This is the transcript from EntreArchitect Podcast Episode 220, Design Voice Podcast with Catherine Meng.
Mark R. LePage: 00:01
Do you know how to calculate the exact amount you need to charge your clients in order to earn 20 percent profit on that project? It’s simple to do. If you don’t know how, learn how by downloading our free course: Profit for Small Firm Architects today at EntreArchitect.com/FreeCourse.
Mark R. LePage: 00:22
My name is Mark R. LePage and you are listening to EntreArchitect Podcast, where I speak with inspiring, passionate people who share their knowledge and expertise all to help you build a better business so you can be a better architect. This is episode 220 and this week I’m speaking with Catherine Meng of Design Voice Podcast.
Mark R. LePage: 00:45
EntreArchitect podcast is supported by our platform sponsors, ARCAT, the online resource, delivering quality building material information, cad details, bim specifications, and much ARCAT.com and Freshbooks, the cloud based accounting software that makes running your small firm easy, fast and secure. Spend less time on accounting and more time doing the work that you love. Catherine Meng, welcome to EntreArchitect podcast.
Catherine Meng: 01:18
Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Mark R. LePage: 01:20
Great having you here. Let me just share who you are with the rest of our audience here. Catherine Meng received her bachelor of architecture degree from Cornell University and joined DLR Group Kwan Hemi in 2016 where she focuses on multifamily and student housing projects. Prior to this, she previously worked in New York City and Shanghai. In addition to her work as an architect, Catherine is active in the San Francisco community. She serves as the mentor at the ACE Mentor program, serves on the board of the Northern California Cornell Alumni Association, and is a member of the San Francisco chapters of the Urban Land Institute and the Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW). The reason she’s here today is because Catherine just started a new podcast called the Design Voice Podcast, as creator and the host, which aims to elevate and amplify those voices of women in the architect, engineering and construction professions.
Mark R. LePage: 02:21
That is going to be a great show. I think that it’s a well needed show. I’m looking forward to watching you grow that podcast. Catherine, before we get into that story, because I want to talk about the podcast and why you did it and what inspired you to do that and where you want to take it, but I want to know more about you first. I want to go into your origin story, go back to what inspired you to become an architect and share that story to where you are today.
Catherine Meng: 02:56
Okay, great. When I was growing up I don’t even think I knew that the profession of architecture even existed. I grew up in a suburb south of Denver and I just was never exposed to the concept that people purposefully designed buildings. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer or an artist. I loved reading and writing stories and poems and journals, but also of drawing and art classes and making things with my hands. Of course this is stereotypical, my Chinese parents wanted me to become a doctor or an engineer, but when I was a sophomore in high school, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this now, but I read The Fountainhead and I loved it. And I think that was when I first realized that there was even such a thing as an architect.
Catherine Meng: 03:43
I think that was when the idea that I could become one myself sort of lodged itself into my brain. During spring break of my junior year of high school, I went on this class trip to Italy and that was my first real exposure to truly beautiful buildings. We went to Rome and Florence and Venice and just seeing all the old buildings, everything from the ruins to the cathedrals. I was just completely in awe the entire trip. And I distinctly remember climbing up the stairs to the top of Brunelleschi dome and Florence. And I was just in complete awe of like both internal structure of the building. But then also like seeing the views from the top of the city and the red roofs of other Florence buildings and I think it was a sort of beautiful moment and as cheesy as it sounds, I think that was when I decided I wanted to become an architect for.
Catherine Meng: 04:40
It was a junior year of high school trip, a fantastic opportunity to do that. It was part of a AP European history class. It spurred me into becoming, or wanting to become, an architect. I ended up applying to half architecture schools and then half liberal arts schools because part of me thought that I might want it to be like a comp lit major, but I ended up only getting into the architecture school. So I was like, I guess I have to go. That’s how I ended up at Cornell. Luckily I liked it. I loved architectural school, but I also know there’s times where you hate it. I think you have strong feelings about it. They span both directions.
Catherine Meng: 05:36
Unfortunately I graduated in 2009, so right in the middle of the recession. I couldn’t find a job after school, so I moved back to my parents’ house in Houston. I was doing some office and admin work for almost about a year while still applying to any architecture related job on the side, but had no luck and this is going on for almost a year. It was pretty demoralizing at the time. At one point I was like, I can’t take this anymore. I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of construction and activities still going on in China. So literally I decided one day I’m gonna just move to China and see if I can find a job there and worked there. And so I googled, I think I literally googled “Shanghai architecture firms” and applied to the first applied to the first few search results that popped up. I then took a job with the first firm that was willing to apply for a work visa for me.
Catherine Meng: 06:40
I ended up moving to Shanghai and I worked there for about a year and a half. That was an amazing experience. I worked for a small interior design from there. It was a pretty international staff. It was a husband and wife team and the wife was Chinese and the husband was from Switzerland. There was a mix of a lot of local Shanghai architects as well as a lot of international people. And it was sort of this pilot, the best career bootcamp that one could have. I was just thrown into managing my own little projects right out of school and I was expected to communicate directly with clients and do all the CDs for my projects and negotiate contracts with the contractors. And I think one time I even had a haggle the price for lighting fixtures from a vendor, so that doesn’t happen to the US but there’s stuff you have to do in China.
Catherine Meng: 07:41
I was exposed to all aspects of running and designing and managing like they were, they were pretty small projects, but I think it was just a great experience. And after about a year and a half I decided I wanted to go back to the US, so I moved to New York and applied for a bunch of jobs there. And of course I was like, oh, I have all the CA experience and CD experience. And I think that’s what really helped me get my foot in the door at the small firm I work for in New York. It was a somewhat similar experience in that it was a really small firm. It was just myself and the principal, and then the occasional intern and we started off doing mostly like gut renovation projects of like town houses in Brooklyn. Then over the course of five years as the economy got better, the firm grew to about 10 people and we started doing new construction.
Catherine Meng: 08:45
I sort of got to experience the going from three to 10 employees for small firm is a pretty big increase. I witnessed that firsthand, which was really amazing. So 2011 through 2010 starting to crawl out of the bad economy. Things are getting better. We’re getting a lot better.
Catherine Meng: 09:18
I’m probably generalizing, but five years, the five year mark is about when people in New York decide they’re going to stay forever or get out. My husband and I decided we were just couldn’t handle the east coast winters anymore. He’s originally from San Francisco, so we decided to move back out west.
Catherine Meng: 09:44
We moved to San Francisco and have been here for about three years now. I got a job at a midsize firm in San Francisco. I think it’s pretty well known in San Francisco. It’s called Kwan Hemi Architects. We do mostly multifamily housing and then some transportation projects. About a year ago our firm merged with DLR group, which seems to be the merger acquisition thing. Seems to be the trend, but I think it’s opened up a lot of opportunities for our firm and sort of allowed us to expand the type of projects that we work on from beyond just housing and transportation working independently. I think DLR group has offices in cities across the US, but each office location has some relative independence. I think that’s what has made them merger successful is that the core, like from culture and leadership, it’s all the steam. On a day to day basis, it basically feels the exact same. It’s just we all had to get new business cards.
Catherine Meng: 11:06
One of the benefits of being part of this larger firm is there are all these new resources that are available to you. DLR group offers what they call professional development grants and anyone in the firm can apply for them. The podcast was something I had sort of kicking around in the back of my mind for a long time. I had wanted to make it because it’s something that I wanted to listen to. I just personally find it really inspiring to hear stories of other women’s career and professional journeys. Surely someone else must have done this already. At the time it turned out that I couldn’t really find the type of podcast that I wanted to listen to.
Catherine Meng: 12:05
Slowly this idea came into my mind that was, “maybe maybe I could do this myself, you know, why not?” but I kept on pushing that idea side because I have a job, I can’t make a podcast. That’s when I heard about the next round of professional development grants that were going out. I thought I might as well apply for one of these grants and then if I get it, it’ll sort of be the impetus to force me to do this thing which I want to do anyways. I ended up winning one of the grants and that was the last sort of push off this cliff to convince me to start at the bottom. That was about four months ago. The show officially launched about a month ago and so far there’s been four episodes released and it’s been going well so far. It’s been a really intense, sort of crazy learning curve and experience, but totally rewarding and I’m excited to see where it goes.
Mark R. LePage: 13:14
It takes a lot more than just talking into a microphone, right?
Catherine Meng: 13:17
Yeah. A lot of work. Youtube tutorials. That’s how I started.
Mark R. LePage: 13:29
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Mark R. LePage: 14:44
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Mark R. LePage: 16:10
You’re about four episodes in. You do it bi-monthly.
Catherine Meng: 16:14
Twice a month by month, yes.
Mark R. LePage: 16:23
So you created the podcast that you wanted to listen to. So, and it’s, and it’s based around the voices of women in architecture and construction and engineering. So talk about that a little bit more. Talk about what was the podcast that you wanted to create, what was missing?
Catherine Meng: 16:45
Just a side note, after I had started planning my podcast, there was actually one that was launched that features interviews with women architects in LA hosted by Audrey Sato in LA. She interviews a lot of architects but specifically based in LA, that’s kind of similar. That’s kind of similar to what I wanted to do, but I think my main goal was just to hear people’s stories and see how they’ve dealt with the challenges throughout their careers and then also what the highlights were and what inspires them. I think I’m of the age and generation were growing up, I was always told I could be anything or do whatever I want and I think when I was younger, we thought that issues of sexism and equality were solved already.
Catherine Meng: 17:44
When I was working, I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. Up until a point that was true, even maybe your first job in school where the gender breakdown is still about 50 / 50, but then I think once you start working, you very quickly realize that these problems still very much exists and are of course not solved yet. The longer I’m in this profession, I want to know how are other people doing it. I feel like the challenges that I face or the worries I have aren’t unique to myself. I wanted to know how are people dealing with these same issues? At the same time, I think there’s sort of this, not really a trend, but where the idea of women in architecture is sort of a side issue.
Catherine Meng: 18:35
I don’t like to characterize myself as a female architect, but at the same time, I don’t want to be naive and I think you have to recognize that these problems still exist. I wanted the podcast to sort of strike a balance between talking about a lot of the challenges that women face in the field. But also not focusing on the fact that these people are women, but that they’re architects or engineers and working construction and they have interesting career journeys that are separate of their gender identity, because I think everyone can benefit from hearing the career paths of other people, not just women, but men and women. I definitely hope to strike a balance between those two aspects with the podcast.
Mark R. LePage: 19:24
Yeah, I completely agree. I love the brand Design Voice because that’s what it’s all about. Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s about having the opportunity to share your knowledge with others. That’s a big part of what we do here at EntreArchitect and, and I think it’s a great opportunity for you to have your voice be heard and inspire others to do similar things, like that you had mentioned that there’s another podcast in LA. It doesn’t matter if there were 10 podcasts that sort of focused on women in architecture. Your story and the way you do it is going to be unique to you and the people that you bring on your podcast. I want to encourage anybody else who’s listening that if they want to do anything, whether it’s a podcast or a blog or youtube channel or anything that sort of promotes architecture and share and create, becomes the conduit of communication among us and in the community, it’s a good thing. I love the fact that you’ve started this and I love that it’s focused on giving women an opportunity to share their stories. So when there’s somebody looking specifically for that, there’s a place for them to find that.
Catherine Meng: 20:47
I didn’t want to just focus on women in architecture. I was also interested in speaking with engineers and people who work in construction because obviously there’s so much overlap in our fields and I think we could really learn a lot from each other in our different respective fields.
Mark R. LePage: 21:05
Were there any surprises that you’ve come across in either developing the podcast itself or in some of the interviews that you’ve done so far?
Catherine Meng: 21:17
I think one big surprise that I’ve discovered as I’ve made the podcast is, this is probably also a generalization, but I think sometimes women struggle with asking for what they want. If they’re asking it for a greater team or for the company, then they’re more willing to ask for it. I’m definitely on the more introverted side and I’m definitely more shy when it comes to being an advocate for myself. For some reason when I started making this podcast, I’ve just been completely shameless about reaching out to anyone who might know someone who is someone at a firm because in my mind I think, “I’m not asking for myself.” I’m asking for the podcast which is myself, but in my mind it’s benefiting the greater good. It’s been freeing to be able to like put myself out there more confidently. I’m hoping that experience will translate into my own personal professional life as well.
Mark R. LePage: 22:32
It absolutely will. I’m an introvert as well, a pretty, pretty deep one. In order to do the thing that I want to do with EntreArchitect, I have to overcome that. Just like you, one of the reasons I started the EntreArchitect podcast is to create the structure for me to learn what I need to learn and give myself a this challenge to overcome my shyness and my introversion, if that’s a word. That absolutely has given me a strength and the courage to continue and grow things. It has inspired me to create a platform for others to share their knowledge because I think that’s what you and I are both doing. One of the things that is challenging in our profession is how secretive we are as architects and whether it’s a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter.
Mark R. LePage: 23:34
Our culture in architecture for generations has been very secretive and we didn’t share our knowledge. By creating places, podcasts and youtube channels and blogs, it gives us the opportunity to not only share our knowledge, but to create a platform for others to share theirs and, and that inspires others to share it and then they share it and you doing what you do and what I do. There’s this compound effect that the more we do what we do, the more others will be inspired to do the things that they think that they might not be able to do. But they do it anyway.
Mark R. LePage: 24:17
All the guests that I’ve, I’m sure you probably have experienced this as well, but all the guests that I’ve reached out to, everyone really wants to share their experiences and knowledge. People have been amazingly supportive and really want to participate in this project because I think people recognize that this, I’m not asking for like a personal favor or anything. It’s sort of contributing to the greater conversation.
Mark R. LePage: 24:47
What will also be very interesting with your platform is the conversations that you have with women can become much more transparent and they’ll be much more honest about how they really feel about the profession. Because I have many, many women on my podcast. Probably half of the people that I’ve spoken with have been women, but I’m still a man. We have very open conversations, but I think your platform and and what you’ve created here will be able to create an environment where you’ll be able to have some of those tough conversations that sometimes aren’t talked about, discrimination and other things that we’re dealing with, but just life in general, how do you raise a family and be an architect, how do you you know, be a mom and be an architect. Those kinds of questions and solutions to those questions will be fantastic to be able to have an entire resource where you can go and you can search for specific topics and say, okay, this is a show about this topic that we’ll be able to help us resolve some of these problems. I think that’s going to be fantastic.
Catherine Meng: 26:08
Yeah, and I’ve already started to get a little bit of that in just the four episodes that I’ve done. You don’t miss that. What people have been willing to open up about and share. For example, one of my friends, she teaches at an architecture studio in New York City and she’s telling me about how and she’s a young mother and she just had a 10 week old son and she has a two year old daughter. She’s telling me about the struggles she has being a nursing mother and then also teaching when the school she teaches at doesn’t have these facilities for women. She was telling me how she will have to pump in like standing up in a public bathroom. Especially being an academia, she doesn’t have her own office space or desk, so she basically just has like a freezer bag and a backpack and carries that with her all over New York City. How is this still happening? Why doesn’t the university provide like a lounge? It could just be a small closet even. It shouldn’t be an afterthought. I think a lot of women will find that even if you don’t have the exact experience, I think a lot of women will be able to find some shared common experiences and hearing these stories.
Mark R. LePage: 27:34
Exactly. The reason that still happens is because people don’t talk about it. That’s something, if you’re a friend was on my podcast that, conversation wouldn’t happen. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You’ll be able to have those conversations and because you’re talking about it, other people will say, “yeah, that’s exactly what happens to me.” And then we’ll have these opportunities to have to make some changes about these things.
Mark R. LePage: 27:34
It’s super interesting for you to be able to have those conversations. Who are some of the people to you? Do you know some of the people that you’re going to have on upcoming episodes?
Catherine Meng: 28:20
So I am speaking with Anne Torney, she’s a principal at the Mithun San Francisco office. That’ll be an upcoming episode. I also want to have sort of a range of experience. People have different experience levels, so not just principles of firms but people who are mid level and then also interns. I’m speaking with a young project engineer from McCarthy Construction in the upcoming episode and then another principal at a structural engineering firm shortly after that. So there’s a lot coming down the pipeline.
Mark R. LePage: 29:08
Yeah. You had mentioned earlier in your origin story that during school you had some of these conflicts, about whether you wanted to be an architect or not. I think that many of us have those thoughts during architecture school and I think that’ll be another opportunity to have some of those conversations with young architects and even students to be able to share that that’s normal. That’s not something that only you experienced but most of us experience because architecture school is hard and becoming an architect after architecture school is hard. The more we talk about it, the more we realized that we’re not that different, architects all throughout. That’s one of the surprises that I’ve discovered by building the EntreArchitect platform is how similar we all are, no matter where we’re practicing architecture, whether it’s in New York o San Francisco or Shanghai or Africa, anywhere that you practice architecture, we were all dealing with the same problems. By talking about those problems we can find some solutions. I’s great to have you as out there as a voice doing this podcast.
Mark R. LePage: 30:31
That was one topic that one of my guests I’m brought up. She is the co founder the structural engineering equivalent of Equity by Design. They’ve been trying to convince people that issues of work life balance, pay equity, flexibility and flexibility with work, that these aren’t just women’s issues, but issues that everyone should be concerned with. Sometimes people just look at them, if they don’t know too much about the organizations, and assume that they’re only about women and minorities when in fact it’s about how we make the profession better for everyone. When you make it better for everyone, that by default also makes things better for women and minorities. The end goal is to make it better for everyone. Everyone.
Mark R. LePage: 31:38
Rosa is a friend of mine and I’ve been very involved in the things that she does with Equity by Design and I agree the things that Rosa is talking about, our architecture issues, people issues, they affect women differently than, than men, but they affect all of us. If we can solve those problems for all of us, then we solve them not only for the women, but we solve them for the profession. Then we all thrive and we become a stronger profession. We’ve found ourselves in the last decade or two sort of struggling with the identity of architecture of who we are and what we do and some of the struggles that we have, I think that platforms like Equity by Design and Design Voice podcast and the others, that’s how we’re going to grow. That’s how the profession is going to get better, get inspired about talking about these issues and then creating some ways to fix these issues and fixing them. The more voices the better. I’m looking forward to a hearing many of them over on the Design Voice podcast.
Mark R. LePage: 32:55
If there’s anything we can do to help you, we absolutely can share your contact information here. Before we wrap up here, I want to ask you one question that I ask everybody. What is one thing that a small firm architects can do today to build a better business for tomorrow?
Catherine Meng: 33:14
So this might be kind of unconventional, but I would say you should sign up for an Improv class today. I am a big proponent of Improv classes. I started doing it just because I thought it was fun, but I realized that all these skills that you learn in Improv classes can apply to your life situations but also your work situations. Also, you meet really interesting people. I would say go out I’m sure any city you live in has an Improv theater and they probably teach classes. So go sign up for one.
Mark R. LePage: 33:56
Yeah, I would say probably even, even most towns probably have some sort of acting classes somewhere and they probably have improv as part of that. That might be the best answer we’ve ever had. I think that’s a great answer because I think that that goes so many different places. I mean it gives you more confidence, it gives you communication skills, gives you a better way to respond when you need to respond. Thank you for for sharing that. On the web, DesignVoicePodcast.com. If you want to go check that out, you can search it on iTunes and subscribe, so go do that. On Twitter is @designvoicepod, so you can go to @designvoicepod on Twitter and say thank you to Catherine for sharing her knowledge here today at EntreArchitect podcast and Catherine, thank you very much for coming to join me here and for sharing your knowledge at the podcast.
Catherine Meng: 34:53
Thank you so much. Thank you for what you’re doing.
Mark R. LePage: 34:55
Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you for listening to EntreArchitect podcast. This is episode 220. Please share this episode, share this link, EntreArchitect.com/Episode220. That is how we get the world to know what we’re doing here at EntreArchitect podcast, one step at a time, one architect at a time. We will change the world by helping architects build a better business: EntreArchitect.com/Episode220. Thank you and go check out my friends, podcasts, Archispeak, and Inside the Firm, two fantastic podcasts. If you like EntreArchitect podcast, you’re going to love Archispeak podcast with Evan and Neil and Cormack, three great guys talking about architecture every week. Just dive in right deep into into what’s happening in their worlds.
Mark R. LePage: 35:57
And go check out Inside the Firm with with my friends Alex and Lance, those guys, they’re talking every week as well, sort of from a different perspective. They are digging deep into their own firm and sharing knowledge about what’s happening real time there. It’s like a business meeting. It’s like you’re listening in on a business meeting over there. At Inside the Firm, they’re sharing how they’re building their firms step by step from the beginning to the end. We’re gonna find out how it ends. Right? Years and years and years from now when they are billionaires, I won’t doubt it. Inside the Firm podcasts and Archispeak podcast, go check them out. Great shows, great people, go support them.
Mark R. LePage: 36:38
The EntreArchitect community is on Facebook, it is the most interactive, most supportive, most encouraging, the most positive place on the Internet for small firms. Come join us. It’s free! EntreArchitect.com/group. We’ll get you there. Just request membership. You need to be an architect or an architecture studio, it is a private group and we have very sensitive, transparent conversations in there and we only want architects in there to be contributing. So if you’re an architect or an architecture student, come join us. EntreArchitect.com/group. Go check out our free profit course because this is the bottom line: you’ll build a better business. You will have the time and the resources and the money to be a better architect. That’s the way it works. So you need to build a better business. You need to be profitable. And this course, it’s free. Our free profit course EntreArchitect.com/freecourse. Go download it right now. Go check it out. It’s a video course, it is something that I would sell, but I want you to have it for free. EntreArchitect.com/freecourse. Go build a profitable, thriving architecture firm. I’m going to show you how in that course, EntreArchitect.com/freecourse. My name is Mark R. LePage and I am an entrepreneur architect and I encourage you to build a better business so you can be a better architect. Love, learn, share. That’s all you need to know. Thank you for listening. Have a great week.
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