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Insights 12 Ways you'll reach your design ambitions at Atkins

Meet Emily Percival, an Associate Architect at AtkinsRéalis. She joined the architectural practice within the business soon after we won a bid to work on the Sheffield Midland Station Integrated Masterplan.

Photo of Rebecca smiling towards the camera

"This was a unique chance to reshape my home city. I have a keen interest in urban design integration and the consideration of place, and when I got the job, I was fortunate enough to work on that project for my first year or so at AtkinsRéalis. Another reason I wanted to work at AtkinsRéalis was the multidisciplinary aspect as smaller architectural practices can be a little insular. To design well and be creative it makes a huge difference to work alongside project engineers as part of one team. A close collaborative environment makes it much easier to maintain and realise the design ambition you set out to achieve all the way through to a project’s completion."

Here are Emily’s 12 reasons why her career is thriving in AtkinsRéalis Architecture:

1. You won't work in anyone else's shadow

Just coming out of uni, when I first heard of AtkinsRéalis, I expected a corporate "men-in-suits" atmosphere, but I’ve since discovered that it isn't like that. My colleagues are the same talented people you'd find in other architectural practices. I think the difference is down to our Practice structure - directors don't just sit at the top being unengaged with more junior staff, they really do get stuck in. At AtkinsRéalis, everyone talks to each other on the same level, regardless of seniority.

Another difference is that everyone works together towards good design rather than steering a namesake. We have real technical wizards, which you'd expect from AtkinsRéalis, but we also have super-creativity which is conducted in a supportive culture of design reviews and knowledge sharing that allows individuals to shine.

2. Enjoy an equal seat "at the table" with engineers and constructability specialists

On larger jobs, especially in transport and infrastructure, typical architectural practices are often sub-consultants to big engineering companies so, you might not have the same standing at the table with technical professionals that our architects have at AtkinsRéalis. I used to find that really frustrating when I worked in other Architecture Studios, but here I don't have to fall into line—I'm helping to lead the design process, and the fact that I can be part of a lead consult group is important to me.

3. Junior AtkinsRéalis architects have their ideas heard

You never feel intimidated or like your voice doesn't matter at any career level. I really like and appreciate that. I always try to ensure I can get the younger members to speak first at meetings, as they always have such interesting things to say and value to add. I love their energy and how they constantly challenge how we think and work.

As a result, as a junior at AtkinsRéalis, you're less likely to end up working solely on one package - you can put your hand up for creative opportunities and get them. In smaller architectural practices, you often have a few design directors who promote their thinking, which can sometimes stifle creativity. In AtkinsRéalis - it doesn't matter what age you are or how much experience you have, your ideas can make a difference.

4. Don't just meet targets—surpass them!

I'm currently leading the station concept designs for the Copenhagen M4 Metro Line extension. The client, Metroselskabet, is driven by sustainable principles. The key objective for the design concept is to reduce carbon by 30% against the baseline of existing stations on the line and meet other sustainability goals.

We're changing how we approach station and railway design. We're highly conscious of our environment, of giving back and ensuring we're offsetting what we're doing. We're trying to integrate sustainable solutions as much as possible into the project from an early stage, assessing emerging technologies and testing new ways of thinking.

At AtkinsRéalis, architects are encouraged to constantly embrace new technologies and challenge clients whilst changing and innovating. I'm lucky to be working on a project where this ambition is completely shared by the client, but it's not always the case, and it can be hard to push the sustainable agenda with some clients. The problem with designing for sustainability, as well as things like accessibility and inclusion, is that it's often associated with increased cost. But you don't always have to spend more—you just have to think more creatively. Our team shares a moral obligation to not just meet these requirements but to go beyond them.

5. Get your design and career aspirations realised

It's our culture at AtkinsRéalis Architects to hire different types of people to push design-led and early-stage design and creative thinking. We're good at balancing creativity, operational processes and how projects work in a business environment. I feel design only gets better when you work with more boundaries—you're challenged to think differently and more creatively.

Design features can often get value-engineered out but if architects have a better understanding of the bigger picture, like we do at AtkinsRéalis, our architectural designs aren't imagined in isolation. For example, when I was working on East Croydon Station recently we worked closely with the client, constructability consultants and engineers, so that our designs were conceived collectively by a team which was steered by an architect, but it meant that we knew we had a realistic solution on the table from inception.

AtkinsRéalis architects can drive design and creativity forward because our design already has technical backing, and we don't have to fight for every bit of it. That's why I feel it's easier to realize design ambition and quality from the position we have at AtkinsRéalis.

6. Work with an inspiring mix of creative people

I like having the time and space at the start of projects to step back, look at the bigger picture, understand the narrative, and problem-solve rather than diving straight in with initial thoughts. I also like to engage with others from the outset, so I'll go to the team for wilder, more conceptual thinking to get as many other people's opinions as possible.

AtkinsRéalis has a brilliant support network and set-up for sharing ideas. I enjoy having early workshops and design reviews to form the headline for my aspirations and key objectives. Anyone is willing to join a call or meet up to look at sketches and discuss how far we can push the boundaries or challenge a design. I love that, at AtkinsRéalis, the structural engineer is at the next desk, and I can just as easily sit down with a sustainability professional or a research & innovation specialist. The inspiration, skills, and knowledge are limitless across all design stages and sectors.

I've also had many mentors. When I first started, I was mentored by Dr Caroline Paradise, the National Head of Research and Innovation. She was from a different sector and had a different way of thinking—learning from her gave me a lot to think about. She's an incredible and inspiring woman, and I felt humbled that they had paired me up with her. It made me think that they believed that I could be like her!

7. A great social atmosphere

Because AtkinsRéalis Architects covers many markets, we work in close-knit teams within our sectors. So although we are a practice of almost 500 employees nationally, it doesn't feel really big. We regularly meet in larger groups to share projects and thinking across the practice.

There's always closeness with peers, and it's just very friendly and accommodating. Many teams are really sociable and go out together weekly for drinks or activities. The junior architectural assistants have an incredible social network and massive support for one another but they also get to socialize and create connections with other graduates from other disciplines, creating their professional support networks early in their careers.

8. Be your authentic self at work.

Something a lot of young women will find in architecture is that it can be hard to be yourself as a senior person at work. At AtkinsRéalis, I can see more women in senior roles being themselves. Here, your differences are celebrated. When working on the Croydon Area Remodelling Scheme with Network Rail, I remember clearly wondering how the project team worked so seamlessly together. I realized it was because we had so much diversity from every angle, and it made such a massive and positive difference. We're building a really incredible network with many different people from different backgrounds who approach things in a different way.

Emily leaning against a wall smiling

9. The freedom to follow your career interests

I've grown hugely since I started as an architect at AtkinsRéalis and am now an associate. What's important to me is developing my skills and getting more varied experience. Honestly, I'm much more senior than I thought I'd be at my age because I was given the freedom, responsibility and trust to run things. Not just projects but practice incentives too.

In other practices, if you have a flair for something then that may be what you'll always end up doing. Since I've been at AtkinsRéalis, I've been mostly working on conceptual work but I wanted to work on as many stages as possible, so I asked for something more site-based, and I got it. My next project will be the Architectural Lead role in technical design and on-site work for Surrey Quays Station.

10. Do anything and go anywhere - AtkinsRéalis has the opportunities

It's fantastic to be working on the Copenhagen Metro project and I have had the chance to go out there. I've also recently looked at a bid in Hong Kong. There's always something interesting to get involved in, and it creates this excitement. Anything could be around the corner, and anything could land in your inbox.

If you work in the London office in a particular sector, you could decide to move sideways into sustainability or project management in architecture. You don't have to set yourself on this one career path - I could move and work on education and cultural projects if I wanted to. If I fancied a change of scene, I could work in the other offices in the UK or globally. We already work with people from all these different places, and there are always paths to move about.

11. Give back and shape the industry

Inspiring new talent is vital, and it's exactly what was done for me. Sharing what we've learnt is a great way to shape a better future. I run AtkinsRéalis Architecture's Apprentice coordination with universities and I am a design tutor at Nottingham University. I love teaching, and it has brought an incredible group of talented young people into our Atkins team who are driving their ideas forward.

It's been rewarding to open up opportunities to people who may not have them via the usual route. I love that. Going into uni and working as a design tutor keeps me on my toes. I can imagine outlandish designs and encourage others to challenge themselves more in those environments – this is the best way for young architects to challenge their perceptions and explore their creativity.

12. Design a better future for the planet and its people

We're all a part of the urban environment, which excites me. So, I enjoy looking at the bigger picture and creating places, shaping cities and designing better spaces for people to enjoy. For me, the future lies in challenging the current systems and designing better for individuals and communities.

I would like to see a lot more nature and rewilding in the city. I don't like looking at a building in isolation. It's in between the buildings that I find interesting. What have you designed there? How does it integrate with its environment? I like the idea of connecting a wider network of streets, places, and buildings to one another. I am fascinated by the beauty in the everchanging aspects of the built environment and believe transport is key to facilitating the constant activity and motion of our cities and people, hence my particular interest in this area.

Is it time you realized your creative ambitions? Browse live roles here.