Women in architecture: Judith Taylor NZ
Women in architecture: Judith Taylor

Women in architecture: Judith Taylor

From designing high-rise buildings to balancing business and babies, we track the exciting career of New Zealand’s newly elected NZIA president, Judith Taylor.

Words by ArchiPro Editorial Team

A chance conversation with a high school career counsellor set Judith Taylor off on a path that would see her catapulted into an exciting and varied career in architecture, and eventually elected to the most prestigious position in the industry: president of the NZ Institute of Architects.

The career counsellor asked Judith what she was good at.

“I had no idea, so she looked at my marks and they were all in a very even band. She asked ‘Have you thought of architecture?’ and I thought: What is that?”

Judith, a student at Wellington East Girls’ College at the time, hadn’t been exposed to a profession in a creative field before. When the career counsellor sent her to visit a local architecture firm, she was blown away.

“My dad had been an accountant and his offices were linoleum floors, grey walls—all black and white. I walked into the Structon Group office and there were all of these drawing boards and pinboards, with fabulous photos and images, and this lovely atmosphere... One of the structural columns was painted a bright lime green. I thought: I’ve arrived home!”

Judith became one of a small group of students studying architecture at Victoria University, and following her graduation began work managing high-rise construction projects.

“I’m not sure the men on the build site were thrilled at the idea of a young female coming onto the site, but I just thought it was so interesting, so I just pulled my hard hat down and my collar up and all you could see was my eyes, and I just got on with the job.”

That work has given her a profound respect for the people working in all weather to manifest the vision of the architect. It also gave her a depth of understanding about commercial construction that would form the basis of her future career.

Overseas adventures

After that first job Judith married and, like many young Kiwis at the time, set off on a London OE. There she spent a couple of years renovating pubs in the south of London, spending a year travelling Europe before returning home to Wellington.

“I came back thinking that to understand the history of architecture you have to understand the history of art. Art and architecture are a reflection of the culture they emerge from. An artist can convey that more quickly with brushstrokes than you can with a building.”

Back home in Wellington, Judith went straight back to creating high rise buildings at Craig Craig Moller. It was the 1980s, the age of excess, and no expense was spared on expensive corporate interiors or ambitious designs, making it an exciting time to be an architect. Then came the crash of 1988, hollowing out the financial markets and causing construction projects to dry up.

“I used to think mine was the last high-rise created in Wellington!” she laughs.

I quickly realised that to maintain my commitment to my career I needed support... To replace one mum takes about five people!

Babies and a business

With the industry in a downturn, Judith thought it was the perfect time to start a family. And a business. She pivoted from managing high-rise commercial construction to running domestic renovation projects through her firm, Taylor Architects. The business operated from home, where she balanced childcare with her growing client base.

“That was a huge transition to make, but I quickly realised that when you’re doing alterations to somebody’s home you have to be 150% professional for that client. Commercial work is a little bit more objective, but domestic work and working for clients is extremely personal. It matters hugely— so I knew that I had to treat each client with the utmost respect, and I found that I was in a position to give them such delight!”

Craig Craig Moller was an early adopter of AutoCAD, and Judith’s digital know-how meant she could easily work from home and share files with technicians and consultants using dial-up 1990s internet.

As for working with babies underfoot, she approached the delegation of tasks much as she might have for a complex commercial construction project: “I quickly realised that for me to maintain my commitment to my career I needed support, so I had people helping me with my drafting; I needed a nanny for the kids, a housekeeper, a cleaner, a gardener... To replace one mum takes about five people!”

With a team in place, Judith says architecture can be an ideal career for anyone looking to balance family and career.

“I think that architecture has been a really good career for a working mother. It’s something you can choose to do at scale… I also believe very strongly that what we do is too complex to do alone, so it’s really important to be working as part of a collaborative team. That’s the reality of architecture: you need your tribe.”

Governance to guidance

As the principal of Taylor Architecture, Judith joined the Wellington branch of the NZ Institute of Architects (NZIA) and soon became branch chairman. Following her term, NZIA asked her if she would accept their nomination on what was then the Architect’s Education and Registration Board (now the NZ Registered Architects Board).

Judith says the institute was looking for more diversity, making it a challenging experience: “I was still young at that time and it was the first experience I’d had of a governance role.”

She learned more about the registration process and became a key player in changing it, setting up a training programme for assessor registration, which remains a vital part of maintaining industry standards. When her term on the board ended, Judith was invited to become an assessor herself; she took on the role of New Zealand coordinator for the degree accreditation programme.

Interestingly it brings her full circle to that initial conversation she had with the career counsellor, as she now guides the professional development of young graduates looking to get registered.

She says the standard of architecture students’ work in New Zealand is incredibly high and while there were challenges for her being taken seriously as a young woman when she joined the workforce, times have certainly changed.

“I think entering the profession as a young person, it’s just as hard for the young men as it is for the young women. So I have this ‘no excuses’ policy: just get on with the job.”

We would go in stealth mode after hours and make sure that by the time they came back into their offices the paint was dry—everything was perfect

Difficult and strange projects at Parliament

Still operating from a home office, Taylor Architects began working with the facilities team at Parliament, attending to small projects on parliamentary buildings. Judith took care of unglamorous jobs such as installing new toilets for Jenny Shipley, and alterations for Winston Peters’ office. Undertaking these projects, she tapped into her appreciation for historical architecture, as well as for exacting workmanship.

“When you’re doing little ‘bitty’ work in a heritage building, it’s actually quite complex. To move a door you have to do alterations to the skirtings and the architraves, which would be cast plaster made in Christchurch.”

To add another layer of complexity, all work had to be done outside of parliamentary working hours and not cause any disruptions whatsoever.

“We would go in stealth mode after hours and make sure that by the time they came back into their offices the paint was dry—everything was perfect.”

Project sizes grew, and Taylor Architects started to take on huge projects like the complete interior refurbishment of Bowen House (where MPs’ offices were located at that time).

Judith enjoyed the work so much that when she caught wind of the fact that the Global Financial Crisis was on its way, and simultaneously that the parliament building project manager role needed to be filled, she made a bold decision to wind up her practice and take on the job full time.

It gave her certainty during a time of financial crisis, but it also meant over the five following years she oversaw some extremely difficult and strange projects. For example, a security room had to be moved no fewer than three times. A false copper skin was created on the Beehive roof to stop leaks, in a work programme that lasted a year and didn’t disrupt a single politician. She managed the process of completely reworking the acoustics in the debating chamber, without ever interrupting a sitting, and cleaning and re-grouting the exterior of the parliamentary library, a process which involved engaging a team of specialist stone scientists to analyse the provenance of the grout so it could be replicated.

A pivotal trip

During her time in that role, Judith joined other Australian architects on a trip to the Solomon Islands, which had been devastated by a major tsunami in 2007. There had been significant loss of life and housing was obliterated in some of the outer islands.

Emergency Architects Australia had organised a team to go to a remote island with the intention of installing sanitary long drops. Days were spent making long drops from materials found on the island, but it was the clever designs of the handmade buildings made from local timber, with leaf fronds for roofs and decorative thatching patterns that really captured Judith’s attention.

“That was just the most magnificent example of vernacular building and people creating homes with local materials. By elevating the buildings off the ground, it meant the space underneath could be used for storing their canoes, for socialising, sitting in the shade, or drying their clothes. Just really simple buildings, but just magical.”

In 2015, three years after that trip, Judith moved from Wellington to Auckland to join Context Architects, and the lessons she learned in the Solomon Islands continue to resonate with her, particularly now that addressing climate change is central to her work.

She says the impact of the buildings’ design resonates even more strongly now that addressing climate change is central to her work.

“[We’re committed to] judicious use of building materials, respect of the land and for our environments and trying to reduce our energy footprint and I’ve got this shining example to refer to!”

Judith says it’s also significant that she made the move to Context before being nominated for the role of president of the NZIA because the practice is heavily involved in social housing, advanced digital technologies, lifting people’s lives through design, master-planning, urban design, and weathertight remediations— all of which are central challenges to architects in New Zealand. Context is also working closely with Kainga Ora to study and determine what the new building performance standards should be in New Zealand.

The NZIA presidency term begins in May 2022 and Judith is energised for this latest challenge. She’s feeling just as excited now as she was when she walked into that first architecture studio with the lime green column.

“I love the combination that architecture gives you: it’s scientific, it’s artistic, it’s creative... It encompasses so much. One minute you’re talking to a client and the next minute you’re on a construction site or you might be in a boardroom talking to suppliers. To me it just has everything.”

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