Photo by Dagmar Lap
1. Where did the original idea come from for your business?
While studying architecture in the Netherlands I became very interested in the environmental implications of building, energy efficiency and using different and natural materials. I was always rather annoyed that “green” buildings always seemed to have a certain horrible eco-aesthetic, so I set out to couple sustainability with elegance and beauty.
After working for two years for a big Spanish architecture firm, I decided the time was ripe to set up my own firm and offer beautiful, responsible architecture to Spanish and foreign clients.
2. How long did it take to get your business off the ground?
Well, just after I started the crisis started, so the first four years were incredibly tough. But we gained a lot of publicity with emblematic projects such as our woman-friendly mosque for Dubai (sustainability is not just about the natural environment, also about the people), and were lucky to get enough great work to keep going.
3. What did you wish you’d known when you started?
I am actually glad I did not know all the hurdles I would encounter, or I might not have started. I did not know it would take about five years to really get to a point where there a very regular stream of projects coming our way. But we kept going and now we’re held in high regards both by the public and the architectural press.
4. How easy was it to get financing for your business?
Fortunately I had access to some angel investor’s money or I would never have made it through the first two years. And being an architect basically means you accept you will never earn a big salary, however, I have the best job in the world, so I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
5. Did you find the paperwork difficult?
Yes, the paperwork was HELL. They were supposed to have told me my Dutch qualifications as an architect were directly acceptable within the EU and I had a right to practice as long as I registered with the Catalan Board of Architects. Instead they advised me to get my qualifications “homologado” which cost me one year of time and endless queueing and all for nothing, as it is not necessary. I would advise anyone to get a “gestor” or lawyer straight away, it will save you time and money in the end.
6. What is your business background?
I studied European Studies at the university of Amsterdam, worked for six years as manager of an international organisation in the publishing industry and then changed career and studied architecture at the Technical University of Delft. I never regretted my two-step route and have always been glad of the “detour” it meant, as my experience from the international business world was what made it possible for me to set up my own firm abroad.
7. What are the positive aspects about having a business here?
As a foreigner you have a different perspective. Make that perspective into something that sets you apart from the rest of the market (a Unique Selling Point) while making sure that you thoroughly understand the rest of the market. I am one of those super integrated “guiris” with more Catalan than foreign friends, who speaks both Spanish and Catalan fluently. I think that’s one of my secret weapons. So I have warm relationships with suppliers and builders and enjoy my work here more than I ever did in the Netherlands.
8. And the negative aspects?
The inefficiency sometimes gets to me. So much time is lost in a working day. And you need enchufes (contacts). Everything here works though personal contact, so without building those, you won’t really get there. That takes a lot of time and effort.
9. Are there any useful contacts, tips or information you think would be useful to foreign entrepreneurs in Barcelona?
The main tip I would give anyone considering setting up a business in Barcelona is LEARN THE LANGUAGES, BOTH OF THEM. It is something almost everyone seems to underestimate and it is the single most important thing. Take the time and make the effort, it will help you every step of the way.
Read more about Zest Architecture here