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Walters & Cohen: 'Your staff are more important than any job you will get'

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As Walters & Cohen celebrates its twentieth anniversary, founders Michal Cohen and Cindy Walters speak to the AJ about the challenges facing women in the profession and their top tips on how to succeed

The practice was founded 20 years ago, what drove you to set up together?
Michal Cohen:
Cindy and I were very good friends at university in South Africa. We met in our first year and then we both found ourselves in London in the early nineties. We were both working at different places - Cindy was at Fosters. We felt that we could do things better than the places where we were working at the time.

Cindy Walters: We would meet up from time to time and float the idea that maybe one day we could do this. But we didn’t have any clients and we had no idea how to run a practice.
We began by renting some space from an existing practice in Clerkenwell. We had a desk in their office. It meant we could share the printers, fax machine – we didn’t have to buy all of that stuff ourselves. We couldn’t afford it. We didn’t even have our own computer until a few months in. We wanted to see if we could make it work. We didn’t really believe it would. We always had this idea that one day we would have to go back to our day jobs.

How did you get your first projects?
The very first project came from the architects we were sharing a studio with. They said ‘how about you do all the work and we’ll take half the fees?’. We thought that was brilliant.

CW: They used us as a little drawing office and would hand things over to us when they didn’t want to or couldn’t do them.

How has the work you do changed?
We realised we had all our eggs in one basket – working on nursery schools. So we thought ‘what are we good at?’ and we started entering competitions. We couldn’t afford to do competitions right from the start.

MC: Our first competition was the Falkland Island Memorial competition – we came second. It was terrifying.

Even if you don’t win a competition it is not time wasted

CW: Through that competition we made a lot of friends. It was an anonymous competition – we were shortlisted because they thought we were David Chipperfield. All of the people we met through that competition have led us to other things. It proved to us that you don’t have to win a competition to get work. It is not time wasted. You always learn something and you always get something out of it. Now we are doing work in Russia, Ghana and lots of work outside the education sector, a Buddhist retreat, a football club, sheltered housing - all sorts of things.

How has the practice grown in the past 20 years?
It started out just the two of us, but quite quickly we employed another person and then another one. Then there were four of us and we couldn’t physically fit in the space we had. For at least half of our life as Walters and Cohen there have been 15 of us. We’ve always grown to fill the space we have. The biggest we have ever been was 34. That felt bad – only because 35 people don’t really fit in the building and we’ve bought it so we are stuck with it. We’re now at 30.

MC: We’ve grown very slowly and carefully. We are at a good size. It is still manageable and it has the feeling of one office as opposed to people siloing off. We never set out to have an office of a particular size.

We wanted to run a practice where people feel valued, important and able to be creative

What is Walter & Cohen’s ethos?
We set out with the philosophy - it is not about money but about the way you treat people. It was fundamental from the beginning. We wanted to run a practice where people feel valued, important and able to be creative. It all sounds very nice but actually they are quite commercial decisions.

Have you found any challenges being women setting up and running a practice?
Michal and I would go to site meetings, and walk into a room full of male contractors who were as old as our fathers. You could see them look at each other and think ‘Oh, for goodness sake. Send me someone who knows what they are talking about’. It took a while for us to get respect.

MC: We shied away from the whole gender thing. For us the fact that we were women was not relevant. We just wanted to be good architects. I have never ever thought that as a woman I wouldn’t make it in this profession or that I wouldn’t be successful in someone else’s office. But I didn’t want to be in another person’s office.

Did anyone give you advice?
Francis Golding, who was on the jury panel for the Falkland Island Memorial competition, became a very close friend after. He really believed in us when nobody else had the faintest idea who we were.

MC: He was a good ear for us – an advisor. He was a person we could phone up if we were having a problem or a dilemma.

CW: He would come and review projects for us – like a mock jury. He was a proper mentor. His death was a tragic loss to the architectural community and to us on a personal level.

What are your top tips to other women staring their own practice?
Tips for other architects - not just women: Don’t go out there thinking you are going to rule the world from day one – it’s not going to happen. Enjoy yourself. Be true to yourself.

If you do not run your practice as a successful business, you will fail

CW: Always remember that your staff are more important than any job you will ever get. They are the practice. Promote people – give them a leg up and some encouragement. Believe in people. And have a bit of fun. But if you do not run your practice as a successful business, you will fail – no matter how talented a designer you are.

What effect did winning the 2012 AJ Woman Architect of the Year Award have for you?
: It had an enormous effect. Not least of all, it made me realise that what we were doing was worthwhile. It gave me confidence – and I’m not an unconfident person.  It put us in the spotlight for that year, and for even longer.

CW: It meant a lot because it was judged on the work which was coming out of the practice and its quality. The award itself was so well run and managed. It was something you felt very proud to be associated with – and it remains so.

  • Walters & Cohen supports the AJ’s Women in Architecture partnership programme

How to join the AJ Women in Architecture partnership programme

If your practice would like to take a more active role in promoting change by supporting the work we do, there is still time to sign up to our programme.  

Practices that sign up as supporters of the campaign will enjoy benefits including early booking to all AJ Women in Architecture seminars and talks, access to the AJ’s future mentorship programme, your practice listed on all AJ Women in Architecture publicity material, and an AJ Women in Architecture ‘proud supporter’ logo for your website and email signature.

For more information please contact: Stephanie.Geisler@Emap.com

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