Skip to main content
Architecture Firm Spotlight #06: Sharlene Young of Symbiotic Living
July 1, 2021 at 6:30 PM
overpage-0.png

A Discussion with Sharlene Young of Symbiotic Living about Her Projects, Collaborations, and Embracing your Perspective.

Interview by Vaishnavi More, Founder, and CEO at Archslate

Edited by Sidhanth Thomas

Graduating from the Cornell School of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Sharlene Young worked with multiple esteemed architecture firms to the likes of Perkins and Will, Wheeler Kearns Architects, and The Environments Group before she started her own design practice in 2016, enriching her clients lives through her design and the built environment. Aside from serving as chair for the AIA Chicago Interior Architecture Knowledge Community, she strengthened her human-centered approach to design by designing workplaces and residences for many industry magnates.

Archslate: Tell us a bit about what Symbiotic Living is and how it all started.

Sharlene Young: I founded Symbiotic Living based on the convergence of two profound paths. It took me a long time to realize that I was living two separate lives and the experiences that I was gaining from them enriched each other and that as an architect, I could gain from them. One path was me being as career-driven as possible. I got on it right out of school and didn’t stop. The other was being a caregiver for my late husband who had a debilitating chronic illness, and through him, I was able to have a whole different point of view.

I learned how to adapt to what the spaces needed. We appreciate thinking about all kinds of design from the point of view of the person. As an architect, how we move through spaces is fundamentally important. Looking back at some of my earlier projects, there were always underlying themes of striving to connect with nature, ways to understand the relationship, and whether or not you are in a space that you want to be on your own.

These are inherent, fundamental principles that were drivers in many projects. I have these dialogues with my clients to understand what they attach their importance to, from a human point of view.

Archslate: As architects, we have a creative side so design comes to us very naturally. What were the hurdles when you started off Symbiotic Living?

Sharlene Young: Getting the first few clients is always the hardest. However, I was very fortunate in that I knew people who were in my previous firm, and they helped me out a lot with making contacts.

"As an architect, how we move through spaces is fundamentally important. Looking back at some of my earlier projects, there were always underlying themes of striving to connect with nature and ways to understand the relationship. These are inherent, fundamental principles that were drivers in many projects."

Archslate: How do you differentiate yourself? How do you show that you have capabilities despite being a small firm? People often question you about how work is done while being small.

Sharlene Young: In the new, creative way things work, we team up with many small firms so we have our own identity. I have a couple of friends and we have our own Ja Rule philosophy. But if we feel the need for a bigger team, we help each other collaborate. We get creative to solve these problems.

1611 w division offices by symbiotic living.jpg

1611+w+division+offices_2_00229_02.jpg

1611 W Division Offices by Symbiotic Living

Archslate: What are some of the most interesting projects that you want to share with our audience that Symbiotic Living has been working on?

Sharlene Young: The Lakeview Live Work is a great example. However, the Gold Coast Residence would be better, because this particular project was landlocked in the city. It did not have any windows on either side so this was an extremely dark house, littered with cellular, enclosed spaces. The family craved natural light, which is something that we all need. The solution we came up with was to create a conservatory at the back of the house.

It played the role of being a lightbox that flooded the house with natural light and of a connector because it gave us a way to have circulation going from ground level to the only outdoor space that they had, which was the patio above the garage. With the limited outdoor spaces, it was the perfect solution.

Archslate: The vocals project does have a profile on Archslate. You renovated the whole place so what look were you trying to give to the kitchen?

Sharlene Young: We wanted to give it a modern and integrated look so that the functionality aspect of the kitchen felt like furniture in a way. We wanted the open spaces of the living room to flow into the kitchen so that it could become a natural extension of the living spaces. It has an inviting feel that encourages the family to gather around the kitchen. The kids can do their homework there while the parents are preparing a meal or whatnot. We made it a space that's enlivened by natural light.

"It has an inviting feel that encourages the family to gather around the kitchen. The kids can do their homework there while the parents are preparing a meal or whatnot. We made it a space that's enlivened by natural light."

gold+coast_4_063988_003.jpg

gold+coast_7_063988_019.jpg

Gold Coast Residence by Sharlene Young

Archslate: As young architects, after we finish graduating from school, we all want to go out there and work at large firms. What was your journey like after you graduated? What firms did you come across and what kind of work did you do there?

Sharlene Young: It was a long, winding journey. I had joined a traditional architecture firm during a time when it became increasingly obvious to me that I was getting projects that were renovations or additions. I felt resentful at the time because I was craving ground-up new construction. The catch is that I was able to do both. In fact, after struggling with the fact that I did not want to do interiors or additions, I realized it was one of my strengths. I then worked at many large consulting firms which gave me a wholly different view of architecture.

When we are working on multiple floors for organizations, we look at the community at large by thinking about how people interact with each other and how they build connections. It has been an interesting path. At first, I only wanted to build buildings, but I realized that my strength was working closely with the people that have spaces you come in contact with. That is an area I want to be making a difference in.

Archslate: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of working at large firms?

Sharlene Young: The advantage is that there are many different roles you can grow into. In architecture school, we are focused on design and how we create our concepts. In the real world, you could be the designer who shines with conceptual thinking. Another option is to be the person that helps to make it happen. Working on large projects are long and complex processes that take years to complete.

You need to manage the clients’ expectations while ensuring that your ideas are consistently inculcated. Teamwork is extremely important because if you are dreaming of a project that's a floating cantilever volume, you have to work very closely with the structural engineer. These are skills that you may not have right out of architecture school but you can develop.

"At first, I only wanted to build buildings, but I realized that my strength was working closely with the people that have spaces you come in contact with. That is an area I want to be making a difference in."

studio v by symbiotic living.jpg

Studio V by Symbiotics Living

On the other hand, if you are the type of person who wants to run a tight ship and maintain control of a project throughout every stage, a large firm is not the place to be primarily because every person has a part to play in one. I was very fortunate to have had my experience working in a small firm. It is a place where people get to wear different hats, and you are the one that’s working directly with your consultants and clients. Since you were the one coming up with the ideas, you got to steer the whole process.

A disadvantage to a small firm is that you might enjoy certain parts of the process more than the others but you still have to do everything. Part of it is recognizing what your strengths are and making sure that you have the resources to help you get through areas where you lack skill.

Archslate: As a small firm, you do a lot of residential projects. What are some of the bigger aspirations for somebody to keep moving?

Sharlene Young: I have recently begun to design furniture, which is a natural extension of working on interior design for residences. It is an integral part of the process of finding particular elements with which we create an environment.

Archslate: What were some of the things that you had to adapt to or pivot during the pandemic? How has that influenced your work culture or your company in general today?

Sharlene Young: Our primary pivot was to facilitate the large number of people having to work remotely due to the pandemic. I was fortunate in that I had already started to work remotely since I split time between London and Chicago. So for me, the transition was pretty smooth.

"A disadvantage to a small firm is that you might enjoy certain parts of the process more than the others but you still have to do everything. Part of it is recognizing what your strengths are and making sure that you have the resources to help you get through areas where you lack skill."

residence for two collectors by symbiotic living.jpg

residence for two collectrs by symbiotic living.png

Residence for Two Collectors by Sharlene Young

Archslate: Do you think women in the architecture industry today have to go out and prove themselves a little bit more than the male architects?

Sharlene Young: I think that's a great question. There is certainly an image of an archetype in books about architects. We see images of an architect who might look like another Frank Lloyd Wright. We have all read these books and seen the stories. It took me a long time to realize that the most important thing for us women is that there is no mould that we have to fit in, for we have our own unique voices and perspectives. That is why I believe that my firm is a unique experience that I offer.

We are allowed to have empathy with our clients because frankly, they are people like us so they relate to our experiences as well. The reciprocation of empathy is what we bring to the table. I hope that young architects, women, and people with diverse backgrounds embrace their unique voices. Today we are in a world where we can have more transparent conversations in the industry, as opposed to what conversations we would have ten or fifteen years ago. There are also so many safe spaces in terms of podcasts, where people everywhere are raising so many issues.

Archslate: If there was one thing that you would like to change in the architecture industry, what would it be? Are there issues or obstacles that exist which need more attention?

Sharlene Young: Going back to your previous question, I think the realization that our well-being is embedded in the way we experience our spaces or how we function in our workplaces is paramount. The way we move through it is an important experience that impacts how we feel. I think people are realizing that more because we are spending so much time inside that changes we can make in our surroundings become more apparent to us. Articles that we come in contact with every day and the things that affect how we live and work have an impact on our overall well-being.

"The reciprocation of empathy is what we bring to the table. I hope that young architects, women, and people with diverse backgrounds embrace their unique voices. Today we are in a world where we can have more transparent conversations in the industry, as opposed to what conversations we would have ten or fifteen years ago."

Archslate: Do you think smaller firms find it more difficult to get the visibility they deserve? What can smaller firms do to bring in more visibility?

Sharlene Young: We are very fortunate to live in a world where we have tools such as social media that allow us to reach a wide pool of an audience that we may not have been able to before and keep them captivated. It is extremely important to understand how to use those tools. A decade ago, small firms would have had to do competitions that are not easy due to the large investment in time. It is not that you shouldn’t do it because they are one way to have new ideas, push boundaries and take risks. However, we are lucky we are in a world where we have other, more effective tools.

Archslate: Tell us a little bit about what the team looks like. Is it just you? How do you operate on a day-to-day basis?

Sharlene Young: Right now, it is just the two of us in the team. We are small but we have collaborators we work with. Depending on the project, we have different people who collaborate with us which lets us adapt to bigger projects. For small firms, it is much better to outsource the work or get more freelancers, rather than having them as a part of your team.

Although, it initially makes sense to outsource to freelancers, realistically, it is very hard to plan as a small firm, taking into consideration your workload any time from now. Smaller firms tend to have projects that may not have a longer timeframe. But all things considered, it is very smart to have freelancers. It is also a great way to test out the relationship because you might find that you work well with somebody while with somebody else, not so much.

2015+11+30+-+chatham+-+perspectives+page+001+-+slate+filtered.jpg

Mather Cafés 2.0 Drawings courtesy Symbiotic Living

mather+_chatham_1_064032_006.jpg

Mather Cafés 2.0 by Symbiotic Living

Archslate: Is Symbiotic Living open to new architects right now? Or are you looking for freelancers?

Sharlene Young: I am thinking about freelancers a little bit later in the year but that is yet to be determined so I am hopeful.

Archslate: Is there anything that you wanted to share about your studio that I may have left out?

Sharlene Young: I think the main idea to take away from our interview, for you as a young archetype or for young architects, is that you have to understand what your strength is. Embrace your unique perspective and let it enrich you. We do not realize these things when we are young but we appreciate them later on.