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Lisa-Maree Carrigan on building for longevity and achieving your version of success

Lisa-Maree Carrigan on building for longevity and achieving your version of success


In our series celebrating Women of Influence in Architecture and Interior Design, Australian Design Review caught up with Lisa-Maree Carrigan, the humble, passionate and highly successful director of global multidisciplinary design firm, GroupGSA.

As an award-winning architect with an established reputation as a design and thought leader, Carrigan has a wealth of knowledge with more than 25 years of experience in the industry. She credits her strong desire to become an architect to her upbringing and childhood. With her father being a trained engineer, Carrigan says she practically “grew up on a construction site.” Additionally, her mother – an interior designer – gave her another unique personal perspective into the world of design.

Blaxland Road, Rhodes, concept render. Client: Billbergia

By age nine, Carrigan was certain that architecture was her calling. Fast-forward 14 years and she began her professional career upon the completion of both her degrees from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales. Carrigan reflects back on her time at university, saying: “The content was focused on facilitating your understanding and capacity to design at a certain scale for a project. While this is a fantastic problem-based learning method, it means that every project you design and craft has to be presented and exposed to your peers and a jury.”

She laughs that while these critiques are “immensely constructive, they are also incredibly brutal”. “You have to learn how to see the positives from strong criticism and feedback,” Carrigan says. “Failure is a part of daily existence – you just need to keep going.”

In a professional environment, the same lessons are held true. “To win projects of significance in New South Wales you need to be part of a design competition,” Carrigan adds. “You are competing with practices who are as capable of creating beautiful schemes as you are, but of the five competitors, four will not win. Not because they didn’t do an exceptional job, but because there can only be one winner.” It is Carrigan’s rational relationship with failure that has guided her through the challenges of the industry.

Eden Street, Arncliffe, concept render. Client: Billbergia

Balancing family life

As a younger architect, Carrigan was promoted on the strength of her capacity to ideate and conceptualise, engage with clients and authorities, and to advocate with confidence. Her coalescence of those skills put her on a fast-tracked trajectory into the industry.

Being so career-driven, Carrigan had never fully planned to get married or have children. During the late 90s, women in the industry weren’t progressing at the same rate as men, let alone women with families, so you can imagine her surprise when Carrigan and her husband fell pregnant with their first child in London.

The family decided to move back to Australia over 24 years ago when their son was just a few months old. With no practice, no maternity leave or confirmed employment, Carrigan was once again back at square one. A former colleague invited her to an interview with the managing director at GroupGSA, and she was hired on the spot. After taking eight months away from work to relocate and raise her son, Carrigan was thrust back into full-time employment. 

Moxy Hotel, Sydney. Client: RF Corval. Photographer Arthur Vay

The flexible framework of working from home or part-time work was non-existent at the time, so the family had to develop a new approach to life. Carrigan’s husband also works in the industry and was a partner in his firm at the time. Both parents made a conscious decision to always be present for their son, even if this came at the expense of late nights and lack of sleep. “I would fly in from China overnight and head straight off the plane to a school sports carnival,” Carrigan says. “I hadn’t slept in however long and then after I’d drive to the office.”

While she doesn’t recommend this model now, at the time it’s what she needed to do in order to “be present for our son, uphold my part of the partnership, but also deliver to clients and the practice”. “Looking back, I’m proud that I showed my son that I could be a good mum – not superwoman, but be a good parent while still having a life of my own,” she says.

Moxy Hotel, Sydney. Client: RF Corval. Photographer Arthur Vay

Navigating GroupGSA through changing landscapes

Carrigan had been a board member of GroupGSA for 15 years prior to engaging as a director of architecture and urban design. This external perspective of the company meant Carrigan was integral in helping the practice navigate the ups and downs of the industry as a whole, the Global Financial Crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. This on-the-job training taught her real-life management skills and emphasised her responsibility to protect not only the firm, but the livelihoods of all of its stakeholders – something she says she does not take lightly.

Eden Street, Arncliffe, concept render. Client: Billbergia

This deep understanding of the fundamental structure of the GroupGSA, optimally positioned Carrigan during the lockdown to lead the management buyout in which 96 percent of the business was transacted. “Without my long history and experience with the firm, I don’t think I would’ve felt so comfortable to have been in a driving seat at such a fundamentally unsteady point in the market,” Carrigan says.

“I think there’s a myth in architecture that there are strong individuals with ego and bravado – the architects with the single hand – when in reality, no project is ever offered by a single hand. Yes, while there may have been initial sketches by individuals, there’s a whole team of collaborators that actually create an outcome.” Carrigan thinks that this self-awareness is so important and highly present at GroupGSA.

Empowering women in design

Carrigan says that she was often the only woman at conferences or meetings, but sees this culture within architecture shifting. “In my experience, there were women few and far in leadership roles,” she says. “Since we completed the buyout and restructure of GroupGSA, 53 percent of our workforce across the four disciplines of architecture, urban design, landscape architecture, and interior design are women.” 

Blaxland Road, Rhodes, concept render. Client: Billbergia

“We don’t have a gender pay gap or a gender issue here and that is by strategic design, but we know we are privileged,” she says. While Carrigan is so proud of the work that has occurred at GroupGSA, the work is not finished. As a founding partner of Tomorrow’s Women in Construction Initiative, the practice also aims to offer grassroots exposure to the plethora of career choices within the industry, targeted at 13-17-year-old girls.

Carrigan has seen so many friends and women exit architecture due to a variety of reasons. From having families and meeting barriers to the mental agility required to be resilient in male-dominated framework of the industry, women have had to show greater strength and perseverance than perhaps their male counterparts.

Blaxland Road, Rhodes, concept render. Client: Billbergia

Carrigan mentions that she’s never been fortunate enough to have a female mentor to look to. Now she aims to nurture and support all staff, but particularly women in the GroupGSA practice. Carrigan is still surprised that women at the firm view her as a role model, but after spending some time with her, this really isn’t surprising at all. She is truly an inspiring individual who consistently champions others.

“I’m by no means perfect. There are lots of ways that I can improve as a leader but also as a functioning human being,” she says. “I need feedback to grow, so I am always open to it.”

My version of success

Carrigan views success from a commercial standpoint as building a business for longevity. “Since our management buyout we’ve had greater success by winning our largest projects yet and we’ve won more design excellence awards than ever,” she says. “I see this success metric as a direct link to our team. We’ve identified fantastic people in our firm and elevated them to positions that help to ‘steer our ship’. We are always open to better ways of doing everything. It doesn’t matter whether a recommendation comes from a director or a student, we will consider it.”

Eden Street, Arncliffe, concept render. Client: Billbergia

Carrigan believes she has achieved her version of personal success in creating a “functioning, happy and loving family unit”. The pride she has in describing both her husband of 25 years and her son is overwhelming. “They are just my favourite people,” she says.

While architecture and design are both her and her partner’s passions, they make a conscious effort not to sacrifice all of their time to the craft. “Instead we try to constantly learn new things like pickling, cooking classes, glassblowing and pottery,” she says. “We do these things as a whole family unit and it helps to keep us all connected – it’s just fun!”

Moxy Hotel, Sydney. Client: RF Corval. Photographer Arthur Vay

An inspiring career built on motivating others

Carrigan’s career has taken her far and wide. She has worked in deserts in Egypt, burnt-out hotels in Kuwait and islands in Bahrain. It is this diverse but heightened appreciation for the beauty of different landscapes that keeps Carrigan’s love of the craft alive.

Carrigan is a born leader. She strives for greatness in all aspects of her professional and personal life, commending and crediting those who help her achieve this along the way. Key to her success is her energy, passion and focus on creating collaborative project environments that support innovation, problem-solving and people. As a respected key leader in the field of architecture and design, Carrigan is certainly an inspiring woman of influence. 

Photography and concept render images supplied by GroupGSA

For the month of March, in recognition of International Women’s Day, Australian Design Review will be shining a spotlight on women of influence in architecture and interior design. While we pride ourselves on championing women and people from underrepresented groups at all times, we believe it’s necessary to recognise the achievements of individuals who have risen to the top, despite social- or industry-related imbalances. As well as bringing you profiles and project features that celebrate the work of game-changing, innovative women, we’ll also lean into the very real, yet rarely discussed realities of working in an industry that still holds onto traditional modes of working that aren’t always inclusive or supportive. It’s our privilege this month to bring you profiles and features that celebrate the unique perspectives and talents that women bring to the architecture and interior design industry.


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