This interview took place a few weeks ago, before COVID-19 reverberated through our community. At DesignInc, like most businesses in our industry, we continue to work effectively and collaboratively from a variety of locations, meeting our project milestones while caring for the health and safety of our people and their families. We stay connected with each other every day. COVID-19 has made us reflect on our purpose, and to appreciate our people even more.

Please meet Mabel Ibekwe, a valued member of our team.

Mabel Ibekwe is an architectural graduate at DesignInc. She joined the Sydney office in 2019 and has been working primarily in the rail team on Transport Access Program (TAP) projects. Mabel has a passion for architecture, fashion illustration and travel.

Welcome Mabel, tell me about your journey to becoming an architect.

Growing up, I had limited options for professions and I had to make a choice towards the end of my last year in secondary school. My interests didn’t fit neatly into any of the popular categories – I was good at both bits of arts and science – and I enjoyed technical drawing as a subject, which focused on building drawing. In the process of making my decision, someone suggested architecture to me, and I liked the idea of being able to transform my passion and skill into a career. I also had the opportunity to meet some architects to have a chat. I really enjoyed talking with them and I was inspired to take on the journey to becoming one.

After completing secondary school and going through a series of exams, I got accepted into the department of architecture at the University of Nigeria and that was the inception of the journey of my career. During my time at university, I quickly realised that there was a lot more to architecture than technical drawing! I realised that design is such an important part of daily living because we define our spaces, and in turn they define us. I also realised the amount of potential influence that there is in architecture as a social agenda, which was very exciting.

And tell me what happened after your bachelor degree.

Typically, everyone in Nigeria has to do a year of compulsory national service, which I did at that point. I was assigned to teach at a secondary school, but I did some architectural work on the side after school hours and on my days off. During this time, I worked with a small practice, on residential projects. I was busy, but I learned a lot. I was very much involved in design and documentation which development my curiosity as well as an eye for detail. This was my first professional experience. It made me realise I really wanted learn more and when I was presented with the opportunity to study abroad for my master’s degrees I decided ‘why not?’ So, I applied to the University of Canberra and I got accepted there.

Oh, how did you find Canberra?

Well, it wasn’t what I was expecting although I did no prior research! I knew it was the national capital, so I thought it would be a big, busy city, but it’s so spread out, quiet and it’s more like a little town. But what I learned about Canberra is that it’s a place where you get to create your ‘tribe’, which is what I did and explored its uniqueness, from a socio-cultural, geographical, political and urban perspective.

I can imagine Canberra is quite different to Nigeria.

Yes, I arrived in July and it was so cold! I still remember the day I arrived, I was outside the student accommodation common area waiting to be given my room keys and I’ve never been so cold in my life. To say the least, I was not prepared, my hands and my feet were numb.

Some of the great things about living and studying in Canberra was that it gave me more than the tools I needed for my professional development. It was an extremely multicultural environment and the diversity at UC equipped me with the skill of working with people from diverse backgrounds. I had the pleasure of being taught by highly reputable professors. Also, I got to study the plan of Canberra by Walter Burley Griffin during my degree, and it was fascinating to experience the city. Living there for two years, I came to really understand the successes and the drawbacks in the design.

And what happened after you finished your Masters degree?

After my time in Canberra, I wanted to see and learn more about Australia and expose myself to opportunities within the industry, at this point, architecture basically stopped becoming just a dream. Instead, it became even more real as I gained knowledge and exposure to the built environment, and so I applied for roles in Sydney and other bigger cities. I was offered a job at the architecture firm KANNFINCH, so in March 2017 I moved here for that. Their office was right in the centre of the city – near Town Hall – so it was a big change again. I worked on a big multi-unit residential project – 800 apartments over six blocks. I was working on the documentation, detailing and coordinating services.

It was quite an intense project. On the one hand, I was working on making the project aesthetically appealing and on the other I was working on the fine detail and understanding all of the compliance requirements and codes – how the joinery comes together, ensuring the building achieved solar access and ventilation. I also worked on bits façade analysis and landscaping to meet up approval requirements, all of these taught me how different compliances and requirements guide the design of liveable buildings and how buildings work within the surrounding urban form. It was a steep learning curve!

When we finished the DA for the second stage, I was ready for a change, and that’s when I came to DesignInc. I moved into the rail team, which was quite a shift. I have been working on Transport Access Program (TAP) projects in Wahroonga and Roseville, which is basically upgrading existing railway stations to be more user friendly and accessible, particularly for families and people with disabilities. So, it was all about accessibility – lifts, stairs, tactile indicators, platforms, concourses, and all within heritage considerations of the existing stations. I have had to learn whole new codes! Again, it has been a steep learning curve, but It is fulfilling. I feel like the work is making a difference, that I am part of a social agenda that makes spaces and services more inclusive. In between these projects, I worked on a medical research institute. I had the opportunity to work on this project with very experienced and skilled team leaders from concept stage to tender stage. I was involved in documentation of the various lab design, bits of services coordination and Revit model management. I have really enjoyed every experience so far working on diverse projects.

How inspiring, I can’t wait to see the finished projects.

Can you tell me a bit about your life outside architecture?

Well, I have many interests!  I read a lot of motivational books, hiking and I also have a passion for fashion design!

Really? Tell me about that!

Growing up, I watched many runway fashion shows on TV, and in high school I started doing hand sketches of my concepts. With limited career options in this area at the time – I could not see any long-term opportunities in fashion design – I dropped it. After completing my university studies, I picked it up again as a hobby. By then I wanted something more sophisticated than my high school sketches. So, I tried painting and then digital illustrations, which is what I have stayed with.

There is a big cross-over with fashion design and architecture in many areas – precision, detailing and human form. Every part of the design is related to another part. Fashion is a way of people expressing themselves – it really is an expression of identity.

Some of Mabel’s fashion illustrations.

So do you sew the designs as well?

I did a sewing course to learn how to make my designs, but I realised my strength is in the concept design and illustration. I am hoping that one day I might work with someone to bring my designs to life!

And apart from fashion design, I love travel and exploring. I am trying new stuff all the time such as travelling and kayaking.

Thanks so much for chatting and sharing Mabel.