Many architects follow a well-trodden career path: they graduate from university; get a job in a big firm; gain valuable skills and experience; and then leave to set up their own practice. Not Emma Williamson and Kieran Wong, founders of CODA Studio in Fremantle. They established their practice right after graduating and worked on alts-and-adds and houses, before reorienting to focus on public and commercial projects. In July 2017, CODA Studio merged with Cox Architecture.
“Our ambition has always been the same and we felt that CODA had reached its limit: it was like driving a two-cylinder car in fifth gear all the time,” says Emma Williamson of the impetus behind the transition. “We needed to increase our energy and capacity, and in another city that wouldn’t have been impossible, but in Perth, historically it’s been very difficult. We wanted to stay in Perth, so we had to think creatively about how to do that.
“This merger is the next big relationship in our lives, so Kieran and I made an assessment, and even though we realised there was compatibility, we didn’t know what the end result would look like,” she says. “But there’s hope there: we had two families and now we have to work out how to be a blended family. That’s what's exciting, what gives it energy.”
There are several major advantages for CODA’s people in this somewhat unconventional pairing, Emma says. “The chances for career progression are somewhat limited in a smaller practice, particularly one owned by a husband and wife team,” she says. “That was an issue for our practice and for our employees, but it also reflected back on us as we were also unable to access that next step.
“At a personal level, I want to increase my learning, too, and I can only do that in an environment with people who know more than me,” she says. “From our staff perspective, there are real opportunities for our experienced architects to sink their teeth into bigger projects in a meaningful way, and our graduates can increase their capacity and skills and be exposed to a broader range of projects.”
As national directors at Cox, Emma and Kieran will continue to shape the future of the profession through their respective roles with key organisations (Kieran is president of the Association of Consulting Architects Australia; Emma is founding chair of the AIA’s Gender Equity Committee, among others), while working on projects and other practice related initiatives, including communications.
At CODA, Emma nurtured internal and external communications with studio manager Emma Brain (who will return to her position after a period parental leave). “Emma [Brain] is the key person who gets our stories out there, and she also previously managed our practice finances and human resources,” Emma says. “She looked after our Linked in and Twitter feeds. I never touched those so I’d like to do more of that. Together, Emma and I would plan a thematic approach and then feed content into it. Planning ahead made it easy for our other staff to get involved.
“Emma [Brain] and I made sure that we photographed all of our completed projects and she would put them on our website, write about them, and send them out to editors, and Kieran and I would speak about them,” Emma says. “That would often lead to other types of stories and activities which can be useful, like the invitation to speak at the conference.” [Click here for SLD’s coverage of Emma’s 2017 AIA National Conference presentation].
While it may be difficult to measure the impact of good communications, Emma believes they are important, especially for young practices. “I've questioned the value of all these methods of communications, and I don't know enough about them to know if they are successful, but they seem to have currency,” she says. “They help people have a presence, which is reassuring.
“At CODA, we were always starting from a zero position with no body of work in any particular sector, so we had to make sure we learned about it, and then communicated our views on it in such a way that we could be compelling. It was an experiment in how to get work.”
Establishing a narrative for CODA’s activities and aspirations, and ensuring that employees shared their vision, helped to pave the way towards the merger, Emma says. “We came to realise there is great value in telling your story, and ensuring that there is an alignment of values [between the practice and its people], so you are not trying to manage a misalignment,” she explains. “It’s not just about communicating outside the practice, it’s also about how you tell your story internally.
“In order for us to think that the merger was a good idea, it needed to align with our values, so in the end it wasn’t a big stretch to communicate that news to our staff, our people,” she adds. “The most important thing is not the merger itself, but what we do in six to 12 months, and the impact it has on our work collective and work environment, and the work we produce externally.”
When she presented at the AIA national conference in May – telling delegates that CODA had undergone a mid-life crisis, hinting at a new direction – Emma’s candour and honesty were widely praised. SLD is looking forward to watching how Emma and Kieran rise to the challenges of “co-parenting” their newly blended family, and how they communicate about their unusual experience of changing gears.
Read more about The Back House in Issue 117 of HOUSES. And if you’d like to develop your own practice story, Sounds Like Design can help. Get in touch and we’ll work with you to create your unique narrative.
This is Part 5 of the Sounds Like Design 'Comms Toolkit' series, which aims to help architects become better communicators. Sign up to receive weekly updates and more useful tips, or contact us directly to ask about our consulting services.