Emma Williamson is co-founder and Practice Director of CODA, an architecture and design firm started in 1997 in Fremantle, Western Australia. She has been published in academic journals and magazines and talks to us about how she manages her day in between projects, designs, staff and her young family.
Tell us a little about how you became an architect?
I was lucky that there was a lot of art and architecture about in my childhood. The only piece of advice my mother gave me was that I needed to make sure I got enough of an education that I could support myself and my family on my own if I needed to. I guess architecture felt like the right thing to do – it ticked lots of boxes.
What do you feel has been your greatest professional achievement?
Kieran and I started our practice straight out of university. We have been working on it steadily and working toward a shared vision to be useful. To do this we had to grow our business to get bigger work and stop designing private houses. I feel very happy that we have grown to more than 20 people but stayed true to our values.
What does ’strength’ mean to you?
Strength to me is something that is more internal than external. It's physical health but it is also having a strong sense of who you are and your purpose. Every day life throws us challenges, but when we come from a position of strength our choices are clear and we can act with generosity.
What motivates you?
Sometimes I wonder about this! I am very busy and from the outside I can imagine that I must look very driven. I don’t have an end result in mind, but I am very motivated to improve things and make sure that time spent on something was valuable. I am motivated to spend my time well and not take for granted how lucky I am to have opportunities to contribute.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A form of finely tuned chaos! My typical weekdays start around 5:30am when I get ready for exercise.
I’m home a little after 7 and then its time to get the kids ready for school and somehow get myself ready for work in the mix! I don’t like feeding the children cereal for breakfast so its usually French toast, eggs, a smoothie or porridge. Our daughter leaves for school early and sometimes Kieran will leave with her. That leaves me and the boys so my job is keeping the ball rolling – guitar practice, spelling, making lunches, getting dressed, getting prepped for afternoon activities. While this is happening I make myself a glass of Super Elixir and a take away breakfast of fruit, yogurt and home made granola that I have once I can find a calm 5 minutes!
I walk, ride or drive the kids to school depending on how we get through these activities and from there its off to work via the café where I grab a take away coffee.
My work day is varied but overall its lots of talking, either to our staff about design issues or dealing with the practice as a whole. I also have a terrible knack of taking on additional projects. Last year I was the client, architect and builder for our new house. I also chair the National Gender Equity Committee for the Institute of Architects. This means I can spend quite a bit of time on the phone speaking to people in the east. All of these hats mean I have to make lots of lists and try to ensure I don’t drop the ball on anything!
I finish work at 5:45pm on 3 nights of the week and collect the boys the other 2. Regardless of the time there seems to be some kind of taxi-ing required, be it soccer, tennis, guitar or choir! Then its home to get dinner sorted, showers, homework and shuffle the kids into bed. As much as possible we try to sit down for a family dinner and perform our ritual of “highlights of the day”. This has been an excellent addition to our family over the last few years and means we know so much more about everyone.
After the night-time ritual I typically tidy up, reclaim a few horizontal surfaces after the flurry of activities and try to think about dinner for the next night. Then if I am not too exhausted I will do a couple of emails and then get ready for bed.
What do you do just for yourself to relax?
Probably the only thing I do for myself to relax is exercise. I have to confess to not having the best relaxation skills and this is certainly something I would like to improve on!
What is your advice for achieving a good work/life balance?
I prefer to think of it as “life balance”. Changing this term has allowed me to commit even more strongly to creating a culture and work environment that reflects my values but also allows our children to understand the context of our work. And I was also able to feel ok about bringing my children into work if I needed to – it’s all part of my life!
A friend of mine once gave me a great piece of advice - we often talk about the need to juggle so many things. She pointed out, it is not so much about throwing everything up in the air. What is important is that the ball that is coming toward you has your complete attention. It is your job to catch up and hold it and throw it safely back up again. I think of all of the parts of my life like this.
3 foods you can’t live without?
Iceberg Lettuce! For my whole childhood we had a green salad every night for dinner with the family salad dressing – I loved it and I still do!
Avocado – this is a fruit that really does strike me as a fantastic invention. Protective skin on the outside, beautiful soft and silky interior, all those healthy oils.
Almond Milk – I have recently started making my own to have in smoothies and with protein powder. I love its nutty flavor – and it is SUPER simple to make.
What would you like to do more of?
I would like to do more tinkering. A couple of years ago I did a jewellery course and loved learning about metals and developing skills in the delicate art of welding. As a graduate and in the early days of our practice I used to make a lot of the models. Using my hands in this way is something I have always loved – its very relaxing.
What does wellness mean to you?
Wellness is the whole package! Having enough sleep, eating well, getting exercise and feeling happy and strong. Its feeling great at 2pm.
Please tell us 3 women you admire?
2 I know 1 I don’t.
As it happens I know the WelleCo co-founder Andrea very well. I have always admired the authentic way she has developed her businesses and the way she has combined this with a young family. I see her as a woman who is strong and determined.
Danielle Caruana (aka Mama Kin)
I have been so lucky to be friends with this woman! She is a total powerhouse and a genuine problem solver – no matter what the scale. She and her husband (John Butler) have been so incredibly generous and visionary in setting up The Seed Project as a way of helping to develop the next generation of the Australian music industry. Importantly I have learned from Danielle that there is strength in sometimes being vulnerable and this is a way of moving forward.
I don’t know her and I may be projecting but I have always admired the grace and drive of Cate Blanchet. She is immensely talented as an individual but I mostly admire her generosity and commitment to the Sydney Theatre Company. Sometimes I try to imagine how incredibly intense it must be logistically to do this thing with her husband and have 4 kids. Maybe I admire her because she has taken it up a notch!