The female architects shaking up a notoriously macho industry

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The Independent Culture

In a country where the political and business communities are dominated by men, it comes as little surprise that most homes are designed by male architects, then built by male-dominated development firms, and slot into male-led regeneration schemes.

The figures speak for themselves. Women constitute 15 per cent of the British property and construction workforce, according to the latest figures from the Association of Women in Property. They occupy just 30 per cent of seats on boards of housing and regeneration quangos. Only 31 per cent of university-educated architects are women. And the monthly market survey by the ultimate property establishment body, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, pulls in data from over 150 of its members across the country – only two of whom are women.

The cynicism of the property business is hard to underestimate. Building firms and agencies are invariably led by men; the key females are usually in lower-commission lettings and in public relations – both widely derided by the macho wing of many firms. "There's often a macho culture with long hours, and the credit crunch has put paid to a lot of the flexible working that used to help accommodate those wanting to juggle families with a profession," explains Lisa Raynes, who works at the well-respected Halliday Meecham Architects in Manchester.

Raynes has worked on homes for award-winning developers including Countryside Homes and Urban Splash – a developer with a social conscience regenerating industrial buildings and derelict sites into chic homes – while successfully balancing work and childcare.

But this balancing act isn't always easy. An estate agent for a national chain, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells a different story: "I had a baby in 2004 and returned to work in 2005, just as demand for homes and prices rose sharply. It was made clear that 10-hour days were a minimum, and male colleagues joked about the commission I missed out on because I went home to my son."

Yet the property market itself is much less unequal. About 25 per cent of first-time buyers are women (it's 35 per cent for men and 45 per cent couples). The London estate agency Ludlow Thompson says 40 per cent of its landlords are women. And when it comes to buyers, the male-dominated estate agencies and developers freely admit that women are the key decision makers within couples and families who purchase homes.

So what difference would women make to the home you rent or buy? Women, it seems, are from the Cath Kidston store; men are from Currys Digital. "Females want space and soft layouts for families and friends. Men want hard space to make statements – they're more interested in what the 50-inch plasma and remote-control gadgets say about themselves as individuals," says interior designer Jan Lamb, who has worked on new home layouts with three volume house builders. Amanda Lubrani of Amara Estates, one of country's few female developers, has just sold the last of 16 homes in a Devon coastal hotel, which she selected for conversion because it had been owned by two sisters and enjoyed a romantic reputation.

"I was involved in every element of the design and construction work, spending two years on-site and meeting every one of the 150 potential buyers who viewed. Some buyers take months looking, thinking and then deciding. Women are great at building relationships with buyers – which is why most show homes are staffed by women. I don't think a man would have taken the time to do all that" she says. "Occasionally a contractor would pull the wool over my eyes, thinking I would fall for something because I was a woman, but they didn't realise I'd been in this business for longer than they had" she adds.

Helen Moore has just joined the board of City & Country Group, a commercial and residential developer whose website shows eight suited men, mostly hands in pockets and each apparently fulfilling the caricature of a property "winner" from the Thatcher-Blair era .

"A trait that females bring to property is to be more empathetic with how people feel. There's more to buying a home than pounds per square foot and the efficiency of the building, which is what men emphasise. Buying a property is very emotional and needs someone who can share that emotion. That's not a job for men" she says.

Moore believes City & Country's use of female interior designers – the firm specialises in renovated properties – gives the firm an edge on appealing to women buyers. "At the risk of being sexist, the woman is the most influential partner when a decision is made on a new home" she insists.

Yet important as women are in the market, the same cannot be said behind the scenes, where the industry is still dominated by men – as will be, come 6 May, the new Government.

Home-makers: what women bring to house design

* Larger kitchens with tables and seating for family eating, and sufficient space for the sharing of cooking and other household tasks. "Women recognise that the kitchen is the heart of a home," says architect Lisa Raynes.

* Women want flowing spaces but not empty ones. There must be furnishings where family and friends can meet. Men see a home as a refuge, so prefer darker, smaller 'action' rooms with a purpose, and games rooms with space for media and music equipment.

* Functional use of storage space is a characteristic of women designers and builders, so under-bed drawers and cupboards above the cooker are common, as are mezzanine living areas to eke out maximum space in small studios.

* Developers routinely create gender-specific show homes at new schemes. Those seeking to attract women buyers emphasise pastel colours and subtle variations on seasonal colours: green in spring, yellow in summer, burgundy in autumn. Show apartments targeting males emphasise black and white, and have fewer furnishings and more gizmos.

* Feminine details where space is not compromised are common too: higher-spec carpentry, more ceiling mouldings, and "an ambition to make each room and each home look a little different," says developer Amanda Lubrani.

* With the idea of enticing women buyers to a home in Cadogan Square, London estate agency Douglas & Gordon opted for a model clad only in Gucci knickers on the cover of the property details; to get men interested in a warehouse-style Chelsea apartment, the brochure had a Triumph motor bike on the front.

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