For a number of years I ran my own successful practice but as the recession hit in the late 80s, funding for construction and development projects was cut and I found myself out of work for the first time in my life. My wife Marian worked in a care home and became the breadwinner, while I stayed at home to look after my two daughters; Chipo had just started school and my youngest, Tawanda, had just been born!
I have to say I turned the role of the traditional African father on its head. It is very rare for the husband to stay at home with children and one day when I was walking down the street carrying my baby daughter, one of my friends stopped me and said: ”Oh Joe, what has Marian done to you? You’re carrying a baby!”
Of course, I didn’t care about these comments, I just felt very fortunate to spend this time with my daughters and to see them growing up every day. Although it was stressful and money was tight, I am actually very happy that things worked out the way they did.
During this time, I had applied for literally hundreds of jobs, never being asked for an interview. So I decided to change my surname from Bvumburai to Brown and like magic, I started to get interview invitations, but never the offer of a role. This was very disappointing and often I would listen to Bob Marley songs to keep my spirits up confident that the perfect job was waiting for me.
In 1991 I applied for a Development Officer post with Housemartin Housing Association in Hull. They offered me the job after a 3 stage interview process. I was so happy and excited that I danced around the car park when I left the building, they could all see me through the office window and they thought I was mad! I am pleased to say that this is where my career in housing development began.
One of the jobs we completed was a scheme built for the Chinese community who were living in very overcrowded conditions around the City. Based on Beverley Road in Hull, I project managed this scheme funded by the Housemartin and the then Housing Corporation.
I worked very closely with a lady called Luana Smith who represented the Chinese community to make sure we provided the right type of accommodation – including the layout of the properties – a mixture of bungalows and houses. Usually, house builders in the UK leave out the number 13 when planning as it is thought to be unlucky, but in China, it symbolises good luck and residents were keen for us to include it. We also created a large Chinese mural and arranged access to the Cable Network so residents could watch Chinese TV.
The scheme was actually groundbreaking although some local people complained that the Chinese community were given preferential treatment. In the end, so we mixed the community successfully.
This role was an excellent grounding for the rest of my career. I have since project managed the many schemes, working with architects, structural engineers, construction teams, local authorities, landowners, legal teams and the communities involved.
Following on from my own childhood experience of gaining more room in the home, it also further cemented the need for me as an architect to understand the people who are going to live in any particular dwelling. It put me in very good stead to finish my final professional exams to become qualified with the Royal Institution of British Architects (RIBA), an accolade which makes me very proud.
Join me in my next chapter which looks at the different housing projects I worked on before setting up my own practice.