Amy Francis-Smith

Architectural Practice (RIBA Part 3 Exemption) - PgDip

Amy dreamt of becoming an Architect, but after being diagnosed with a rare life-threatening condition, she was forced to put her studies on hold. Thanks to the support and encouragement she received at BCU, Amy finally started her dream job after 12 years. She has since campaigned for more inclusive housing and accessible design, questioning why the world isn’t set up for disabled people, and how we can change that.

“It took me a while to become an Architect. In fact, it took me 12 years. When I first joined BCU in 2017, I’d already started studying elsewhere, but I had to drop out due to my health.

A few years before joining BCU, I was diagnosed with a rare life-threatening condition. I've got a condition where I have several chronic illnesses, but the main one is Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). At the time, just about every organ in my body was failing and I was going into anaphylaxis daily, with no sort of obvious pattern. It was like being allergic to the world; I was reacting to nearly every food going, as well as fragrances, perfume, the smell of petrol, creams and even medicines. I couldn't leave my room and I had no energy.

When I did start BCU, I was still really quite ill, and I was struggling to get through the course. Around the same time, I was also diagnosed with Crohn's Disease. So, it was quite difficult to manage, especially with having to re-learn how to live my life and learning what I can and can't do.

Having that forced break in the middle of my studies was extremely frustrating. I felt like I was behind my peers and really held back. But BCU was very much a springboard for me. I graduated with my Master of Architecture (MArch) in 2019, before completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Architectural Practice (RIBA Part 3 Exemption) in 2021. I chose to study Architecture partly because I was quite an all-rounder in a lot of topics. I like logistics and puzzled thinking, but I’m also very creative. The course was a good combination for having a flair for design, and also considering real work practicalities. I was also always encouraged by the tutors to follow my passions. I found that BCU were very welcoming and positive around accepting me and adapting the course to my needs too.

There are 14.1 million disabled people in the UK which is a huge amount, that's one in five people, and many are currently in need of accessible housing. When I was starting to learn about that, I was shocked by just how many people are really struggling and suffering. The rate that accessible housing is being built is beyond demand. I'm hoping that by making people a bit more aware, they will consider these issues in their day-to-day life and work too.  

Nowadays, I work as an Architect at Birmingham-based firm Pinnegar Hayward Design LLP. Alongside my role I’m also a Design Council Expert for the Design Council, where I specialise in accessible housing and inclusive design, and I also do a lot of consultancy work around inclusive workspaces, employment and how designers can be more socially responsible in their work.

Until earlier this year, I was the Vice President of the Birmingham Architectural Association, and I am also a Visiting Lecturer at BCU, where I aim to inspire and bring up the new generation of designers and encourage them to be aware of people with disabilities. I’m also on the Advisory Board at Habinteg, a housing association specifically for disabled housing, and I’m an Ambassador for the Architects Benevolent Society.

In 2021, I was voted in the Shaw Trust’s Disability Power 100 for the second year in a row, which celebrates Britain's most influential disabled people, I was awarded the Activism Award at the Archiboo Awards and I and was shortlisted for the RIBA Rising Star award.

I was shocked to be shortlisted for the RIBA Rising Star award. The kind of people that have always been on the list in previous years are the ones that go on to do cool stuff in the industry, and they often use their voice to make some real changes too. When I heard that I'd been selected, I was completely blown away.

It took me an awfully long time to get to where I am now, but in the future, I want to disrupt the industry more and get people to recognise that we all have a responsibility to look out for all members of society. Many people become disabled at some point in their life rather than being born with a disability, so it can happen to any of us at any time. At the moment, the world just isn't set up for disabled people and we need to change that. 

My advice to current students would be to change the status quo. Be aware of who isn't in the room and question why they aren’t in the room too. What more can you do to make places more inclusive? Question how you, as a designer or as an individual, can help to make sure that everyone gets into a space.”