As we kick off another year, we feature a wide-ranging interview with the ACA’s first female Vice President of the National Executive Committee and President of the NSW / ACT branch Agi Sterling.
Agi is director of Sterling Architects, and has run her own successful practice in the eastern suburbs of Sydney for almost 20 years. Before she became a sole practitioner, she spent several years working in large practice on schools, hospitals, medical centres and other large commercial projects. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects, a member of the CPD Committee of the Institute of Architects in NSW, and founder of the Sydney East Architects group (with continuing involvement with the CPD program).
Here, Agi takes a look back on her career and shares her plans for 2019, including a raft of new projects and a focus on building a strong, supportive ACA community.
Can you share a little about your experience of university and your early working life?
I was a graduate for almost 15 years of my working life. I went to a technical high school in Czechoslovakia, where I actually physically learned how to lay bricks, render, paint, everything that was available in the school. So, I understood the technical aspects of building and how things fit together. Then I did two and a half years of university studying architecture, but halfway through my studies I moved to Australia. I married and had three children. When the children were big enough that I didn’t have to worry about them, I went back to university.
Because I went to a technical high school and was already halfway through university, I was fairly competent. In a very short time I was doing the work of an architect while finishing off university. My first job was for four years working in a big firm doing schools and hospitals, which was amazing. After a few years break, I went back to work for Kann Finch, another fairly big firm. I wanted to be a stage designer and was very interested in interiors – designing from the inside out. I worked for seven years for Geyer Design, which is a fairly big firm of fifty people with offices in Sydney and Melbourne. I was working there on a lot of interiors, which was very interesting. At the same time, I worked as the project architect for Hutchison Telecommunications, designing mobile phone switch stations. I built all their mobile phone switch sites – two in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. I travelled so much I sometimes got to the airport and I wasn’t sure where I was going.
We won a Master Builders award for best technical project for the Sydney switch site. I also won an award for a call centre in Brisbane, which was described as ‘streets ahead of the rest’.
Then in 1999 I started working on my own. I designed medical centres and commercial projects, and I do a lot of residential.
Why did you go into business yourself?
I was asked to do so much work while I was moonlighting that I just got too tired of having a full-time job and doing all this other work. My mother was in a nursing home and required a lot of attention. I couldn’t do all three. I had so many opportunities coming my way. I was also getting more interested in residential. I’d had enough of the big projects.
My practice is doing exactly what I had hoped it would do. I have a good quality of life. It allows me to do a lot of unpaid voluntary work. I’m busy with the ACA and I’m busy with the Australian Institute of Architects. I feel that Australia has been too good to me not to give back. I need to have the time to do that. I need to have time to do my work, both paid and unpaid, and also to spend time with my grandchildren.
I work here from a home office. I have a laptop. All my support staff work off-site. I do my sketching here like in the old days. I scan it and send it, and people send me back the drawings. I work with one other architect plus a draughtsman. If I need additional assistance, I can call on more. Usually, between the three of us we manage the office. I don’t have an ambition to grow bigger, because this is nice and comfortable.
Can you talk about your involvement with professional organisations?
My involvement all started because I was once a mother with little children, and I understand the challenges involved in balancing family and career. For me it was quite important to get involved in professional education and mentoring, and helping young mothers come back to the workforce. These issues are still very important to me. I am interested in professional development. I believe if you don’t keep updating your knowledge then you fall behind. That’s why I’m very happy that the ACA has the webinar program. It’s an excellent program for a wide variety of practitioners, offering useful and topical content and insights in a flexible way. It also gives mothers with young children the opportunity to sit down at night with a cup of coffee and continue learning through our webinars. I’m pushing the same agenda at the Institute.
I started out with the Institute 19 years ago, at the same time as I started my own practice. I established a group called the Sydney East Architects, which started out as a social group. Today there are five networks around Sydney. I was the Chair there, and then I became the Chair of all the Chairs. That was fine. But then when I joined the ACA, I decided I had to cut back somewhere, so we put someone else in charge. But I am still on the Committee and heavily involved in the CPD program.
So, today I am involved in three groups. I am on the CPD Committee of the Institute, I’m involved with the Sydney East Architects CPD program and I’m President of the NSW/ACT branch of the ACA. I have developed a very good relationship with the NSW President of the Institute, Andrew Nimmo, and we meet every couple of months. We serve the profession in different ways. The ACA deals with the business of architecture, and the Institute has all the nice things, such as the awards. The Institute offers what architects want and the ACA offers architects what they need. You can’t have one without the other.
Last year, we sent the ACA – Vic/Tas President, Paul Viney, to talk to the NSW Chapter of the Institute about the Architects’ Time/Cost Calculator, which they appreciated. We are also working on a ‘Future of Architecture’ forum, which we are planning for the new year. We want to involve all the other groups, including the Institute, because our strength is in numbers.
I have been involved with the ACA for six or seven years now. I knew nothing about the ACA when I joined, but my friend and former ACA national president Steve Kennedy encouraged me to join. And I’m a doer. I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about whether I should do something. My attitude is ‘Let’s go and do it’.
Who are the current members of the NSW/ACT branch committee?
Our Vice President is Michael Lewarne from Redshift Architecture and Art, our secretary is Greg Isaac from Fulton Trotter Architects, and our treasurer is Harry Hamor from Gibbon Hamor and Associates. We also have Steve Pearse from Steve Pearse Architecture, Justin Loe from Studio JLA, Kathy Trelease from Eeles Trelease, Steve Kennedy from Kennedy Associates, and David Springett from Paragrid. Our Executive Officer is Marie Frost.
How has the ACA changed since you joined?
The NSW/ACT branch has changed a lot in the last six years. Previously, we didn’t organise any face to face events. We had lots of meetings and conversation. We had a bit of CPD online, which the ACA had just started when I joined. But I’m more interested in face to face activities. For me, it’s important that the ACA builds a community. If you do the webinars that’s excellent, but this doesn’t mean you’re part of a community. If everyone sits in their own office, there’s no opportunity to meet, socialise and share experiences. However, when you have regular face to face activities, you become a community. So, we had a few events in 2018, and we have more planned for 2019.
Topics we’d like to cover at events this year include the Housing Market Slowdown, Contracts, Reclaiming Project Management, Change Management within the Business of Architecture, Software, and Setting up a Practice. We’re also planning our seminar on the Future of Architecture for early in the year. We are keen to expand our event program into Canberra this year. We recently conducted a brainstorming session with Canberra architects, and have had interest on a range of topics for events, such as Marketing, Why Architects Matter, Sustainable Practice and Practice Management.
I’m discussing setting up a system where women with young children can put themselves forward for part-time, casual or contract employment to help architects with particular projects or to help fill in during holidays. I’m doing some research about this at the moment. It’s a big project but a good one.
Something I’m keen on establishing is a chat site for ACA members. We have a chat site set up for the Sydney East Architects and it’s extremely valuable. People ask some really good questions about a challenge they might have on a project and 10 people might reply to give advice. Some questions are more complicated than others.
We have a lot of big plans for 2019.
What are the biggest challenges in the industry in NSW?
Without a doubt, the slowdown in the housing market. Employment agencies are already sending me CVs of architects. Everyone’s business is affected.
What are your future plans for the ACA?
More networking and sharing knowledge. That’s why I’m so interested in setting up a chat site – to share knowledge. I want ACA members to feel that this is a community and that they belong somewhere. It’s important. People enjoy seminars and chances to get together. Members can learn from a one-hour talk, then enjoy finger food, drinks and a chance to chat. These events are good for your CPD, but also good to talk and mingle, and to feel like you belong.
My work with the ACA is all about building these kinds of connections, to give people the chance to get to know one another, to be able to call on one another, to build relationships.
What are the challenges?
It is difficult to attract young women (and men) to the ACA Committee, particularly if they have young children. They are juggling so much. They are running their practice and running after the children. It’s hard for them to have time to be involved.
I spoke once to some students at the UNSW. There were many young women in the class. I said to them that if they wanted children they should be thinking ahead and making sure they are in a position with their job that they can work from home and have flexibility when their children are young. They looked at me as if I was crazy – but it’s something they should think about.
Things are changing a bit, but not fast enough. It’s very difficult to balance both. My husband often looks after the grandchildren and does the running around to ballet classes and basketball. There’s a lot of taxiing and logistics. But I’m a sole practitioner, so if all else fails I can pick up the pieces.
As you look back over your career, what are you most proud of?
First of all, I’m self-taught in English. I didn’t speak English when I came to Australia, so it was a big deal for me. Also, people have been happy with the projects I’ve done for them, which has continued to generate business for me. I’ve never had to actively pursue work. It has always come to me. At the end of 2018 I was made a Fellow of the Institute of Architects. It felt like I’d gained the respect of my community. And, of course, I’m proud of my grandchildren.