Fairley Batch/Director and Madeline Sewall/Associate / Breathe Architecture  / 
Be the Water

story / Interview / October 12, 2020

Chance encounters are often how we roll here at GAZELLA and how we find amazing women and their stories. Danielle happened to speak at an Inhabit Collab series talk on Net Zero where Madeline was also speaking. And Fairley, Danielle and Justine were all studying at Uni Melb at the same time. So we thought it an opportune moment to get together and find out about both Fairley and Madeline’s journeys, but also get to know Breathe Architecture – one of Melbourne’s leading lights in sustainability. 

 

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Fairley:

I’m  from quite a creative family, so always knew that I wanted to do something creative, but it was probably in my mid teens that I decided I really wanted to be an architect. My uncle designed my grandmother’s house, and as a little kid I remember sitting on the floor of the bedroom, looking at these two glass windows in the floor that looked down into the pool below. I can remember staring at all the beautiful reflections around the room. I don’t know quite what it was, but the way that house was planned spatially and experientially must have had a big impact on me.

Jeremy, our boss, was my thesis tutor. I moved through the ranks as graduate, architect, associate and studio manager, then I became a director just before I went on maternity leave. I’ve been at Breathe Architecture for almost ten years.  It’s quite a long time, but it’s been a great place to work.

 

Madeline:

Similar to Fairley, I grew up in a family that loved art and was really creative. My mum really nurtured that in my sisters and I. When I was really little – like 4 or 5 – my mum went to back to college as a mature age student to be an interior designer. I remember her building models in the living room and I think that’s what first got me interested in design.

I did my undergrad in the states, where I grew up and did my masters here at the University of Melbourne. I moved over for a bit of an adventure. I wanted to try something new and I landed in Breathe shortly after graduating. I did work somewhere else for six months first… which was not a good fit for me. It was really corporate and I could just tell they weren’t my people. I had met Jeremy before I went to work there. Breathe used to work from a tiny garage before we moved into The Commons, that’s why the space was so limited. At six months someone went on maternity leave and I got their position….and by position I mean literally their seat in the office…I wasn’t as experienced as she was!

It’s been an amazing thing to see Breathe grow in the last six years. I mean, our directors and everyone who works here are incredibly tenacious and also very aspirational. Obviously our focus is on sustainability. When I started, that meant environmental sustainability, but it’s quickly developed into a holistic approach of creating community and making sure there’s an affordability component to all of our projects. The horizons have just broadened. And it’s been amazing to be a part of that. Sure, we’re obviously a small piece in the Melbourne puzzle, but what we are trying to do is create systemic change, so I think it’s been a really powerful tool to have an influence on the city.

F: With anything we do, we try to be change agents. We try to push something as far as we can and make every project better than the last. We don’t just copy what’s been done before, but we try to question the status quo. Sometimes that can be tiring but we really think it’s important to not only make our work more meaningful but to also push up the bottom line. Developers realise they have to compete with something like a Nightingale project and we are beginning to see more and more competition..

M: The thing with Nightingale is that because it’s a model, it’s replicable. I think that what’s really meaningful is seeing other architecture firms to take on some of that IP and the sustainability benchmarks Nightingale Housing requires like fossil free building operations and, embedded energy networks with 100% greenpower. We are scaling fast and Nightingale Village is a really good example of that, where six firms are collaborating with us to build six buildings on one street- over 200 apartments in one precinct. As we get to scale we’re starting to see meaningful change, and influencing other developments as Fairley mentioned as well.

F: Something that we’ve been talking about in the latest Nightingale that we’re designing is the fact that COVID-19 has presented this really good opportunity of work flexibility that businesses weren’t necessarily open to before. We have been thinking more about the home office and integrating a study into some of these apartments. I would love to have a study or a desk against a wall in a nook in my apartment. A place that I could work at during the day and not have to clear at night, but instead I’m currently working at the dining table.

M: Or a communal space where you could hot desk as well and potentially get the social interaction we are all lacking? Other than that, what makes Nightingale special is really simple stuff that doesn’t get delivered in standard apartments – like light and ventilation. And robust materials.

F: In any industry where diversity is lacking, equity is something that needs to be considered. Obviously there’s one reason why our industry is lacking diversity. I believe maternity leave and women coming back into the workforce is a big part of the issue. In some ways I loved having my ten months leave, but in other ways I just craved that knowledge and social connection. Using my brain in that way again.

M: We are lucky to work in an office full of women. It really is quite special. Internally we don’t have to fight the glass ceiling or prove ourselves. In a way that insulates us from having to do that more broadly – probably because we get to build our confidence in the office. We feel heard, we feel valued and we cut our teeth here. I think that makes us a little bit braver when we go out as well. That’s been really useful.

F: I believe workplace culture is really important – I know it’s important to us at Breathe. You want a cross-section of people for diversity, but at the same time you also want people who are interested in the same business values and ethics (in this case sustainability). As long as you’re getting some experience, then you might decide to stay in a company where your values don’t quite align, if you’re getting amazing experience. But at some point in your life, even in relationships, it always seems to work out better if your values align for the same purpose.

M: I have often reflected on the fact that I feel really fortunate to work for a company who I feel my values align with. But certainly it would be awkward if I was on the gender equity committee and contributing to Parlour and working for a company that I feel didn’t represents the fight that I am fighting. I really love contributing to the industry. I think it’s important. Even though we are lucky at Breathe to work with so many women, gender equity is still a massive issue in our industry and I like contributing to that.

If you don’t feel really fulfilled in the work you’re doing, that’s where the extra-curricular things become much more important because that’s where you can create more engagement in the things that you believe in personally. Not everyone is going to land their dream job first go. And I had no architectural work experience when I graduated. Literally none – so irresponsible! I took the first job that was handed to me. I was so terrified. Even though it wasn’t for me, I was still building my experience and my resume. There’s always stepping stones.

F: At the moment my biggest challenge is getting back into the workplace and working out my work-life balance. Part of my role is to be a project architect and run projects. I’ve found it quite difficult trying to do that part-time. I find it hard switching off on my off days and um…

[at this point Fairley’s husband walked past with her baby, wrapped a towel with a panda head cover]

…I just got totally distracted! It’s really good when I have someone like Maddie with me on a project, in an experience capacity. If that doesn’t happen, it can be hard to let go. Especially with working from home at the dining table and not being able to leave your computer. You can’t just walk out at the end of the day and I honestly don’t have enough self-discipline to shut the laptop sometimes.

M: I think you just really proved your point there Fairley, ‘juggling motherhood and a baby is so hard…oh  cute baby in a panda outfit’ Ha!

One of the biggest professional challenges I’ve struggled with is imposter syndrome. I have a real lack of confidence at times. It can get to really toxic points, especially if I make a mistake or I feel like I should have done something better or differently. It definitely influences some negative patterns for me. It’s something I’m still managing and struggling with. I feel really undeserving in a lot of ways, to be in this office amongst so many incredible people. It takes a lot of words of affirmation and mantras to get myself out of that sometimes! It’s not something I share much and I kept it a secret for a really long time.

F: I never would have guessed Maddie.

M: Well, I was embarrassed. I was afraid to say it because I thought people would think that I wasn’t as good at my job. Especially admitting it to leadership, because I thought that they would think less of me, like I wasn’t resilient, or I’m not strong enough or tough enough. But I feel kind of relieved that I now that I have admitted it. What has helped is that through telling people, I’ve come to understand how many people that I really admire, suffer from it as well. You would never know. Some people seem so confident. It helps me to talk about it because it’s made me realise it’s really common especially amongst women.

F: I had my heart set on going to RMIT to study architecture. I didn’t want to go to Melbourne University…I thought they’d probably all be snobs! I wanted to go to a creative university. But alas, you need to make the most out of your life and the direction that it  takes you in, and sometimes it takes you in a better direction.  For me, I loved Melbourne Uni and the friends that I made. I wouldn’t be at Breathe if I hadn’t met my tutor. So don’t sweat if you’re not on the course you expected to be on. Sometimes you can turn it into a positive that ends up better than the original plan.

M: I feel like when I was younger I was a real ‘box-ticker’. I saw my life unfolding – good grades, good school, make the decision that was best on paper. As I’ve grown older I’ve realised that making decisions based on intuition has been a lot more successful for me. When I came to Breathe – I came on a three month offer. I had a full-time offer at another firm. My parents were like ‘do that.’ I was like, I don’t know, I just really feel like I fit with these people. With Breathe I thought that even if it doesn’t have security and it doesn’t last, I think it’ll be a good experience…it was probably one of the first times I prioritised gut feel over pragmatic facts. I’m so grateful I made that decision. I feel like since I’ve been able to nurture my intuitive decision-making, I’ve learnt to trust my gut more. I think a sixteen year old me would be shocked.

F: My mum always tells me ‘you’ve got to grab the bull by the horns’. If there’s a problem, deal with it instead of pushing it to the side.

M: We have a new mantra this year in the studio, something we’ve been practising for a while; ‘Be the water’. It means, do things the easy way rather than the hard way. When an obstacle comes up, instead of trying to go through it, go around it. There is so much tenacity in this office that we often see people pounding at rocks, trying to get through barriers. Sometimes it’s easier to side-step the issue with a slight redesign, expectation management, a second opinion or something like that! It’s a good mantra for shifting perspective.

 

 

We really hope you enjoyed this interview and we hope through it we conveyed how beautifully Fairley and Madeline approach each other as mentor and mentee and also their work, with a wonderfully considered, tenacious and ambitious approach. It is one thing to be playing on the field, another to be changing the rules of the game and looking for a better way for it to be played. We wish Fairley and Madeline all the best for the rest of 2020 and a much brighter 2021. J & D x

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