked back and have never regretted doing so. Having taught for a decade prior to doing my PhD, enabled me to continue to do some teaching and being a doctoral researcher also afforded me the time for pedagogical reflection (which helped me obtain FHEA and UCL Arena Fellowship recognition). I have since obtained an SFHEA fellowship at Sheffield University.

EPSRC – The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
FHEA – Fellowship of Higher Education Academy
SFHEA – Senior Fellowship of Higher Education Academy

How has your experience as a woman in LoLo differed from that in previous workplaces?

I have been lucky to work in architecture practice that was mostly supportive of women, though sadly the construction industry was not always as open-minded as my fellow colleagues in practice (I wrote about it here). Despite not many female lecturers and supervisors at LoLo, I felt that it was an open, inspirational and encouraging environment, where we were all treated equally and with an equal voice and expectations. I felt empowered (rather than discouraged or frowned upon) when collecting my own field data and when crawling under floors and working with contractors for my PhD research. I also felt continuously supported and encouraged by both male and female academics and support staff as well as fellow peers. It really helped me build my confidence as an individual, both personally and professionally. I genuinely could not have wished for a better study and working environment – I always felt that I belong as much as male peers and I have carried this with me since leaving LoLo.

Does balancing work life with family life and/or social life work for you at this stage?

I have to be honest here: I have always found this hard and still struggle balancing both, though I have come to realise that this is mainly caused by the unrealistic expectations and auditing culture placed on UK academics. It is not just women who struggle to balance this; it is simply everyone I know. I have – through mentorship – become better at knowing how I work and what I need to thrive and to then negotiate for this (e.g. working from home when I found concentrating in a shared office space too distracting, trying to ring-fence research time and saying “no” more often). I also really value crossing paths with fellow LoLo peers and supporting each other in our multi-disciplinary field.

What do you hope to achieve in your career?

To make a difference, both to my students and the buildings they will design, and in my research. I am now focusing on building my research track record, while teaching the next generation of architects in sustainable building design. I am rounding of a body of work related to my PhD and later studies, and am reframing my research to have a broader impact in the field of building-design – so watch this space!

Do you have any insights or wisdom to pass on to younger women about to embark on a similar journey?

Do not be stifled by what others expect you to do and how to do it. Forge your own way and what feels right for you; do not see your background, gender or discipline as a ‘straightjacket’. A wise mentor advised me that I should “think creatively about my future” – I still practice this and now pass this advice on to you. Lastly, to make a true difference and innovate spaces, we need people from all walks of life into research, teaching and practice to represent the diversity of people that will occupy and use the buildings we help design. Women make up 50% of building users, yet their voice is often absent in the creation and studying of them – let us change that. Join the Lolo Community – so many doors you did not even know existed, will open.