In a wide-ranging conversation with Susie Ashworth, Bijl Architecture founder and director Melonie Bayl-Smith shares the key lessons she has learned in practice, the value of mentoring programs, and the many benefits she has gained from involvement with professional organisations.
Photo (above and thumbnail): Kirsten Delaney
Can you talk a little bit about the trajectory of your career? How did you start out? What was your work experience like before you started your own practice?
When I was a student in the early 1990s, we were experiencing the ‘recession we had to have’ and there were no jobs. The industry was a nightmare at that time. I lived and studied in Newcastle, which made it even more challenging. Even getting unpaid work experience was difficult – and, of course, now completely illegal.
My first graduate experience was appalling. I had heard negative things about this particular architect, but I got the job, and I thought “Oh well, it’s better than having no job.” But he was a very cut-throat employer and I learned a lot about office politics there. People in his office didn’t like questions. They just wanted people to sit down, shut up and do mark-ups – whereas my philosophy is “There’s no such thing as a dumb question, but there is such a thing as a dumb mistake.” I say it to the builders, and I say it to my staff. It’s important to just ask the question, even if you think it may have been asked five times already. Ask it. It’s better to understand and have that learning opportunity.
But in the first job I had, they didn’t like questions. If you asked a question, you were considered stupid. It was short-term thinking. Also, this employer was very much an opportunist in the negative sense of the word. Someone a couple of years ahead of me at uni had left working for another practice. She had cold-called my employer looking for work. He saw that she had good project experience, that she could probably do X, Y and Z, and he probably didn’t need to pay her much more than me – so he hired her and very unceremoniously tried to fire me under the guise of the probationary period provisions. I took great umbrage to the way the whole event played out and applied for a hearing at the Industrial Relations Commission – and won. He didn’t follow any of the proper steps – even 20 years ago there was still a framework, and he didn’t follow any of it.
The outcome was that he had to pay me a few weeks extra pay and my legal costs. But of course, I was shattered. My confidence was shattered. And at the time in Newcastle there were very few architecture jobs in the city anyway, so finding a job past the start of the year was often incredibly difficult. I managed to find a contract position with a very nice couple of older gentlemen working on the Central Coast in Gosford. So, for six or seven months I commuted to the Central Coast and worked on the Gosford Art Gallery, documenting that project by hand. I learnt an enormous amount about construction while I was there, and you couldn’t find nicer people to work with. They loved teaching me things. They were very grandfatherly in that respect. It was great to have those six months to feel like I could be myself and learn in a small office.
When the contract finished, I had to find another job, and that one was part-time. This employer was enthusiastic, loved to teach me things, and let me take responsibility when I wanted it. He was teaching at university, so I was often in the office on my own running projects. But the problem was that he was so absent that the workflow, and subsequently the cash flow, dried up and as a result he wasn’t able to pay me for a number of weeks. It was never his intention for me to be unpaid, but it just happened that way. I left working for him after 20 months, not just because of the pay issue, but also I could see that I wasn’t receiving enough guidance. It’s the problem of being a competent, energetic but inexperienced graduate. People start expecting that you can do more than you actually can. It’s something I have to be careful of with my own staff. They still need enough guidance, even if they’re really good at what they do.
So, then I went and worked for a small commercial practice of about 10 people. The director was giving me good design work on multi-res. He gave me very positive feedback about my performance. I was feeling really positive. I was thinking of completing my logbook. I’d been working in architecture for two and a half years, but my logbook was looking patchy in places. Then, six weeks after I started with the practice, it was announced that the other director was splitting away from the practice. There was all this stuff that was going on when they employed me, but they didn’t give me an inkling about it. I don’t know whether they considered me a gap filler who was going to be shown the door soon. Who knows what happened? Now, there was a division of projects and sure enough – last in, first out the door. So, one of the jobs I had been specifically hired for (multi-res development) was put on hold because the client said to postpone until the directors had “sorted their shit out”. And because this job was bankrolling the practice to some extent, they had to look for an opportunity to cut staff. But I had no idea. I was there around ten weeks – two weeks off fulfilling my probationary period – and again (like the first job) I was let go. I was very naive about it. I didn’t see the signs.
For years later, I saw one of the directors around at various talks and events, and he would often apologise to me. I told him on more than one occasion, “You did what you had to do. I understand that now.”
So, I had a rough start in architecture. But it also taught me important and quite different lessons (from different people) about how not to run a practice and how not to treat others.
You were a professional musician for a long time. Were the skills you learned transferable to architecture?
For a while in high school, I harboured an interest in doing music professionally – as a career. I did end up working as a pianist and accompanist professionally for a long time, and I do think that if ever I were to throw in architecture I could always go back and be a professional muso if I wanted. I taught piano for 10 years, which got me through uni. It also gave me all sorts of opportunities for earning money when I couldn’t earn money as an architect (sad but true).
In between my architectural degrees, I took a year off to continue my music studies. I remember some of my friends and colleagues saying things like, “This is so frivolous. Why are you not going out trying to get architecture work? Why don’t you move to Sydney?” But so much of what I learned playing music, I’m able to apply in the way I think about design, the way I think about practice, the way I think about presentation, how you interpret things, how you take on board working with different people. When I was working as an accompanist, I’d have a day when one moment I was working with a seven-year-old trying to get a decent sound out of a trumpet and then an hour later I’d be working with a professional opera singer. On those days I’d have to be so nimble and I had to show an enormous amount of empathy working with all these different people with all these various levels of experience and capability. With teaching piano, I also had to get into the students’ heads (kids and adults) to communicate ideas of how to bring the artistry together with the technical means.
People talk about architecture and music being similar to each other, but it’s a pretty shallow comparison – “architecture is frozen music”. The parallels are much more about the practice of being a musician and the practice of being an architect. I tell my Professional Practice classes at UTS that you need to be able to talk to, say, six different people about the same project. You need to be able to talk to the client and the council planner and the builder and the consultant and the funding agency and the media at the end. How do you take this one project and make it relevant to all those different people? It’s about empathy, about understanding how to communicate what’s important to them. The same applies in music.
The Bijl team from left to right: Andrew Lee, Natasha Grice and Giles Gibbins (standing) and Rachael O’Toole and Chelsea Dawson (seated). Photo: Kirsten Delaney
Did you always want to set up your own practice?
Yes, I wanted to run my own practice from my first year in architecture as a student – and that small business ‘bug’ came from having grandparents who ran their own businesses. I had also worked as a music teacher and accompanist from the age of 15, so I was very used to invoicing people and dictating my terms, and managing myself and being my own boss. I knew that I’d have to work for other people, but it was always my intention to run my own business. I did choose to work in practices where I felt I could learn things, that there was a good chance of not being stuck in the middle of documentation, and that I would gain exposure across the whole business.
For me, running my own business was about autonomy first and foremost. I’ll admit that I’m not very good at taking instructions from other people. After that period of six years, when I worked for other people, I felt like I was definitely capable and competent as a designer and as a fledgling business manager to set up on my own. I had a business partner at the time, and we were very quickly able to evolve our small part-time practice to a full-time thing for both of us. We had a number of early wins – getting projects under our belt, getting them built, getting them published.
We found our first job through Archicentre, which back then was a fabulous, well-run thing. Once I became registered, I did the Archicentre training and very quickly was being sent concept design report commissions from them. We weren’t paid a lot, but the aim as hungry young practitioners was to do a great job and convert those concept design reports into ongoing clients and jobs. Pretty quickly we were building projects. The first one we built from an Archicentre lead was published in The Sydney Morning Herald. We were published in magazines. From 2004 onwards, we built the practice from there. We had that practice for nine years, and then I decided I wanted to do my own thing. I’ve had this practice Bijl Architecture for seven years now.
What are some of the key lessons you have learned from running your own practice?
You have to learn to trust that other people can do the work. You have to learn to delegate – otherwise, you’ll just run yourself into the ground. In delegating, and trusting other people to get things done, it means that you have to accept that sometimes people make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. People are trying to learn how to do stuff. Even very experienced people might do something in a different way to the way you want it to be done. You’ve got to evaluate constantly what’s the best way forward on something. That means that you’ve got to be open to other people. Sometimes that’s a challenge as a Director because you want to just put your foot down and say “Nup. We’re doing it my way”. Sometimes I do have to do that..!
To be honest, you do have to be willing to put other people ahead of yourself. By that I mean that you have to make sure that staff are paid on time, that they’re getting paid well, and that it’s a happy workplace. And sometimes (not always), but sometimes, those things come at a cost to yourself. Maybe it’s not your preference. You’d prefer to pay yourself more. But you don’t. It’s balancing out what’s important to keep the practice running.
A hard lesson I’ve had to learn is that at the end of the day, employees can walk out the door at any time. It’s a challenge. A good employer will invest time in their staff, because you want them to perform well, you want them to develop and you want them to feel ownership. I think ownership is really important, to get that buy-in from your staff – because then they will go above and beyond without you asking. Initiative taking is only going to happen when people feel that they’ve got buy-in and that there’s an all-round benefit to what they’re doing in adopting a ‘whole-team’ attitude.
But, ultimately, they can still walk out at any time. And they can walk out for all sorts of reasons. It can be other people in their life, their partners. It can be because they’ve been wooed by someone else. No matter what you did, right or wrong, maybe they were just ripe for the picking and someone offered them money that you just can’t offer them. You’ve got to accept that. Even if you think it’s a bad decision, you’ve got to let them go. And so what I’ve learnt, from some of those experiences, is that you have to be realistic and have the view that no-one is irreplaceable. I’ve had some friends who have had people leave and it’s been the most devastating thing – and it’s always because too much IP walked out the door with them. Almost an unreasonable amount of trust was given to that person. It’s a fine line. I think it’s about constantly listening to staff and working out where people are at, and making sure that people feel trusted and that they have agency and that they have that measure of ‘ownership’. But you do have to be prepared that they may go and you very possibly have no control over that.
Managing the onboarding of people, making sure you’re listening to find out where people are at, and the offboarding of people too if they decide to leave – those check-ins are really important. But also being really honest with your staff about the financial health of the practice. My ex-business partner never wanted staff to know where we were at financially, and I greatly regret that approach. I think that we probably would have managed ourselves better and we would have set expectations with staff better if we had been more open.
I realise that trying to enact some of the things I’m saying is very difficult in larger practices. But some Directors might be surprised that even a modicum of financial information about the practice’s performance once a quarter might be enough to empower people and put them at ease. It all comes down to communication and what you communicate. I think some Directors feel that they can control staff by not passing on information about the business, and that was the approach of my last practice. With this practice, though, I’ve learned over time that sharing the right pieces of information and being upfront about challenges in the practice has ended up engendering respect and empathy and positive suggestions from staff.
Being open and honest is not about being weak either. Showing vulnerability as a leader is important, because it shows that not everything’s perfect, not everything’s under control all the time. Showing vulnerability demonstrates that you are exercising a self-awareness. Some of the people I worked for, even the really lovely people I worked for, had very little self-awareness. And I’m certainly not claiming that I have this down pat. I still struggle with some of those things.
One change that we’ve made over the last couple of years is we consciously started saying “No” to particular jobs. In the past I had always been very concerned because I saw a direct line between my family’s livelihood and me saying no to work. But I can now see that taking on some projects that ended up with us being saddled with really painful clients or crappy outcomes had a really negative impact on my team. And I thought, “Nuh, we’ve got to put our foot down”. We resigned from several projects with really difficult, manipulative clients. And it’s amazing the positive effect that has had on the practice. Unfortunately, we had a recalibration from a firm of 10 people to a firm of eight people and then seven people, but ultimately it’s a happier workplace, because we’re not dealing with so many difficult people on a day to day basis.
One of the reasons why this is a problem in architecture, the self-esteem of the profession, is that we so want architects to have an impact that we’ll take on all sorts of jobs because we tell ourselves “at least they’re using an architect”. But sometimes that means we end up working with people who aren’t great to deal with – whether they’re individuals or institutions. That’s why there’s so much hullabaloo going on in NSW about how the state government and local governments are some of the worst clients, as far as insurable agreements and related issues. That is worth jumping up and down about, because those institutions build a lot of buildings, they have to maintain a lot of buildings, they have to alter a lot of buildings – and for them to be one of the worst client types out there is super problematic, because as a profession we can’t keep saying, “No, we’re not going to deal with you”, because as a society we’re going to end up with a terrible quality of built environment.
It’s a challenge. A lot of architects find it difficult to say no and walk away.
Bijl and street artist Ox King joined forces on a street art piece for TwoGood’s Felicity 2.0 campaign. Bijl and the build team pictured. Photo: Edison Malones
Do you still think there’s a long-hours culture in architecture?
There are still some large practices with a reputation for the long-hours culture. And it’s not just female graduates who are affected by this – it’s male graduates too. The reality is that staying back late at the office is often for appearances. My husband’s an organisational psychology researcher, and he talks about presenteeism. We’ve talked about how people get into a culture of thinking – because I’m going to be here so long, I’m just going to do things as I please. They’ll go on Facebook. They’ll be slow doing something. It starts to affect the way they present work to others. It starts to affect their overall work ethic and all sorts of other things.
Every profession is different of course. In architecture, the problem starts at university with the inevitable all-nighters. I don’t think they’re necessary. I think it’s just poor time management. When I was younger, I did lots of late nights, but I’m a night owl. It suits me. Some of my staff say, “What are you doing sending emails to us at 1.30am in the morning”. But it’s because I go home at 5.30pm and I’ve got kidarama until 9/9.30pm and laundry and everything else. A lot of other Directors I know work until 7pm and then they go home and don’t think about work. I’ve never been like that. I’ve always studied late, worked late. It’s just me.
Time management and prioritisation are key skills in practice. Even graduates have to learn within the work context that you need to manage your time well and learn how to prioritise. It’s not about doing something quickly, which has its own issues. It’s about knowing what to prioritise, which is more complex than time management, because it’s about empathising and listening and thinking through what is going to communicate this piece of work, the design, whatever the client needs to know – or the council, or the consultant. Whoever it is. What is it that they need to know and how am I going to prioritise bringing that information and those decisions together?
People can get through an entire architecture degree and never actually really think about how they’re making design decisions. That’s a challenge that people in practice find is too time-consuming to solve. That’s why a lot of graduates get shoved into documentation where their decision-making agency is minimised. Many practices seem to start with documentation and over time you experience works outwards. You might get to go on site, you might get to sit in a meeting with clients and do design work. I don’t want people to be in a box. In my practice, from the beginning people can start to sit across all the different activities of the practice where they have the opportunity. You’re building experience like a layer cake.
I’ve had friends who had been working for 10 years before they realised, “Oh, I’ve actually never been to the client meeting. I’ve never been the one making the design decisions. I haven’t had a chance to go on site very much.” If you don’t build the layers of experience for people, it becomes a real problem for long-term career progression.
And perhaps those one-dimensional jobs may not exist in the future?
I know there’s lots of talk of robots and perhaps on some building types that documentation might get taken over by AI. But on the flip side, architects have this incredible opportunity to leverage the documentation aspect of the whole process to regain territory that they might feel that they once lost – because at the end of the day, the mechanical engineer doesn’t care about all the other stuff, the traffic engineer doesn’t care about all of that. But the architect cares about everything, because they want the whole design to come together. In that holistic bringing together of everyone, which is where BIM takes us, architects have a better opportunity than they’ve had in a long time. When people complain that architects working as BIM Managers get paid so much, I say “But so they should”. They play a very critical role. And we want people who are passionate about that, to be good at it, because we want those people to be able to drive the architects’ ownership and maybe make it non-negotiable that the architect then gets kicked off when it starts construction, because you need someone to interrogate and manage that BIM. So, yes, documentation is a fraught place. But strong leadership in that area is needed, and that’s where we have opportunities.
Bijl Architecture’s Step Down House. Photo: Peter Bennetts
What do you think of the expanded field?
I’m very supportive of the expanded field. The more places we see with employees who are architecturally trained the better, because we’re then building a bigger profession and a bigger built environment realm, where architects are not just sitting in one spot but in all sorts of key areas.
At the end of the day, we’ve got to fight this stupid lie that we keep telling students that everyone’s going to be a star designer. No, we’re not teaching design because everyone’s going to be Zaha or Bjarke. We’re teaching design so that even if you are the person who’s amazing at specification writing you understand the purpose of the design and what the architect is trying to achieve, and understand what design can do. It’s important, even if you are sitting in your speciality and you never pick up a pencil or a mouse to design anything. We have to set the expectations better with students about the many places they can go within the profession and outside the profession – and making sure all of these roles are discussed equitably. If we keep lionising the “top-of-the-tree” starchitects, of course we’re going to continue to have students who get five years into their career and wonder “What did I do that for?” I don’t mean that we should push everyone into specialisations. It’s just making people aware of the fact that a great general knowledge is important, and we want people registered, but also that you might have a particular skill in a particular area, and that might be something you want to pursue.
Beyond your own practice, you have taken on many other roles. Why did you get involved in the professional organisations?
When I moved to Sydney, I didn’t know anyone. One way to get to know people was to join an Institute Committee. I did that – and people I met on that Institute Committee and at the Local Practice Network are people who I’m still very good friends with today. I’ve met so many people through that involvement and one thing has led to another and another, and some of them crossed over. This comes back to the idea of ‘designing your career’. I say to students that navigating your career is also about finding things you’re passionate about – whether it’s Emergency Architects or you want to be involved in a Digital Fabrication User Group. It’s finding your tribe and it will take you places. People start seeing you as a go-to, that you might know stuff others might want to know about. And you gain as much as you give.
Sometimes committees can be very draining, and some people can be very difficult. But you also start to learn about all the different types of people in the profession and how to get around and manoeuvre yourself. And it’s not about being political. It’s about understanding how the thing works. Unless you invest some time in that, you’re never going to know. People say to me, “How do you know everyone?” But a) I don’t, and b) That didn’t happen overnight. I came to Sydney and only knew five people – people I’d gone to uni with. It’s about investing time.
You have participated in several mentoring programs. What has your involvement been and what do you see are the benefits?
I’ve mentored for the Institute’s Mentoring Scheme with students, I’ve mentored with NAWIC and I also was a mentor for an architecture student through The Smith Family scholarship scheme, where a scholarship holder is paired with a professional in their field.
The mentoring really depends on what stage people are at. Through NAWIC I mentored a woman the same age as myself, who had decided after having her first child that she wanted more control over what she was doing and to start her own practice. So, she wanted mentoring around how to structure and manage a practice rather than mentoring around career. Student mentees often come with questions about what they’re doing at uni. They want to see the bigger picture. They want to know how to get a job, how to write a CV.
It was interesting mentoring someone through The Smith Family who had family struggles. It was life advice as much as architectural career advice – and how these might fit together or not fit together. We would mostly chat over the phone, but I also tried to catch up with her once or twice a year in Newcastle, where she was based.
Regularity is important. Mentoring works best when people have a good space of time to reflect on their needs and to take onboard what you’re saying, but also to bring other things to the mentoring session. I’ve also done a bit of professional mentoring – mentoring other practitioners who need practice advice. I mentored one guy for about a year and a half, and he was constantly being offered opportunities to go into partnerships, and he was asking, “Should I do it?” I’ve even been a bit of a phone-a-friend at times. This was formalised a year or so ago when the Institute’s National Practice Committee appointed me as a Senior Counsellor
If I can be really pragmatic about it, one of the great things about mentoring is that you can claim it as CPD. Many practitioners get really hot under the collar about needing CPD for their registration, but CPD isn’t just about going to boring seminars burning time you ‘don’t have’. Activities like mentoring and interacting with others in the profession and examining can be used for your professional development. Those who haven’t mentored should consider it. You can claim informal CPD points, and with some mentoring programs I think you can claim formal CPD points for activities such as participating in a structured mentoring scheme with the Institute. Ultimately, the mentors get as much out of it as the mentees. You have to prepare for the sessions, drawing on your knowledge and learning about them, so there’s definitely professional development tied up in that. Mentoring is also a great way to influence the future profession. It’s not that I’ve got a God complex, but I think if you’re a capable practitioner, you should want to influence the future profession, because we’re not going to be around forever. I’d rather empower younger people and other practitioners to build a better profession, from which we ultimately all benefit.
In Sydney, the Institute has these small and medium size practice forums, where 20 to 30 Directors will get together and talk about challenges we’re all facing. And that’s been incredibly beneficial. You can feel the barriers between yourself and other people falling away, when you realise that we’re all sharing similar challenges, the same problems. We can learn from each other. It’s just a pity that we can’t do that beyond the scale of 20 or 30 people. I feel like we need more of these groups.
It’s good to have friendly and supportive competitiveness. If you don’t win the job, then you’re glad for the person who did win it, because they’re an architect, and hopefully they’re a good architect. Mentoring helps to build networks too. People ask me why I have to recuse myself from examining so many candidates, and it’s because I’ve either taught them or mentored them or been on a committee with them. It’s because I’ve tried to expand my networks in all directions – not just with people my own age. It’s important to have vertical and horizontal networks, being part of the broader profession.
Bijl Architecture’s Doorzien House in Kirribilli. Photo: Katherine Lu
Melonie Bayl-Smith is Director and Founder of Bijl Architecture and Adjunct Professor at the UTS School of Architecture. An elected member of the NSW Architects Registration Board (2017–2020), she was also an elected member of the Australian Institute of Architects NSW Chapter Council (2015–2017). She is the NSW State Convenor of Pathways for the AACA and ARB NSW, a member of the Institute’s National Gender Equity Committee, and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects (FRAIA). In 2018, Melonie was the recipient of the Paula Whitman Leadership in Gender Equity Prize.
Susie Ashworth is an editor of the ACA website and newsletter and an editor of the Parlour website and other Parlour publications. She is also a freelance writer and editor with 25 years experience editing magazines, books, websites and academic publications and papers, with an emphasis on the built environment.