Open Book: 3 Architects' Advice... That They Didn't Learn at Uni
Three architects, six questions – discover the challenges, turning points and must-have tools for these professionals
In this monthly story series, Houzz goes behind the scenes with three companies that have carved out a niche in their field. This month, we caught up with architects Sally Holbrook of Northbourne Architecture + Design, Paul Hecker of Hecker Guthrie, and Marc Bernstein of Melbourne Design Studios (MDS). Read on to discover their greatest business breakthroughs and the best professional advice they’ve received.
Sally Holbrook, director of Northbourne Architecture + Design
1. What was the most challenging time in your business?
1. What was the most challenging time in your business?
- Sally Holbrook: During my student years at The University of Melbourne I learnt how to think, investigate, explore ideas, and how to be an architect. This was fantastic if you just wanted to be an architect. But if you wanted to run your own practice, there are many other skills required, such as how to be a good employer, how to create a great company culture, how to find new work, how to market your service, and how to manage finances. So it was a rude shock at the outset, though luckily I’ve developed a real passion for the business side of architecture too.
Paul Hecker, co-founding director of Hecker Guthrie; image by Nick Wilkins
- Paul Hecker: The most challenging time in our business was when we decided to change direction. We started organically and for a long time we ran the business as a studio, with us designers running our own projects. We didn’t have many processes in place, so we needed to rethink the entire business model and reassess everything we did.
2. How did you trade out of it?
- Sally Holbrook: I became addicted to reading business books! When I became a business owner I heard many other successful business owners in other industries say, ‘You need to work on your business, not in your business’. It made absolutely no sense to me at the outset but I completely understand now. I probably split my time 70/30 now as an architect/business owner.
- Paul Hecker: It wasn’t necessarily trading out of it, but when we have lean periods we now have processes that help us understand how to get out of them. As founding directors, Hamish Guthrie and I have always been cautious financially and learnt how to address issues quickly. A lot of firms ignore problems and can’t anticipate them. We are at a point where we are able to forecast pretty accurately the outcomes for the business.
- Marc Bernstein: I like to approach challenges with a sense of humour, compassion, respect, understanding, and good organisational skills – that’s a recipe I’ve found has almost always worked. The core values of our company spirit definitely helped too, including open and honest communication, empowerment and support, and a commitment to excellence. These positive values help create a relaxed and productive atmosphere that we can thrive in, to deliver inspiring spaces for our clients.
- 3. What brought about a major turning point in your company?
- Sally Holbrook: The completion of our first built project really projected us forward. But also employing great people with useful skills really increased our capacity to help more people with their projects.
- Paul Hecker: Becoming a business that relied heavily on vigorous processes. If you feel you’re running well and have the right people to run the business, it frees up time to design. We don’t run into the design side straight away but analyse the project and ask what we need, what we can do to produce it and how long it will take. This means before we even start a job, we have a really clear understanding of the amount of work that is required to implement a project.
- Marc Bernstein: In our second year of operating, we had a major client trust us with an amazing project full of potential. The project aligned with what we are aiming for in our work – sustainable, beautiful architecture that is warm and welcoming for its users – and this led to our first wave of major industry awards. I think we won about 15 awards just for that one project, and many other awards have followed in the years since.
4. What’s the best tool your business uses?
- Sally Holbrook: We use a time, projects, and people management app.
- Paul Hecker: Hamish and I are luddites. I studied design before computers were mainstream. I’m Mr Email and Google only. We have an in-house expert who makes sure we’re up-to-date with programs and 3D rendering tools.
- Marc Bernstein: There are a number of technical tools we use including Vectorworks 3D, Coincraft, Asana, a good pen and of course Houzz, which is fantastic, especially when our clients can send us their Ideabooks with thoughts on what they do and don’t like and why. But I believe our most important tool is that we listen with our hearts.
5. What do you think are the challenges ahead for the industry?
- Sally Holbrook: Ensuring quantity, not quality. Buildings should not be considered ‘throwaway’ consumer products. But unfortunately, many new buildings being constructed today are of such poor quality, their life-cycles are minimal – who wants to be replacing their home’s cladding after five years?
- Paul Hecker: As people become more design savvy, we have to be careful the industry doesn’t become commodified. I love that people are interested in engaging with design, but it does dumb the industry down because everyone is trying to sell a quick, cheap fix.
- Marc Bernstein: We’ve always specialised in sustainable design at MDS, trying to somewhat lead and almost revolutionise the industry – but looking around me this summer, climate change is here. That’s the biggest challenge we face over the coming years as it will change everything we do as humans.
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6. What’s the best professional advice you’ve been given?
- Sally Holbrook: Give and you will receive. It works in life and business.
- Paul Hecker: If something is truly beautiful it will be beautiful today, beautiful tomorrow and beautiful forever – it’s about rising above fashion to create interiors that have longevity.
- Marc Bernstein: Listen and understand before you design and draw – wisdom from one of my professors at university. And this advice is from my first boss: never give up, keep focusing on your goal to create the amazing experience that exists in your own and your client’s head.
Which insights in these interviews resonate with your own professional experience? Tell us in the Comments below, like this story, follow these design professionals on Houzz, and join the conversation.
Missed last month’s interview with Houzz professionals? Catch up here with Open Book: 3 Bathroom Designers on Life Balance & Lessons Learned