Diversity Agenda member Four Walls is an architecture practice based in Auckland that was founded in 2010. Susan Strongman from Te Kāhui Whaihanga spoke to directors Amy Hendry and Claire Paterson about how the accidentally all-women practice came to be.
How did Four Walls begin?
Amy: I started the practice in 2010. I’d wanted to work for myself for a while, and the opportunity came with a new house commission in Christchurch. I had just registered, so I took a deep breath, resigned from my job, and went for it. Claire came on in 2013, when I became pregnant with my second child. I had landed a big commission that I knew I couldn’t take on by myself, so I asked her if she wanted to join forces. We’d always thought we’d work well together, and with Claire being newly registered and excited about the opportunity, the timing was perfect.
Claire: We wouldn’t have been able to do it without each other. Each of us has been able to take the lead when the other has been on maternity leave. Plus, we work really well together in a professional sense. We’re polar opposites, so our strengths are complementary. If one of us has come up against a problem the other can usually offer a solution.
And Four Walls has grown since then?
Amy: Yeah, especially in the last year when we took on two more staff. So now our team is me, Claire, Rebekah, Priyanka and Jeannette.
An all-women practice!
Claire: Yeah. We kind of just fell into an all-female office by coincidence, by hiring the best candidates at the time.
Amy: We happen to be all women, but that’s not deliberate – as Claire said, we just chose the most talented, conscientious and dedicated applicants. With each of our hires, we’ve advertised the position and attracted all kinds of candidates. We’ve advertised for a full-time role, but with flexibility or part-time opportunities. So we discuss candidates’ unique situations and needs regardless of whether they’re male or female – we’d never presume that a candidate wants 40 hours a week.
All our staff share our values – which have come about organically, and are intrinsic to the way we work. We’re all talented architects, and we’re a design-led firm, but we all have a practical eye, and all of us bring different strengths to the practice that complement each other and get the best out of each piece of work. And we really strongly believe in providing excellent service and maintaining the best relationships with our clients – by learning about their own values and what makes them tick.
Do you find that clients deliberately seek you out because you are an all-women practice?
Claire: I don’t think so, no. And we don’t push it as a selling point. Like I said, it’s not something we did on purpose. We want clients to come to us because of our architecture, because of our good work. We don’t want to be treated differently.
Amy: Our clients come to us mostly out of referrals, and actually it’s refreshing to know that when they’re referred to us, it’s because of the quality of our work and our level of service. That’s how we like it.
There are people out there who might argue that hiring women can be disruptive – with maternity leave and family commitments. What would you say to those people?
Amy: I’d say women with children are some of the hardest workers we know. Their hours are finite, so when they get to work they don’t muck around, and because going back to work for many women is actually a break from the hard work of tending to children, they are there to thoroughly enjoy themselves and the mental stimulation it brings. Sure, there may be a sick child sometimes, or a sports day, but actually any parent, male or female, has commitments, and more and more men are quite rightly demanding more flexibility to be hands on and dedicated to raising their family, as much as women. We make our workplace flexible and respectful of people’s unique work-life balance; in return we get commitment, hard work and dedication.
In a traditionally Pākehā male dominated profession, what do you think diversity can bring that’s perhaps been missing in the past?
Amy: Any architect, of any gender or ethnicity, deserves recognition for how well they answer a client’s brief, budget and respond to the site they’re placing a building on. If there is diversity among architects, there will be a richness of response to those three things, and New Zealand and the world will be a better place for it.
What are the biggest challenges for architects who don’t fit that ‘norm’ in Aotearoa?
Claire: There are definitely things in the industry that don’t suit parents, like after-hours networking. And the hours you need to put in to gain the experience required to get registered. That’s not going to happen very quickly if you’ve taken maternity leave, or are not at work 40 hours a week. We were lucky that we got registered before starting our families. It wouldn’t be easy trying to do it afterwards; we know from our own staff and friends in the industry that it often simply doesn’t happen.
Amy: Even if you have managed to get registered, it can be really difficult finding the right balance as both a good parent and as a good architect.
How have you built a career that allows you to do both?
Amy: Claire and I are both parents, and two of our staff are, too. We know there is work to do to make professional life more balanced and equal between the sexes, and almost every woman with a successful career in our current world, who wants children, will look to mothers who have done it before to find out how they did it. So to answer the question, our expectation at our practice – whether you’re a director or staff member – is that you’re paid to work ‘x’ number of hours a week, and those hours are yours to organise as you choose. There’s an expectation that most of your work gets done at the office, but everyone has a laptop, and they’re welcome to use it at home to get their hours done if they need to. So, if you have a sports day, or a sick child, or an appointment, you make up the hours when you like, as you like.
Claire: When we’re hiring, one of the traits we look for is dedication. We trust our staff to do the hours they are paid to do. That trust and flexibility keeps everyone happy. One of our staff has quite a big commute, so she works at home for an hour or so in the morning, before coming in, so she misses the traffic. It makes her life more efficient. And another of our staff has a husband who works shifts, so her hours vary each week depending on his, and they tag team at home. We have another staff member who has changed her weekly hours two or three times throughout her employment to suit her particular year, and we’ve always said, yes.
Amy: For Claire and me, it’s an interesting juxtaposition: while we can almost be as flexible as we like, the buck stops with us as directors. So we make it our priority to support each other. If one of us is having a hard week, the other tries to help out where possible. If one is stressed about a project, the other can offer an objective opinion and, if necessary, step in and take some of the load off. One interesting thing is, as I said earlier, we’ve had our babies at different times – I had mine first, then Claire had hers. So during our practice history, each of us has had a turn at being at the helm, working more hours, and running and being responsible for the practice. But the core of it is that we back each other to the hilt. We know that the success of our practice is the relationships with our clients, and the energy we put into them. If parenting duties are in the way, the other person steps up to ensure the client is always looked after and the project is running smoothly.
Speaking of health and wellbeing, how was 2020 for you, and what’s your vision for the future of Four Walls?
Amy: 2020 was so hard. Trying to juggle our young families’ needs with our practice’s was very difficult.
Claire: We don’t even know where the year went. But somehow, like a lot of other architecture practices, we came out with lots of great work. Nothing like a lockdown for families to realise their house is too small!
Amy: As for our vision at Four Walls, we just want to do great work, for great clients, and have a great time doing it. While visions and business plans are valuable, we pride ourselves on doing what feels right for ourselves, not overthinking it and not answering to any expectations or ‘shoulds’ from others.
If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.