"Running a business has been compared to assembling a parachute on the way down. You need a support network around you and put strategies in place that can alleviate some of the pressure."
We love getting to know our members better, and keeping abreast of their achievements. Jean Graham has been undertaking coaching with our director Andrew Mitchell for over a year now, and has even cited him as a valuable member of her team!
Today we sit down with Jean to find out about her architecture practice, including some of the challenges she has faced along her path to the significant success she is currently experiencing, most excitingly a coveted nomination in the prestigious AIA Awards for her remarkable Bermagui Project.
Make sure you explore more of Jean's beautiful work via her website.
TDC: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, Jean. For anyone who hasn’t yet heard about you, can you tell us a bit about your practice, Winter Architecture?
JG: I set up Winter Architecture six years ago. Initially, I wanted a practice that could fit my needs and solve some of the weaknesses I saw in other approaches. I wanted the ability to work remotely and have flexibility with time. Setting up my own practice seemed like the most logical solution.
Winter Architecture has now grown to a team of 11 people. It’s not the typical nine to five and offers team members plenty of choice and flexibility. People can choose to work from home or in one of our two studios based in Fitzroy and Torquay.
TDC: Considering that your practice was established in 2016, it’s fair to say that your business is still relatively young. However, you’ve already gathered several significant awards and attracted a lot of attention in the press. The most recent and exciting award nomination has been for the prestigious AIA Awards in the category of New Houses. Can you tell us a bit about the award and the project you’ve been nominated for?
JG: We’re quite humbled by our AIA nomination for the Bermagui Beach House project. We consider ourselves a small team, and we’re up against some major players in the Sydney architecture realm.
We’ve built a beautiful, luxurious home on the South Coast of New South Wales. The Victorian family have been holidaying in Bermagui for 30 years, and it’s a legacy project for them.
We explored materiality for this home. It features beautifully integrated reverse brick veneer and timber. One of the key features is that the house is quite environmental but in an unobtrusive style. We’ve subtly integrated environmental benefits, so you don’t necessarily notice them but feel them in the spaces.
Interestingly, there is no black at all in the home’s palette.
Bermagui is more of a laid-back fisherman’s town. It grows with the holidays, but it’s still a little rustic. And that’s one vibe the client wanted to maintain, that sense of the Bermagui community. The father is maturing in years and enjoys his creature comforts. But he still wants to be involved and engaged with the community and outdoor features. The kitchen and dining sightline designs let him feel part of the activity inside the house and outside to the famous Blue Pools below.
TDC: How important do you feel awards are for designers and architects, and how much of your time do you dedicate to preparing the submissions?
JG: We spend a bit of time putting together our submissions. We find collating the project information is more of a record-keeping and review exercise. It’s nice when you finish a project to make sure you photograph and film it, and it allows us to reflect. Many people work on these projects, including our direct staff, the builders, suppliers, and clients. Submitting for awards means promoting everyone involved in the project and raising positive feelings. It’s not just about design or ego. It’s more to show that you’re worthy.
We tend to get a copywriter to prepare the text, and we have people in our team allocated to the marketing. Each submission has different aspects. One award might ask about the sustainable features, materials or products used? Another might focus on the design philosophy. There are various ways to approach our design and the application.
It can be challenging, but it’s an opportunity to reflect and surmise the experience and how to capture it. One of our favourite techniques is with film as it’s more dynamic and engaging for clients. Potential clients can see how a project feels and can explore it in a way that you can’t with static photos.
TDC: Our founder Andrew Mitchell has known you for many years and has had the pleasure of collaborating with you on exciting design projects previously. What do you enjoy about the process of collaborating with other design professionals, and what are some of the challenges this brings?
JG: With collaboration, we harness each other’s skill set. The Bermagui Beach House was a collaboration with a separate interior designer and landscape architect. Eventually, the landscape architect became part of our team at Winter Architecture. Sometimes the partnerships work so well that you keep the relationship going.
Collaboration can bring significant value and design options for the clients. Having a collaborative team focussing on different facets means that you can get more creative and innovative. It gives a richer project and provides clients with a bespoke, unique, personalised approach.
With any relationship, it’s good to set clear boundaries early. It’s crucial to have procedures and contracts with the collaborators to outline ways to mitigate risks and problems. At the beginning of the project, it’s vital to discuss each member’s preferred communication method.
If you want to collaborate effectively, you need to check your ego at the door. When you collaborate on a project, it’s no longer just about you. If you’re open to effective collaboration, the project can go to another level.
TDC: We’ve watched you grow your team over the past few years, expanding into a beautiful studio space in Fitzroy. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced moving from “solopreneur” to managing a growing fleet of designers and architects?
JG: The biggest challenge for me has been a mindset shift. Andrew from TDC has been a great guide and assisted with training. As a solopreneur, you tend to do everything. You may also have what psychologists call unrelenting expectations - where you want to do everything at 100%. If you’re going to grow, part of the mindset shift is to learn how to let go and delegate. Things may take longer if others do them, but it will still reduce your workload and burden. With a team of skilled professionals around you that you grow and enhance, you lessen some tasks and concentrate on being the business owner.
Initially, there are cash flow issues, stress, and time constraints when setting up a business. The Design Coach’s approach to mindfulness and strategies for practice management is excellent. But you need to want it, and you need to engage and work on it. If you’re going to get fit, you can’t just go on a hike; you need to train. You develop skills to delegate your time, prioritise, and work out what you can afford to do and when. And then you need to action those steps.
Running a business has been compared to assembling a parachute on the way down. And sometimes, that’s the feeling. You need a support network around you and put strategies in place that can alleviate some of the pressure.
Management is not necessarily for everyone but learning to collaborate and share is useful for solopreneurs. Discovering ways to co-work with other professionals can alleviate pressure and improve projects.
TDC: You split your time between Melbourne and Torquay, with an office in both locations. While we can see that there are business opportunities on the surf coast of Victoria, there is obviously something bigger that has drawn you to Torquay. What’s the attraction of this coastal village to you?
JG: Good question. When you start a business, you tend to go 100% and sometimes, you can work too hard. Part of the reason I would go down to Torquay initially was to get some headspace and clarity. I rented a studio one day a week, and I’d drive down in the morning. After a few years, I was keen to live down there and changed to two days. It gave me space, and I could walk on the beach and think differently. There were no interruptions. Work started to come in from the area and other staff members. It was a slow process that evolved organically over time. I think it’s important to give yourself outlets and find what works for you and your well-being.
Years ago, I did a training course that compared managing a business to a bucket full of sand. The sand represented daily tasks like meetings, phone calls, and social media. We fill our day and get busy, use all our time. And then we don’t have space for more significant priorities. The sand bucket demonstration had rocks representing bigger business development priorities like marketing, collaboration, great design and spending energy wisely. But our bucket is too full of sand to fit in the rocks. The thinking is to tip out the bucket, put in the rocks first and then put whatever sand will fit around it. Yes, there will be sand leftover, but the main priorities (rocks) are covered.
I think separating work between the two studios is like the bucket analogy. I prioritise meetings, communication, and collaboration over a few days. Then when I’m in Torquay, it’s time to focus on marketing, reflection, development, and even some administration that I need to focus on. Sometimes it’s about enjoying a beautiful publication or reading a book. I might be looking at the ocean for inspiration and well-being, which calms me.
CEOs and business owners often run on adrenaline. This causes cortisol levels in the brain to be activated, affecting information absorption. When you’re calm and relaxed, you have lowered cortisol levels. You can absorb information and think clearly and dynamically. If you’re under stress, your clients, collaborators, and colleagues will feel it, and you won’t be absorbing information. They’ll feel like they must tell you things twice, and that’s how frustration occurs. It sounds counterintuitive to relax and take it easy, but you can function at a higher level, and ultimately, you’ll be more efficient in your day.
TDC: You’ve worked with TDC director Andrew Mitchell in a coaching capacity over the past couple of years, even citing him as a valuable member of your team. You’re also open about seeking assistance from a number of different professionals, from financial strategy to personal growth and healing. This is something we most admire about you! How has coaching with TDC helped you navigate the highs and lows of running a business?
JG: Initially, as a business owner and practitioner, there’s a lot of financial pressure. Investing in coaching and training seems like a risk. Not doing billable work can be distressing, but working on my thinking and processes has been invaluable. I extended it to my senior management team, and now I have certain aspects that I share with the entire team.
Upon reflection, assistance and guidance for my team members have made them better, which ultimately makes it easier for me. When you manage a business, you tend to focus on your own problems. It’s hard to expand that bubble and bring in everyone else’s potential concerns.
Taking a step back, spending the time and investing energy in exploring these things with a coach can tease out and treat these problems. It’s like pushing a cart with square wheels. You need someone to say there’s a round wheel that will solve your problem, and then you need to invest the time and money to implement it. It can feel counterintuitive to take effort and energy away from pushing the cart – but the solution will be more efficient.
TDC: Last year, you added a fur baby to the household, and very soon, there will be the addition of a new member to the family, with your first child due in July. How will this change things for you in the short and long term with respect to business priorities and operations?
JG: From the start, I set up the company for flexibility and a well-being focus for me personally. Ultimately those benefits also transfer to the rest of the team. With TDC coaching, I’ve transitioned from being inside projects during the last year. I now reflect on how I spend my time and focus on areas that make sense.
Over the last six months, I’ve reduced my hours leading up to the baby’s arrival. Focusing on overseeing while trusting my staff has allowed me to extract myself from direct project functions. I’ve been learning how to delegate and step back. It’s a slow process and intentional. There are only so many hours in the day. I can’t do everything, and that’s okay. Acknowledging this and focusing on the areas I do well and have time for is crucial.
If it wasn’t necessary to make these changes due to the imminent change in my personal life, it’s unlikely I would have made them. In the long term, I guess I would probably have faced burnout. So, it’s an excellent opportunity.
TDC: Aside from your obviously important family plans, what exciting opportunities are on the horizon for you and the team at Winter Architecture?
JG: In the last six years, we’ve developed a great team. Everyone that’s worked with Winter has become a valued member at the heart of the projects we deliver.
We’ve got a few projects on the horizon that are exciting. Some beautiful homes and commercial projects are also coming up, like the Kinley Cricket Club.
We’ve changed how we run our business so we can offer clients with smaller budgets design solutions for that early stage. They can still have all the design brains and the beauty without doing the whole process with us. Knowing that we can now service everyone means that we will have more exciting projects on the horizon. We can help a lot more people.
If you dream about structuring your design business in a similar way, book a Discovery Call to speak to Andrew Mitchell.