The Power of Community to Learn, Grow and Create Change as an Emerging Architect with Sarah Lebner

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

In episode 18 of Think Big Podcast, I chat to Sarah Lebner about the power of community to learn, grow and create change as an emerging architect. Sarah Lebner is the Principal Architect at multidisciplinary firm Light House Architecture and Science in Canberra. She is the author of 101 Things I Didn't Learn in Architecture School and wish I'd known before my first job and the founder of Last year, Sarah was awarded the National Emerging Architect Prize by the Australian Institute of Architects.

In the episode we discuss:

✨The Emerging Architects Prize

✨The book 101 Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School and her membership program The Architecture Project ✨Challenges that international architects face in Australia

✨Tips for international architects who speak English as a second language and why diversity in Architecture is important Sarah's details

✨Follow Sarah on Instagram 🌐


Tara's details ✨ Follow me on Instagram:

✨ Connect with me on LinkedIn Tara Cull


Want more examples of practical language for architects? Check out our planner below.


A list of all the resources we discussed in the episode.



📚 Surrounded by Idiots - The Four Types of Human Behaviour

Video - Sarah's Vision


stay in touch - keep in contact

churning over - keep work going in the background

getting up and running - starting something

think outside the box - think differently

billy on a campfire - boil water in a billy can (a tin can)

to put your hat in the ring - to try something that you've never done before

let your guard down - to be more vulnerable / stop being careful

mullion - vertical element that forms a division between units of a window or screen, or is used decoratively

litigious - concerned with lawsuits or litigation.


Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:00

You're listening to think big episode 18

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:13

Hello, big thinkers and welcome to episode 18 of Think Big English for architects. I'm your host, Tara Cull, language teacher, and landscape architect. And I'm bringing all these things together to help you with your language learning. If you want to know more about my coaching programmes, you can go to archy To find out more. And as always, you'll find the transcript with key vocabulary and expressions at

Are you a new graduate, an international architect or an architectural designer? And you feel like there's just so much to learn? Do you feel like you'll never understand everything and you feel silly asking questions to other people. This is exactly what Sarah Lebner felt when she first started working as an architecture graduate. Feeling like that gap between university and professional life was very big. Sarah set out to do something about it, and she wrote the book 101 things I didn't learn in architecture school, and I wish I'd known before my first job. I have the book handy on my bookshelf at all times, especially when I want to check vocabulary, or share important information with my clients and students about the profession in Australia. Many of my clients have the book and they use it as a quick handy guide. Today, I'm delighted to share a conversation I had with Sarah Lebanon about the power of community to learn, grow, and create change as an emerging architect. You'll get a lot out of this episode if you're living in Australia and working towards architecture registration. Even if you're outside of Australia, you'll enjoy listening to Sarah share her experience and knowledge about feeling out of your depth as an emerging architect or a young professional. And she also shares what things you can do to grow as a professional in the early stages of your career, or your international experience. You'll enjoy learning a few Australian expressions throughout the discussion.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 02:27

I have a lot of admiration for the work that Sarah does. So if you don't already follow her or know who she is, check out her Instagram her website. And of course, you can ask myself or you can ask Sarah about her membership programme, if you're interested in joining a little spoiler for you to is that well, Sarah's membership community has inspired me to finally get around to doing something the same or something similar. So keep an eye out for that. I will talk about that in future podcast episodes, also on Instagram on LinkedIn, and sending out emails. So let's find out more about Sarah and the incredible work that she's doing. Sarah Lebanon is the principal architect at multidisciplinary firm Lighthouse architecture and science in Canberra. She's the author of 101 things I didn't learn in architecture school. And I wish I'd known before my first job, and the founder of my first architecture Last year, Sarah was awarded the National emerging architect prize by the Australian Institute of Architects. As part of that prize, Sarah narrated a short film BE THE CHANGE. I'll put a link to it in the show notes, and you really need to watch it. She describes her family roots and how this has influenced her philosophy. Sarah tries to be the change that she wants to see in the world. She says let's not sit back as architects and point fingers. Let's take some responsibility. Let's engage in a genuine way. Let's be the change we want to see. So in today's interview, I want to know more about all those things that Sarah is doing to be the change. And I'm sure she's going to inspire you today. So welcome, Sarah. Thank you for coming and joining me today.

Sarah Lebner 04:15

Thanks so much for having me. Always fun to chat, Tara.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 04:18

I must say I must say watching the video of you and talking about the change that you want to be really made me think, gosh, she has the balance right? I don't know how you do it. How do you do it?

Sarah Lebner 04:32

Well, I mean, one of the little secrets that most people don't realise is that while I am the principal architect at Lighthouse architecture and science, it's not my business, which is very unique. I don't know of any other architecture firms where the owner and director isn't an architect. So at Lighthouse, it's owned and directed by Jenny Edwards, who is a building scientist and the that really allows me to step away while I'm on maternity leave, and even to work part time when the kids are a little bit older. And that's, that's super critical. I mean, Jenny, Jenny runs all the leads and the business side of things, I do, obviously have responsibility to stay in touch and make sure the design team keeps churning over that that's a much more manageable task. Obviously, with COVID, and all the remote things getting up and running has also helped me to stay involved with the team and help out when I need to, but also still being at home. So anyone who watches the video, obviously will know that I currently have a three year old, and a six month old, so I'm very much in the maternity leave zone. And then running my first architecture job and writing the book, sort of the same, everyone just sees the book. But what they don't know is I wrote 90% of it before I had baby number one, and then it took me about 18 months to finish it.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 06:09

Yeah, it takes longer than you think to doesn't it.

Sarah Lebner 06:12

That's right. And that has really allowed me running my first architecture job. And the membership, which we'll talk about later, has allowed me to really have an extra day at home. With the kids and different forms of business, you can run in really creative ways. So I guess that's probably one of the main things. I do think outside the box in terms of how I run things, setting up systems, even though my first architecture job and all of that takes me less than a day of work, I still outsource to one of our members, who is paid to help me out. And a lot of that probably comes from our school of thoughts like Tim Ferriss Four Hour Workweek. And other than that anyone who's heard me before will know that I'm just a bit of a addict when it comes to entrepreneurship, inefficiency, and running those kinds of things. Anyone who has red surrounded by idiots can relate to knowing that I'm a classic red, yellow, which means that I prioritise getting things done over getting them done really well. It's a mix of personality, and learning and practising skills and efficiency. And anyone who wants to Up skill, their efficiency just needs to have a kid because you're just forced to start making decisions like a ninja.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 07:38

Absolutely, yeah, I can see that. And it must be a relief to to be able to work for a place where you work where you can manage and balance all those things. So it's really great to see. And I think you're a great role model for a lot of architects. So before we begin with that interview, something that I always like to do is to talk about the fact outside of architecture, because we're not just architects. So could you share an interesting fact about you that has nothing to do with architecture?

Sarah Lebner 08:10

Yes, so anyone who watches that little video will see that I'm from a fairly rural area in Australia, I grew up around horses and riding even though I wasn't that interested in as a kid, it was sort of just a compulsory family activity. And my fun fact is that in the early 2000s, I was part of a international documentary series about horse people around the world. So I was in the Australian episode, and that was because our town hosts the man from Snowy River festival. And this festival is all about sort of traditional Bush skills. So there's a horse competition that has things like traditional pack, horse and whip cracking and bareback and cattle mastering. So all these things that you might not necessarily do as a contemporary, rural person, but keeping those skills alive. And the funny thing about being involved in the documentary was that it was really my first insight into how the media might skew the truth. Because just remember this scene, we had created a traditional campfire down the river to show them you know, having a billy on a campfire. Some of your listeners might know that term. But something was lost in communication. And in the documentary, it just shows me and my friend riding up and our mum sitting around the campfire and it says the voiceover says Australian stock people work long, hard days, so the girls like to spend lunch with their mothers

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 09:54

smoke, it's all smoke and mirrors, isn't it? Yeah, yeah, it is. Yeah, totally. I It's interesting when you were saying that too, I was thinking, when I first graduated, I was on Better Homes and Gardens. And I had the exact same experience. So I was standing next to Graham Ross, and he was speaking like a normal person, all of a sudden, the camera starts rolling. And he's turned into this actor and you thinking, What is he talking about? You really do get a sense of this kind of it's very different world, isn't it? We presented a different world.

Sarah Lebner 10:31


Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 10:31

It? Is it in? Is it in film? At the moment? Can we find this documentary?

Sarah Lebner 10:38

I don't know, I have an old VHS converted copy, I don't think you can find it anywhere. I don't think anyone wants to find it. It was called the horse people, I'd love to see. I hope no one can find it.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 10:56

Okay, we'll keep that one quiet, then we'll leave that one out. Alright, so what I'm interested in going into is because we talked about how you won the emerging Architecture Prize this year. So I would like to know what winning that prize has allowed you to be able to do.

Sarah Lebner 11:16

Above all, it has just been mind blowingly validating. And that's a really big thing. I mean, there's been obvious advantages in the connections. So for example, being able to reach out to other people to come on as guests in my membership programme has become a lot easier, because they might know me, or I can say, I won this award. And I'm all of a sudden, not some random contacting them. But the it just made a really big difference to my own mindset. Because I think all of us wonder if what we're doing is right, and we all face imposter syndrome. We all we can all get a bit defensive about what we're doing as well, mainly because we're trying to run that internal dialogue to tell ourselves that we're doing the right thing. And I'll add in here, I do like to share with other emerging architects that I applied for the local version of the emerging architect prize a couple of years and didn't get the local version. So it's a pretty hard thing to keep putting your hat in the ring. But that that was a big lesson, you do have to keep turning up, keep backing yourself, because no one else is going to do that for you. But then to have that validation at a national level was just this big sigh of relief in Wow, what I'm doing is valued by other people. It is taken seriously. Any doubts about that I had about how I was going about things, either in, in practice in that affordability, sustainability space, or with my side project with the book and membership, all hugely validated. And the interesting thing that that enabled, which surprised me as well was it allowed me to be a bit more critical about what I was doing. Because that internal defensive voice as architects were all trained to be quite defensive at university. But all of a sudden, that defensive voice didn't matter, because everyone else was saying that what I was doing was was good. So I could let down my guard a little bit and take on any criticism, whether that be from other people or from from my own internal voice, to take that on, and take advantage of any value that was coming out of that criticism. So I mean, I think that's been really interesting to reflect on. And I'm not sure how you can recreate that in your own life other than to try and break down, really, truly break down those imposter syndrome voices in your own head.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 14:03

Yeah, I really appreciate what you're saying about that. Resilience, almost. So even though you were knocked back a couple of times, and then you came back and you had another go. And eventually you prevailed. And the other thing that I was thinking to something that I've learned recently, through doing some coaching programmes myself is that I think we have to tell ourselves that no matter where we show up, we are enough how we are at that moment in time, because we all are learning. And yes, you can only do the best you can do at that point. So obviously, through doing that you are learning more and you're always going to continue to learn as you do as an architect, right. You're always learning.

Sarah Lebner 14:45

Absolutely. We're all learning. We're all human. I think sometimes we all feel like we're just that internal voice to keep showing up for yourself. It doesn't have to just come from yourself. I think you can be quite purposeful in calling on people around due and surrounding yourself with people who can help you hear what you need to say, because I had a meeting with a friend and I said, I don't think I can enter again anymore, you know, it's really demoralising around a few years. And maybe what I'm doing just isn't really appreciated. And he just said to me very firmly, you are entering next year. So I made sure that I had put my submission in. So yeah, you can hack the system a little bit by finding people that can be that voice for you when you can't be it for yourself.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 15:34

Absolutely. I think that's so important. And getting getting feedback as well from other people, I think people are afraid of that, because they're afraid of rejection or afraid of it being bad. But actually, I think feedback in a way is, is probably the best thing, even if it is a bit negative. Mostly, we can get some good things from it. So I'm glad that you listened to him. And you did it because you want. So it's been a year since you started the architect project. And you've also got your books, your book 101 things that I didn't learn in architecture school. And I guess what I'm interested to know is why did you start the book? And what are the things that you have learned? Since you've started the book? You've had people reading it coming back to you?

Sarah Lebner 16:26

Yeah, it's, it's been these early years of an architect's career, there's always just been a niggling inside of me that something was lacking, and that there was sort of some help that was needed in a way. And, you know, I guess a few elements of my personality combined there, I naturally really enjoyed teaching and coaching. So I was doing a lot of work at the university. But also entrepreneurship as well, big interest of mine. And I was really interested in creating something some other platform that I could combine my interests with a cause. And I already knew that, that there was a I was I was already validated by the teaching work I was doing at the university, which is pretty thankless unflexible work. Yeah. And I chatted to some friends one day. And I said, you know, it's such a hard learning curve when you come out of university. And I'm thinking about writing this book. 101 things I didn't learn in architecture school, obviously, a play on the very successful book 101 things I learned in architecture school. And whenever I brought up that topic, people could instantly reel off so many things, and everyone has a story about that first day or week or year in practice, how they'd been successful at university. But then you come into practice, and it's like, you're back in year seven in high school, you know, you just feel completely useless. And my story that's in the book is that I was asked to update a drawing and move a window. And I said, Yeah, I can move a window. How easy is that? What do I do? And my supervisor said, we'll move the million here and the glazing here, and I was like, Oh, great, what's a million? And then it's, it's sort of this line type, well, what's the line type, you know, and just keep spiralling on. And my book isn't actually necessarily a criticism of university, I think the structure and the way that we progress towards being registered architects does make a lot of sense. You do a lot of that hire big picture, critical thinking at university and the environment that's right for that. And then you do almost an apprentice style model where you're learning the technical information and the practice information in practice, specific to the area that you're working in the climate you're working in, and the location that you're working in, because there is a lot, there's no way you could pack all that into university. But the problem, then the nat of the problem is that you're doing that learning in a practice that does things a certain way, they've probably been doing it that way for quite a while. They have an efficiency, where they're probably just falling back on the same details, and you never get the big picture. I remember being really frustrated. I knew how our practice did a specific thing. But I didn't know how the rest of the industry did it. And how was I meant to become skilled in affordable housing if I didn't have a really good grasp on what the rest of the industry was doing. And similarly, when you're in a consultant meeting, listening to your supervisor, talk to a consultant, even just catching up on the language that they're using, but also the decisions that have already been made by Based on experience about, say which structural system will be used, you're never getting that sort of sit down chat with the engineer that says, well, here are all the options in your region in Australia. And this is why we might use something or other. So what the book really aims to do is to sit down and give an overview of everything about practising as an architect in Australia, and really an introduction and a one on one on on where to start with all of those things.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 20:31

Yeah. And did you know when you wrote the book that you would then have the architect project as a follow on from that, because it seems like a good follow on because you're talking about the practical things that we're not others doing in the industry?

Sarah Lebner 20:45

Yeah, I always had the seed of an idea if the book was going to be successful, I guess it's such a confronting thing to even put a book out there to start with. So that took a lot of getting used to, and also having the social media platform and building an online social media community, I guess can start off as pretty intimidating. I remember when I recorded my first video on Instagram was terrifying, or is now I don't even think twice about doing it. And the membership really is the next step in that. So I like to say it's it's part online community, it's a bit like a course. And it's also a bit like mentoring. So on my website, I was offering mentoring, I was offering resume and portfolio reviews, but it was really time inefficient for me. And that meant it was really expensive for students and graduates. So and that's just really one element of a really affordable membership. So I guess from the book, I sort of broke down 25 topics that we could cover throughout the year, in different quarters. So there's there's you construction practice, and then collaboration. And every fortnight The main feature is that we get a guest in that relates to that theme. And we do a live session with members. So they're really progressing that learning, they've got the chance to ask your questions, they're in a safe space. They're networking with each other. And I know you and I have discussed the power of not just networking up but networking with people in a similar space to you can be really valuable because you you feel that it's a network you can call on without it being sort of one sided. I think that's often a a hidden value a lot come in for the guest sessions. But then they say they're really staying for the powerful community because you're in there with 100 of the most ambitious students and graduates of architecture around Australia. And that's, that's pretty exciting.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 22:45

Yeah. And that's a powerful thing for them as well, isn't it? I know that that that's kind of inspired me a little bit as well. I've been thinking about the idea of having a membership community as well, because people benefit from each other. And I think that's and making it affordable and being able to share ideas with eac