The ups and downs of sole practice with Sam from Perversi-Brooks Architects
With a takeaway coffee in hand and the slightly glazed look that comes with chronic sleep deprivation, architect and new father Sam Perversi-Brooks sits down with me to chat about the challenges and joys of sole practice...
"You'd think all-nighters at architecture school would prepare you for having a baby, but it doesn't," Sam confesses. The other thing architecture school doesn't adequately prepare you for is the unique challenges of sole practice. While running his own practice means more time and flexibility with his young family, juggling business and baby is tricky. He considers himself lucky compared to friends and ex-colleagues he's witnessed struggling to return to full-time work soon after having a baby. But as the boss you can't take parental leave from the nagging pressure to pay the bills and keep up with client projects. Work and life is a balancing act many of us struggle with, but it's exacerbated in sole practice.
"Finding new, engaged [and] passionate clients" is constantly top of mind for Sam whose primary motivation is to "do good work as opposed to just work." While this means saying no to more clients than he says yes to, it ensures work remains fulfilling and allows him to pursue what inspires and delights him about architecture: it's all part of his philosophy of 'slow architecture'. Keeping things intentionally small and focussing intensely on only six or so projects a year allows him to be fully immersed in every stage of the process. In fact, the desire to follow a project from inception to delivery is a key reason Sam left a senior position at a large firm to become a sole practitioner; he revels in the personal challenge of wearing all hats in a project.
Like many small business owners, one of Sam's challenges is managing cash flow (or lack of it). "When you're a sole practitioner you might not get paid for a number of months, that's just the reality of it." Yet, in spite of cash flow challenges, Sam has already survived the toughest test of all: the test of time. Making it past the five-year mark makes Perversi-Brooks Architects a stayer in the business landscape, a milestone only 50% of newcomers reach, but in many ways the practice still feels like an infant for its owner. Not seeing a lot of his work make it to bricks and mortar (or timber and steel, for that matter) is one reason he describes his practice as "fledgling." The reality of residential work, he says is "people's lives change." They have a baby, or move cities, or get divorced, or die (sadly a client did actually pass away mid-project) and an exciting project may go on hold or never make it off the drawing board. The catch-22 is a lack of built work can make it difficult to convince new clients you've got what it takes to tackle their project. "No matter how great your designs are, people want to see built work."
That's not to say Perversi-Brooks Architects is still in the conceptual phase. The projects Sam has seen to fruition straddle the strait, with built work in both Victoria and Tasmania (owing to spending much of his adolescence on the Apple Isle). While all of these projects have their own unique response to brief, landscape and context, a connecting thread is Sam's knack for weaving the idiosyncrasies of client and brief into a captivating architectural narrative. Projects like Cabinet of Curiosities House and Mexican/Swiss Chalet demonstrate Sam's skill at elevating a typical brief and tight budget into something uniquely personal for his clients, creating special and meaningful spaces with limited resources (a joinery unit or a 10 square metre extension, respectively). He loves when clients are "surprised and delighted at the end of the project" by what's been achieved.
What's next for Perversi-Brooks Architects? Well, Sam's heading back to his Tasmanian roots with a self-initiated, design-led development of three homes just outside of Hobart. While he admits it's thus far been a "huge learning curve, hugely expensive and terrifying," the project promises to be an example of a well-designed, contextual and sustainable alternative to the ubiquitous brick and tile development that currently sprawls across the landscape. Hopefully he'll squeeze in some more shut-eye as bub gets older, too!