Starting Your Own Architecture Firm: Challenges For Women

Lamar Anderson Lamar Anderson

Chicago’s Aqua Tower, by Studio Gang. Photo courtesy of Studio Gang

This is part of an ongoing series in which we explore critical issues facing emerging and established architects. Past stories include “Why Architecture Firms Should Use Pinterest and “15 Tips For Starting A Firm.”

Starting your own firm is a challenge for all architects. But women face an extra set of battles, from breaking out of the residential and interiors game to finding some semblance of a work-family balance in a profession that frequently demands a 60-hour work week. Not to mention that the stats are still very much stacked against women, who earn roughly 41% of the architecture degrees but make up just 17% of the ranks of principals and partners. We can’t all be Zaha! (Even if we were, we’d still have lots to complain about.)

Building things is still very much a man’s world—particularly on the job site. “Unlike medicine or law, where it’s been fully balanced over the last decade, the construction site remains over 95% male,” says Liz Ranieri, principal of the San Francisco firm Kuth/Ranieri Architects, who spoke at a recent panel hosted by AIA San Francisco. Beyond numbers, it’s hard to shake the easy paternalism that has accrued to a historically male profession. That Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower is routinely called “the tallest building in the world designed by a woman” indicates how natural the old order still feels—as though women are somehow handicapped when it comes to the mechanics of erecting something tall and pointy.

From left: Andrea Cochran, Marsha Maytum, Liz Ranieri, Mark Cavagnero, and Ive Haugeland.

Earlier this month AIASF held the third panel in its new monthly series, Growing a Small Firm, organized by Mark Cavagnero. This round gathered four principals of Bay Area firms—a mix of architects and landscape architects—who have all been through the brain-melting, life-busting, career-making Olympian hustle of launching their own practices. Meet our panel:

Andrea Cochran, principal, Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture
Marsha Maytum, founding partner, Leddy Maytum Stacy
Liz Ranieri, cofounder and design principal, Kuth/Ranieri Architects
Ive Haugeland, principal, Shades of Green Landscape Architecture
Moderator: Mark Cavagnero, principal, Mark Cavagnero Associates

For a crowd at AIASF’s home base in downtown San Francisco, they laid down professional as well as life lessons, starting with women’s progress in the field and the problem of finding one’s voice.

1. Professionals and clients often underestimate young women, but they won’t do it forever (i.e., you’ll get old, too!).

Like young women doctors and lawyers, young architects may have trouble establishing authority. “When you start a firm, you have to work hard to be taken seriously,” says Ive Haugeland. Marsha Maytum adds, “It’s a matter of being able to find your voice in that group and feel of equal value.”

Andrea Cochran recalls the frustrations of designing while being young and female. “I found that being in a group of people in a room when I was younger, when I tried to speak no one would listen to me,” she says. “Some of my female employees get really upset at meetings when they feel they’re not heard. But one good thing about getting older is people start to listen to you more. You get a little more ornery.”

2. Find the right mentor.

Mentorship is crucial for young architects of both sexes, notes Maytum: “Finding those mentors that you have a connection with is critical—and then just being able to see how they have evolved their career and how they participate in the community, what opportunities they take in their own work and life to make their presence known.”

Kuth/Ranieri‘s proposal, Folding Water, for San Francisco’s 2009 Rising Tides competition, addresses the problem of rising sea levels by mechanically managing tides and creating a micro-estuaries at the shoreline.

3. Find your voice.

“There are two voices we have to find. One is, What is the meaning of what we’re making? The other is, How do we portray that in the world and show leadership?” says Liz Ranieri. Trying out different communication styles outside your job can help you hit your stride, explains Maytum. “Although it sounds kind of dull, committee work is a great thing to do when you’re young, because it’s a really interesting way to understand how group dynamics work,” she says. “It’s interesting to find out how different people get their point across in different styles. It gives you a chance in a non-work-related role to test some things out for yourself in how you communicate effectively with others.”

4. Conquer the construction site.

The construction site has evolved since Maytum began her career. When she entered her first job shack, she found centerfolds pinned to the walls. “I did have to have those taken down,” Maytum recalls with a laugh.

Although women have begun to fill the ranks of project managers at construction firms, job sites remain almost entirely male. “As a woman in that role of dictating direction, evaluating progress, and reviewing performance, I think there are still a number of challenges,” says Ranieri. “Being very well prepared is always the best approach—to be really connected to your content, to know before you’re entering the job site who you’re dealing with, what needs to be accomplished, to stay timely and stay focused. If we continue to have that kind of presence over the course of a job, things improve and a respect grows on both sides.”

Maytum advises all architects—women and men—to establish that firm-but-fair tone as soon as construction starts. “In some instances, I’ve had the reverse benefit, in that once that tone is set correctly, they really don’t mess around with me,” she says. “My partner Bill Leddy is always amazed at how I can move a nostril to get people to go along.” Cochran agrees.One of the women in my office who’s a senior associate, we call her the velvet hammer,” she deadpans. “Sometimes women have an advantage of being nonthreatening, [unlike] two guys, like, you know, a testosterone thing. She’s been very effective in getting contractors to do things in a nice way.”

It’s equally important to maintain that relationship with the construction firm when a job ends, notes Maytum. “We have a debriefing with contractors at end of projects,” she says. “It allows us to listen to things we may not have understood were going on and how we could help, and vice versa.”

Leddy Maytum Stacy‘s Cavallo Point Lodge and the Institute at the Golden Gate transformed the Fort Baker Army base in Sausalito, California, into a lodge and environmental institute, among other facilities.

5. Pay attention to how you learn best.

Do you learn by experimenting with models or by building in the field? Being aware of the situations in which epiphanies come to you can help you focus on projects that will help you grow. Cochran recounts her frustration after years of work on large, unrealized designs. “I felt like for years I worked and wasn’t learning anything because I couldn’t see what I had done being built,” she says. “I learn by doing and seeing.” Cochran began seeking out smaller projects where she could have a role in the entire process. After working in design-build and seeing several projects go up, she found her confidence. “I knew in my heart what would work and what would look good because I had seen it,” she says. “It wasn’t a guess.”

6. Residential work is your friend…

Kitchen remodels and bespoke gardens can be a lifeline for young architects who need to boost their resumes. “Residential work for women is always easiest to get, and for anybody it’s easier to get because it’s smaller scale and you can get it built quickly and people will trust you to do a smaller project,” says Cochran. It’s also work that doesn’t favor men or women, notes Haugeland. “I do a lot of residential work and, being a woman, I don’t see that as any different than a man, because you deal with couples,” she says. “Some couples, they have the men doing all the landscape stuff; other couples, it’s the women.”

7. … But it can also be your frenemy.

Be careful, though: Just as soon as you start landing all those plum residential gigs, you run the risk of being typecast, and you have to start diversifying immediately! Cochran makes an extra effort to publicize her nonresidential projects, among them universities, hotels, and wineries. “That’s part of being a woman, that ‘They do residential work’ [label],” she says. “It’s harder for women to break out of that mold than male-owned firms.”

Ranieri advises all young architects to put effort into enriching their skill sets, starting with what your own colleagues can offer (if you’re still at a firm). Ask to go along on their visits to job sites, for instance. Study for LEED and develop expertise in sustainability, which is not going away anytime soon. “You have to be very proactive to diversify your experience to gain as much as possible,” she says.

8.Learn from your colleagues’ challenges.

We’ve all seen those overreaching business bios that claim a company has “more than 100 years in combined experience” just because a few sexagenarians work there. But there’s some truth to that, particularly when you add up not just the firm’s successes, but its failures. Cochran’s office takes an annual field trip to visit the firm’s projects and discuss the difficulties each project manager faced. “For us internally we all learn from each other’s mistakes,” she says.

Napa Valley Hilltop Hideaway, by Shades of Green Landscape Architecture.

9. Keep your passion alive. Take time to pursue your own interests.

Entering design competitions is a great way to invest in your own work, especially if you’re still part of a large firm, says Ranieri. “Personal work can fall through the cracks when you’re working 60 hours a week in a huge corporate office designing elevators. Something that you’re doing repetitively can really burn out the design sensibility,” she says. “My advice would be to focus very intensely on finding your own work through doing work and continuing that practice until you’re able to start your own firm.”

10. Remember to dream.

It’s hard to realize a life goal if you don’t permit yourself to engage with it. “I’ve noticed if I dream about doing something, it doesn’t happen unless I first dream about it,” says Cochran. “You have to give yourself permission to think, ‘Well, what is it I really want to do?’ Then you’re open to the possibilities that will come to you because your mind is open to it. If you’re mind is not open, the opportunities won’t come to you.”

11. But don’t forget to plan!

Plans are the stuff dreams are made of. “To have a dream to do something is really important, but you have to temper that with a wise plan about how to incrementally take the steps to get there,” says Maytum. “This is not a fast business. It takes a long time to get solid footing in your technical and professional knowledge.”

Maytum suggests that young designers routinely take stock of their progress. “Particularly for a lot of women, we tend to be pretty driven by what we think we need to do—I’m guilty of this too—and it’s important to step back and look at what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve learned from that,” she says. “Then reset your plan, and make more incremental steps toward what you want to achieve in life.”

Learning to think this way can help you navigate through the difficult decisions that no doubt lie ahead, adds Maytum. “As women come to those milestone moments [and the] choices we have to make about work-life balance and families, it’s complex,” she says. “Taking that time for yourself to lay out what’s really important to you, what your dreams are, and then to create a plan that is achievable—you want to stretch a little bit—it’s a good guide.”

Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture designed the grounds of Walden Studios, a mixed-use arts facility and vineyard on the site of a former prune-packing facility in Geyserville, California.

12. If you’re not the planning type, fear not. You can still make it!

There are as many ways to find success as there are people in the world. The important thing is to learn to pick yourself up after failures. Cochran’s professional arc defies everything Maytum advises, yet here she sits with a successful business. “I still don’t have a plan, and every day I try and reinvent myself,” she says. “I’m always trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up, and it always changes.”

Cochran’s pragmatism and resilience got her through the early, tough days of getting a business off the ground. “To have your own office, to make that step from when you’re getting a paycheck every week to going out on your own, is a very hard thing,” she says. “I did it a couple of times, the first time not very well, because I didn’t plan it.”

Cochran advises fledgling solo practitioners to have a cushion of a year and six months’ living expenses saved up—and to prepare for some lean times. “I’ve taken jobs that no one will ever know I’ve done because I had to pay my mortgage,” recalls Cochran. “I would die if people knew I had done it. But I got that check.”

13. Work-life balance is a sticky mess that no one knows how to solve.

“A lot of women fade out of the profession, or they tend not to be in key roles, because they make life choices, and it’s hard to get back in if you’ve been out for a while,” says Cochran. “Architecture’s hard because it’s an extremely demanding career, and it’s hard to do it in 40 hours a week. In school you don’t quite get that pacing. You have a lot of energy and you think you can keep doing it, but it’s harder if you have many goals in your life. Personally, I’ve focused all of my energies into my career. It’s very difficult for people to make those choices.”

Maytum stresses that there’s no one right answer. Whether or not you have children, you may one day face challenges such as caring for elderly parents or an ill friend. “At different points in your life, you’re going to be really pressed to the max,” she says. “My advice: find a really great partner. I sit here because I have an incredibly supportive partner and family in the area. And my kids were incredibly cooperative. There are lots of stories about that, with notes being passed in meetings, like, ‘Can we really go home now?'”

Maytum cautions that finding your own answer will require some soul-searching. “You need to be really honest with yourself when you get to the point that you might need to take a break or rebalance what you’re doing,” she adds. “I tried every work schedule imaginable to figure it all out. My kids are now grown up, and they’re not in jail. They don’t live at home. They’re on their way. Sometimes I wonder how that all happened. The upside of that is my children have a strong work ethic. They understand how businesses are run. In the long run, they benefitted from that experience.”

14. When you launch your own business, be prepared for a steep learning curve.

When you start your own firm, you’re not just the project architect and the point person—you’re also the face of your business, the communications team, and the head of operations. Be patient with yourself as you learn these new skills. Cochran recalls the difficulty of being the only one in the room with the client. “The first time that you meet with a client on your own and it doesn’t go very well, that’s a humiliating thing. We don’t always knock it out of the ballpark,” she says. “When you’re young you don’t know how to listen maybe as carefully. It’s demoralizing to think that someone doesn’t think your ideas are as great as you did.”

Figuring out the right fee structure will also take some time, says Haugeland. “Writing proposals and having some reasonable idea of what you’re going to charge these people for them to sign but not go broke on the thing, that’s a big challenge,” she says. “It takes a little while to learn it.”

And there’s the problem of cash flow. “There are times when it’s really tight, and you might have to ask somebody for a loan to get going in a tough time, or call a client who hasn’t paid. That’s hard to do in the beginning, because you feel like somehow you failed because they haven’t paid you. It takes a while to get tough about that.”

15. But remember you’re not alone!

“Everybody has really bad days at the beginning,” says Maytum. “The money things are horrifying, and the first really big mistake on a job site, it feels so lonely and terrifying. It’s really important to know you’re not alone, and that’s when mentorship is important, seeking people you trust and just realizing that everybody makes mistakes. Seek advice and learn from them.”

Previously: How to Get Public Work