Emma Williamson’s recent presentation for the ACA’s annual Business of Design lunch in Adelaide took the audience through the strategies she and partner Kieran Wong have used in building and rebuilding their business over the last 25 years.
Given how much time we have spent focusing on the business of our practice its funny how flippantly we started. Kieran and I had just graduated and there wasn’t anyone in Perth we wanted to work for. The idea of starting a studio came up over dinner with new friends. We just thought, “Why not? We’ve got nothing to lose!’
We didn’t have much of a game plan, had no experience in running a business, and certainly no work beyond the typical trajectory of alts and adds for friends and family. Our hope was that one day we’d design a house for someone we didn’t know.
It took a few years, and the reality of our own mortgage and family, to focus ourselves on the business of our practice. It was a few more years after that I began to see the crafting of our practice as a design opportunity in itself.
For the last 15 years we have consistently worked on our business – refining it, risking it and reflecting on it. I would need much longer than this lunch to share with you all the times we have messed up – today is more of a snapshot of some of the key moves and the drivers for these decisions.
A little over two years ago, Kieran and I found we needed to start anew. Our merger with a big national practice had failed. Despite upheaval and distress, this shift presented a rare opportunity to undertake a deep cleanse and to focus on a narrower bandwidth of work. We were able to realign our values with our personal views on the future of practice.
Plus, we had a lot to work with. Unlike the piecemeal beginning of CODA (our first practice), we were not starting from scratch: we had a portfolio of work, we had fabulous staff who had worked with us for years (and who were coming with us) and more than 20 years’ experience in running a business.
OK – so what did we bring with us and what did we leave behind?
I preface this by saying that many of our decisions have been made as a reaction to an existential crisis around where we see the health of the profession…
From a structural perspective, we left behind the idea of growing a practice and instead decided that we would focus on developing and maintaining a small team of experts, allowing us to be nimble in the way that we work.
We decided we would not call ourselves a practice and instead call ourselves an agency – leaving ourselves open to be understood as built environment experts and problem solvers, but not necessarily architects.
And then there are larger themes that I want to unpack and share in a little more detail.
We try to understand ‘The Lay of the Landscape’
Although I don’t know the landscape in South Australia, I do know what it’s like to work and to build a practice in a small town where a handful of established practices dominate the market.
Like Perth, the critical mass that comes with a large population is missing. There isn’t the public support and discourse around good (and bad) design, and there is often a lack of confidence in new and younger practices. There’s an established culture of giving projects to the old (white) men in charge of big firms.
There was the issue of the diminishing role that architects had on projects. No longer the lead consultant, we found ourselves working as a part of large teams, with many of the members seeming to be replicating aspects of the work that we would have considered within our capacity and scope.
Then there was the issue of increasing liability on projects within complex contracts and structures that made it difficult for us to have clear lines of sight over decisions for which we were potentially responsible.
And then there was the sad fact that we have managed to cannibalise our own profession by racing to the bottom on fees. As a service industry it’s not difficult to see the link between lower fees and the need to spend less time on projects to make the business viable. And it’s not news to anyone that less time spent on projects often leads to a less than optimal outcome. And a less than optimal outcome reinforces a public perception that design does not necessarily deliver value.
Unlike many other businesses, an architecture practice has no value, so all the money you make as a business owner relies on you working, not selling the business. And if you think you can sell it to your staff as your succession plan, well, they can’t afford to buy it because they get paid so little and have no capacity now that they need almost a million dollars to buy a house in a suburb they don’t want to live in.
In summary, we saw the landscape as bleak. We thought hard about other ways to practice that would enable us to be challenged and stimulated, create an impact, stay small and remain living in Fremantle. We wanted to design a practice that was nimble, national and focused on community.
We see real value in VALUES
At CODA, we identified core values that allowed us to talk about our work and our practice to those outside and those within it. They were helpful in creating clarity around our purpose. We talked about being useful, joyful, generous and stealthy.
When we started TFA, I spent a surprising amount of time looking to redefine our values. I thought we needed new words for a new business – a fresh start – and then I realised that this was a pointless exercise. As a business owner these values travel with us, and so these came across and underpinned our early decisions.
So, what do these words mean to us?
TO BE USEFUL
We have consistently positioned our practice to serve the many rather than the few.
In setting up the Fulcrum Agency, we asked ourselves how we could be useful within the confines of the landscape as we saw it. How could we usefully employ our architectural skill, our design thinking, our experience and our network?
We were exhausted from pitching on work that we were never going to get because we couldn’t compete on price. And we wanted to finish each day feeling like we had achieved something. We realised we were more interested in relationships and advocating for better design than necessarily being the author of individual buildings.
We decided to focus our energies on using our skills and experience to address problems in the built environment – particularly with our First Nations communities. We felt that we could be the most useful when we consider ways to leverage built environment outcomes for communities in need.
TO BE GENEROUS
For whatever reason, Kieran and I have always been very conscious of our privilege and the privilege of our education and feel a strong sense of duty to do something useful with it.
I also subscribe to the view that it really doesn’t cost anything to be generous to others – even your competitors. When one person does well, we are all better for it and we think this is certainly true if we want to raise the value of design in places like Perth or Adelaide.
Professionally, we have experienced incredible generosity from others. We have sought counsel from some of the most respected practice owners in Australia, who have given up their time to offer us support when we have been in a bind and needed a hand.
In turn, we have sought to support others through teaching, mentoring and advice. We have constantly looked to participate in the profession, seeking ways to connect nationally and to make incremental improvements. I have sat on committees such as the Gender Equity Committee, Kieran was previously the National President of the ACA, and our practice is currently a funding partner on a research project to do with mental health and wellbeing in the profession.
Alongside the formation of TFA, we set up The Fulcrum Fund, with 1% of our turnover being paid into the foundation to support targeted projects in our community and beyond.
TO BE JOYFUL
At CODA being joyful was a driver for our work environment, as well as the language of our buildings.
At TFA this is still a driver. We look for opportunities for colourful collaborations with the communities in which we work. Our work is serious and sometimes heartbreaking. It is confronting to see areas of entrenched poverty and disadvantage, and to take some responsibility for this. But we are also privileged to be learning about Country, to see our beautiful landscape and to be creating rich connections with First Nations communities.
We spend so much time at work as a proportion of our week and it needs to be enjoyable. Within our office we recognise and respect that people have busy lives outside of work. We don’t demand overtime of our staff and we offer flexibility for people with other responsibilities or interests.
For us, a lot of being joyful is about the way we communicate with one another. Although we are small, we have a staff meeting each Monday so that everyone is across the tempo of the week, and we continue a 15-year tradition of one person preparing lunch for the office every Tuesday.
TO BE STEALTHY
Many years ago, my father gave me an image of a wolf wearing a sheepskin – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This image came to summarise a mode of operating that we would regularly deploy at CODA. It reminded us to think about the problem at hand and consider if adding an architect was the best solution. We always look to use design thinking to solve problems and keep an open mind about what the outcome should be.
Now it has become the defining difference in our new practice – or should I say agency. We want to bring design thinking to the table in tackling the many built environment and infrastructure challenges facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and we want this definition of our skill to broaden beyond designing buildings.
We have listened to the wisdom of Elders
Being a husband-and-wife operation – who started straight out of Uni – it was clear that we needed some outside input to help us think strategically about our business. What this support looks like has changed, but this is a theme that has continued throughout our professional life. I see it as a type of therapy.
I first shifted my focus to the design of our business about 15 years ago by undertaking a year-long “growth program” at Curtin University. Through structured classes and a mentor, we covered systems, HR, communications and finance. It totally changed the way that we worked and set us on a path to consciously consider where we wanted to be and how we could get there.
I listened to lots of talks by business owners from different industries (NB: this was before the age of the podcast). One that struck a chord was by a woman who had her own business making customised dog tags – obviously quite a stretch away from architecture! What was interesting was that she appointed an advisory board of fellow business owners to help her think strategically whilst working alone.
I thought this was such a good idea and so we set up our own version, calling on the expertise of a retired large practice director, an accountant and a former Director General from State Government. We paid our members and met monthly over three years. We were held accountable for preparing papers, having our finances in order and allocating time to think strategically about our future. This was a big deal – we were a practice of seven and the board cost us as much per year as having an additional staff member – but we made the investment because we wanted to purposely shift the direction and impact of our practice.
Our projects now mean we have opportunities to learn a great deal from our First Nations’ Elders and we make sure we are listening closely. We have hit a tipping point in our career where we are not just looking to Elders for wisdom, but also the emerging wisdom of younger people, who keep us agile and ensure we are not succumbing to entrenched ways of thinking.
We have grappled with the powers of INFLUENCE
It was during the establishment of our first advisory board that we were asked to take ownership of the idea of influence. And more specifically the notion that Kieran and I, as the business owners, have influence and we need to use it if we want to drive change. It was a bold and slightly uncomfortable space to move into, but over time it has become a powerful driver for the decisions we make and how we communicate.
Our desire to be useful, to make impact and be influential meant that we had to be realistic about our trajectory as a design-led practice operating from WA. We took the opportunity of a new practice to think closely, to consider the effort versus outcome equation. We decided we would try to move further up the chain of influence.
To do this we have had to shift our identity and work in different ways, drawing again on the idea of a wolf in sheep ’s clothing. Amongst our clients, we support Government and Aboriginal Corporations and have worked on everything from policy to the project management of a sewer upgrade – and everything in between.
We have changed the way we operate as architects and invest in building relationships and the co-design opportunities to engage users in their housing.
We take time to reflect on the applicability of this in other circumstances – turning our practice into research and then our research back into practice.
There is a deathly silence in the suburbs when you cast around to look for the impact of the architect, and I have become very interested in the influence we can have in this space through the Design Review process. I sit on or Chair several DRPs in WA, including the State Design Review Panel. I was thrilled to hear late last week that I have been appointed to the State Design Review Panel for South Australia.
As a business, we talk about and value the impact of incremental change and started to ponder a tactic that we call ‘radical incrementalism’.
The need for AGILITY and the question of scale
I think that as a profession we have been so slow to make changes. We have shown a spectacular lack of agility in a world that is changing fast. So many industries have been disrupted and it has been frustrating to see how resistant our profession has been to adapt to new modes of working.
It has been the silver lining of COVID that finally practice leaders have seen that flexibility and even part-time work are possible in architecture. Historically, this has been difficult at best and most likely impossible for women to negotiate without being relegated to delivering EOIs as a career. So much talent has been lost through rigid thinking around workplace practice and our built environment is poorer for it. Who would have thought the disruption to this problem was as simple as getting men to work from home to see that it is possible – and even positive!!
Where we may have been slow to adapt to new modes of working, the same cannot be said for our love of technology. But alas this has also become an issue, particularly for small and medium size practices. In the same way that the invention of domestic appliances has resulted in women doing more housework – not less – as our standards of cleanliness have raised, the evolving technologies in CAD have increased the expectations around what we will deliver and when.
This would be fine – and could even trigger a disruption – except for the fact that we seemed to miss the bit where we shifted our fee structures or increased our fees overall. In fact, at exactly the same time as we have accepted lower fees for our work, we have also effectively further reduced our fees by spending more time on projects – offering more information for the same (or less) money. This burden is felt but absorbed by large practice and creates even more obstacles for small practice to compete on larger commissions.
When the opportunity came to start our new practice, we decided we wanted to be more like a tugboat than any of the other ships in port. We needed to have our own power, to remain small and importantly to be responsive to rapidly shifting conditions. We have a team that we would like to keep and who are becoming more and more expert in their field. These are people who have worked with us for between 5 and 10 years. They are ambitious and so it’s been interesting to see how we can keep them feeling fulfilled with no pathway to promotion (in the traditional sense).
TheFulcrum.Agency works on a model of partnership, collaboration, contracting and outsourcing – short projects with a stable of collaborators spread across the country. This has been impactful in several ways. Firstly, it has enabled us to build networks Australia-wide, in particular as we are looking to partner with First Nations businesses in our work. Secondly it has enabled us, in some instances, to outsource documentation to smaller practices as a way of supporting them and building their capacity. But it also allows us to move into a space where we can develop meaningful and enjoyable relationships with people who offer an alternate perspective on things.
The role of CREATIVITY and curiosity in our business journey
Finally, I want to say that creativity is really what drew me to architecture in the first place. I am still in love with design / making / building / architecture. We think we have made some necessary and positive moves to ensure we can participate in this most noble profession by applying a creative lens to the way our business is structured.
We continue to be curious about how other practices structure their business and align their work with their values. Thanks to a conversation with Koslov Architects, we are 90% through our B-Corp certification and continue to be curious and inspired by their employee ownership model.
We have just started a new round of strategic business development with a consultancy recommended to us by Jeremy McLeod of Breathe Architecture, and are looking into the applicability of a not-for-profit social enterprise as a part of our business structure. It’s fair to say that not every move has been 100% successful but we continue to reflect on how we can evolve and adapt to the changes in our landscape.
Curiosity has led us towards a desire to understand more about the issues that impact our First Nations’ People as well as a desire to know more about Country and the true history of Australia. It’s an incredible privilege to be exposed to this rich culture and humbling to know that we have so much to learn.
We are in a process of stripping away what we know – or think we know – to learn new ways of working to achieve outcomes in which we are not the author. As a team we are part of a collective force that is chipping away, testing the idea of radical incrementalism.
Emma Williamson is a partner at TheFulcrum.Agency, a creative consultancy founded in 2018 but built on decades in practice, that leverages community and social outcomes through evidenced-based design, strategy, advocacy and research. Emma spent nearly a decade as a lecturer at Curtin University in the Department of Architecture and Interior Architecture. She was the inaugural Chair of the National Committee for Gender Equity for the Institute of Architects, is an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Monash University and holds a position on the Western Australian State Design Review Panel.