This is part 2 of my coffee chat with the trio that make up Cumulus Architecture + Design LLC: Robbie, Abby and Sadie Aberdeen Lesslie. You may have thought that Cumulus was just the Robbie and Abby show but you will find out in this interview that Sadie plays an integral roll.
In this blog we had a lot of laughs. Topics discussed included:
- how to find a good contractor
- the secret to getting a job at Cumulus
- the idea of work/life balance when your spouse is your partner and your home is your office
- advice for folks looking to start their own firm
- their favorite project
- and I sing. That's right!
Steve Ramos (SR): In part 1 you talked about developing strong positive relationships with the contractors. This reminded me of an interview I read with Glenn Murcutt. You know, the Australian Architect?
Robbie Lesslie (RL): Yeah.
SR: Murcutt does beautiful work and has very technically detailed buildings. The interviewee asked Murcutt how he achieved such consistent quality in his built architecture. And Murcutt said when he interacts with the contractors, that rather than shame them when they do something bad he instead highlights when they do the good stuff.
SR: So when someone does something good you say, “look at this, this is awesome!” You reward the good work. It makes everyone proud and keeps spirits up. Rather than them not wanting to see the architect, because the architect always criticizes their work. You flip the script. It seems so simple
Abby Lesslie (AL): But it never happens. If you treat people with respect you’ll get the most out of it.
SR: Celebrate the little victories.
RL: That simplicity that you’re talking about. It sounds to me almost juvenile.
SR: It does right?
RL: We have owner’s that ask us what the most important thing to look for in a builder. And I say honesty. And that sounds so simple and they are like: “o.k. honesty and what else?” But I go right back to it and explain that. And that’s what we want to be too. We want to be transparent and to be open to ideas.
RL: We realize that there is this tendency being in our profession thinking that your ideas are the end all and that is how it needs to be and that is the way it has always been always done in our firm. Or whatever.
AL: I think its good that we’re married. And tying back to your question. Being married to your business partner, you can call each other out really easily. Which isn’t always a good thing, but it is good for the client. They get true honest feeeback. I’m not afraid to say that’s terrible (to Robbie). Whereas at a large firm you might not get that.
SR: So for people who are having trouble with their employees you would recommend marrying them?
RL: Yeah….that’s how you get the most out of your team.
SR: You need a Mormon architecture firm. Is that the only way for you to add more employees to your architecture firm? Robbie needs to marry people in?
RL: Oh my gosh. (Laughs)
SR: Lets talk about work life balance. A issue that many people struggle with. I imagine with your situation there is very little separation between work and life? So how the hell does that work?
(Sadie is crying.)
RL: (Laughs.) Well what do you think Steve? How’s the separation going now?
(All laugh. Sadie is still crying.)
SR: And then you throw a baby into the mix.
AL: It used to be pretty easy. And now its…
RL: Well you say that. I think it is all relative. We used to think it was tough too. It’s like…”oh… we had it so easy!” And I feel like tomorrow we will say, “yesterday was so easy.” The honest answer is…..…
AL: We are not good at it.
RL: We are not good at it. We are bad at it.
SR: Well some people say that the work life balance thing is a fallacy. And if you like what you do then the two can be integrated. Some people feel ashamed to work nights and weekends. But if you like what you do then that is ok if there is a blend.
AL: I feel the same way. It is all a balance. It is not just work life balance. Everything you do needs to be balanced. Sometimes you just get out and relax a bit and then we have a deadline we may do nothing but work. But that is not always the case. We make time to get out. To do something different with friends.
RL: Yeah. I’d say we used to be better at it and we are trying to get better at it. What we are balancing now with the work life thing is how many projects should we take on at one time when you are a small firm like the two of us. Don’t overdue it, which I think we have done before. When you have amazing opportunities, you can’t turn those away. And what happens when there is 4 or 5 of them at the same time. We are learning what is a good managing point for us. And then what is going to equal us working all through the night for months on end. Which we want to avoid.
AL: But it beats the alternative of not liking what your doing. And just wanting to get out. And waiting for the time to pass by.
RL: Oh yeah. That’s important. Because through all of this we are loving what we are doing. The challenge that we run into is that we love what we are doing but we will look and see that we have been doing this thing that we happened to love way too much and not enough of the other things. So maybe we should balance this by slowing down a little bit on this and say “hey lets go fishing or lets go on a trip somewhere.” Which we’ve been better at in the past.
RL: Kinda the dream of owning your own firm for us is being able to pick up and go somewhere for like a month or two. And work remotely from there. Which we have done before.
AL: We are trying to figure that out again with a kid. We’d like to do that again real soon. (working remotely)
SR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone interested in starting their own firm, what would it be?
RL: I would say definitely, definitely do it.
AL: Learn how to be confrontational.
RL: Yeah. If you are an architect, we are notorious for not being talkers and communicators.
AL: I am not good at this. I wouldn’t be able to survive if it was just me. I know I couldn’t. He (Robbie) can have a hard conversation with a client. He can have a hard conversation with a builder. He can see when something is not right and call them out. I feel like if I was in business on my own I would not make money. I would work way too long on something that I didn’t get paid for.
RL: And it would be beautiful!
AL: But you can’t survive. You wouldn’t survive a month.
SR: I have another quote. I will likely butcher this quote. That is kinda my thing, butchering quotes. This quote says that someone’s success will be determined by the amount of uncomfortable conversations they are willing to put themselves in. So people that are willing to get in there and mix things up. And get messy.
AL: Don’t be a perfectionist. I tend to want to be a perfectionist and you can’t survive. You need to have a perfectionist mentality here and there….
RL: Abby is right about that. I said this recently. We are running maybe the most challenging business prototype out there that I know of. It is a business based on design and design is never ever, ever finished. So you have to determine what is an acceptable level of stop. You know. Is it good enough.
RL: And that is so hard to do. Because those ideas will always, recirculate and something else will come up. It is never going to be perfect. So making those moments where we are in the middle of generating all of these ideas for a client, especially early on and saying hey, “we’ve got to finish, because we are meeting with them tomorrow.” Or “we are meeting with them in 3 days and we have got to stop.” And that is the hard part.
SR: Next question. Somehwat similar to the previous question. Do you know that song Ooh La Lala?
RL: Can you sing it for us?
SR: (Steve attempts to singin a scratchy high pitch voice) I wish that I knew what I know now/ when I was younger. (Glasses in the room crack. Sadie yells out a screeching cry. Robby looks at me like he has seen a ghost.)
SR: If you could go back to the time when you just graduated from architecture school, what would you tell your younger self?
RL: I got it. I would find the most inspiring reputable person to work for and go work directly for them. And it doesn’t matter where that is. I would go and do it. Seeing when we have great architects that come to town for lectures like Tom Kundig.
RL: I have placed way more of an importance on the place I was living. I wanted to come to Charleston to surf and relax and just be on the beach and love life in that dimension. If I was as serious then as I am now, I think I would tell myself to go out there and do something for at least a year here. A year there. And really learn how those firms operate and what inspires that amazing design. Because that is how you learn.
AL: It is hard because I worked at a larger firm. And I always feel like if I worked many jobs then you would see a lot of different ways of working: commercial, residential, big firm, small firm. You would understand what you wanted to do sooner.
RL: And what you don’t want to do. Ever again.
AL: So don’t be afraid to quit and try a new job. But it is hard to say that, because you couldn’t do that when we graduated.
RL: When we got back from traveling and we were trying to figure out what we were doing, I was not yet licensed. I was sitting for my exams but I knew how to do my job. So as I started to pass those exams I was taking on these tiny jobs. Abby was working part time. And when I say tiny jobs I mean deck additions, deck renovations. And they started gradually growing. But one thing that I also started doing that was immensely helpful is that I knew a lot of other architects in town. So I was reaching out to them and seeing if they had any work they needed some help with. And I was able to work with multiple firms. Probably 3 or 4 different places.
AL: But you really can’t do that right out of school.
RL: You can’t. You are right. I guess I am thinking that you’d be able to see how a lot of firms operate. And see what I really like about this one. And that I am not sure about this one. It helped hone in a little bit about how we work. (At Cumulus) But I guess upon graduation I’d say it is all about experience and having the right experience.
RL: And kind of taking a break from that. But it’s tough. Because you are probably unmarried. Or maybe you are married but you have this window of time….and I’m speaking to that as I’m looking at my daughter, and things are different now. But that window of time where you can do whatever you want. And do you want to go live in a fun place? Or do you want to go really further your career by working for somebody? I wouldn’t ever go hold myself in a box and work for a firm in New York City lets say where I’m going to hate life but I’m going to be something good. I don’t know. I see a value to that.
AL: I feel like that is the hardest part. When you come out of school. You can either sign up to work for this superstar architect but your going to have no life. Or you go to work for..I dunno.
SR: How long until you teach Sadie AutoCADD so that she can contribute to the family business?
RL: Very soon. We are going to start with a broom.
AL: She already likes putting things in the trash can.
RL: And we are going to put some dusters on her knees. Very soon. We are going to get her building models very soon.
SR: Well that’s a great place to end it.
RL: Ahh….so much more to talk about. This is great.
So much more.
Robbie was right. There was so much more to talk about and we could have gone on for hours. I felt like we just scratched the surface.
After our coffee, I sent the Cumulus Duo one followup question via email:
What is one project that you are very proud of? and why?
RL: Most gratifying project to date? I think Abby and I have the same one but for different reasons. These images may lend some insight as to how we collaborate.
RL: This new home design was inspired by the owner's request for us to create "a jewel box in the woods" with "interesting ceilings". That was it. That was almost all they requested and let us run with it.
RL: I have to admit Abby ran with some very exciting sketches to start out with that ended up being very similar to the finished design. She focused on the character of the home with it's shape while I ran with the detailing to keep reinforcing the sketch concept.
RL: For me, being able to design high vaulted ceilings with glue laminated timber that would act both as structural and decorative elements was very challenging and rewarding. The process went back and forth between us and the structural engineer before finally being ready for fabrication - then installation. It was a team effort for sure, which made it a very exciting project. We love how it all came together.
Still waiting on Abby.....
Maybe Abby can comment in the comment section. The project Robbie is talking about is the Cassique Country Home. I sprinkled images of that fabulous home throughout this blog. Wow!
Thanks again to Abby, Robbie and Sadie Aberdeen. It was a blast and can't wait to continue the discussion. These folks are an inspiration and I am so pumped to see them succeed. And not just succeeding at being great architects, but I love that they have designed their lives the way they want them to be. It reminds me of the following quote by Seth Godin:
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