Celeb interviews

Building a whole new world with Cheryl Pilliner-Reeves

Cheryl Pilliner-Reeves is an architect, a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, has appeared on television and is passionate about the environment. But this is only a fraction of what Cheryl has done in the past and what she plans to do in the future. Lynda Clark finds out how her journey began to become an architect with such strong environmental ethics

Cheryl has always tried to break the boundaries. For as long as she can remember, she has been interested in making things. She said, “Right from an early age, I always put a woodwork bench on my Christmas list, but I never got it. Soon I began to realise that my parents didn’t think it was appropriate for a little girl and it was very frustrating. Later on, I asked for a sewing machine and I got that as I suppose my parents thought it was more of a girl thing! I always loved assembling flat-packed furniture and my two sisters could never understand why I was so excited about it. When I was a teenager, I loved painting the front door, for instance – I would wake up and decide what colour to use and then get painting. I remember redecorating my bedroom and, as my parents liked wallpaper and patterned carpets in those days, I wanted something calm and fresh, so I just used one colour everywhere. I chose pale grey as I hadn’t discovered white back then! I also made a fantastic collage on my ceiling, with everything found in magazines on style, catwalk fashion favourites and ethical issues, such as anti-vivisection – which I put next to make-up adverts to boycott – it was very random, but defining my choices! It was my bespoke wallpaper on the ceiling.”

Cheryl had a Jamaican father and a Malaysian mother and grew up in two very different, but happy households. Sadly, when aged just three, her mother had to return to family in Malaysia and was unable to return. When tragically, at just six years old, her father died, an English family with two daughters, who lived nearby and were close family friends, adopted Cheryl. “As my adoptive parents knew me and my parents so well, it made things easier, but it was a bit of a cultural change. They were lovely, but as my adopted mother had only really aspired to an average female role of secretary or seamstress, there were not high expectations of me – but I always had different ideas. When I was about 12, I decided I wanted to do a paper round and I asked at the corner shop if there were any vacancies. They said no and I am sure it was because I was a girl and they had preconceived ideas about only boys doing that job. Eventually they agreed to give me a try and, to their surprise, found I was the fastest paper person they had ever had. I have always been aware of the gender boundaries and I enjoyed playing boys games and competing with them. Delicate things just didn’t suit me and I was always looking for a challenge.

“Not many universities taught architecture and I wanted to stay in London, but not live at home. I was brought up in southeast London, so I moved to north London, which was great.” Eventually, Cheryl went to the University of North London and said, “It takes seven years to train to become an architect and, during that time, I also trained at an architectural practice, which was very exciting, complimenting my studies.

“There were so many things I enjoyed doing, but architecture encompassed everything that I enjoyed. There were some obstacles in the way, though, as, when I was at school, my head of the sixth form said I would never get in to study architecture. I was pleased to prove her wrong. My teachers also advised me to give up art and carry on with maths, which was crazy. As an architect, you need to be able to understand maths, but you must also be able to draw and, even today, schools are advising the same thing.”

Cheryl’s time at the architectural practice went very well, but she was totally unaware of the different stratas of the profession. She was always aware that architects usually come from middle class backgrounds. “I found that certain doors were open for educated people, so I was glad that I went to a university that had once been a polytechnic and there was a great mix of people. I wanted to break the mould of what people assumed an architect to be like.”

Eventually she moved to a practice in London, which was run by two female partners. She worked very hard and would never take a lunch break, until one of the partners told her she ought to and said that everyone has homes to go to. Cheryl remarked, “They were very humanitarian to work for. The first project I worked on was turning some garages into a two bedroom house and, some years after leaving the practice, I walked down a street and recognised that my design had been built. The partners also let me go part-time as I wanted to continue studying for my final, which was great.”

In 2003, she set up Pilliner-Reeves Architects, a sustainable architecture practice, as she started receiving requests to do private work very quickly and always had an ethical approach to her work. “I became a vegetarian when I was a teenager and the environment has always been important to me.” She studied in Los Angeles, which was a great experience, and then, as a fully qualified architect she decided she wanted to specialise in designing buildings that were at the forefront of ethical architecture. She did a masters degree in sustainability at the Architectural Association and wanted to work on projects that were not totally financially driven, but would improve their impact on the world.

Cheryl has worked on a number of noteworthy projects, such as Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre of Human Evolutionary Studies building and Imperial College’s Burlington Danes Imaging Centre. Both projects have striking architectural features and a high degree of environmental design. Cheryl has gone from strength to strength and has worked on projects of various scales. Due to her reputation in the architectural world for best practice in sustainable design, she is often commissioned to collaborate on projects – including a 622-home, residential scheme which achieved an Eco Home rating of Very Good as it included wood pellet boilers to provide heating and electricity, which reduced the project’s annual carbon emissions by 395 tonnes. Cheryl also works on projects for developers and investors such as Wisdom Equity Partners, a particularly outstanding property development company that is committed to architectural excellence, quality of build and homeowners’ satisfaction.

One of her other amazing achievements was to build a schoolroom in Ghana. She explains, “A group of students came to the Architectural Association to study a sustainability course and the tutor, Mark Hemel had a connection with a school in Ghana. We went out there and we were given a site – we had to work out the climate, location and what was going on there, which was a challenge when designing the building. We proposed a classroom made out of local materials. With the help of locals, we harvested 10m bamboo poles, each of which took three or four people to carry, and made a scale model to show them what it would look like. Local villagers helped build it and it was wonderful when the children came out and used it.”

A very busy lady, Cheryl is now a fellow of the Higher Education Academy and has been a Senior Lecturer at London Metropolitan University for 11 years, where her specialist area of expertise is architectural design and environmental technology.

Alongside her frantic work schedule, she has also appeared on the highly successful Channel 4 property programme, Phil Spencer Secret Agent, where she had to redesign a house and propose improvements. It had to be done in double quick time and Phil was very impressed by her suggestions and work ethic. She is now working on the BBC2 series, Tricks of the Trade,
which will air early next year. She is helping a couple to redesign their first property to make it into the home of their dreams.

Cheryl has two young sons, aged five and seven, and they have reminded her of the question from her childhood – how do schools meet the need to explore subjects like architecture and making things? This has led her on to a new project – Archimake kids workshops. She is aware that most architects have relatives in the same field and also that architects are often slow to mature and hardly ever retire. She said, “I didn’t start until I was 18, and, when I was growing up, there was nowhere for children to go who wanted to make things. With Archimake, I am now teaching primary school children architecture workshops at after-school clubs and also home-schooled children. We have tried arranging workshops with the head teachers of London schools, but none have invited us to teach children during the school day, which is a shame as it can be hard for parents to get children to after-school clubs. We would love to get some sponsorship, so we can introduce our workshops to schools that have a high proportion of children on free meals, to encourage children from a range of backgrounds to consider architecture. Making things often helps children with learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, to express themselves, which is invaluable. It’s fantastic to see children enjoying creating things and interacting. Its an enriching subject and encourages children to think with both the left and right hand side of their brain, logically and creatively. Not everyone is going to be academic, so this helps young people who enjoy making and creating. It’s a joy to see them having such a fun time and we get lots of great feedback from children and their parents.”

She has some great advice for first time buyers. “If it works for you, then pool your resources and don’t try to do it alone. If friends or family can help with the deposit, then ultimately it helps everyone. There is no reason why we can’t lean on each other when we have to and it’s a good system. My father came over from Jamaica and bought a house near to where my adopted parents lived. I always wondered how he managed to do it as my adopted parents had grown up in council housing and felt very proud to be the first in the family to have saved enough to buy their own house. Eventually, my biological aunt told me that she had sold my father the house. She explained that the siblings pooled their resources and all saved together and then everyone took turns to take money out of the pot when they wanted to buy a home of their own. That way, everyone became a home owner, nobody was out of pocket and they all felt very proud of what they had achieved.”

Cheryl also advises to save and be frugal and if you can’t afford a home in the area you really want to live in, then look further afield where prices will be cheaper. In time, the ripple effect will increase the value. Start small and gradually work up the ladder and look at whether the value of the home can be increased – a little bit of creativity and architectural insight will always improve the value, which will pay off in the end. My first flat was not in a particularly good area, but next to a great area. Very soon, I found my flat had doubled in value, after I made a few changes and made it look brighter. When buying, always look for potential – a flat that is dark and north-facing will be very difficult to make look appealing, whilst a southwest-facing lounge or garden will make it easy to give the wow factor to a home with the right, simple interior. I frequently get asked to help people on this sort of thing on small properties, whilst with bigger projects I often work with Wisdom Equity Partners to help to give a property that desperately needed Cinderella treatment ”


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