The Story of Studio ENÉE architects
By Natasha Espada, AIA NOMA LEED BD+C
Starting a firm was not my ambition. I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and my father’s job relocated us to Miami, Florida, a cosmopolitan city, when I was 8 years old. I was fortunate to have been able to attend an American school in Puerto Rico. English was my first language at school and my second language at home. My father was a commercial airline pilot and we were able to fly back to the island regularly and I spent every summer in San Juan with my family. My culture is very important to me and it has shaped me as an architect and as a person.
I went to architecture school at the University of Florida with a diverse population of students. I then attended University of Virginia for a graduate program in architecture and it was the first time in my life I realized I was a minority. While I was in college, my parents moved to Tokyo, Japan for work and, through a graduate school connection, I was able to work one summer for the architect Kazuyoshi Ishigura. I studied and visited projects by Ando, Maki, Tange, Izozaki, and many other Japanese architects. Japanese architecture and culture has had a profound influence in my life and work.
After graduate school, I came to Boston to be able to attain experience with a firm in a large city. We were coming out of a recession in the early nineties and work was scarce but I was able to do a summer internship at Schwartz Silver Architects. At the end of the summer, I began working at Leers Weinzapfel Associates (LWA), the 2007 AIA Firm of the year. I began as an intern and remained with the firm for 20 years as an Associate Principal. When I had children, they allowed me to work a flexible schedule in order to have a balanced life. I was very fortunate to never know what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated firm, as LWA was founded by two women pioneers. I also never experienced being a minority architect as the firm is very diversified in race, culture, and gender. At LWA, I was mentored and sponsored and was able to lead very high profile and award-winning projects.
One day, I realized that my kids were growing older and I wanted to have the flexibility to work closer to home. Concurrently, I was also doing research on project teams, firm culture, and award-winning design for a chapter I co-wrote for the AIA Manual for Professional Practice. This coincided with thinking about my career and where it was heading. I researched firms and connected with a range of mentors. Up to that time, I had never really questioned my career path, as I had been fortunate to experience consistent growth opportunities throughout the years. I was also fortunate to have been trained in all aspects of the business from accounting to marketing and business development. At the time, I understood that I needed to see what I could do on my own both professionally and intellectually. I spoke to other colleagues who were also thinking of starting a firm. Some were leaving to create a different work culture and others for financial control and stability. For me, it had nothing to do with my happiness at work, the work culture, nor the financial control; it was about my personal journey.
It took me several years to decide what would come next. I talked to other colleagues about starting a firm as partners, but those I thought would be a good match were either not ready or not interested in starting a firm. After a significant amount of reflection, I knew that I could do it on my own and I was ready to start STUDIO ENÉE. At the time, I realized that it was a big risk to leave a very established award-winning firm, but it was the right time in my personal and professional life to try something new. In addition, my family was very supportive and that is critical when making a big change in your life and career. I was also assured that there would continue to be a future for me at LWA, if I changed my mind. This was important because it gave me a net of support, which allowed me to take the risk of starting a firm. I knew that if I did not try it on my own at this time of my life, I would regret it. Within a few months, I moved into office space and created a firm with a culture similar to the culture I had left behind but with a new spin and direction.
The first thing you need to start a firm is work. When I left LWA, I was fortunate to have a project in design that allowed me to fund the firm. I was working on an office renovation, which I had tried to bring into LWA, but it was too small and not the direction the firm was headed. This gave me the confidence to understand that, the relationships I had built for 20 years, would help me bring in the work to start a firm. I also wanted to try things in my career I had never been able to do before. I had been a critic at most of our local architecture schools and had always wanted to teach but had never had the time. I spoke to a colleague who was an architecture professor at Northeastern University and, as luck would have it, they had a teaching opportunity for me. This provided a reintroduction to academia and another income to help establish my firm. I continued teaching as adjunct faculty for several years and was very inspired by the students and their work. The student population at Northeastern is very diverse and a true mix of cultures. This also created an opportunity to hire a diverse group of students during the summer and for Co-op opportunities as my firm grew.
Regarding architectural work, I knew that I would not be able to do the high-profile projects I was able to work on at LWA. I resigned myself to take a step back in order to grow as those projects take a career to build. Surprisingly, I was able to reconnect with previous clients and connect with new clients who focused on the civic and institutional projects where my experience lies. They were looking for small firms to do small scale projects and I had already proven myself on larger projects. In a short amount of time, I submitted proposals for several projects and was able to win projects with the City of Boston and Tufts University. However, I needed help to be able to perform these projects. This is when I realized that the people you hire is your largest asset. You need to find people that fit into the culture of your firm and share your values and mission for the work you want to produce and the way you run your firm. I had several colleagues who wanted to work part-time and I hired them as consultants. As the firm grew, I was able to hire others full-time and provide benefits.
The first step of starting a firm is to get incorporated in your state. As a minority and woman architect, I also applied through the supplier diversity office in Massachusetts to be considered as a woman and minority certified business. This is very helpful as it creates opportunities for public and private work that requires diversity and it allows for partnerships with firms who lack this diversity. This has been the way we have been able to work on larger projects without having to grow the firm and our overheard. You also have to open up a bank account, purchase general, liability, and workers comp insurance, and purchase infrastructure such as computers and software. The next step is to market the firm by creating a website and communicating your skills, work, and capacity to your past clients and new prospects.
Today, STUDIO ENÉE is a practice that is nimble and it allows me to experiment with design at different scales and in different ways. Starting a firm has been difficult but it has been very rewarding. I was fortunate that LWA had exposed me to every aspect of the business and it served me well when starting my firm. Being a well-rounded architect and understanding the financial and business aspects of the firm is very important. For me, running the business was not an issue; the issue was trying to find meaningful work. I had the best preparation and foundation as an architect and I knew that I would only make it to the next level if I used those tools wisely.
In addition to starting a firm, I had been very involved in the Boston Society for Achitecture (BSA/AIA) since 1998. This led to being involved with Women in Design, which led to being a member of the Women’s Principals Group, the Chair of the Honors and Awards Committee, and an elected position on the BSA board. I have represented Boston at the AIA Women’s Leadership Summit many times and have participated in a jury to award women scholarships to attend the national conference. Being involved with the BSA/AIA has allowed me to network, given me visibility in our profession, and provided support while starting a firm. Today, I am the first Latina President of BSA/AIA working on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in our profession. I am working tirelessly in keeping students, emerging architects, women, and a diverse group of architects in our profession. And finally, I am working to make Boston a Design City by bringing design, art, and architecture to all of the neighborhoods in Boston in an equitable way.