Episode 023

My Journey To Starting My Own Architecture Business with Heather Johnston AIA

Enoch SearsSep 9, 2013

Today we again return to the topic of starting an architecture firm. Heather Johnston Architect is a residential architecture firm based in San Diego, specializing in contemporary custom residences, vacation homes and additions. Energy-efficient, healthy and sustainable homes are the focus of the practice. H.J. Architect's approach is highly responsive and tailored to the requirements of each client, resulting in intrinsically liveable, modern homes.

In this interview we discuss:

  1. How Heather Johnston started her architecture firm
  2. How she got her first clients

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Show Notes:

  1. Heather Johnston Architect
  2. Architect Heather Johnston AIA on Facebook

Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

[DAP errMsgTemplate=”SHORT”]
Enoch: Well, welcome back agile architects. I want to welcome you to Business of Architecture today.

Today we have the honor and privilege of having Heather Johnston, AIA with us. She’s the Principal of Heather Johnston Architects in La Jolla, California.

She has some pretty interesting things we’re going to talk about today. She just finished building her own custom residence in La Jolla. So, we’re going through that process of what it took to do that.

So, first of all, Heather, welcome to the show.

Heather: It’s great to be here. Thanks, Enoch.

Enoch: Okay. Well, I’ve already told our audience a little bit about you, but please tell us a little bit more so we could get to know you personally. Also, tell us about your business.

Heather: Oh, where would you like me to start? Right at the very beginning?

Let’s see: Let’s see, Canadian by birth. I was born in Canada. It was very far north. I’m the daughter of a fur trader.

Enoch: Seriously?

Heather: Seriously. Canadiana.

Enoch: Wow.

Heather: My mother was the daughter of a prospector, gold prospector and inventor. So, I grew up, pretty much, in the land of the midnight sun with hours being my own, and a lot of freedom – a tremendous amount of freedom. There’s not much up there except for rocks, stubby trees, kind of, south of the tree line, and just a terrific amount of exposure to the outdoors, and a lot of different cultures – the [Inaudible 00:08:44] Indians for one. My first friends were native Indians.

We just grew up in a way that I don’t think many kids have the chance to now or even then. So, I think that gave me a certain sense of adventure.

Enoch: Yeah. You blew mind. I have this mental image of what it must have been like to grow up there.

So, from your childhood on and coming from that background, you went to school and somewhere along the line you decided to be an architect or did you first go in to another career?

Heather: My first choice was painting and drawing. So, I studied and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Alberta which is a thousand miles south of where I grew up.

Enoch: Wow, a thousand miles.

Heather: Yeah. That was a terrific time being in the big city. Then, I went to Europe to see what the competition was going to be. I wanted to look at the best paintings that have ever been painted, and the best sculptures that have ever been made, and was completely amazed by the architecture.

The paintings just dwindled in comparison. The buildings, I was just astounded by. I thought, well, here’s a chance to really make an impact.

So, returning from Europe, I wrote to the first fifty architects in the phone book, and got a call from a couple. It ended up with Barton Myers who is quite well known actually here and in Canada. He happened to be a professor at UCLA. He said, “This is the school for you, young lady.” So, I ended up in Los Angeles for my Masters in Architecture, and worked very hard.

Enoch: In school?

Heather: Yeah.

Enoch: Tell me a little bit about your experience at UCLA in your Masters program. What was that like?

Heather: It was a great time to be there, Enoch. Frank Gehry was giving studios, Thom Mayne and Morphosis when they were still a company, and we had Rios/Pearson, and we had [Inaudible 00:10:56] So many architects at the time. I graduated in ’87. It was really when a lot of these people were starting to get their legs. I can’t tell you just the excitement at the time about Architecture. I’m very, very lucky.

I can’t remember much else about Los Angeles except the studio, which is great, because it was a very exciting city. It’s the city too that was right at the cusp of really becoming something that mattered – very edgy place. It was just a really great time to be there.

Enoch: Fascinating. A lot of energy – I can just imagine having these architects on the cutting edge of L.A., specially down there in Santa Monica where they’re just pushing all the bounds.

How did that relate to the studio and your experience at school? UCLA at that time, was it more theoretical, was it more construction-based? Did they a particular kind of theme to the Architecture program?

Heather: That’s a good question, Enoch. It’s very theoretical, I would say. Not so much Sciarch, which I know you’ve heard about, but more of a practical-theoretical way – being encouraged to explore things that it would be very unlikely you could have the chance to be once you graduated.

I would say we didn’t get a lot of grounding in the actual business of Architecture, which I think some of the old schools need to look a little more closely at. But, we were given the opportunity to just really explore, and actually we were goaded to being more adventurous and take more risks.

Many of us went in there very conservative, wanting to do nice, little projects. But, we were actually, kind of, kicked out of that attitude and told, “Here’s your chance.”

Enoch: Fascinating.

Heather: It is. How many Architecture schools does L.A have? Four, at least. So, it was quite competitive between them all. We’d go to each other’s [Inaudible 00:12:56] Yeah, it was a great experience because Cal Poly isn’t much more practical-focused, Sciarc much more experimental, again, and then, there was USC, which was probably somewhere in the middle of all that.

There were constant lectures – I know there still is; house tours. It’s got a great history of modernism in L.A. – mid-century modern, you know, Neutra and Schindler. It’s a fabulous place to study Architecture if you’re interested in that sort of cutting-edge, modern thing.

Enoch: Excellent. You mentioned that, at school, there was not much of an emphasis or even much note about the business side of Architecture. That’s what a lot of us architects have found – that we went to school to design. You mentioned that you wish, in a way, that it would a little bit more of that in the curriculum, maybe there is some room to put more of that in.
What things about the business of Architecture could be important for students coming out of school to learn?

Heather: Well, I think it’s going to be important to stress that it’s great to think outside the norm. It’s fabulous. One must do that. It has to be encouraged. However, the Science of building is what is going to make it happen. So, I think it’s important to not just stress the Science of building, but also to talk about how these things are going to get funded, and what the options are in getting your projects built.

At that time, in particular, it was very much the star thing – all these wonderful architects that everyone, “Oh, they’re so amazing.” So, if you weren’t a star, what’s the other option, while you were a cab jockey doing elevators? There wasn’t really much of an emphasis given on an alternate way to do Architecture other than being a star.

So, if you weren’t a star, it was like, “Well, then, what are you?” So, maybe that’s still being answered the school. It’s been a while. But, I think that’s definitely something. The star system was very much glorified and talked about as something that we should all aspire to. I’m thinking, maybe, that’s a little bit off base, particularly after we’ve come through these last ten years in open sea.

Enoch: Interesting. That is definitely a dialog that I hear going on in social media. Architects are talking about it in the journals that we hear, architectural magazine; people are discussing the role of the star architect versus the majority of what architects do.

Where did the route take you? Did you go to try to be the business architect route? Where do you fall in that continuum?

Heather: So, I must say, the only reason I was in Los Angeles was to go to Architecture school. So, weekends were, “Dude! Surfs up!” I’m just like, “Forget about it. I’m here to work.”

I had a different attitude. So, I would say that is the kind of attitude that is driven by “I really wanted to succeed.” I also had to succeed because I was paying my own way. If it wasn’t for scholarships that I managed to get three years in a row, I probably would have had to bail and go work in a restaurant somewhere.

So, I was very motivated financially to actually continue to excel because that was the only thing that was keeping me in school.

Enoch: Wow.

Heather: Then, I graduated with that same idea that, tada, you just work hard enough, and you’re going to get noticed, and all these people are going to call you up, and throw money at you. Yeah, that’s how I graduated. Then, of course, you know, life gets real.

Enoch: Yeah. So, did that work out? How did that happen?

Heather: How did it work out?

Enoch: I know you’re being tongue in cheek about people throwing money at you and working hard. So, what was the reality when you came out that you discovered?

Heather: The reality was $11 an hour working in an office. Can you imagine that with huge student loans? Only $11 an hour and my Engineering friends were making twice that as a starting salary – attorneys, doctors. They were like shaking their heads like, “What?” because I work so hard.

I worked harder than any of them put together except, well, maybe doctors, but then I was asking for a raise to $11.59 an hour. That’s appalling. I don’t think it’s changed that much. I still think that there’s a lot of soul searching architects need to do about how hard they worked during school, and after school, and what the rewards are. To me, it’s always been disconnect.

Enoch: Yeah. You’ve been in the industry long enough to probably have gathered some conclusions or some hypothesis about the industry. Let’s just speculate a little bit.

What is your opinion of why that system is the way it is in terms of – I don’t know if it’s a pay disparity or not – definitely having the impression that starting architects have a low salary. Even when they’re at the prime of their career, their salaries don’t necessarily can keep with the amount of time they put in school with learning how compared to most professions.

Heather: And the internship.

Enoch: Exactly. Do you see any course systemic problems with the Architecture field that, kind of, meant to that or what’s your perspective on why that is?

Heather: That is such a great question. I wonder how we actually got ourselves in this position in the first place. I would say it probably goes back to… At one point we were master builder. We, kind of, lost that because somehow it got dirty to mess with the building portion of the whole idea of getting buildings built. As a matter of fact, I think it was quite clear in the thirties and forties, in the AIA where there was, whatever they call, a set of rules that you never mix Architecture with the actual construction.

I think that, kind of, separated architects from their previous grand role, deservedly so, of the master builder. Since then, it’s been more and more diluted. We read the same blogs, and a lot of it is architects not wanting to take responsibility because it’s gotten so litigious, so they give a lot of responsibilities to contractors, project managers – none of whom have architecture as their first goal.

I have to say, I’m afraid architects have to take the responsibility for where things are now because they’ve abdicated pretty much a lot of the scope to other parties. So, I have to say architects can only look at themselves.

Enoch: Gotcha. Well, it’s good to get your thoughts on that, Heather. I appreciate it.

Let’s go back to the time when you came out of school, you went and worked really hard for these firms for $11 an hour for a while. Give me a summary of your career up to the point where you went out on your own.

Heather: The summary. Well, yeah, I worked for a number of bigger firms, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer and Barton Myers, as I said, and also Rios/Pearson who do some lovely work in L.A. Then, the early ‘90s hit ’92 when it was pretty similar to what we just went through. At that time, they were still building in Canada. So, I have to say goodbye to L.A. and I went back to Canada to actually continue to get my chops in how to build.

I was hired by a couple of – I call them – cowboy architects. They’re called Osburn/Clarke Productions. They’re two architects, but they gave me a tremendous amount of responsibility. It was awesome. They put me in a little float plane, this was in Vancouver, and sent off to all these little islands to help them build houses for people who were retiring, or building their second, or third homes in these little islands from the ground up. Then, there’s clearing the site, getting the materials in by ferry, or truck, or float plane because it’s pretty rough there getting all the services brought in.

They would just put me in a float plane, wave goodbye, and say, “You go, girl.” I really was given a lot of sink or swim responsibility right from the beginning. That’s where I really learned what it’s about. Talking with the builders, being comfortable with the guys – let’s face it, they’re all guys – and enjoying them, having fun, and at the same time, just being scared to death with all the responsibility. But, that was pretty good.

What happened was I met my husband in one of these. The shortest airplane flight in Canada – thirteen minutes. So, we ended up getting married and moving to one of these little islands. The only other architect on that island, Schubart, actually a former student of Frank Lloyd, well, he died. So, there was, “Hi, I’m an architect. I live here.”

It was very fortuitous. I started to get calls from people wanting second homes from this little island called Salt Spring. It’s one of the Gulf Islands, there’s Bellingham and Thetis Island. In the United States there’s a string of the gulf islands that’s off the coast of Seattle. They extend up in New Canada, and it’s one of those that I was able to actually then start to do my own projects, and just see the pants up because, you know, I hadn’t really done a lot of that except for another company.

Enoch: How did other people that you’re an architect and to call you?

Heather: Well, first of all, there was a little paper there. It’s a very small island, it’s one of those places that the population swells during the summer, and during the winter there are just the locals.

Word got out, I think, because I started to talk to some builders and say, “Look, we can work together,” etc. Then also people have heard of Osburn and Clarke. These are the people I worked for before I decided to start my own firm on the island. They checked me out to see if I was, frankly, cheaper. I was. So, let’s face it. They picked me because I was cheaper. I was certainly untried.

Enoch: You mentioned too the architects that you worked for as cowboy architects. What did you mean by that?

Heather: Well, they didn’t follow the rules. They were like, “Eh…” First of all, they had three women working for them. They run the kind of office where they kick off on a Friday, and then we’d go sit on the water and drink beer, but then we’d come in on the weekends and work really hard till really late.

They were not a bow tie, and little round glass, and white shirt firm. They were the opposite. They were rugged guys hopping on float planes, [Inaudible 00:24:07] They were coastees. Do you know what that means? You know what a coastee – someone who is very comfortable on the coast and is used to that kind of float plane way of getting around, and sitting around a camp fire. They’re more of a rough and ready kind of architect than a stiff-laced office kind of guy in New York – completely opposite. I loved that. It was very fun.

Enoch: Well, now is a great time to talk about our success quote Heather. Did you have the opportunity to look up a quote that you’d like to share with your audience?

Heather: Oh, yes, I did. I’ll put on my specs.

Enoch: We’d love to hear that.

Heather: This is, kind of, perfect. It’s like, “Hell, there are no rules here. We’re trying to accomplish something.” That’s from Thomas Edison.

Enoch: Wow, that ties it perfectly with what we were just talking about. So, tell me about that. What does that mean to you, and why did you choose that particular quote?

Heather: Because, in the end, you have to follow, I would say, your own rules. You have to make your own rules and basically forget about what everyone else is doing because it will just scare you if you start worrying too much about everyone else, and where they are, and how they function. It takes a lot of, I would say, fortitude and self-belief to forge ahead on a path that maybe no one else has ever fall in before. I think that’s it. Forget about the rules.

Enoch: Well, we know that Thomas Edison was a great innovator. So, could you just give us that quote one more time so we could hear it again?

Heather: “Hell, there are no rules here. We’ve got a project to build.”

Enoch: Nice. Have you ever used that on site?

Heather: Yeah. It mostly gets a laugh. It, kind of, lighten things up a little bit too. It’s good. It’s like, “Don’t take it so seriously. We’re just doing stuff here.”

Enoch: Absolutely. Lighten up the mood a little bit.

Now, on the island when you started working for yourself and providing architectural services, give me one or two lessons that you learned from that early time – maybe things that you hadn’t realized before or things that helped you be successful in the future?

Heather: I think the most important thing I learned, Enoch, was working with the people who were building the project. I have such huge respect for everything they do. They worked so hard. There’s nothing more wonderful to me than a beautiful detail of, say, how you keep the water out, or how you put a horizontal up against a vertical in a beautiful way. The respect I have for these crafts people who actually do this all the way through to the guys who are doing the blasting… To me, I just have a huge amount of respect for the people who are actually doing the building.

So, I would say, my biggest lesson is that you show them that kind of respect, and you’ll get it back in spades. They’ll work for you, they’ll work overtime. I’m not saying being their friend, but there is a certain respect that is established simply from, well, first of all, you have to have good crafts people to be able to give them that, but that’s the important lesson.

Enoch: Okay. Here on the show we’re all about learning from our past mistakes and failures. Is there a failure that you can look at that you have that you were able to overcome and then learn from that failure that you can share with us?

Heather: Yeah. I would say, perhaps, in this house we just finished somehow thinking that, “Well, we’re paying them, and we signed a contract, and therefore they’re going to perform.” I think the biggest mistake I’ve made is thinking that maybe I don’t have to pay as close attention to something as I really do need to, expecting people to always perform.

I think the biggest mistake was just not paying close enough attention. I learned that you’ve got to be there everyday, and you’ve got to know better than them. In the end, you’re the one paying the bills, and you’re the one taking responsibility. No one cares like you do. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned.

Enoch: Interesting. So, you were up in Canada, then somehow you ended up back down in Southern California. Was there intermediate place? How did you end up back in La Jolla?

Heather: Well, to be honest, Enoch, it rains up there.

Enoch: Tell me about it. It’s the same here.

Heather: It starts raining in October and it lets out maybe in end of March. It’s so depressing, specially if you still live in L.A. So, I pined, and I finally dragged my husband back. I don’t know if you can ever return to a place you left. So, I don’t know if I wanted to do L.A. again.

So, we checked out San Diego. It’s a little more relaxed here. I felt there’s a little bit more room. It’s so competitive in L.A., which is great, but it’s just a different pace here. So, I dragged my husband back here.

We found a place in La Jolla. It was the least expensive house, independent place. It was by Rudolph Schindler. It was a little place called The Pueblos. I don’t know if you know them from the history books, but they’re one of Schindler’s first, kind of, like a condominium project, of concrete, split pour construction. We bought one of those for $300-something here in La Jolla. We couldn’t believe we could afford to live here.

This, by the way, I didn’t mention, that this entire space was 600-something sq ft. So, it’s interesting. My husband has an office there and after a while I had my office there. It’s interesting.

Enoch: Wow. That is interesting. So, you mentioned your husband had his office there. I’m sure listeners are curious. Tell us a little bit about your husband. What does he do?

Heather: Oh, my husband is an engineer. We’re completely unaffiliated in terms of business. Basically, he works with the big oil companies on ice spills, oil spills, and oil and ice shipping, oil spill plans, how to clean up oil. So, he used to spend a lot of time in the computer and mostly traveling. He just got back from Kazakhstan. They’re working on ways to do ice clean up. He’s got a pretty neat job and it is fun, but I’m the boss of the architecture.

Enoch: Nice. So, he’s not tied to location with his job, it sounds. Is he flexible with his location or is he tied to the office?

Heather: Yeah, absolutely. So, we can live anywhere except I’m a little bit more tied down to where building happens to be going on.

Enoch: Yeah. Okay. Now, since you’ve already gotten your startup there in Canada, you come down to La Jolla, and you’re looking at starting up your architectural practice, what were your immediate steps to try to find work?

Heather: You know, Enoch, how many times have you heard this? I started doing decks and bathroom remodels. I have to be frank. I think that I’m, you know, like anybody, easy enough to talk to and charming enough. Most architects are, right? We’re so charismatic.

But, people chose me because I was reasonably priced. I wasn’t scary. I wasn’t some big, fancy architect who had been in all the magazines. They basically just wanted a deck, they didn’t want a star architect, and they wanted someone just to get something done.

So, I don’t think anything’s changed. I think if architects are still losing out to other people, it’s going the people who address people and people who aren’t intimidating. I think that gets a lot of little jobs done, and they are by people who have nothing to do with Architecture or the named architect.

Enoch: That’s a very interesting insight. I know that I’m doing some of those projects right now myself. How did you get your name out there?

Heather: My neighbor gave me my first one. Actually, that deck turned in to a whole second storey and remodel. What else can I say? Always being, sort of, competitive enough, I guess, I wanted to make sure it was photographed right. I sent it to some magazines and they started to take a little bit of interest. So, I got that one project published.

Then, once again, just hanging around furniture stores that are selling interesting furniture; you get to know the people, and you get invited to their parties, and make good friends with certain people who then have other people coming in to their store who may be looking for architects. That’s how I got my next, big job, which was a ground up after a fire.

That really helped too because it turned out they had a neighbor I had met at this particular modern furniture store. We talked, and it was just very fortuitous. It was never super easy. There’s probably lots of stuff that I… They never called me back.

Enoch: You got to explain that a little bit more to me. Because right now “hanging around a furniture store,” I’m seeing you standing by the doorway, kind of, hiding behind the sofa waiting for the next person to come in the store. How does that work?

Heather: Well, actually, Enoch, after this little Schindler house, we were squished. Apparently, we had to find something really great to move in to. Being architecture fans, we found a place out in Escondido which is quite a ways inland, but it was built by Homer Delawie who is a local architect now. He’s not around anymore. He died. But, he’s a really good mid-century modern guy. We totally loved his house. It was way out in the boonies.

So, we moved out there. Then, to furnish this wonderful mid-century modern house, we went to this store called Boomerang for Modern, and he had all the great stuff. By the name, you could tell what kind of great stuff. He’s name is Skelly. Great guy. He has and did have soirees where he would invite all the modern fans to everyone’s different house.

So, we had an evening at that house, the house that we had. That’s how we got to know other like-minded people. That’s helped a lot, particularly for San Diego, which isn’t known as a hotbed for modern architecture. It’s a very small group. So, we got to know each other pretty well.

Enoch: Interesting. How keen is your husband on the modern architecture?

Heather: He loves it. I met him and he had an Egg chair.

Enoch: Ooh!

Heather: So, was, “I’ve got to keep this guy.”

Enoch: An engineer with Egg chair. That sounds interesting. We should really have him on the show sometimes. He sounds like a blast.

Heather: He’s up there.

Enoch: Oh, is he?

Heather: Yeah.

Enoch: Oh, okay. Tell him I said hi.

Heather: I did.

Enoch: So, now you’re here and start going from decks… You’re very methodical about how you document your project, and how to get it published. What are the things have you seen to be successful for getting the kind the projects that you want to work on? It sounds like dialing in with that modern group was very instrumental.

Heather: Yeah. It definitely was, Enoch. I would say, what’s been instrumental in getting any project I ever wanted is my enthusiasm and passion. I think it’s catchy.

I’m not sure how other architects talk, but from what I’ve heard from clients that do hire me, they talk about square footage, and dollars per square foot, and I don’t talk about that. I talk about how the light comes in, and how you move through the place, where to put your keys when you come in. I love Architecture. I think, I probably communicate this out. Naturally, I think it probably makes enough people go, “No, she’s not the right person. We just need some plans.”[/DAP]

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Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.


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