The Mill: Architecture + Design12 September 2018
Learning when to say no to the wrong client, the wrong project or the wrong situation in general has been valuable for Shannon Battisson of The Mill in Canberra.
When was the practice established and what were its early ambitions? How has the practice evolved over time?
The Mill started life in 2006, when founding director Shannon Battisson graduated from UNSW. Originally, it was only ever meant to be a side endeavour that allowed Shannon to have a business name so she could operate small private jobs, whilst she worked and gained experience in larger practice life.
In 2012, Shannon found herself considering taking on the business in a more concerted manner, and approached friend and interior designer Sarah Leeson to come onboard. From that moment, The Mill became a full-time endeavour for both designers, and grew to its current size over the next few years.
From a very humble beginning, The Mill now handles projects across almost all areas of architectural design, and has delivered projects across Australia, Hong Kong and the USA. Key to this evolution has been the equal footing that both architecture and interior design have in the business, and the manner in which both design streams operate in parallel at all stages.
Sarah Leeson and Shannon Battisson from The Mill: Architecture + Design in Canberra.
What is the practice philosophy?
Core to our practice philosophy has always been that good design shouldn’t have to cost the earth, in more ways than one. From the very beginning, we have worked to get professional design services out to those in the community who may traditionally not have considered it within their reach. For that reason, we work with clients to tailor a package of services that will see them use professional services for as much of the project as they can afford.
Further to this philosophy, we have a strong desire to improve the level of design in all areas of our city, but most particularly in the quality and performance of our general housing stock. Canberra is famous for poorly performing houses, both new and old, and in our harsh climate we can least afford it. We work with all manner of clients to help them improve the comfort levels within their homes, be they new or old, without a heavy reliance on energy-consuming mechanical intervention.
Can you tell us about a key project or business initiative that provided a turning point in the life of the practice?
In 2013/14, The Mill partnered with a local builder who shared our keen interest in environmentally responsive architecture to build a high performing, affordable house on a standard suburban block within one of the new developments in Canberra. Whilst the house was to provide a home for Shannon’s young family, the project presented an opportunity to build a home that showcased what could be done if quality of design and build was prioritised over scale and quantity. Based on the simple solar passive principles of quality of building envelope, orientation and shading, and providing a three-bedroom family home in under 150m2, the house was completed in 2014. Since completion, it has been opened to the public on multiple occasions, and around 1500 people have visited. This project helped The Mill in its aim to encourage an increase in the quality of housing stock and to show potential clients just how wonderful smaller spaces can be if they are designed properly. It proved to be a major turning point for the company.
What are some of the key business lessons you have learned?
The best lesson we ever learned was to concentrate on our clients, and on doing what we do best and are most passionate about. We then employ the assistance of others to help with the areas outside our expertise. That way, even since our earliest days, we moved forward with the quiet confidence gained by having an amazing support team behind us.
What have been the biggest challenges and successes in recent years?
One of the biggest challenges we faced as a company was balancing family and professional lives at a time when the business needed a great deal of our energy and focus. For the first five years of our company life, we had an entirely female staff. Whilst this was not intentional, it did present us with both our greatest challenges and our most rewarding successes. Being in a position to support other women in maintaining a presence in an industry famous for losing women at a staggering rate once family life begins, was incredibly rewarding. Having a wonderful team of designers, who worked on a project by project basis, as their need and desire dictated, also allowed us to grow our company at a pace we were comfortable with.
We now have six permanent full/part time designers, both men and women, and are well set up to support each other through the balance of both our professional career development and life in general.
What are the biggest issues involved in running the practice in 2018?
The biggest challenges we have faced in 2018 have all centred around learning to say no. Having the courage to say no to the wrong client, the wrong project or the wrong situation in general, has taken us a long time to master. Moving from a mindset of growth to one of stability, fulfilment and professional satisfaction has been paramount for us in 2018, and this has come with the very real need to say no at times.
How has technology impacted on how you conduct business?
Technology has impacted our clients more than it has our business in particular. Having started out small, we often worked remotely to one another, and have set up all of our work practices around flexibility and mobility. But for several of our clients, our main role has been to help them transition into a work mode that embraces agility over the traditional, and learning to embrace technology is paramount to our work here.
How do you market your practice?
We have never actively advertised our company in a traditional sense, and have always seen the majority of our work come through personal referral. That said, we have invested in professional support to develop a strong communications and social media strategy. This assistance has been invaluable in establishing a consistent look and feel across our different platforms, and in building a level of brand recognition that we hope will carry us beyond personal referrals in the future.
What are the ambitions for the practice?
We have never had ambitions of being the biggest practice in town, and we are pretty happy with our current size. We would like to continue to develop the type of projects we take on, and continue to support our team in reaching their full potential through further training, experience and motivation.
Where do you see the business in the next five years?
With any luck, we hope to be continuing to attract great clients who trust us to guide them through the wonderful ride that is architecture! We have a wonderful team and an office atmosphere that we value above all else, so we would hope that we can continue that moving forward.
If you had one piece of advice for someone starting out, what would it be?
Back yourself. Every time we have had a moment of questioning, no matter what that question relates to, we have stopped, thought it through and come to the same answer; either we believed we could do it, or we didn’t. It doesn’t matter what others think of your size, experience or capability. Make your own decisions, and then back yourself.
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