Sarah, tell us a little about yourself …
I have been a registered architect on the Coffs Coast for almost a decade and launched my own business, Armstrong Architects, in 2010. I work with both residential and commercial clients and pride myself on providing exceptional and unique design solutions. I am also passionate about delivering innovative designs, while also meeting my clients’ budget and functional requirements.
I have worked in large offices in Sydney, Edinburgh and London, but love the variety that working on the Coffs Coast brings. Whilst enjoying the challenge of designing larger commercial buildings, I am still very passionate about designing beautiful homes that really contribute to the quality of people’s lives.
I juggle all of this with three children with a side ambition to be a triathlete, but trust me, I’m a much better architect!
What initially drew you to architecture?
Building a home is such a significant part of a person’s life, and having the chance to be a part of that is definitely a reason I chose architecture. I also love that it brings a real mix of art and science. During school and university, I loved being creative with arts subjects, but I also really enjoyed the processes behind maths and science, so architecture means I can do both. I really like challenging both sides of my brain.
What prompted your move back to the region?
Having grown up on the North Coast, I always knew I wanted to come back here to settle down with my family. Coffs Harbour has a great combination of a country and beach lifestyle, which is something I really love. Whilst I have worked in major cities across the country and overseas, I prefer to work in a place like Coffs Harbour, as there is more scope with the type of projects I can work on. In a city, you tend to get pigeon-holed with projects, but the sky’s the limit here!
What motivated you to go out on your own in establishing Armstrong Architects?
One of the main motivations behind my decision to start Armstrong Architects was the ability to build a close relationship with my clients through the process of creating their dream home or commercial space. This isn’t always the case when working in larger offices, so it’s definitely something I like about working independently. I also really like the flexibility of being your own boss.
I teamed up to share an office space with Interior Designers, Two Birds Design, a few years ago, and the “one stop shop” we’ve created has been an enormous success.
What key lessons have you learnt about running your own business?
This is a tricky one. I think the main lesson I have learnt is to listen to the client – even though they may not always be correct or may not know what it is they are trying to convey, you can usually piece it all together if you listen very carefully from the start.
I have also learnt to back myself. Although it sounds like a contradiction to my previous statement, it’s important to back yourself during the design process. Some clients are convinced they know exactly what they want; however, you need to remember they are paying for your expertise and nine times out of 10, they love what you suggest.
What have you found to be the most effective methods in generating new business and promoting Armstrong Architects?
In the architecture business, there’s no better way to generate new business than through word of mouth, especially in a tight-knit community like the Coffs Coast. I would say that the majority of projects I’ve worked on – both commercial and residential – have come about through a positive experience a past client has had. It’s very rewarding to know that my clients are not only satisfied, but willing to share their experience and recommend me to others. Working alongside local interior designers, Two Birds Design, has also been really valuable to my business. I have worked very closely with Kristie and Kylie on a number of projects, and both businesses have experienced the benefits of cross-promoting.
If other small businesses out there are in a position to team up with a like-minded organisation in a similar field and you can work cohesively to help a client achieve their vision, I’d strongly recommend it.
Social media is also a vital area to promote your business, especially image-driven mediums like Instagram.
In your view, what makes a beautiful building?
For me, creating a beautiful building is about more than just the finishes and filling it with expensive furniture. It is about the connection between the spaces and the connection between the inside and outside. The spaces within a building can provide an almost sculptural effect, by using vertical height as well as light and careful placement of windows.
The functionality of the space and the feelings it evokes also contribute to its beauty.
Of course, materials play a part as well. Using natural materials such as stone and timber help a building to settle into the landscape, rather than fight against it.
Do you have a standout project, and what sets it apart?
My most significant project to date would probably be the Beach Street Family Practice in Woolgoolga, which has just been completed. I think what sets it apart is that it is the first multi-storey building in Woolgoolga since council changed the zoning of the area, so it’s quite a landmark building.
With the design, it was challenging in that I needed to find the right balance between something contemporary, while also being in sync with the beachside village and its community feel. The finished product is really clean and fresh – a contemporary building by the ocean.
Tell us about your signature style?
My style is modern, unique and contemporary, but it always has a piece of the client themselves within it. I am all about creating practical and calm spaces that also have that “wow” factor.
Juggling a small business and a young family must have its challenges …
I would be lying if I said it didn’t have its challenges, but owning your own business does offer the flexibility you need to run your business and family life effectively and efficiently – most of the time!
As well as my shared office in Coffs, I also have a home office set up which I work from. I think the key is just being flexible and being able to work around clients’ needs. It also helps to have a very supportive husband!