Established in 2017, Brisbane-based practice KIN Architects has built a thriving profile of residential renovations and cutting edge workplaces.
Here its founders talk about the importance of finding ‘advocates’ as a new practice and the role of mentorship in achieving gender equity in the industry.
The mutual appreciation between KIN Architects co-directors Marjorie Dixon and Leah Gallagher began when they were peers at the University of Queensland. Both graduated into small firms. Gallagher spent seven years at Kieron Gait Architects working on boutique residential projects and Dixon spent eight years under the mentorship of Paul Curran at Push Architects.
Over this period, the pair were in constant dialogue with one another. “Leah used to call me on the Push landline to talk about work. The receptionist was always frowning at me,” laughs Dixon. And when they first began to feel an urge to stretch out from the comfort of the small firms, they naturally continued their conversation. “It felt like we were going through the same things at work and in our personal lives,” recalls Gallagher. “We both bought houses around the same time and that made us all the more serious about our careers. We realised that if we really wanted to become full-fledged directors and have a say in the practice then we would have to take that leap and do it together.”
The success of their workspace for fashion brand DISSH – a transformation of a dark, mostly lawyer-occupied office building into offering a youthful and light open-plan flow – gave them the courage to leave their respective positions and begin KIN Architects, where they have since grown the practice with a range of projects including the transformation of a former nightclub into a bright open plan office space.
The duo knew that alongside a foundation of friendship they would be bringing different passions to the practice. Dixon’s interests in construction and environment are matched by Gallagher’s focus on building intensive relationships with clients that extend beyond the traditional dynamic. The name choice ‘KIN’ was a reference to this focus on mutual project ownership with clients and staff alike, but also reflects the respect and reciprocity of their own relationship. “We really trust each other,” says Gallagher. “Our close friendship means there’s nothing we can’t communicate our way through.”
AR: What were the learning curves when you started KIN?
Leah Gallagher: For us it was about getting comfortable not always knowing what the future would hold. We’d ask ourselves, ‘Will we have enough work next month?’ and then have to be OK not knowing the answer.
How did you find your early projects?
Marjorie Dixon: Through our personal and professional networks. We took the plunge to start KIN when we got the commercial fitout for DISSH and that was through a family friend of mine. Since then it’s been about catching up with our whole network and them becoming advocates for us and putting our name forward.
Did you have mentors that you went to for advice outside of the team?
MD: We’re really lucky because a few of our colleagues started their own firms around the same time, so we’ve started a small architecture practice group where we catch up and talk about business or accounting. We’ve also found that since starting the practice, there’s this whole group of people that have become champions for us and have taken us under their wings.
Can you run us through the day-to-day running of the practice?
LG: We have a lot of friends who haven’t started their own practices yet and they always ask, ‘Do you just knock off and go see a movie?’ We laugh because we start at 8.30am and finish at 5.30pm and work five days a week. At the beginning of KIN, we spent a lot of time doing marketing and business planning. Now, we turn up, have chat to each other about the projects of the day and then set off from there.
MD: It’s pretty stock standard really. We thought we’d be some hip young firm and do cool things in the office, but we’re just working. We do bring our dogs to work though!
How evenly do you split business management and project design?
LG: We try and share the business related tasks. I deal with the social media platforms. My sister is an accountant and she helps out with that side of things. Marjorie does the payroll. Tasks are split by skill, but it ends up being quite even in terms of the percentage of time spent on business management.
MD: It’s the same conversation we have when we receive a new project. We start on them together and then one of us will naturally click more with the clients or have more time than the other and they’ll take the lead.
Has your approach to design changed since starting your own practice?
MD: We’ve changed in order to design well together. We’ve worked out that we like to start each project by establishing an overall idea of what the problem is that the clients are trying to solve. Initially, we try not to get too precious about the design. We want the design to be right for the client and that doesn’t necessarily have to be right for KIN.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of running your own practice?
LG: I think it’s having time to actually think about the design. Control creates flexibility in your day so that if you’re experiencing a design block you don’t actually have to produce anything by the end of the day. Having autonomy over that is quite rewarding.
What has surfaced as the most important skill for building and growing a practice?
LG: Public communication, both within the office and outside the office with clients and builders. Being comfortable talking about money is also incredibly important. Initially, we would both get worried about approaching that conversation. Now, we’re much more confident with it.
MD: You’ve got to be able to pull the extrovert out at all times. Whether that be when you’re trying to win work, mentoring an employee or chasing up invoices. You can’t shy away from tackling those tasks head on. Otherwise they just don’t get done. It’s daunting to say, ‘We’ve got the skills that can help you and we’re the people you should be using.’ Now that we’ve got a body of work behind us, we’re able to let that speak for us a bit more.
After Elena Ihl joined KIN in 2018 it now has a three-person team. Are you looking to grow?
MD: At the moment it’s really nice being only three people. It feels like we’re nimble and can respond to different project types and deadlines quite quickly. Right now we’re focused on project delivery and growing the practice slowly in the background.
What will the next five years of KIN Architects look like?
LG: We can already see the scale of the projects stepping up. More and more we’re focusing on sustainable design and are having more conversations about improving the footprint of the project. It would be great to find more clients who come to us with that as key to their brief. I think that, in the future, and especially after the bushfires, people will move more firmly towards that thinking.
What work does the architecture industry need to do to achieve gender equity?
MD: It seems like if an architect goes on maternity leave they never get to grow on the same trajectory. The industry needs to become more flexible so that women can return to work in a more meaningful capacity part-time. In architecture it’s thought that if you’re running a project, you need to be there five days a week. But in this day and age you don’t need to be in the office to effectively run the show.
LG: I think there needs to be more meaningful mentorship of women. I think men mentor people who look like themselves. Marjorie and I had really fortunate situations. Everyone was so supportive when we started this business. This extends to the project contractors. They respect us and we respect them. There have only been a few occasions when we’ve gone outside of our circle and have come across old-school ways of thinking. I think we’re really fortunate to have started this practice in the progressive climate that we’re in now. People are seeing what we’re doing, they’re excited by it and they want to support us. That’s been really valuable.
This article first appeared in AR163.