'How to encourage more diverse groups into the building and construction industries' by Xenos Barrett

25 August 2022

Opinion piece for New Start magazine.

Xenos Barrett, an architectural technologist at Pozzoni Architecture and visiting lecturer at the University of Westminster, considers the role of diversity in architecture, building and construction industries and what can be done to improve the current state of play. Xenos, who is from Croydon, was diagnosed with autism in his early childhood and gained a role within the industry with support from the Pozzoni Academy, established in 2008.

I was diagnosed with autism at just three and a half years old and it was soon decided that I should be placed in a predominantly special needs schools. My parents fought hard to make sure I had good opportunities to mix with people who didn’t have learning difficulties too. This helped to achieve a good balance while I was growing up – I had the support I needed while also not being segregated because of my autism.

I’ve recently taken on the exciting role of Architectural Technologist, after completing a BSc (Hons) Architectural Technology degree course followed by my master’s degree in (MSc) Building Information Management.

My journey into employment hasn’t always been plain sailing, so I’d like to share some thoughts which I hope will be helpful for businesses who are about to employ, or are considering employing, people who have a disability or come from an underrepresented background.

Break down walls

In the practice I’m working for, I’m treated like anybody else. That’s not to say we pretend my autism doesn’t exist. For anything I don’t understand or that takes me a little longer than might be typically expected, there is assistance offered without judgement.

It’s really important to have schemes in place, such as the Employ Autism programme, by national charity Ambitious About Autism, as this led to me gaining my current role.

Support schemes like this help to integrate people, rather than segregate. My colleagues at Pozzoni have a good level of understanding and I really enjoy collaborating with the team. We learn from each other and, though I sometimes have difficulty socialising, I push myself to work with people who I wouldn’t usually.

Breaking down those walls is key. It can take autistic people a while to trust, reply, and to feel more comfortable with the people who they work with before things get easier. I know my team have got my back and that really matters.

Be direct with communication

If you have a seen or unseen disability, or identify with an underrepresented group, whether that’s because of ethnicity, sexuality or otherwise, it’s understandable that you will feel like an outsider.

I first graduated in 2016 and applied for several positions in the industry before deciding to study for my masters. Going through the interview process was often a really bad experience. I had many setbacks that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Very few people were willing to tell me why they thought I wasn’t good enough to work in their practice.

From my perspective, I’d achieved the necessary qualifications and had gained solid experience in a family-owned practice.

When you’re unable to get a clear reason, it’s natural to jump to the conclusion that my autism or the colour of my skin played a role. To go through the interview process and not get a definitive answer is tough. I want you to be honest and direct with me. In these situations, it can do more damage to not say something. Tell me what I can improve and if I’m not the right fit, that’s ok.

Offer your expertise

The industry needs to be more open and flexible to everyone, especially younger people. Some employers are stuck in a tradition of saying that you need a certain number of years’ experience to start working. When access is based on specific requirements like this, it’s not practical for people to get the start they need.

One way around this, I think, is to increase mentorships. I was fortunate to benefit from a mentorship scheme while studying at university. I’ve no doubt this experience helped me to get into the industry, despite those early setbacks. Now that I’m on the inside, so to speak, I can see there is room to offer similar opportunities to people. When you’re trying to get help and improve your portfolio, it can feel very limiting in terms of the support available. In architecture, RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) facilitates an annual mentoring scheme and CIAT, the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists, offers online mentoring. On a broader level, support is available from programmes such as One Million Mentors.

That said, there are still many gaps, with room for plenty more specialist mentoring. Employers have a key role to play in facilitating considered matching to support the next generation of industry specialists. Each employer can make a significant difference with their own programmes such as that of my own employers, the Pozzoni Academy.

Play to individual strengths

Find what makes your colleagues tick to get the best out of them.

I have a preference for visual communication. It also helps when I can relate to something personal on the projects that I’m working on. For example, I’m currently working on some care home and residential developments which are giving something back to the community. With my great uncle living in a care home, I can really understand and visualise the environments we’re looking to create.

If something I do at work might help people who lack capacity in terms of their mental and physical health, it’s a great feeling for me. When these projects have completed, I hope to visit the sites to see the work I’ve contributed.

In summary, it’s fantastic to have schemes like Employ Autism and others which empower people out there who have learning difficulties, or those who come from an underrepresented group or a disadvantaged background. I’d like to see the industry develop more alternative routes into work. And the way to make this change, I believe, is via individual practices and business. They have potential to change traditional routes and enable a new generation into our industry.

An open-minded attitude, with flexibility, and a will to ensure that more people from underrepresented backgrounds can have a fair chance, will make a huge difference.