In her own words Kate Fitzgerald describes Whispering Smith, the “staunchly feminist architecture firm working across both residential and commercial projects”, as a young and agile practice that has transitioned from start-up to officially emerged.
Despite a small team of the three, the office is usually a full, fun and lively space as they work out of warehouse shared with other creative practices. At present the team (Anna Harford and Nikita Filippou) is enjoying autumn outside in Perth – while they still can – as Kate navigates what their days will look like when they return to work – albeit from home.
Habitus spoke to Kate, curious to learn what, if anything, had changed for the studio in the past couple of weeks. Certainly nothing has dipped their spirits.
Habitus: What are your usual working arrangements? Do you work from home?
Kate Fitzgerald: Whispering Smith has a studio space in an old warehouse in South Fremantle. We worked really hard as a team to build a space we now share and collaborate with other creatives. The King William Studios are also home to a landscape architecture firm, Seedesign Studio and an interior architecture studio next to us, Ohlo Studio. We also have a gallery space that has a roller door that opens up into the street, called the Sometimes Gallery, because we ‘sometimes’ host art exhibitions on the side of our practice for local artists.
We host business events for small architecture practices in there as well – We co-founded the Business of Small Practice, or the ‘BoSP’ which we’ve been running in collaboration with the Association of Consulting Architects. It’s all about building a community of small practices, and developing ways of doing business better: how to make it more fair; how to make it gender diverse; how architecture can revitalise itself and offer something other than fees for service; and how we can lift the profession with business and have better, smarter, more profitable practices that employ people and pay them well. That is all operating out of the King William Street Studio, in addition to it being Whispering Smith’s HQ.
So it’s quite a diverse space, and intentionally so. How long has it been open and running?
We had our first exhibition in the Sometimes Gallery in November , so we’ve been open to the community since then.
Are you and your staff now working from home?
What has that transition been like for you and them?
We’re a fairly young and agile firm, we already work from home sometimes if we are working on tasks we think we need some space for. Having started my own practice, skating close to the line of survival was fairly standard in the early days. We’re emerged now and we’ve got a fairly significant portfolio of projects, but, it’s not that far away in the memory bank, so you could say we are emotionally prepared for this kind of downturn. We have been amazed at the support we’ve been given from government stimulus, to our bank putting an automatic freeze on any payments right through to our landlords and real estate agent giving us a break on our rent for a few months. Imagine if we’d had that kind of support as a start up… It’s food for thought on how much support there is for small businesses when times are tough.
How do you have in mind to keep in touch with each other?
We made the decision as a team that they should take a [paid] break right now, because they might not be allowed outside in a couple of week’s time. It’s Western Australia, it’s autumn, it’s beautiful here – they can enjoy this little bit of time while I figure out systems and processes. I’m doing my job as the Director of WS and plotting out our cash flow and figuring out how we’re going to get through this. I’m also figuring out tasks that we can do related to in-house work we’ve been unable to develop this year as we haven’t had the time. I’ve started reprogramming what our weeks are going to look like.
What are some of the in-house jobs you’re thinking of? Is there anything that’s ready to talk about?
We’re looking forward working on the website of our sister brand, New Resident, which is a delivery model for ‘ready-made architecture’. We have been taking the best ideas that have come out of our practice over the last 9 years and developments I’ve built with Whispering Smith and are using them as prototypes that have gone in to creating an affordable housing range.
We’ve been looking forward to getting that out to the rest of the world but things have been busy as Whispering Smith and it’s taken us a while to get it happening. We’ve also been able to plot out how we can work on this while we have a bit time and while our clients take stock and figure out what their plans for their future projects are.
For projects that are running at the moment how are you interacting with clients, suppliers, builders, carpenters and so on? Has that changed at all and are you predicting it to change?
We are still meeting on site [as at the time of writing] to review projects being constructed. On our residential projects the trades are quite far away from each other, there is social distancing on site, and they are able to maintain that work flow because they are in such small groups, and it’s one trade in one trade out. So we are able to run our onsite work on those projects in a safe way, and we are lucky they are still progressing safely through uncertain times.
We have quite a few projects that are just commencing design, which is when the risk is low, and everybody has time to input into those projects – so they’re really excited to go through the planning stage with us while things have slowed down for them. It’s quite a good idea, really, as there architecture fees to pay but it’s a small percentage of the investment required when clients are in the construction phase of a project. It’s quite a good time to be doing creative work on projects in the early stages.
And not feeling rushed to fast-track design so you can get building.
Exactly! The reduced pressure on deadlines is going to lead to better designs and better projects. Although we don’t have the same ability to meet with our clients face-to-face we do have the unusual ability to take our time with things. I was supposed to present three talks in the past two weeks that haven’t gone ahead so there is a lot of time in our business at the moment that we usually devote to advocacy and the profession in general. We’re now devoting that time to developing WS and and contracting other businesses to do things for us where we can to keep them working. We’re active in our small practice community and asking if other people are okay. Our network of small business is incredible; people are sharing resources that they’ve made or found.
People like Warwick Mihaly on his architecture business blog, Panfilo have been amazing at digesting and sharing info, and I’m a very proud member of the ACA (Association of Consulting Architects) who are running surveys or ‘pulse checks’ to see how architecture businesses are going, and what assistance or information they need, or what they can advocate for at a National level.
At a time when you see people ripping things off shelves and old ladies fighting over the last bit of toilet paper, we have small businesses, naturally supposed to compete with each other, that are helping each other out. Ultimately, this ingenuity and generosity will help us get through it. I have no doubt that a lot of these practices and businesses will survive this because of the community spirit and network of support we are sharing with each other.
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Tags: architect, Architecture, BoSP, design hunter, Dialling In Series, Dialling In with…, Kate FitzGerald, King William Studios, New Resident Perth, Perth, Sometimes Gallery, the Business of Small Practice, Whispering Smith