Gillian Burgis-Smith featured in the Architects DataFile Magazine

The Journey of Gillian Burgis Smith to Inclusive Architecture

Gillian Burgis Smith’s journey into architecture is nothing short of inspiring. From a young age, Gillian faced numerous challenges, including outdated industry mindsets and major health obstacles. Despite these, she has harnessed her experiences to create inclusive environments for others, making significant strides in the field of architecture and design.

Discovering a Passion for Architecture

Gillian’s path to architecture began somewhat serendipitously. After leaving school at 16, she initially pursued a career in local government, considering it a stable and secure job. Her exposure to the Architects Department during her tenure there sparked her interest. Watching architectural trainees at work, she realised that architecture was her calling. Years later, she discovered that her birth parents were also involved in the architecture and design field, reinforcing her natural affinity for the profession.

Facing gender biases head-on, Gillian enrolled in evening classes for an ONC in Building Studies, which qualified her as an architectural technician. Determined to advance further, she pursued a foundation course at North London Poly and a part-time BA (Hons) at Greenwich University. Her perseverance paid off, and she became one of only 3% of women who graduated in architecture from Greenwich in 1994.

Battling Health Obstacles

Gillian’s career took a significant turn when she suffered two strokes. These events profoundly impacted her professional life, making her acutely aware of the importance of lifestyle, health, and happiness in the work environment. She began to focus on the diverse needs of individuals, particularly those with different physiological, physical and psychological responses to environments.

Her research during this period highlighted that design for people with both visible and non-visible disabilities was often a tick-box exercise. Gillian conducted one-to-one research interviews with neuro divergent and neurodegenerative individuals in creative fields to understand how they adapted their work processes during the pandemic. 

This research underscored the need to consider physical, sensory, and cognitive factors in design, leading to her refocused career path.

Founding Her Own Practice

Gillian’s health challenges, including a brain tumor diagnosis, further shaped her approach to architecture. The diagnosis, while initially daunting, proved to be a turning point, allowing her to manage her health better and dedicate more time to family. It also provided her with a unique perspective on inclusive design.

In response to her experiences, Gillian founded Strawberry Leopard, a consultancy dedicated to creating inclusive and universal design solutions. She also co-founded Citizens with Experience, leveraging collective lived experiences to inform her work. Her consultancy focuses on lifting barriers to entry, disclosure, recognition, and promotion in the design industry through inclusive practices.

Pioneering Inclusive Environments

Gillian’s extensive experience and personal challenges have positioned her uniquely to advocate for inclusive design. She emphasises the importance of considering neurodiversity in architectural design, which has traditionally focused more on physical accessibility. Her work highlights that nearly 13 million disabled people in the UK do not use a wheelchair, including neuro divergent and neurodegenerative groups, making inclusive design more critical than ever.

Gillian founded Strawberry Leopard, a consultancy dedicated to creating inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible experiences and promoting health and wellbeing. 

Her approach, using an impact driven innovation framework leverages action-based research and 7 principles:

1: Foundational Thinking

2: Life Centric

3: Democratised

4: Lived Experience

5: Regenerative

6: Impactful

7: Iterative

to illuminate issues and create optimal life-centred solutions for all (people, place and planet). 

Looking Ahead

Gillian continues to push the boundaries of inclusive design, exploring methodologies and platforms such as Extended Realities (XR) and Augmented Realities (AR) to identify challenges and opportunities. She aims to bridge gaps between neuroscience, behaviorism, and architecture to create more inclusive environments and experiences.

Her vision for the future involves a top-down and bottom-up approach, with government legislation, planning regulations, and educational curricula recognising the need for design equity for all . By encouraging open collaboration and reflecting the real world in all sectors, Gillian believes we can create environments that accommodate everyone.


Gillian Burgis Smith’s journey is a testament to resilience, innovation, and the power of inclusive design. Her work has significantly impacted the architecture and design community, fostering environments that cater to diverse needs and promoting a more inclusive society. Her story is an inspiration for all, demonstrating that overcoming challenges can lead to profound and positive changes in the world.

Read Gillian’s Interview in Magazine here.

April 2024