Erecting an Architecture Firm from the Ground Up

August 26, 2019
Written by: The View | Chen Chan
Anne Fougeron had been working as an architect for only a handful of years when she decided to leave her job at a prestigious Bay Area company and start her own practice. That was back in 1986, when there were relatively few women working in architecture, and almost none who ran their own firm.

What prompted her to make such a momentous decision? "Naïveté," Fougeron quips. "It wasn't a well-thought-out plan. I had done a lot of houses with Dan [Daniel Solomon, the renowned San Francisco architect and urban planner], and I felt it was time to move on and try something new."

Fougeron began by working out of her own house as a solo practitioner. Clients were few and far between at first, and most of her early projects were remodels and modest single-family houses. It took years to build her business to the point where she could rent office space. "In hindsight, it would have been better if I had started out with a more aggressive business plan," she concedes. "There were times when I wondered if I was ever going to get another job."

But Fougeron persevered, slowly expanding her client base and the scale of the projects she worked on - and the size of her business. Today, Fougeron Architecture has a staff of 14 designers and architects and occupies a modern but unassuming building on a residential block in North Beach. The firm's work has won dozens of design awards and been featured in scores of magazines. Fougeron herself has received numerous accolades, including the 2019 Distinguished Practitioner Award from AIA California, the state's premiere architecture group. In 2018 she was named one of the Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business by the San Francisco Business Times.

Being a woman in a male-dominated profession made building her own business especially challenging, Fougeron says. She had to deal with sexism on an almost daily basis.

"Garnering respect and getting people to pay attention to you was difficult," she says. "The minute you walked into a meeting, the men in the room assumed you were an interior designer" rather than the architect. It was often worse on building sites, where workers would call to her, "Hey, missy" and try to pat her on the back.

But Fougeron didn't allow the sexist behavior to deter her. "It was something you had to live with," she says. "It was the price you had to pay to be in the same room with these people."

She credits her early survival to word of mouth and bootstrap marketing. More recently, the firm has been buoyed by regulations adopted by San Francisco and other cities requiring developers to set aside a certain percentage of construction projects for women, minority, and small-business owners, rules that are designed to level the playing field with large, male-dominated businesses.

Fougeron's work is distinguished by its modern, minimalist aesthetic and its attention to the visual and tactile nature of materials. "Our work can be modern and edgy," she says, "but we always try to create spaces that feel
good to be in...We use technology to make the world a better place."

Fougeron's buildings also pay close attention to the environment, particularly natural light. A case in point is the Suspension House, a project the firm is currently working on in Napa that involves a striking remodel of a house suspended over a creek near a waterfall. By opening up the sight lines with floor-to-ceiling windows and see through floors, Fougeron's design connects the house to its exceptional natural setting in a way it never was before. "All our projects are site specific," she notes. "They have a strong sense of place."

Another project that makes the most of its environment is the Fall House, a three-bedroom glass and concrete vacation house that juts out from a rock shelf overlooking the spectacular Big Sur coast. The design has won multiple awards, including the 2015 California Home and Design Award for Residential Architecture.

Yet another project, the Cut Out House, transformed a dark, dowdy San Francisco Victorian into a sleek, light filled redoubt by replacing the rear façade with tilting glass panels and cutting open the floors to allow natural light to filter through the three-story structure. The house received a 2017 AIA California Council Residential Design Award and was featured on the cover of Dwell Magazine.

The firm is currently working on several projects in the Transbay redevelopment district, the area surrounding the Salesforce Transit Center in SOMA, including a three-building mixed-use housing and retail complex featuring a diagonal passageway, or paseo, flanked by buildings that gently slope back to allow more light and air to reach the public space below.

A lot has changed in the architecture profession since Fougeron entered the field. There are many more female architects, and blatant sexism is not as pervasive as it once was. But women remain a distinct minority at senior
levels of major firms, and woman-owned-and-operated ones are still a rarity. A recent survey found that only three of the world's largest architecture firms are headed by women - all of them in Scandinavia - and that women occupied only 10 percent of the highest-ranking jobs at the 100 largest worldwide. Fougeron Architecture is one of only a handful of Bay Area design operations owned and led solely by a woman.

Fougeron strives to maintain a balance of men and women in her own business, and when she finds a woman with promise, she says, "I really try to encourage her." But she has no delusions about the inequality that persists in her profession. "The big firms are trying to accommodate more women and minorities, but there is a built-in bias. There has to be fundamental change. We have to keep the conversation going."

If she were counseling a young woman considering a career in architecture today, Fougeron says she would advise her to "find your own voice" and look for a work environment where she can express it. "Don't let other people discourage you. You have to fight for what you believe in, because nobody else is going to do it for you."

About the Author
Jen Chan, MBA, is the founder and CEO of San Francisco-based White Tiger Condo Conversion. She developed her unique proprietary Fast Track Condo Conversion™ program with the vision of making home ownership and equity available to more people, while at the same time building vibrant communities. Jen designs and engineers business systems to deliver seamless, comprehensive condo conversion services to her clients. She has more than 25 years of experience in residential and commercial real estate and related fields and has received numerous awards for her professional experience. For additional information, visit www.WhiteTiger.us.