Sunshine Island Hero of the Month: How Architect Co Govers Created ‘A Firm of Her Own’

Architect Co Govers, once a female architect unsure how to start her own firm, reveals how she created ZEST, a thriving business run by women in Barcelona. Discover her story here. ©Dagmar Lap SQUARE MRES

Today we celebrate the impact of women in architecture with the story of architect and AMI alumnus Co Govers.

Welcome to Part 6 of the Sunshine Island Hero of the Month series and another installment of our Firm of Her Own series. We celebrate the way Co takes action and gets results — ideal clients and dream projects now land on her doorstep! Sunshine Island is based on AMI marketing coach Richard Petrie's story about the mystical city of Archville … where architects can live in the Old Quarter, the Artists Quarter, the New Quarter, or Sunshine Island. Architects work hard to reach Sunshine Island where they find financial freedom by consistently securing the best projects and fees. When “living” anywhere else, we find that architects continuously struggle to find clients, are afraid to ask for the fees they deserve and spend a lot of time doing work for free. At Architect Marketing Institute, we provide the tools to move from where you are now to Sunshine Island. Co, here, uses those tools wisely. Let’s find out how she made her way to the paradise where every architect can find success.

Did you know that 31 percent of architects in the United States are women, yet only 20 percent of architecture firm principals or partners in the U.S. are women?

Our AMI team exists to empower architects and designers through tools, training and resources so that no architect or designer will be at a disadvantage because of gender, race or any other factor.

Let’s take a look at a woman-owned firm in which the female principal has ‘leaned in' (as Sheryl Sandberg says) and impacted the world through projects that matter. Co Govers, once a female architect unsure how to start her own firm, reveals how she created ZEST, a thriving business run by women in Barcelona. Discover what inspired this Dutch designer to become an architect and start her firm abroad.

From the Desk of Co Govers …

“I came to architecture in a roundabout way. Too many strong points made it hard to choose my career initially: I had studied Dutch, English, German, French, Latin and Greek in school, but also Math, Physics and Chemistry. I was ready to go to med school. But in the Netherlands, there's a lottery for the limited number of places, and after three years of trying, I had meanwhile begun to study European Business administration – on my way to something completely different. After my master's degree I got a fabulous job for an international organization, organizing conferences for their members. I traveled the world. I used the many languages I studied in school. Great fun for a young working woman.

“But my heart was not in it. My creativity went into doing up apartments that I would buy and sell, obviously designing it all myself. In my spare time, I learned to execute plumbing, electricity and carpentry. And I loved it. But my body was too frail to become a full-time builder.

‘Why not be an architect?' someone suggested. It hadn't even occurred to me.

“When I went to the open day of Delft Technical University I fell in love. Instantly. I enrolled. And at 31 years old I went back to university. I translated computer books in the evenings to pay for tuition. And I loved my studies. I was probably the most headstrong student around because I was a grownup. And I knew what I wanted to learn. Sustainability was a great interest of mine – long before it became fashionable. Obviously the biological clock kept on ticking so during the seven years it took me to get my Master's degree in Architecture, I also had two beautiful babies (presenting end of term projects with a gigantic belly about to burst in front of a bunch of 21-year-olds was a funny experience, I can tell you, but it made me afraid of nothing and no one).

From a female architect unsure how to start her own firm … to a thriving principal

“When I graduated I was 38 years old. I had already had a job offer from the firm where I did my internships and went to work. But I soon found that working for a boss was not really so great. During my internships, he took me on all the site visits, but once on a salary, I had to just sit enclosed working behind a computer, and that drove me mad.

“When I was 40 I convinced my husband to make a big change: we moved to Spain. (Barcelona to be precise.) My husband sold his business, which helped start us off, and I found work at a big Spanish firm – once again working for a boss. I still didn't like it, but it was a good learning experience. After two years I left and started ZEST architecture. Sustainable residential architecture is what I wanted. Not monster office buildings like with my Spanish boss.

“We are now ten years on. ZEST is a thriving firm specialized in high end, sustainable residential architecture and I am now working with a team of four women and one male intern. I didn't set out to hire only women, but the female candidates were always so much better than the male candidates. And they worked so much harder and more precisely. And we love working together. Our clients love our approach. Our architecture is wonderful, a mix of modern sustainable and very elegant. Warm and tactile. Perhaps because it's women making it.

“My clients are so happy, sometimes they send flowers after they've moved in. Or they phone up to say how wonderful they feel when they come home to their new home. I've managed to save marriages, where clients stopped talking to each other, finding it hard to agree on what to build, and my talent as an amateur psychologist managed to bring them to the other side, together. It's worth so much more than any money could buy.

“In my architecture school, TU Delft, the only option seemed to become a ‘starchitect.' But I'm finding that working with private clients is much more fulfilling. I am so much closer to the finished product, working with craftsmen, rather than have everything prefabricated in a factory.”

(Headshot photography ©Dagmar Lap SQUARE MRES)

What's your story?

If you are a female architect and have a firm of your own, we'd love to hear your story.

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