Malaysian-born architect nominated for two awards for conservation work on House of Commons

It took Catharine Ann Arul Dass 22 years to realise her dream of becoming an architect. But it was worth the wait.

Growing up in Ipoh, Catharine had always wanted to be an architect. Now, she is reaping the benefits, thanks to her digital conservation work on the Unesco Heritage site – Palace of Westminster, more specifically, the House of Commons.

For her work, Catharine is a finalist for the Asian Women of Achievement Awards (Real Estate, Infrastructure and Construction), and European Women In Construction and Engineering Awards (Digital Innovation).

Judging for this year’s awards is on April 29. The winners will be announced on June 16.

The European Women In Construction and Engineering Awards will be held on May 26.

“I am just an ‘Ipoh-mali’ girl. I never dreamt of being nominated for any awards. All I wanted to be while growing up was an architect,” said the former student of Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.

She shared that while growing up, she made a mistake, and switched from Science stream to Arts, as she thought that would help her become an architect.

“That was a big mistake, as after I finished my Form Six, I did not have the grades to pursue my dream.

“I still did not realise what the mistake was, and repeated Form Six twice more. I call it the ‘Upper Six, Super Six, and Mega Six’,” she quipped.

“In 1995, I heard that I could qualify for an architecture course in Politeknik Ungku Omar. I completed the two-year certificate course, and continued my studies at University Malaya.”

She later pursued her Masters at the University of Glasgow in 2017.

Catharine said she was surprised when she got the job to work at the House of Commons, as she had limited knowledge about conservation.

However, her background in digital construction and architecture helped her secure a spot on the team.

She is now a respected member of the conservation team for the House of Commons. And it all started with a question about doors!

“I started researching what was lacking and asked questions about anything and everything,” recalled Catharine.

“One day, while asking about classifying information digitally, I asked how we could differentiate between a normal door and something historic. The reply was, ‘a door is a door’.

“I said, that is true for most buildings, but not in one in our environment.”

Catharine referred to the catalogue of assets and realised there was no information about heritage assets. So, she started listing everything, from rooftops to the floors, and even the gutters.

She got in touch with historical societies in England and Scotland, and other entities that had faced problems with digitalising their heritage.

The next step was to get in touch with the National Building Standards, which produced the classifications and gave them a list of assets that Catharine wanted to use in the digital construction.

“Initially, they had generic classifications for all types of buildings, but now, there are more specific ones for historical buildings,” said Catharine, who has since given several talks about her work.

She said building information modelling helps monitor electrical, mechanical and plumbing – the lifeblood of a building.

Catharine saw that it could also provide data on the architectural period, construction method, the style, the age, and the problems associated with it.

“We needed to collect this information as part of the digital building data to be included in the facilities’ management system. This is so that the information is in one location,” said the avid gardener.

“I did that as a pilot for one building facade restoration project. That led me to pursue this for our work on the House of Commons.”

Catharine’s team is also helping to restore Big Ben, perhaps the most famous clock in the world, to its original glory.

“Big Ben is my manager’s project, or rather, his ‘baby’. Before the team started work, many had assumed that the clock face was black.

“But that was due to pollution,” said Catharine.

“Only now do people know it is Prussian blue and gold. The team will complete the restoration work later this year.

“I had the honour to see the restoration work up close and even touched the clock’s hands.”