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the ladder

Frances Martin-DiGiuseppe, founder, principal and architect at Q4 Architects, at her Toronto office, Jan. 5, 2018.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Frances Martin-DiGiuseppe is founder, principal and architect at Q4 Architects, which has offices in Toronto and Calgary.

I grew up in Aurora, Ont., the eldest girl of six kids, so I guess I needed to be responsible. I probably grew up learning how to be a leader. But I always wanted to be an architect.

My great-grandfather, grandfather and a great-uncle were all architects. My father strayed from the family business, but he was definitely the one who inspired me to become an architect. He was a very creative guy, and he was always building things in his workshop. He saw in me someone who really wanted to [pursue architecture], and he would take me around to see my grandfather's and great-grandfather's work in Toronto.

In the mid-1970s, I had a guidance counsellor in high school, an older woman, who discouraged me from architecture. She said, 'It's too hard for a woman, there are long years of study, then there's the internship, and women should be concentrating on husbands and kids.' I'll remember that forever. As a compromise, I went to Centennial College, studying architectural technology. And right away, it was identified that I should be training as an architect.

After Centennial College, I went to U of T. Somewhere in there, I did start a family. So I finished my studies through the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (RAIC) syllabus. It was a tough way to finish. You had to work to be in the RAIC syllabus program, plus I needed to take care of my kids. I loved it. I was tired, but I loved it.

I went to an architectural firm and stayed there a very long time. I rose in the ranks from junior to principal and it was a good place to work while raising a family. Ken Viljoen, the owner, understood how much my kids meant to me. And at that firm I also figured out that I had a passion for residential architecture. We were doing a lot of social, community housing in those days.

I launched Q4 in 2004. I wanted to follow my passion and work in residential, and create a great place for people to do great work. The best way to do that was to create my own firm. That way, you can surround yourself with talented, similar-minded people that you get to choose.

Peter Gilgan [founder of Mattamy Homes] has been a good friend and my client for many years. He really encouraged me and used to say, 'You can do it, Frances.' It meant a lot to me.

Social housing is at the roots of my career, so I think some of my favourite projects centre around families that are in trauma or marginalized and creating the best spaces for those people. Designing for people who have little, or need a lot, can be a challenge and it's a really rewarding challenge.

Projects like Marnie's Lounge at Sick Kids hospital [an in-patient lounge for children and their families in long-term care scenarios] and Wellspring community support centres [for people living with cancer] – they are the most inspiring projects I've ever been a part of. My team as well, they are really into these [projects]. There's so much pride, because they really make a difference in people's lives.

When it comes to women in architecture, so much has changed now, and I'm really proud to be part of that change. I think as a woman, I can bring a unique perspective to my work, and hopefully inspire other women. We've tried as much as possible to attract young women to our firm because they have so much to offer. Here, they can have a better balance of work and family. And many of them have been challenged to do so in other firms.

I find working with women so rewarding. Moms, for example, are so happy to have reduced hours or to work from home, to spend time with their family, that they really pay it back in spades.

What makes me a good leader is thoughtfulness and empathy. I try to always keep my door open and be available for my team. I'm helping to train and inspire future leaders, so I understand the importance of mentorship.

My advice to others would be just find what you love, and really love what you do. Be yourself, trust your instincts and don't be persuaded to stray from them.

As told to Shelley White. This interview has been edited and condensed.

‘power tends to take away our steering wheel. So while we are speeding down the highway we crash into things along the way’

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