The Bartlett


Bartlett PhD Alumni: Dr Sofie Pelsmakers

We caught up with Sofie Pelsmakers who graduated from the UCL Energy Institute.

Bartlett PhD Alumni Role Models: Dr Sofie Pelsmakers
Sofie is currently a Lecturer in Environmental Design at the University of Sheffield and Head of Research at ECD Architects (at the time of writing).

What project are you currently working on?

Most of my work relates to existing buildings and in particular suspended timber ground floor heat loss. I have been fortunate to have received further research funding from Innovate UK with an industry partner to continue working in my PhD research area, which I completed last summer. For example, I am investigating innovative heat loss reduction measures for existing suspended timber ground floors and thermal comfort implications of cold floors.

I am also gaining experience in focus groups and social-science research methods together with colleagues at the University of Leeds, Sheffield and York to look at the public perception of low impact materials.

What working achievement are you most proud of?

Three things: firstly, obtaining my PhD! As an architect I undertook a technically challenging PhD, going outside my discipline, yet I have contributed to both academia and industry and continue to do so. I also managed to gain industry and other stakeholder sponsorship to undertake intervention studies during my PhD and since.

Secondly, I am in unique position where I straddle both academia and industry. I managed to align some of my teaching with my research areas and with practice and industry, working with two MSc students and a PhD student on the above research projects.

I have also managed to include my in-situ monitoring research techniques in my teaching, so that students can assess existing buildings in more depth prior to proposing radical architecture and energy interventions in their architecture studio projects.

I believe a new paradigm is needed in architecture, where architects need to undertake evidence-based design, so this informs my pedagogical and research approach and also my Head of Research role at ECD architects.

And finally, I also managed to combine my PhD research with my Environmental Design Pocketbook  publication - a second edition which I also updated while in my final PhD year, a milestone in itself.

How do you feel about being nominated as a role model?

As a mature student and as someone crossing disciplinary boundaries, I am honoured to be recognised for my contribution while at UCL. I hope it inspires others to look creatively at their own journey. However, more important than this role model recognition is that I always felt extremely valued, supported and encouraged during my time at UCL – it is a powerful motivator and is what will truly inspire others to be the best they can be.

How would you describe your journey to your current role?

My journey is probably both predictable yet unique in that I left a lectureship at a teaching University after 10 years to undertake my PhD, both for my personal, intellectual and professional development.

I could not have done this without my PhD (EPSRC) scholarship as part of the LoLo CDT (London Loughborough Centre for Doctoral Training). I always had to work to be able to afford to study so “being paid” to study was a privilege I never took for granted or will ever forget.

While it was unusual to leave a permanent academic post, I never looked back and have never regretted doing so. Having taught for a decade prior to doing my PhD, enabled me to continue to do some teaching and being a doctoral researcher also afforded me the time for pedagogical reflection (which helped me obtain FHEA and UCL Arena Fellowship recognition).

Obtaining another lectureship, this time at a research-focused university is clearly a logical progression in my career. It does mean that I am in a unique position, whereby I have over 15 years teaching and practice experience, yet I am only just starting out to build up a research track record and I am unusual in that I am still working closely with industry.

My passion is to contribute to teaching, research and practice that makes a difference, and spanning across fields and roles helps me achieve that in a meaningful way. I am now focusing on building my research publication and funding track-record and I am fortunate to receive excellent mentorship at Sheffield University to help me achieve this.

What motivated you to complete a PhD at the Bartlett?

I wanted to work with the best in architecture and the building sciences. It was a privilege to have been accepted and being successful in obtaining a full 4 year MRes/PhD scholarship, without which I would never have been able to undertake PhD research.

To this day I remember coming out of the selection interview feeling invigorated and intellectually challenged – I am glad to say that this never changed during my 4 year journey at the Bartlett.

How did studying at the Bartlett help to shape your career?

The Bartlett helped shape my career by being supported both in my PhD journey but also in my non-PhD related pursuits, and being given many opportunities to expand my experiences and skills. Teaching opportunities, student reviews, conference organisation and attendance, extra-curricular training and courses and pedagogical training etc., helped me to further myself and to build my personal and professional skills, ready for a career post-PhD.

What advice would you give to current Bartlett PhD students?

As my PhD supervisor wisely told me: a PhD is not a sprint-run, but more like a marathon run – i.e. pace yourself as it is all about long-term endurance. Equally do not let the PhD itself stifle you and take over everything in your life: it is also the ideal time to broaden other personal and professional experiences, such as teaching, pedagogical reflections and of course - friendships and networks for life. Be hungry and treasure the intellectual challenge, even though going outside your comfort zone can be scary at times.

Finally, when I considered leaving architecture practice for academia, a wise mentor advised me that I should “think creatively about my future” and not be stifled by what others expected me to do and how to do it. I advise the same to others: forge your own way and what feels right for you; do not see your background or discipline as a ‘straightjacket’.