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Risky business

Two young architects have gambled the security of a nine-to-five office job to pursue more precarious ambitions. Angst and elation in equal measure have confronted Justine Joseph and Rob Gregory as they struggle to establish new business ventures.

NAME: Justine Joseph AGE: 32 PART 1: Newcastle University, PART 2: South Bank University, PART 3: University of Westminster WORK EXPERIENCE: EPR, Gensler, RHWL Listening to Justine Joseph wax eloquently about her little practice in the picturesque French town of Monsegur, you could think it all came rather too easy - courtesy of a millionaire benefactor perhaps, or some other privileged means. In reality, a stubborn, gritty determination, some very clever investing and working hours that would leave most of us for dead have enabled Joseph to capitalise on what began as some affectionate tinkering with an old house.

After graduating in architecture in the mid-1990s, Joseph recalls how she quickly grew frustrated with being an 'office CAD monkey'.With a rucksack containing her life's possessions and some small savings, she travelled to Madagascar and on to Peru, where she remained for six months before returning to the UK, working for several practices and eventually settling at RHWL. Joseph enjoyed her time there but again felt stifled by 'the system'.

Her real passion was a rambling but run-down home her parents had bought in France more than 30 years before. Childhood holidays were spent there 'running around among the rural French', perfecting the language to fluency. Years later, Joseph was given carte blanche by her parents to begin renovations. Gradually, over random weekends and holidays, Joseph refurbished the barn, kitchen and en suites, the whole time getting to know local architects and builders as well as 'the rigours of the French building system'. 'I loved that rough, hands-on architecture, ' Joseph says of her time in France. 'There was a wonderful openness to ideas. I let myself dream I could do it for good.'

By the time Joseph decided to move to France permanently in 2003, her success with a profitable, if back-breaking, series of residential refurbishment projects had made her positive that her venture could succeed. 'I got a fortunate start, ' Joseph explains.

'My grandmother died and generously left me a few thousand pounds.

Property was going cheap then, so I bought a little flat in Wanstead, which I did up and sold.'

During the next few years, Joseph went on to buy and resell several more properties in London and Edinburgh, each time growing her profit margin. 'It was tough, ' she recalls. 'I'd be in the office from eight 'til six, then go home and do my renovations 'til midnight. By the time I'd done my chores, it was almost time to get up and do it all over again!'

But even armed with enough business savvy-ness to make most developers weep, Joseph had not anticipated what was to come. 'The bank refused point-blank to lend me the money for France. The problem was I had no proof of earnings and practically no finances to fall back on. I tried several banks and eventually found one that accepted my plan. But I had to give up my nest-egg London flat as collateral. That was when I realised that if it went wrong and I failed, I'd end up homeless and with nothing.'

Refusing to become disheartened, Joseph moved into the dilapidated building that would become her office in August 2003. With a single borrowed PC and her grandfather's old desk, she set about tracing some old contacts, hiring an assistant and establishing residential specialist Justine Joseph Architecte.

Almost one year on and Joseph has a string of projects on the go. The practice's first 'statement' project, the Pigeon Tower, comprised a barn and four-bedroom living space. In the town, word of the house and its vivacious English female architect, spread quickly. Joseph admits that the early days challenged her resolve. The planning department was 'difficult', local builders not entirely convinced of a woman's capabilities, and local residents suspicious of her intentions.

Joseph was thankful for her fluent grasp of the language and customs and, through working closely with the artisans, has gained acceptance and professional respect.

Does Joseph intend to stay in residential work? 'I love that side, ' she says enthusiastically. 'At the same time, I'm building up faith with the local people.We're contemplating the possibility of a mixed-use development, and perhaps schools, a small hospital and leisure centre. We hope to be ready in about three years' time.'

This must seem like a goldmine to someone with an obvious knack for sniffing out profitable development.

Joseph disagrees: 'We're not here to make money. We're just looking to improve the environment for the community.' This philanthropic approach may be something to do with Joseph's frustrating time as vice-president of Elephant and Castle's community committee. 'There was no space to breath, ' she says.

'You'd be up against people all the time when all you were trying to do was make things better. It was the same in practice, that ethos of sit there and shut up.'

Although the debt of financing the venture remains a burden, Joseph remains upbeat. Her home and office are 'getting there' and an 'incredible energy' comes from the sunny French way of life. And there's more than enough work, which, for someone who put herself through university running a student sandwich bar ('I'd stay up all night making those things'), is the biggest buzz of all.

'People said I was mad, ' she laughs, 'but I feel incredibly lucky. What else are you going to do with that kind of opportunity?'

NAME: Rob Gregory AGE: 32 PART 1: De Montfort, Leicester, PART 2: Bath University, PART 3: University of North London WORK EXPERIENCE: Feilden Clegg Architects (as was), Hopkins, Allies and Morrison When Rob Gregory decided to sink £20,000 into refitting a dilapidated former church hall in Bristol, he got an unnerving new insight into clientarchitect relations. 'It was bizarre, suddenly being both, ' he says. 'Architects are good at having vision with other people's money. You think you know the realities just through getting your hands dirty - but you don't.'

And that was just the first phase.

When Gregory and his then-partner bought Becket Hall and a small area of surrounding land, they recognised it had fantastic potential.

Together with the adjacent Church of St Thomas the Martyr, and a terrace of 15th-century houses, the buildings are a vital historic fragment of an up and coming area.Gregory had intended to create a living/work space for himself, but realised that such flexible space had far greater promise. He could create a studio of 'bays', which he could then rent to start-up design companies on flexible terms. Gregory recalls how the space, which had previously been used as a photography studio, had 'great light' and a beautiful 1920s hardwood floor. But these jewels aside, the studio was 'a total mess'.

So, in collaboration with David Cross Interiors, the decomposing ceiling was stripped, and replacement concrete repair work left a simple, but structurally sound, shell. An enclosed meeting room and library were added and striking plywood lighting features, an ADSL and phone network, and neutral colour scheme completed the revamp.

Since then, Becket Hall has attracted a community of design companies, with publishers, interior designers, a digital image company and graphic designer taking space. Even Allies and Morrison has taken space in which it could develop a fledgling office.

Gregory says the costly six-month, labour-intensive scheme taught him a lot: a new respect for clients; an empathy with their concerns; the critical need for a cohesive strategy; thinking efficiently 'rather than just down-speccing to save money'. And, like Joseph (see pages 42-43), he understood that making the venture work would take an unyielding commitment - not just financially, but in labour and emotion.

Exhausted from commuting between London and Bristol, he eventually sold his Islington flat and still had a loss of earnings to contend with. But the outcome was satisfying. 'For the first time I felt like I was doing something truly rewarding, ' he says. 'I wouldn't slam commercial architecture but this was liberating. No investors, no having to guarantee a return, just a long-term labour of love.' And a test of oneself?

'Architects want to believe in what they do, that it will last. But there's a bit of short-term vanity in it, yes, ' he admits.

Even when Gregory's relationship with his partner ended, he decided against selling up and moving on.

Seeing 'an unmissable opportunity', he worked out a proposal to take the development one step further. With first-hand evidence that he could generate a flourishing business community in an underdeveloped area, Gregory began looking at the possibilities of reworking the entire site.

He will have to tread carefully with the Churches Conservation Trust.

With a genuine stake in, and love for, the local area, he desperately wants to avoid being seen as a ruthless, hardnosed developer. Fortunately, the trust, alongside Redcliff Futures (a local community-based initiative supported by the city council) appear positive about extending and improving the site. 'There is potentially a real synergy between their aspirations and my own, ' Gregory claims delightedly 'It will be about being free with the ownership, of working with, and for, the community, as well as being part of it.'

Now assistant editor on The Architectural Review, Gregory is also working on a regeneration framework document for the Bristol site, which includes a ring of apartments overlooking the courtyard and a small hub of shops and cafes for residents and visitors. Estimates start-up costs will be about £500,000 but profits could be made. Like Joseph, Gregory often mentions the 'energy' he gets from the venture, and his sense of doing something worthwhile for the community.

But the realities are far more brutal. 'This is my pension, ' Gregory says with a wry smile. 'Worse-case scenario is that I might have to sell up and scarper. But that won't happen, not after all I've given. My ambition is tied up in this space.'

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