Architect Rebekah Milliken Black and White Headshot
Willowfield development by Rebekah Milliken

Architect Rebekah Milliken talks building communities and purpose-driven design

In the world of architecture, it's not just about creating beautiful buildings. It's about crafting spaces that positively impact communities and people's lives. Architect Rebekah Milliken from Michael Whitley Architects, Belfast, embodies this ethos. With a passion for community-focused projects and a commitment to quality, she's making a significant mark in the field. In this exclusive Q&A blog, Rebekah shares her journey, insights and thoughts on the challenges facing the industry right now. 

Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in architecture?

A: My journey into architecture started with a love for making things. I enjoyed working with various materials and crafting spaces, even as a child. My family encouraged my creative interests, and I had an uncle who was involved in architecture, further sparking my interest. My parents would take me on days out to stately homes and I’d be amazed at the beauty of the buildings. I was drawn to the idea of transforming spaces and creating something impactful. Eventually, I got a work placement in an architecture practice and that experience solidified my path towards architecture. It felt like a natural progression for me. 

Q. Who or what are your design influences?

A: I draw inspiration from various architects and their work. Early in my placement, I went to the library and read loads of books to get familiar with different architects. One book I read was on Richard Meier and his Jubilee Church project, which made me realise the positive impact architecture can have on communities. Understanding that architecture is about so much more than buildings looking good was a real wow moment for me.

When I went to university, my tutors introduced me to Sigurd Lewerentz and Hans van der Laan. The simplicity in their design and brickwork left a significant impression on me. To achieve that simplicity is actually really technical, and they are two architects that influence me to this day.

In the modern context, I'm inspired by firms like Haworth Tompkins, especially their approach to reusing and repurposing existing buildings. 

Architecture sketch/drawing by Rebekah Milliken

Context sketch of Willowfield Avenue - an apartment development for the edlerly, build on the site of a former police station.

Q. Is reusing and repurposing something you do in your own projects?

A: At Michael Whitley Architects we work on a wide range of projects, including community centres, churches, housing and education facilities. Currently, I'm involved in the refurbishment of a listed building, and I enjoy the process of exploring the history and former uses of the site to inform the new design. This approach adds depth and meaning to the projects we undertake.

Q. What excites you most about architectures and your role in shaping the built environment? 

A: What excites me most is the collaborative aspect of architecture. Working with a team, clients and various stakeholders to create something that benefits the community is truly rewarding. Community projects, in particular, are exciting because they bring together people of all ages and backgrounds. The building becomes a focal point for the community, enhancing their quality of life. It’s not like one residential house where one person or family moves in and appreciates it. Community buildings are open to everyone and unite a diverse group of people.

We recently completed Walkway Community Centre in Belfast and it's a great example of how architecture can bring people together and enrich their lives. We worked with Belfast City Council and many other stakeholders who really cared about the project. It’s exciting to see there’s people there now using it and it truly is enhancing the community. 

Q. What other kind of community projects have you completed?

A: Community-focused projects are at the heart of our work. One significant project I started on when I joined Micheal Whitley Architects after university in 2012 was the Girdwood Community Hub in North Belfast, where we merged physical regeneration and eco-design principles. This project marked a confident step forward in an interface area, transforming the former Girdwood Barracks site into a state-of-the-art, socially inclusive centre.

We've also been actively engaged in projects with social housing. Designing social housing today isn't just about maximising units; it's about creating quality living spaces where community feel is enhanced, especially for the elderly. A prime example of this is Willowfield Avenue apartments in Belfast. Completed in 2021, it's an apartment development for the elderly, built on the site of a former police station. The choice of materials, like Wienerberger bricks, was essential to ensure the development blended seamlessly with the local area's townscape character. The communal space there is designed as a courtyard, making the most of the available space. Often, backland sites like this are overlooked in planning, but we transformed it into a high-quality area for residents to enjoy. This project was particularly rewarding and it's a testament to the positive impact of community-focused architecture.

Willowfield Avenue apartments - quality living spaces where community feel is enhanced

Q. Is there a project you've been part of that you are really proud of or a stand out moment of your career so far?

A: Girdwood Community Hub is definitely a project I’m proud of. It stands as a symbol of confidence in the community, having been built on the former Girdwood Barracks site. The project began with early site analysis and defining the site's unique characteristics, which set the direction for the entire project. Those pivotal moments at the beginning of a project, where everyone clicks and sees the idea, are unforgettable. It’s these instants where everyone involved says ‘let’s do this’ that really motivate me.

Another project that holds a special place in my career is Willowfield Avenue. Its focus on quality and creating a residential environment that enhances the lives of its residents is truly commendable.

In addition to these projects, a standout moment was winning the RSUA (Royal Society of Ulster Architects) Regeneration Award in 2016 for the Girdwood project. It felt like we really achieved something in Belfast with that scheme. 

Girdwood Community Hub - an RSUA (Royal Society of Ulster Architects) Regeneration Award winner.

Q. What do you think are the biggest challenages facing the architecture industry right now?

A: There are constant regulatory and legislative changes related to carbon emissions, sustainability and fire safety which can be hard to keep up with. Architects must stay updated on how these changes affect their projects and adapt, but with so many changes happening recently, it can be tricky as people are so busy.

Secondly, rising costs due to global events like the Ukraine crisis and COVID-19 impact projects by affecting the availability and cost of materials. This requires architects to find solutions that balance client expectations with realistic budgets.

Finally, another challenge is the rapid evolution of technology. This demands coordination within design teams to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding information production and utilisation.

Q. So, regarding your point on regulation, where do you go for help with legislation changes?

A: We start by thoroughly understanding the rules and regulations ourselves. Additionally, the RSUA host webinars and provide valuable information on changes. Manufacturers and suppliers, such as Wienerberger, play a significant role by helping us navigate changes and ensuring that our projects comply with the latest standards and regulations too. We rely on that relationship to make sure we don’t put a foot wrong. 

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring architects who want to make a positive impact throughout community-focused projects?

A: My advice to aspiring architects is to remember that it's not about you; it's about the community. Approach your projects with a commitment to benefiting the people who will use the spaces you create. Be willing to prioritise community needs over personal desires, whether it's a specific design element or feature. Community-focused projects require flexibility and the ability to adapt to various stakeholders' expectations. Your goal should be to create spaces that enhance people's lives, even if it means pushing some of your personal preferences aside. 

Q. Now we move onto some currently trending topics in the industry right now, starting with AI, which you touched upo earlier. Do you think there is room for AI in architecture?

A: AI certainly has potential in architecture, especially in areas like report writing and planning. However, it's crucial to remember that architecture is about more than just design; it involves understanding the context, history and community. While AI can assist with some tasks, it may not replace the depth of human understanding and creativity that architects bring to their projects. We need to find the right balance between AI and the human touch.

Q. Are you noticing a loss of skills in the industry, and how is it affecting your projects?

A: While our completed projects have maintained quality, we have faced challenges related to skill shortages. As architects, it's our responsibility to ensure that the skills needed for the project are met. This includes understanding the products we specify, creating detailed designs and overseeing their execution on-site. Manufacturers like Wienerberger play a crucial role in providing quality materials and technical support, which can help mitigate some of these challenges.

Find out more about Rebekah and her work at

Girdwood Community Centre, North Belfast

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