One-on-One with Lara Calder

One-on-One with Linda Walsh, General Manager Marketing & Customer for AVID Property Group and Lara Calder, Managing Director for Calder Flower Architects
Pictured: Lara Calder, Managing Director, Calder Flower Architects

 

Linda: [Intro] The UDIA NSW Diversity & Inclusion Campaign, spotlights key individuals within the Property Industry to hear their individual stories and leadership around D&I.

Lara Calder is the Managing Director of Calder Flower Architects. She leads the practice to challenge the conventions of aged care, seniors living, childcare, social housing, and community design.

Lara Calder, Welcome to “One Thing”!

 

Lara: Hi Linda, good to see you.

 

Linda: Likewise. Lara, what is it that you do in your day-to-day work? Tell us a little bit about what your day looks like.

 

Lara: [laughs] Well, I run an architectural practice with a team of about 18 people, so my day starts with a (particularly nowadays with Covid and working from home), morning check-in meeting. But we would do that anyway just to check-in to set the tone for the day, just to see what everyone’s working on, to pass on any news, or any urgent sort of deadlines that we may have.

So, I think it’s important in an office of this size that everybody pretty much knows what the office is working on. As much as everyone is in project teams and we try to make sure we delegate responsibilities to team leaders, I think it’s important that everyone in the office feels included and we communicate on a regular basis.

But my job is obviously to motivate and manage the team. My job is also primarily to bring new job work into the office and I suppose I am the prime ‘rainmaker’. So, you know, networking, maintaining contact with clients daily is absolutely essential.

But no day is the same, every day is different depending on whatever the opportunities are, or meetings that I have set up. I love meeting new people and I think part of the buzz of running a business is seeking out those new opportunities and selling the business. I’m proud of what we have so it’s an easy conversation to tell people, you know, what we do and the passions behind the work that we deliver.

So, a lot of that takes up my day, but at the same time I am also, I suppose, the design director. So, all the projects I am involved in, certainly in the beginning and the early stages. So, we have design meetings with Teams and I’m very connected with the projects from the start. Once a project has gained its momentum, I can then pass it on to the team leaders to take from there.

It’s important if I’m selling the business and I’m talking to clients about what we do, to have my fingers on the pulse of the actual work. A lot of leadership discussions and forums say as a leader or a CEO you need to step away from the actual doing and manage the business. I find that really hard to do, I need to stay connected to the business to really understand it.

So, I suppose that’s my day. But my day doesn’t always just finish simply at five o’clock, my workday often goes way beyond that. It spills over into weekends, but my downtime is often just tinkering with projects and working in that design space.

 

Linda: You’re serving a lot of different sectors now like aged care, retirement, schools- there’s a whole multitude of sectors that you’re doing. How do you keep that relevancy and how do you keep ahead of the individual nature of what Calder Flower brings to the architectural output?

 

Lara: Well, I really toyed with this for a long time about you can diversify the type of work that you do and spread it wider to catch a wider project type. But I think there’s a lot of value in honing your skills and specialising in a specific area, so we do a lot of Aged Care, Retirement and sort of follow-on other projects that are related to that space with community projects, childcare, NDIS Social Housing.

All that sort of comes under the same sort of umbrella of providing accommodation for vulnerable people. So that has become the ethos of our business and we’re very proud to try and deliver good quality designs to people that almost need it most.

So, we’re connected with the industry in so many ways. Obviously the UDIA, we’re a part of the UDIA platform committee for Senior’s Housing. I am fortunate to be in a position where I’m often in touch with people that make decisions about policy, the funding structure around aged care and a lot of those discussions I am quite proud to be part of so we do stay in touch with a lot of the senior people in the sector. So, you really need to stay ahead of the game and do your own research and just be adaptable because there’s a lot of change.

 

Linda: And do you think there is some change for the positive in terms of the places you are providing for the elderly?

 

Lara: Oh, for sure! I think even in the 10 years that I’ve been doing this I can see how it’s changed and transitioned since 2009 when I first joined John Flower in the practice, it has evolved way beyond that original care model. The Royal Commission has obviously triggered a whole lot of new thinking, there’s new funding coming through, there’s a whole new draft housing SEPP as well that is proposing a lot of changes to the policies around planning. It’s all about change and it’s all about future models of care. So, we’re quite excited to be driving the change, to be part of what that change is. I guess essentially, we’re designing these things for ourselves. [laughs]

 

Linda: Exactly, it’s an interesting and exciting space. You yourself, Lara, have done quite a lot for the industry and I know you spent, as you’ve pointed out, a lot of work in relation to this industry association of the UDIA, and contributing to the committee and participating in a lot of respects, and I guess have been paving the way with that committee in relation to this sector. But what’s something people don’t know about you?

 

Lara: [laughs] I like to think that we do things a little bit differently and having a key point of difference is one of our offerings. Aged care if often challenged with difficult sites, and clients often buy sites at a cheaper land so they’re often constraint with some quite difficult issues like bush fire or flooding or difficult trees. So, for us, solving a site is part of that complex puzzle and we like to think that we can solve a difficult site. So, the one thing that I do that is like, sort of a pet hobby, I am an absolute avid Rubik’s Cube puzzler. I can do the Rubik’s Cube in under a minute [laughs].

 

Linda: Awesome! I’d like to see that!

 

Lara: We have the ‘Calder Flower cube’ which is our own customised cube that kind of follows into the whole thing of solving puzzles because I really think that unlocks the potential of every project. It’s how you solve the arrangement of those quite complex buildings.

 

Linda: Wow, that’s interesting. I would really like that demonstrated one day, Lara.

 

Lara: Sure.

 

Linda: Sounds like fun to watch as well. You’re clearly a very successful woman in property, what’s been the one bit of advice that you’ve received that has assisted in your journey?

 

Lara: I’ve had a lot of advice from people- sometimes it’s advice that I sought and sometimes it was volunteered. [laughs]

 

Linda: [laughs]

 

Lara: You’ve got to be open to that advice. But I remember one thing that probably sort of really set me on the path. Before I did architecture, I did nursing. So, I was a registered nurse, and I was thinking of changing career. I had started an interior design course and I was contemplating doing architecture and at that time an architectural degree was a six-year degree so at the age of 23, which I thought was really old, I thought a six-year degree, I can’t just take on a six-year degree now. And I was talking to somebody- I don’t even know who it was- and I said, if I do this, I’ll be 29 when I graduate.

And this person said, you’ll be 29 in 6 years no matter what you do. And it was just such basic, obvious advice and it was such a trigger because I just thought well, I could just spend the next 6 years nursing and doing whatever and nothing will have changed. But it really was the trigger for me to go and do it and so it set me on the whole path of doing architecture, continued nursing alongside that. So, I always wanted to join the care side and the design side together. But it sounds like such an obvious thing to say but it just unlocked all the opportunities.

 

Linda: Fantastic. So, in that you would be, I guess, be looking out for a lot of people in your, I guess, your health journey and in your architectural studies and learning and influences and being able to pick up little snippets of things that you liked, or enjoyed, reading, or seeing. Who has inspired you? Who is somebody or something that’s inspired you in your journey where it may have helped with positioning yourself today?

 

Lara: Lots of people inspire me. I suppose my mother was part of that inspiration. She would have inspired me from a young age, and my mother was the only mother I knew at the time when I was growing up that worked. And at the time back then it was uncommon for a woman to be employed and have children like that and so she was a journalist, and she loved her work.

She really loved her work and I always thought that the work she did made her a more interesting person. She had really groovy friends and press people and the photographers used to come and hang around at the house, and she was more interesting because she had that career.

So, I kind of always thought that I would have the same kind of thing, so I do owe a lot to her, she was a good role model but similarly I wanted to be a good role model to my own children. I have worked the whole time that I have been a parent to the 3 children that we have, and I’ve always thought that- I just want to prove to them that you can do anything.

You can just follow your dreams and it’s important to have something that drives you and to have your own passions beyond just being a parent. I love being a parent, but I love the other side of my life as well, so it was trying to be a good role model for them too.

I have a good group of professional female friends as well who inspire me every day with what they achieve and how they balance their lives and the complexities that they deal with in their workplaces. They’re a great support and I learn something from them every time I see them. So, you do need a good network to support you and to inspire you. I get inspired by good design, architects.

We had also just done a couple of post occupancy studies in some of our buildings with a couple of the retirement communities that are living in our buildings. The whole lockdowns sort of opened new opportunities because these retirement communities of older people who are just so comfortable with the Zoom forum now that they all have Zoom, and they all log in and we can do a good workshop with the whole community on a screen.

And the feedback of their experience of living in these spaces were so positive, and they were so filled with joy and with good things to say about how the whole community, belonging to a community, was so important to them and how when the pandemic hit, it had felt more safe and secure than they could have ever imagined. They just loved the environment and the place, so that really did inspire me because those are the end users of our work- that’s who we’re working for. So, inspiration comes from all sorts of places.

 

Linda: That’s real interesting. It sounds like you have a real solid appreciation for all the things that are coming your way. Just to answer our final question now- in the space of diversity and inclusion- I wanted to just get your thoughts and your insights on your view on the importance of diversity and inclusions as a policy, as a process, as something that should be considered and continue to work on or not. And to ask you, what is your One Thing? What is Lara Calder’s One Thing that you are doing to affect change, or the things that you are doing now or something that you aspire to do in the future?

 

Lara: That is a big question. It’s a good question though, and again, it’s sort of such a multi-faceted answer. It’s interesting, if I go back to when I was a nurse and those early days of my professional development. Nursing is a very female centric space so most of the nurses that I trained with or qualified to work with were women. Occasionally there was a male nurse, and he was always seen as an unusual sort of newcomer. But it also good because for a man to come and be a nurse against all the odds and all the expectations of society, he really, really wanted to be a nurse. And they were good, and they were so empathetic and so capable, and it always bothered me that it was something they had to do against all the odds so it’s almost like reverse sexism in a way.

But I think when I was working in four different offices as an architect, I did experience different ways that they dealt with women or a junior female architect. Sometimes it wasn’t so great, but it was definitely an awareness. I always thought that if I ever had my own business I would have quite a different culture and a different environment with a place where people felt valued and safe. Not that I didn’t feel valued and safe, but I did sometimes feel like I was a bit on show. It was sometimes not a comfortable space, but when I started up my own business and then joined up with John, I was very aware that I had that opportunity to set the right tone and structure.

Also thinking with my children one of the children, in fact two of the children, went to a school called Currambena which is a very sort of alternative preschool and early education environment and it had this unbelievably good philosophy where everyone was equal. So, whether you were a preschooler aged three or were a teacher or a parent, at all the school meetings everyone had an equal voice.

So, the preschoolers often spoke, and the teachers spoke, and it was just an egalitarian structure that impressed me a lot. So, part of my own belonging and setting up of my business was to have a similar structure, so it was a completely flat structure.

I don’t like that hierarchy of people sort of lauding over others because they are more experience, or they’re better or people are seen as lesser because of the junior/senior thing. I think that every single person has value to bring to a business in all sorts of different forms. So, we have a very flat structure in our office, and everybody contributes equally, and I think that’s the whole idea of safety, people don’t feel threatened or intimidated to voice their opinion, so we have tried to keep that as a strong part of it.

Our office of 18 people is made up of a good mix of people, we have good gender balances, we have all sorts of cultural mixes. And it’s not something you can do purposefully; you can’t sort of say oh I’m going to have all sorts of different nationalities and all sorts of different groups but it’s more when you interview someone to join the team it’s more who’s the right fit for the culture that you’re trying to build. I suppose we have a group of people who are quite gentle as a result, maybe because of the work we do. They’re competitive but they are very respectful, and they set the tone of the office. As soon as you have someone who doesn’t fit into the culture of the office then you’re just aware of that discomfort that happens.

We also must be representative of the clients that we work with, and we’ve worked for religious groups, we’ve worked for different cultural group, culturally specific aged care providers. We don’t align ourselves with anyone specifically or any religion or anything so, I suppose, we must show the client that we are a diverse mix anyway. So, I suppose it’s linked to the work we do too, but I think we’re fortunate to live in times where those things, I like to think, that those lines are becoming very blurred. I know there’s a lot of discussion in the press now about women and the workplace and how things are not progressing as well as people had hoped.

But in our environment, and particularly also in the architectural environment, I think women have a good voice and there’s a lot of opportunity there, but you just must be able to grab it. I think women are sometimes their own worst enemy. It’s just people are perhaps a little fearful or a little hesitant to put themselves out there or to give things a go that they haven’t done before. You must really be brave and dive in and do it and then you set the example for people to do the same so lead by example.

It is interesting because now since John left, I’m the only director and I don’t feel there’s anything unusual with having a single female director in a business. Some people have asked if it is an issue, but I don’t think it is but it’s interesting that they even asked the question.

I think in the work that we do, I don’t think it’s gender-specific or culturally specific I think that mix is there, and it must be there. When I first got to Sydney I worked for, an architectural office, that was almost all men, it was a big office, it was mostly male. The females that worked in the office were interior designers or secretaries and I was the only female architect at the time and, of course, I got pregnant within about five minutes.

 

Lara: I remember telling my boss that I was pregnant, and he just looked at me and he said this is exactly why we don’t hire women. [laughs] So I didn’t get there but you know it’s interesting, I think the world is changing for the better. I’m sure I’ve seen a lot of change since I’ve lived here.

 

Linda: I think you’re right. I think we’re seeing some change and I think that your ability to be quite authentic in relation to that way that you’ve approached an inclusive and sounds like a very lovely, gentle culture. Calder Flower sounds like a really great place to work.

 

Lara: Well, yes. We’ve always wanted to be family-friendly, you want to attract good people and not put people off with long over-time hours so don’t encourage people to work beyond their normal workday. We want people to work 8 hours, be productive, work hard and then go home and relax. You do have to be quite accommodating of parents and all sorts of people’s personal lives. But I think that if people feel valued then they will give you value back.

 

Linda: Absolutely. And there are some great words to conclude on, so Lara thank you. It’s been lovely to speak with you and interesting to hear your story. I could talk to you for a lot longer, but I really appreciate your time and on behalf of the UDIA NSW and the Diversity and Inclusion program for One Thing- thank you for your time and looking forward to seeing you face-to-face.

 

Lara: Yes, definitely! Thanks Linda, thank you very much it’s been a pleasure.

 

This interview forms part of a UDIA D&I Committee initiative series to encourage and highlight more diversity in UDIA and the property industry. It is intended to highlight diversity by profiling our members through industry publications on a regular basis throughout the year. Thank you to Stephanie Partridge, Senior Development Manager, Goodman.



Since 2018, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee has been one of the key Business Advisory Committees for the UDIA NSW, focussed on improving and promoting diversity and inclusion in the UDIA and our industry. This year, we launched the ‘One Thing’ campaign – celebrating and sharing the ‘one thing’ that we’re doing to empower people by respecting, supporting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, beliefs, disability, sexual orientation, and education. What’s your One Thing?