Story 27

The joys and sorrows of working with my family

Hi, I am Alexandra, the human behind this issue of Upstairs. An architect and a Capricorn, not necessarily in that order. I just turned 33 and finished designing a 10000sqm factory with my team for a 30-year-old Romanian electronics company. The client was my father.

My dad has been wearing the boss hat for a great deal of his life. He is the elder brother, hardworking, over-responsible, super-reliable, critical, but generous—a true Taurus, you could say. A rock with a soft core, as I often call him. He started his company at 30, with two kids at home (three and two years old), in the wild space of post-revolutionary Romania. Brace yourself!

I am the older sibling in my family, too. Even though I have a brother, in some regards, I felt I always had a younger sister, too, represented by my dad’s company. It might sound lunatic, but he dedicated a lot of time and attention to build and take care of it. Living with this scene day in and day out led me to an entrepreneurial journey. I opened my architecture studio at the same age as my father did. I was 30 years old, and even though the world looked more peaceful than it did for him, it wasn’t free of dilemmas.

Shaping my career within a family arena

After studying architecture in Bucharest for six years (and traveling around Europe for internships, workshops, and other scholarships), I decided to move back to my hometown (Iași). I always felt that my place in the world is here because I can do meaningful work and have a rock-solid impact. 

I started working with my elder cousin, who is also an architect. I guess the love for crafting spaces runs in the family. She was the one who advised me to go to study in Bucharest instead of Iași, for which I’m genuinely grateful. 

Our first project was for a competition that implied redesigning the most important pedestrian street in Iași after a mess made by the local administration. We worked hard (teamwork for the win!) and won the second prize with our proposal, and oh boy, it felt amazing. Nothing beats the collective effort and the celebration. It’s extraordinary to make a difference as a team.

Soon enough, the first paying client knocked at our door. It was my cousin’s brother, and it came with another set of twisted layers due to the family liaison. So we started to work together officially. 

For the next four years, we both worked hard to build what each of us thought to be their dream. And it was. We worked like hell to nurture a team, and a workplace where reaching our creative potential was a given, not an accident. 

I couldn’t care less about profitability since nobody paid the right price for our investment of time, know-how, and energy. There were always long hours, sleepless nights, plenty of activities requiring to act like Jack of all trades. The budgets did not reflect most of these hardships. Today, I can look at this experience and see it as a context that accelerated my learning process on a horizontal level. I was able to study, learn, go the extra mile and challenge myself in many ways.

Rethinking how I want to do architecture

Looking back, I feel lucky because I got the chance to define a space for myself to become an architect with complete creative freedom. I did not experience the limitations given by everything that implies building a sustainable business. I was going to find them out quite soon.

Unfortunately, I had no equity in the company, and while that did not bother me in the early days, things and perspectives changed along the way. As we started to grow as a company, the management dynamic of the office began to get messy. Tensions, unclear ways of working, mixed relationships, complex dynamics all squeezed my energy, so I started to reconsider. I wasn’t thinking about the money per se, but it was about protecting what I nurtured. In so many ways, I behaved like a business partner from day one. The family relationship helped me feel safe enough to do that. 

On top of these internal dilemmas, I noticed that it wasn’t just me that started to worry. All of my teammates were unhappy even though the office was full speed ahead. The team has grown from three to eight people; we already won a couple of national and international prizes, got published, and started having bigger and bigger projects. Regardless, something felt empty on a more profound level. In many ways, it was a blessing and a curse at once. 

While navigating those murky waters, the stars lined up in a way that I would have never imagined: I got the opportunity to design my father’s factory. With a lot of sorrow and grieving, I left my cousin’s office to start my architecture studio. It was one of the hardest things I had to do. While a chapter of my life was painfully closing, another one was anxiously starting. 

The idea of starting from scratch overwhelmed me

Few people know that I was thinking about studying an industrial program for my graduation project from university. I love engineering, rigor, and grids as much as I love to dive into poetry and art. Both my parents are electronic engineers with a great sense of fragility and curiosity. My brother is a creative soul with a Ph.D. in engineering. The grandparents with whom I spent most of my childhood have been chemistry professors who used to act, sing and write when they were younger. 

I feel that hard work took me to where I am today a lot more than talent did. I never thought I achieved a particular moment to allow myself to stop learning and improving, so I kept digging. 

This time, starting over felt very different. I was tired, sad, angry, scared, and felt alone, even though I wasn’t. My family, my boyfriend at that time, Ancuța, my first teammate, and my former colleagues encouraged and convinced me that I would be capable of handling what was lying ahead—a new office and a spectacular new project. 

Over the next two years, I lived with a lot of pressure on my shoulders. Suddenly, I was responsible for designing a massive building with a lot of emotional weight while learning how to sell, market, run an office, build a team, and keep developing and improving as an architect. A complex scenario even for me, a person who loves playing around with complexities of all kinds.

10000 hours for designing a 10000 sqm factory

We spent over 10000 hours in the office designing 10000 sqm of the new factory—from understanding the intricacies of production flows to designing the furniture in the reception area. 

There have been countless meetings that ended at around 11 at night, endless iterations, and plenty of issues we expected to solve over the dinner table, next to the client, aka my dad. 

I gave it my best. For more than two years, there wasn’t much in my life besides shaping up this factory and making it shine. Sharing common values fueled our energy tanks, as well as being aligned in how we understand what perseverance looks like. To some extent, it paid off.

The project won a couple of architecture prizes, got published, and is still considered an excellent example of industrial architecture. I mostly cherish it because it has shown me what I’m capable of. But, at the same time, it eroded my relationship with my father. 

After the project finished, the people and machines moved into the new headquarters; I tried to figure out which way to go conceptually and strategically with my office. Since this challenge swallowed two+ years of my life, all of a sudden, I wasn’t that busy anymore. Soon enough, the pandemic kicked off, which made what followed even harder than the past two years spent on the site and in the office.

Looking at this experience through other lenses

While the whole planet was slowing down because of the virus, I needed to slow down due to burnout. I started therapy, took a step back from the crazy 60h/work-week that I was used to, and tried to redefine my relationship with both work and my father. As my best friend would say, “It’s time to accept that easy-going is a worthy route to go from time to time.” With the opposite, hard work and compromise, I was way too familiar.

I’m grateful for going to therapy because I better understood how relationships work and how each of them fits in my life. No more one-size-fits-all. I acknowledged that my father led by example things I value and find inspiring: courage, vision, generosity, excellence. While I embrace them and let them guide me, I do it on my terms, with a more nuanced perspective onboard.

I grasped that balance is a real thing, but it does not come naturally. I took time and energy to learn how to achieve it at my pace, understand how liberating limits are, listen to my needs, and find the best approach to cover them. 

I also made peace with the constant pressure of trying to have everything at the same time. I accepted there’s no such thing. And I learned that I need to have patience, mostly with myself. 

I fast-forwarded my career 

As adults, we are free to make choices and own them. Even though I don’t regret the long meetings over the dinner table, the clashes of opinions, the edgy corners of our relationship, nor the massive amount of effort, I look at things differently. 

I acknowledged the hidden costs (no personal life, too little sleep, too many busy weekends, etc.), and I started to make choices more aligned with my particular needs and desires.

I will always be grateful to my cousin for giving me the space to work on projects at a level that a recent architecture graduate (like I was at that time) could only dream of. I am genuinely honored and thankful that my dad chose me as the architect for his new factory. I am grateful for the trust and the opportunity to fast forward my career and challenge my assumptions at a very young age. To some extent, I feel that everything in my life took me to design this building for my father and to make a dent in the universe.

If someone would ask “Will you accept a similar challenge and work with a member of your family in the future?” my first thought would be that I would do it again. In a way, I feel that my work is better when I invest emotionally on a deeper level. But that also takes a toll. So, today, I honestly don’t know, and that’s okay.

Be gentle with yourself,

Contributors of this story: Alexandra Berdan wrote this gem, Oana Filip provided feedback and edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development, Katerina Nedelcu took the photo.

A question from Alexandra, the author of this story:
Have you ever worked with your family or within a family business? What's your experience?

Conversations 2 comments

Let's start a personal, meaningful conversation.

Example: Practical philosopher, therapist and writer.

Vlad Olarusays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Architect, Business co-founder

Alexandra, thank you for finding the terra firma from which to look back on your roller-coaster ride with crafting architecture and the life left between. I know what a demanding creature it can be, with its enormous weight so easily laid on young shoulders. But I also know how rewarding it is to tame matter, lots and lots of matter, to have space bend to one’s will.

Only the one actually doing it can decide or measure if it was all worth doing. As for having family members as my clients, no I haven’t been there, but I have co-founded Pixelgrade together with my brother George.

I have no doubt that I am as lucky as they come because I don’t regret it one bit. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you for taking the time to reflect on your experience thus far and share it with us. Here’s to more unstable equilibriums.

Relevant commenter background or experience:An architect and a Capricorn, not necessarily in that order.

Hey, Vlad! Thank you so much for your comment and insights. Family dynamics are a wild, beautiful beast and for sure extremely different depending on the context, time, and the actual people who are willing to do the dance. As I said in the end, I feel that my work is more meaningful when I work in these circumstances so I understand the „no regrets” feeling. Cheers to that! 

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