Frances Martin-DiGiuseppe is the founder and principal of Q4 Architects, an architectural firm with a mandate to enhance the human experience through thoughtful architectural detail. Launched in 2004, the company is known for its work with Mattamy Homes, the biggest homebuilder in Canada.

With over thirty years of experience, Frances is one of the only female presidents of an architecture firm in Toronto. She is deeply committed to creating real homes for real people and focuses on generating truly livable communities. She’s especially proud of projects that provide safe spaces for people who are marginalized, families going through traumatic experiences, or women fleeing domestic violence. Frances is passionate about architecture with a social mission and her firm is known for designing missing middle housing.

We caught up with her last week.

SDTC: What inspired you to pursue a career in architecture/design?

FM: All of my life I wanted to be an architect and my dad was a huge influence. In my graduating year of high school, I was told this field would be too hard for a woman because of the years of study and the long internships. I was told it would be difficult to balance having a husband and children with an architectural career. But I did it, and it’s the best decision I ever made. It’s my life, my work and my passion.

I was fortunate to be with a firm that allowed me to have flexible hours so that I could be successful at work and still have time to take care of my family. I stayed on for many years and rose through the ranks to Principal.

I wanted to stay on, but I also realized the only way I could truly take care of my team was to start my own firm.

I’m especially proud of the women I work with. I want to encourage more women to enter the profession, specifically in the residential sector where there are so many opportunities for creativity and the projects can truly impact people’s everyday lives.

What is the most fulfilling part of working in this industry?

Working in residential architecture, I am continually inspired by my work. Projects like Marnie’s Lounge at Sick Kids Hospital, an in-patient lounge for children and their families in long-term care situations, or the Wellspring community support centres for people living with cancer, are some of the spaces I am most proud of. It is really rewarding for me and my team to know that our designs are positively impacting people on a daily basis.

Best life/career advice you’ve been given?

Peter Gilgan, the founder of Mattamy Homes, has been a good friend and my client for many years. He really encouraged me to start my own firm and used to say, “You can do it, Frances.” It meant a lot to me.

It’s so easy for women to be discouraged early in their careers by other women telling them the negatives, how hard it is, how their success is a one-off, how you can have a career or a family, but not both. I think this is such a shame because there is no one-size-fits-all career path.

I wanted to have a work-life balance so I created my own kind of firm to support that idea; however, that isn’t an option for everyone so that’s why, with Q4 Architects, I try to encourage female architects to succeed and to achieve a work-life balance. We really value their contribution. I wish I could work with more female architects and architectural technologists. Not that I don’t value the wonderful talented men in my firm!

What do you wish people knew about what it’s like to be president of a company?

I wish more people understood the importance of mentorship and supporting the next generation. I really value thoughtfulness and empathy as leadership skills. I always try to keep my door open and to be available for my team.

One initiative we are incredibly proud of at Q4 Architects is our Independent Development Program. We focus on education, mentorship and empowering each employee as an individual, rather than applying a blanket approach to the entire team.

I launched Q4 Architects in 2004 because I wanted to follow my passion and work in residential architecture and create a great place for people to do great work. That way, we can surround ourselves with talented, similar-minded people that we get to choose and grow with.

Words of wisdom for young women wanting to delve into a career like yours?

It’s a sad fact that the architecture industry is a challenge for women. A large percentage of women that graduate don’t become licensed.

It is something I am sensitive to because I had to go through it. It is one of the reasons why I would love to have more female employees at Q4 Architects. They are so incredibly dedicated because they don’t want to be singled out. They don’t want to feel like they are a burden if they have to ask for flexible hours–if they have to leave early for daycare pick-up, for example. Working mothers actually work more efficiently and are more focused when they are here.

My main piece of advice to young women looking at becoming architects is to have very thick skin and trust your instincts. Believe in yourself and your ability to reach your goal.