Suzanne Hunt offers her observations and advice for graduates and students facing unsettling times.

Suzanne Hunt

Suzie Hunt FRAIA RIBA is the principal of Suzanne Hunt Architect and a former President of the WA chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects.

Who would have thought 12 months ago that Australia would be devastated by bushfires, floods, droughts, a climate crisis and then a global pandemic killing hundreds of thousands around the world, while devastating our economy? The new normal doesn’t feel very normal to me. It’s shocking and terrifying in equal measure.

As a graduate or student of architecture I feel your anxiety and concern about the future and as an experienced (read ‘older’) architect, my heart sincerely goes out to you all.

None of us practising today have experienced such unsettled times, combined with the inability to go to where the work is, or even go to work! But as I reflect on my career over the past 33 years, I realise that my career has been affected by various economic downturns, both global and personal since my graduation.

Global & personal economic downturns

When I graduated in 1987, Perth was in a terrible state economically. Though I was offered a position, 80% of grads were not so lucky. I heard from friends that London was booming. I was nervous that I was leaving a job to go overseas to find one. But this move was the best decision of my life both personally and professionally. I learnt to listen to my intuition and take calculated risks.

Four years later, in 1991, the economic tides in London were dropping following IRA bombings and the start of the first Iraq war. While I had a good job, I sensed an economic downturn and fear for my safety, so I decided to head home to Perth with my new partner, an interior designer.

Over the next five years we buckled down – got married, bought a dog or two, a ramshackled cottage and worked full time during the day (getting terrible pay but working on interesting projects) and doing PJs (private jobs) at night to pay the mortgage and bills. We took on anything we were offered, and I mean anything from drawing up a garage to renovating an outhouse.

In 1996, I took leave to have our first child and didn’t return after having twins in 1997. The realisation that there was no possibility of getting any architectural work in a Perth practice with three children was demoralising. I questioned why I bothered studying at all. I was anxious about my career (was it on hold forever) and how were we going to live, pay bills etc? Life was busy with the kids, my partner was working in a job he hated but we needed, and we continued to do a few PJs. But just as we started to see some light, the crash crushed economic confidence again and work dried up.

We struggled along, but in early 2000 we were commissioned for a “bigger but still small” PJ, so my partner left his job and we opened our own practice Wilson Hunt on gut instinct. Specialising in hospitality, we bucked the trend and our bank balances were finally looking up, as did our brood with the birth of our fourth child in 2002. This was the start of a short boom period in WA.

But in 2004, my personal life and economic situation was devastated when we separated. For the past 10 years we had had no work life balance! I walked away from our practice with our four children under six and one project on site. In time I realised that the previous 17 years’ experience of swings and roundabouts, ups and downs had prepared me well to pick up the pieces and start again at 40. It also taught me to never forget to nurture and care for yourself and your relationships.

A new beginning

In those early days I scratched around to find work and pay bills while looking after the kids. Desperate after six months, I contacted an old boss from the government (with a glass of wine in my hand, on a Friday afternoon and stomach in my mouth). I was so embarrassed and anguished over what I perceived was the loss of my professional credibility. I gingerly asked if he had any work, adding that I was desperate. His response was overwhelmingly positive, but he advised that I was overqualified. I didn’t care. I got off the phone and burst into tears. I was so grateful and so appreciative. Desperation does that. This job was my saviour.

I worked in the Department of Justice, providing architectural advice for about eight months for the future development of Bandyup Prison, the only women’s prison in WA. I learnt so much about myself and how lucky (and privileged) I was as I met women my own age who were incarcerated due to crimes to protect and feed their children. [“There but for the grace of god goes I”] This period in my life, while tough, has stayed with me and informed everything I do. It taught me that I was stronger than I realised, and to never be embarrassed to ask for help. As architects we have the skills to engage in varied roles in the community and this diversity of experience will help you professionally. In short, no experience is wasted!

In mid-2005, with a little more confidence I established Suzanne Hunt Architect with a former staff member Catherine Lee. Our first ‘office’ was located at one end of my loft bedroom (a curtain hid the bed). Yes, we were ahead of our time – one good thing about COVID-19 is that working from home is now de rigeur. We worked around our kids’ schedules, taking on small residential projects and I took on some advisory roles. We graduated to the ‘kids’ playroom’ as we grew and in 2015, 10 years after we started, we finally moved into our current “grown up” office. My advice if you are thinking of taking this opportunity to set up a practice is to keep your overheads low (…do you really need that cool studio?), work smart, be agile, upskill, and remember every bit of experience that you gain when times are tough will support you ten-fold when times are good.

Observations & advice

You may be reading this and thinking, “Yeah, that’s all good for you Suzie, but I am in lockdown. I can’t travel. I was laid off from my job/jobs etc.” You have every right to feel despondent, but please don’t feel that all your study was a waste (it was not) or that your career has stalled (it hasn’t) and something is wrong with you (there isn’t). I know it doesn’t feel like it but your professional life as an architect will be long and varied. Anything that you do now will inform your life and career into the future. If you are unable to find work in the industry or are in lockdown, use this time to be inventive and expand your horizons. My advice is to consider:

  • Thinking about your skill base and where you could improve an area of architecture that interests you. Consider upskilling in those areas to remain flexible and agile. Start studying for your registration exams, fill out your logbook, do a course that will help you professionally in the long term, such as Project Management, Construction Management, Small Business Management, Photography, Robotics, etc. These can be found online, at TAFE, your local Small Business Centre, or the Australian Institute of Management.
  • Cold calling a practice you admire and ask if the principal has some time to chat (even on Zoom) for an hour; ask if there is an internship position available. Many of us have been in your position before and know how hard it is to do this. You know the saying “one foot in the door”.
  • Volunteering in your community. This is a wonderful way to meet new people who may become mentors, connectors or even employers. Your design thinking skills are sought after in many roles other than just pure architecture.
  • Rediscovering a passion project or skill or a sport!
  • Staying connected to friends, family and colleagues.
  • Asking for help if you are struggling emotionally.

Architects are like the canary in the coal mine – we sense the impact of the economy first, good and bad! An architect’s life will always be a roller-coaster. It doesn’t matter if it is an internet-led recession, a war, a divorce or a pandemic, what is most important is that you are true to yourself, have faith in your ability, take calculated risks and always trust your instincts. Please know that there are many of us in the profession who are willing to help and support you – please reach out! After all, you are the future of our profession!