Mastering Growth By Design
Yin/yang represents a belief that everything in the universe consists of two forces that are opposite but complementary. That theme is reflected in Michelle Lawson’s story of creating a career that intertwines artistry with technicality, and also in her relationship with Justin Greenleaf, her business partner in their architectural design firm.
Lawson describes a childhood filled with structure, routine and fun. She pauses, surprised at her emotions upon recounting her parents’ influence. “They both worked full time. He was an engineer and coached all of my sports. She was a nurse and checked my homework nightly. I have always wanted to be a working professional and to manage parenthood as well as they did. While most girls played with doll houses and Barbie Corvettes, I was master planning roads, subdivisions and converting play kitchens into grocery stores,” she laughs. While a senior at Dominican, her insightful father arranged a meeting with a prominent, female architect in New Orleans. “I was hooked. I knew architecture school would be far from easy, but I took the challenge.”
While at LSU, Lawson learned how human behavior is affected by one’s surroundings. “Good design affects how people move through a space without directional signage. It maximizes comfort and efficiency, making a great difference in work and life.” She also joined forces with Greenleaf at LSU, and despite their differences, they appreciated each other’s strengths. Both valued excellence and studied together. In a rigorous, five-year curriculum that started with 100 students and ended with only 31, Lawson met the challenge, mastered it and finished valedictorian of her 2009 graduating class.
“One definition of architect is ‘leader’ and that’s me. My type-A personality served me in school as it does here, managing many moving targets, but it’s tempered with my dad’s lessons of the importance of teamwork.” After graduation and her first jobs, Lawson married her high school sweetheart, Kyle. “We moved to the Northshore to give our children, Blaine and Brooke, the kind of childhood we had. Kyle and I juggle demanding careers and the responsibilities of parenthood as a team. I’m happy to say both can coexist, but in order to achieve success as an architect and a mother, I needed to work in an uplifting environment with exciting design opportunities and processes aligning with my personality.”
At just 28, Greenleaf had a vision of creating a different type of firm that embraced a team of talented people, and he asked Lawson to build it with him. Lawson conveys the intensity and challenges of five years of growth. “We are opposite in many ways but completely agree on creating a stable, fulfilling and enjoyable work environment. We thought it would take years, but I quickly learned that our ideas were well received by others in the industry, clients and prospective employees. We had our company in one month. Since then, we’ve significantly grown our team, designed millions of dollars in construction, expanded our offices three times and started families. We both have two kids. His second child and my first were born seven weeks apart. If we can survive that, we can survive anything.”
Along with being opposite and complementary, yin/yang further asserts that those forces constantly spin together. As that circulation continues, the forces propel and gradually give way to each other. Lawson describes her working relationship with Greenleaf similarly. “I love what I do, but Justin takes me out of my comfort zone. I gravitate towards consistency and routine, but I’ve learned that the only constant is change. Just when I feel that we are in a rhythm, there is a new idea, and it’s up to me as COO to execute. While he’s looking forward, I’m working on process management and business efficiencies. Change is challenging, but it’s how we stay cutting-edge and provide a great work environment.” One company mission is to provide stability to their all-important team in an industry affected by external factors. “We’ve expanded services to include interior design, graphic design, and project marketing —which incorporates web design and video—to more fully serve our clients.”
The firm’s designs also incorporate the inevitability of change. “We planned our Covington office to anticipate growth. The furniture is modular, the walls are movable and many of the areas are multi-use spaces like the work lounge, where ‘work’ is redefined.” The office serves as a showcase of possibilities for clients. “We ask a lot of questions to ascertain clients’ present and future needs and use technology to present our designs very clearly. When clients come here, they can see our designs in action.”
As ancient wisdom tells, opposing forces attract and combine to bring about change. Although change can, at times, be uncomfortable for Michelle Lawson, it provides opportunities for growth that she is ready to take on—growth of her business, growth for her clients, growth of her family and most importantly, personal growth. “We have a responsibility to ourselves and our community to master plan as best we can, to anticipate future needs and be flexible enough to adjust when things inevitably change.”
Michelle Lawson is co-owner, COO and a principal architect at Greenleaf Lawson Architects, APAC. Their offices are located at 404 E. Gibson Street, Suite 1 in Covington. For more information, call 985-778-2080 or visit greenleaflawson.com.