- Article by Natalie Mortimer
Jessica de Rome had to overcome a fear of expressing her creativity before embarking on a career in architecture. Here, she tells Architectural Review about her path into the industry and how she set up her own practice.
I had always wanted to do architecture, but initially, I was far too intimidated by the thought of exposing my ideas to the world in a creative profession,” admits Jessica de Rome, founder of de Rome Architects. Stifled by this fear, de Rome initially chose to study finance and banking but was left uninspired by the “conservative” subject matter.
“I couldn’t find meaning in that, so I fought past my introversion and sought out architecture,” she says. De Rome took her first professional steps into the industry during her third year of study at Bill Szydlik Architects, before being offered a job by Colin Stewart, the founder of Stewart Architects, who was on the panel of de Rome’s final fifth year university critique.
“I stayed there for six years,” says de Rome. “Colin Stewart Architects gave me great exposure to quality urban, commercial, multiresidential and community projects.”
She founded de Rome Architects in Canberra in 2013. “Architecture requires a huge expenditure of emotional and mental energy,” explains de Rome.
“I realised I needed to practise architecture on my own terms for this expenditure of energy to be worthwhile and to positively fulfil me.”
She opened the practice without any jobs lined up. Her initial milestones were about surviving, and building contacts and connections. “I wanted to stay long enough in the game to complete at least one project that could speak for itself and illustrate what I could do,” she says. “My best jobs now are directly connected to the humble initial connections I made.”
AR: Did you have any prior experience in starting up a business or studio?
Jessica de Rome: None at all. The only things that came into play were seeing my parents own and run a small business, plus my short-lived banking and finance studies helped me with a vague understanding of accounting.
Tell us about running an architectural practice. What’s involved in it day-to-day?
It’s about keeping momentum on projects, being responsive to correspondence and immediate tasks, while having design solutions constantly brewing in the back of your mind. Once the daily challenges are over, you can settle into the design work.
Running a business, in particular an architectural practice, requires you to multi-task and have some knowledge across a broad range of skills. Above all, you need a problem-solving mentality, and willingness to get to the bottom of issues and challenges.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in starting up the studio, and how have you dealt with them?
Knowing how to set boundaries, knowing how to define myself and communicating what I can offer, and having the confidence to steer my path.
What do you find most difficult about running a business and how have you overcome these challenges?
It’s easy to feel pressure, competition and comparisons, and to feel dismayed by the state of the broader industry. However, I overcome these challenges by running my own race, and setting my own rules based on what I value. I’ve also made sure I surround myself with a network of like-minded architects and other people from the industry, where we share ideas and offer camaraderie and support.
What do you find to be most rewarding about running your own practice?
Choosing and shaping the direction of the work I do.
What are the most important things to have when building and growing a practice?
Resilience, patience, vision and expression.
Can you tell us how your studio operates?
The studio consists of just me and one other employee, Ursula Embry. We workshop ideas well together and can be very honest with our opinions. We also share the same design values.
Did starting your own studio change your approach to architecture?
Starting my own design studio has allowed me to experiment with ideas, and feel unrestrained and less self-conscious.
What is your proudest moment in your career?
Being able to say ‘no’ to projects that don’t align with my values.
What currently inspires you and your work?
Embracing the idea of scarcity. Scarce space, scarce budget, scarce materials. We’re enjoying experimenting with rationality and restraint in our design work.
What are the greatest or most important lessons you have learned along the way?
To establish the integrity and values you choose to operate by, and make every decision based on those.
What is your favourite project to date?
It depends. For process I’d choose Carwoola house, for collaboration O’Connor house and for committed, supportive, delightful clients, a small extension in Weetangera.
Where do you see yourself and the studio in the next five years and beyond?
We hope to work with like-minded people on aspirational projects, and experiment with our own building projects.
What are you excited for in the future of de Rome?
Refining our process, evolving our design maturity, and communicating the value of architecture and good design to the broader community.