From castles and palaces to barns, lighthouses and industrial buildings, I have always been fascinated by our built heritage. At college, my art teacher pointed out an emerging theme: I sketched, photographed and made models of buildings. I pursued this interest by volunteering at the National Trust, working across departments – including the building surveying team – where I realised that a career in conservation was for me.
I decided to become a surveyor at the age of 20, and began studying an undergraduate degree in historic building conservation in 2010. In 2014, I enrolled on the RICS APC to become a chartered surveyor, a process that relies on the support of a remarkable network of mentors who provide invaluable guidance and advice.
My education and training gave me the skills and confidence to launch into hugely satisfying, hands-on work and a varied career. On one day, for instance, I could be wearing a hard hat and boots on site and managing a series of brick repairs to Tudor barley twist chimneys at Hampton Court Palace; on another, I could be in an office designing a new cafe at Kensington Palace, ensuring the space works for the thousands of people that visit each year.
Today, though, I have the honour of working as a section engineer managing the restoration of the iconic Elizabeth Tower – commonly referred to as Big Ben – in Westminster. The role requires a huge sense of duty, which is equal to the privilege I feel preserving our built heritage. Every brick, stone and piece of timber has a tale to tell, and my role is to continue those stories.
Reflecting on my role and experiences, I realise how much I owe to my art teacher, who encouraged me to explore a career in the historic environment. I was incredibly lucky to have her guidance as this turned out to be the happiest accident of my life.
There is no doubt that there is a demand for skilled professionals in the conservation sector. To encourage the next generation, we must make sure the education system signposts careers in construction in every school, specifically highlighting the variety and benefits of a career in conservation.
Although a degree isn't always necessary, obtaining an RICS-accredited qualification provides a great platform and can help you achieve chartered status and develop your professional network more speedily.
Being young in this industry can be tough. Ensuring that your voice is heard when you're in a room with more experienced practitioners can be a real challenge. Sometimes I feel that my opinion isn't always taken seriously, and I need to be creative to make a point that resonates.
While organisations promote the benefits of an inclusive and diverse team at work, this should be demonstrated in practice so that everyone feels valued and opportunities to develop are available to all.
I believe the best way to learn is by doing. Those who can should offer those who are interested in conservation careers the opportunity to volunteer or do work experience. Time spent with a conservation contractor or working on an historic estate can demonstrate the rewards of a job in the field better than any literature or talk. As chartered professionals, we should encourage prospective professionals to ask questions: sharing our knowledge and our passion for our subject is what will engage the next generation.
For me, it is a key part of my role as a chartered building surveyor specialising in conservation to make a difference in the way our past is presented to future generations, and to create opportunities for others to experience this unique sector.
My reward is seeing the power and value our heritage buildings have in our everyday lives, and how important history is in defining who we are. I know the work I manage today will outlast me, and continue to shape our national identity for generations to come.
Katharine Cary MRICS is a section engineer working for Sir Robert McAlpine Special Projects at Elizabeth Tower the Palace of Westminster firstname.lastname@example.org