Erica Helmetag Coles is an Associate Director at Corstorphine & Wright Architects with a fascinating history and a beautiful outlook on life.
From an early age Erica loved art, in all its forms and embraced her creativity, from school through to university and beyond.
With a childhood that took her to many different countries through her parent’s work, and attending schools in Egypt and Cyprus, Erica has a broad and diverse knowledge of community culture. These varying urban landscapes have helped shaped her love of creativity and has become one of the biggest influences on her chosen career journey.
Women in BIM (WIB) recently spoke to Erica to ask what motivates and influences her and where she finds her inspiration as an architect.
How did you get started in the world of architecture?
I always loved art at school and a friend suggested I considered architecture, and it all started from there!
Having spent my school years at a number of different international schools, when it came to university I chose to follow my friend’s advice and study architecture in the UK. I soon realised that my love for travel gave me itchy feet and when the opportunity to work outside of the UK for my Part 1 year out presented itself, it was an easy decision.
My parents were living in Dubai at the time, and I found a placement with an architectural practice local to where they were staying and very quickly started working with the design team for a new, stunning, 5-star hotel in Muscat. This was my first experience of working with Revit. It was relatively new to the practice too, yet there was one person on the team who was particularly proficient, and I made it my goal to learn as much from him as I could, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
Back in the UK, I went on to study a Masters degree for my RIBA Part 2 qualification, where I learnt that creativity in architecture is fundamentally underpinned by an understanding of its function, performance and purpose just as it is the aesthetic form.
What has been the biggest influence on your career?
Following my Masters I got a job at an architectural practice in Birmingham in the UK, and this is where I did my Part 3. It was here that I was given a mentor, who changed my perspective on architecture and their support most certainly influenced the architect I am today.
Taking the time to truly listen to someone is a skill and my mentor perfected this. They always had time for me, I was never made to feel stupid asking questions and it was here I was able to really learn my craft. They nurtured my curiosity and taught me how to navigate the challenges of a project from inception to completion.
Now, when I work with new starters or people I have not worked on a project with previously, I always try to put myself in their shoes, give them the time, support and the opportunities I was given. Regardless of where you are in your career, fostering a culture of knowledge sharing can only be a positive one to help learn and grow, and this is something I aim to bring to my work each and every day.
You are never too old to learn, and my personality is naturally inquisitive. I am very lucky that I have been given the opportunity to work with various people on all kinds of different projects of varying sizes and scales. Understanding people’s stories and create environments for them, shaping their day to day lives is a privilege. I am continually influenced and inspired by the people I encounter and to me this is what makes my job so interesting.
Where do you find inspiration?
On a more personal level I started running about eight years ago and over that time I have been inspired by so many people in that ‘world’. Both elite and amateur athletes alike show a great amount of mental and physical strength especially in endurance running to run these exceptional distances whilst often holding down full time, demanding jobs whilst training for these challenges.
Whilst running offers a personal challenge there is a camaraderie when training with friends and at races with your fellow competitors with countless stories of runners stopping to help other runners who are struggling, putting their own races firmly out of their minds as supporting others takes precedent over their own goals.
If I had to name one person who inspires me, I would point people in the direction of Jasmin Paris who was the overall winner (and the first female to be the overall winner) of the Spine Winter Race (a gruelling 268mile race that takes place annually in January along the Pennine Way) in 2019, breaking course records, all just 14 months after having a baby – her grit and determination is incredible. Incidentally her record was broken this year in another absolutely brilliant race!
What do you find rewarding?
I learn something new from each project and opportunity. I love a job/project that presents a challenge and working to overcome these is what I find really rewarding, as well as designing buildings that help shape and influence the people who use them.
I love to travel, experiencing different cultures and meeting new people.
I get a lot of fulfilment from health and wellbeing, and I am fortunate to be able to combine this with my work at Corstorphine & Wright. I am an advocate for creating a positive culture within the studio and am one of the practices’ mental health first aiders, enabling me to help support the team.
What is one thing you’ve recently found yourself obsessed with?
The Food Medic podcast, I love to listen to this when I run.