Encouraging Young Minds to Think Big

A Conversation with Petit Architect's Maïa Tarassoff

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About Maïa

Maïa Tarassoff is an architect and interior designer from Paris, France, now living in Canada. She holds a Master of Architecture degree from École d'Architecture de Paris La Villette and a Bachelor of Interior Architecture Degree from l’École Boulle.

 

In 2013, Maïa moved to Vancouver with her husband and two children in search of a new adventure and a 'greener' life. Her passion for sustainable design and energy-efficient housing led her to obtain her Passive House Designer Certification in 2015.

 

She has been a strong promoter of teaching sustainable practices to all (young and old) ever since.

Photo Credit @ Christine Pienaar Photography

'Educate. Engage. Inspire.' This was the motivation at the centre of Maïa's ethos when she created Petit Architect in 2017, an educational platform aimed at sparking children's interest in design and deepen their understanding of a sustainable built environment.

 

What’s unique about Maïa's work is that the impact of her work does not stop here. Her mission is to encourage young minds ask all the big questions, get involved, and stay critical of the world surrounding them. To become active members of the community, but with a 'passive' touch. In her view, instilling a love for nature and helping children understand the impact of their own actions early on is essential to make it an integral part of their thinking, decision-making process, and overall attitude to life.

What we loved most about our conversation was Maïa's candour and spontaneity as we discussed the relatable challenges of fluid new environments. Of motherhood, with its immense rewards, of relocating and adapting to the professional and cultural setting of a new country, of facing the unknowns of setting up a business all on your own. Going with the flow, yet somehow, among all this, keeping a clear focus on what really matters in the greater scheme of things.

Background & Mission

Let's start at the very beginning: tell me about how you grew up and how your interests in architecture first developed.  

I was born in Nice, but I grew up mainly in Paris. My dad owned an art gallery, and he was also very passionate about philosophy. In a way, this set the tone for the atmosphere and environment I grew up in. Since the French public education system didn't really suit me, I enrolled in an alternative school where the classes were smaller in size and focused on each child's individual development. During my time there, I met an art teacher that I absolutely loved; that was essentially the moment my passion for art and everything related to it truly started taking shape.

Later, I applied to attend École Boulle in Paris, where I began exploring the possibility of going into theatre set design. I loved the idea of creating temporary installations and the level of artistic creativity being a scenographer implies. The competition was tough, and things didn't work out as planned, so I decided to enrol in architecture school. At the time, I told myself, "If I can do architecture, then I can do anything in that field".

You graduated Ecole d'Architecture de Paris La Villette and are a registered architect in France. Now you live and work in Vancouver, Canada. What has practising architecture in both places taught you?

Making the transition from the metric to the imperial measurement system was not easy, for sure! (laughs). Also, generally speaking, the construction system here in Canada is very different to the European one.

All in all, I practised architecture in France for about seven years. During this time, I was in charge of a large social housing project that wasn't really in tune with my experience level. It was a huge learning curve, especially since the project also pioneered Paris's first explorations into the possibilities of eco-friendly design. Overall, I would say it was a great moment, professionally speaking, but equally daunting. A lot of blood, sweat and tears...(laughs).

After I had my first child, my husband and I decided to move to Vancouver. Once I arrived here, I had my heart set on practising as an interior designer since I was interested in experiencing a more creative and fast-paced side of the industry. I always felt the creative freedom and general approach to the design process that I’d gain from my schooling in France put me at an advantage. I also experienced the work culture as very different. In France, the workdays might have been longer in terms of the time we were putting in, but that didn’t detract from the fun. Here in Canada, there is a clear balance between work and private time, which also implies less time spent interacting and socializing with your peers.

I found projects to be more "concept focus" in France, where most (large) projects start with a competition. In Canada, I would say the architecture field is more business oriented.

As an architect, I was always passionate about making buildings less impactful on the environment. I try to strive towards a 'zero-waste' home in the context of my own family but also when working with clients.

What would you say your core mission is regarding the kind of impact you would like you and your work to have in the world?

As an architect, I was always passionate about making buildings less impactful on the environment. This is and has always been a huge drive for me. I try to strive towards a 'zero-waste' home in the context of my own family but also when working with clients. In Vancouver, not very many clients were into low energy housing 8 years ago, now it’s growing.

From my experience, this seems to be an issue particularly here, across the ocean, where there is less focus on waste and more towards consumption. Perhaps this is also related to the fact that energy here is cheap, meaning that people tend to lose sight of the bigger picture, especially in terms of controlling their heat consumption. When I moved here, I thought Vancouver was on its way to become the greenest city in the world; however, the poor quality of the building fabric – mostly 70s or 80s architecture -, is proving an obstacle to this, and that was a big shock.

What does your work life look like now?

When I started Petit Architect four years ago, I got a job at a well-known firm here in Vancouver, and after four months, I got laid off since there wasn't really a 'click' on either side. I was a mother of two, everybody else was much younger, and they could put in all the overtime. I quickly understood it was simply an environment that didn't suit me; it was too stressful. When I got laid off, I finally had some time to reflect, and that's when I realized I couldn't work as a full-time employee anymore. I also knew I didn't want to open an architecture or design firm, so something had to change.

That's when I started thinking about starting Petit Architect. I knew I loved education and everything surrounding it, but I never thought I would be a teacher, to be honest. While figuring it all out, I began working part-time as part of a design studio housing all amazing and talented women. I absolutely loved working in a female-led, young firm that was like-minded and focused on supporting each other. As time went by and especially with the learnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, I realized I had to gradually transition away from freelance design work, especially since Petit Architect is starting to take more and more of my time. It's all very exciting, but I still have two little kids, and being there for them was and will always be my priority.

Sustainability is a key part of your design strategy and teaching approach. Could you tell me more about what drove you to achieve your Passive House Designer Certification?

I was first introduced to Passive House back in Europe, and since then, it was always in the back of my mind. While on maternity leave with my second child, I thought: 'Hey, this would be a great time to look into this!' (laughs). I started attending the classes three times a week, and I have to say I met some amazing people. I'm not as technical as my friends in this industry, but I was determined to take on the challenge. Getting certified was absolutely a challenge, and while I thought I would be practising and building Passive Houses, instead I have the exciting opportunity to actively bring their ethos and benefits into lives in an alternative hands-on way.

You're definitely incorporating many of those principles right now with Petit Architect, and  passing on the information to a younger generation – that's powerful.

Architecture, Motherhood & Support

You have two children of your own. How has motherhood changed you and your own notion of success in architecture?

Motherhood changes you in every way you can think of; you become a completely different person. I have always wanted some balance in my life. While I am passionate about architecture, I always knew I didn't want to sacrifice everything for a job. This feeling only became stronger once I became a mother. I want to be there for my kids, and I don't want somebody else to raise them. Even if it's extremely challenging at times, I want them to have parents who are there for them, pick them up from school, and have dinner with them. I didn't want the life of many of my friends in Paris who finished work at 8 p.m., relied on a nanny and missed kissing their own kids’ goodnight. That's why, I guess you could say, I was never very career-oriented. I don't see my success as linked to my work, but more in terms of having a life that I can enjoy and that will allow me to see my kids growing up and happy. Every time I had to choose between time or money, I always chose time.

I definitely think that being an architect and a mother is extremely hard, and it's unfair how challenging it is for women. When people say that they do it all, I have my doubts. I wish the world were different, but the truth is that it's a hard job. One of the reasons I decided to take a step back from architecture was the lack of flexibility – employers don't really offer part-time jobs in our field. Working less than full-time was just never an option, and I think it's rare for these kind of schedule requests to be easily accommodated in our field. We don’t have family to help us raising our children, if we did, it might have been different.

Did your mission come into focus when you became a mother or have you always been interested in helping children discover their voice through design?

I ‘ve always been interested in education, especially alternative ways (Montessori, Steiner, Reggio etc…). I also love working with my hands, doing crafts with my kids and teaching them some of the techniques I knew. Throughout my education and professional life, I always loved model-making. Still, I have always been a somewhat messy model-maker, so working with kids seemed to be the perfect opportunity to put these skills to use (laughs). 

How were you able to integrate the demands of both your profession and motherhood into your day‐to‐day life?

I'm still trying to find my feet. In the beginning, I was dedicating one or two days a week to Petit Architect while working as a freelancer. Becoming self-employed was a big step for me. While it most definitely has its challenges, what I love most about operating this way is the flexibility it offers and the fact that I don't have to ask for anybody's permission to do anything. It's mostly me for now, and this is something I'm still working on.  However, as Petit Architect keeps growing in scope and size, I sometimes have to remind myself that I started it precisely to have more time and enjoy life. I have to admit it's not easy since running your own business means your mind is constantly wired to what you have to do next.

In my approach to life - and this also applies to Petit Architect - I never really have a fixed goal. At one point, I was discussing with my mentor the opportunities of growing it as a business. Then I began questioning myself - I don't know if I want to expand, especially if it involves sacrificing what I love most about my involvement in Petit Architect and personal life. So I try to be careful and keep this closely in my sightline. My goal this year is to have a better vision for Petit Architect. Covid has definitely not helped in that regard!

I have always wanted some balance in my life. While I am passionate about architecture, I always knew I didn't want to sacrifice everything for a job. This feeling only became stronger once I became a mother.

Have you learnt anything as a designer from experiencing the world through your children's eyes?

I love seeing kids 'at work', and their level of focus never ceases to amaze me, especially when a workshop stretches across the duration of an entire day. Watching them, I try to remind myself how important it is to carve out that time to simply create, and once in that space, stay there and keep exploring. Our work environments tend to be less and less about genuinely experiencing your creative zone (with distractions such as phone calls, emails, etc.), and I miss that for sure.

How important was mentorship throughout your personal and professional life, and how has it empowered you to achieve your goals?

Very important but I’ve discovered it quite late, as it’s not a common practice in France (it’s one of the great things I learnt in Vancouver). I am currently enrolled in a mentorship programme for women entrepreneurs where I was matched with someone in my industry. There are times her advice pushes me to take steps I possibly wouldn't have done. A lot of the positive growth that's happening for me is thanks to her.

I love Vancouver because I discovered a female community of designers and entrepreneurs, that’s been very supportive from the start. Now, I've learned how to leave shyness aside and simply approach people - ask them if they want to go out for a coffee, ask them to share their experiences and how they navigate their own challenges. I never had a mentor before moving here, but I feel it's the kind of support everybody should have.

It's funny you say that since this is exactly the kind of impact Pinch.Point has right now on my life. Every conversation empowers me in ways I never thought possible...

Petit Architect

Let's talk about your latest adventure: what was the driver behind starting Petit Architect?

I started Petit Architect on my own by teaching one class after school to see if I liked it. Soon after that things took off, and I began working on developing my own curriculum. At the time, I also taught a few Passive House workshops at the weekends, which was a great way to introduce this concept to families. In the beginning, I didn't have a clear business plan, so I ended up trying a lot of different things; some worked and others failed but in the long run, going through this process helped me find my way to what I really wanted Petit Architect to bring to others and myself.

It's been now four years since I started Petit Architect. I have to admit I don't know where Petit Architect will be in five years. This is a thought I am comfortable with. Overall, it's so exciting to be on this journey, and I learn something every day.

As parents and educators, how can we help children see and understand the social and environmental benefits a thoughtful approach to design can have in the world?

I always tell kids that design is everywhere and everything around them that does not come directly from the natural world was conceived and drawn by someone. That's a powerful message. It also means that we open the decision towards designing something that's better for the environment, for the people inhabiting it.

...and how can we make children aware of sustainable design practices early on in their lives? Could you give me a couple of practical examples that you have found particularly successful in your own home?

I wrote a blog post about this on Earth Day. What I really try to focus on during my climate change workshops is what consumes energy in your homes beyond lights, electricity and appliances. Children rarely think about the impact of heating and a/c, so I always try to help them understand that the bigger picture is much more complex in terms of genuinely making a difference energy-consumption wise. In terms of at-home practices, we focus on turning on or off the lights when entering or leaving a room, taking more showers as opposed to baths, etc.

However, at the centre of my approach lies focusing on anti-consumerist practices and the importance of re-use. We rarely buy things, and we are happy to go for second-hand items. For instance, we don't buy books but borrow them from the library, and in our family, it's absolutely ok to go to a second-hand store to get some new clothes. I also try to teach my kids that it's ok to receive a present that is not brand new. Instead, I encourage them to use their allowance money for an experience rather than for a new object: something to do versus something to have. I also try to emphasize the downsides of plastic and we avoid using disposable packaging. While I am aware some of these practices make me somewhat of a boring mum, I hope my children will understand the benefits in the long run. It's all about finding the right balance.

In the beginning, I ended up trying a lot of different things; some worked and others failed but in the long run, going through this process helped me eventually find my way.

In a world where 'play' is increasingly dominated by technology, how can we engage and keep children's interests alive for hands‐on making?

We are quite strict. We do own a TV, but without cable and during school time our children can only watch it on weekends. We also have two old iPads, but there is a minimal selection of apps they have access to. Our children spend a lot of time reading, and I genuinely think that's one of the direct benefits of having a clear no-screen policy. They both love being creative and exploring their surroundings - my son loves to do crafts with me. I'm also a great supporter of allowing children to get bored - I think they will eventually find their own way towards creativity.

Looking back at it all, what have been the biggest challenges in setting up your own company and what has been most rewarding since starting Petit Architect?

The biggest hurdle was to jump into it and step away from employment. Another challenge was having to take ownership of my choices and decisions, which can at times feel isolating or even daunting. This is why it's essential to have a base you go back to, a community of support when venturing into something new.

Without a doubt, the most rewarding is meeting the children, reading their wonderful reviews, hearing them say they had the best time during our workshops, and witnessing their growing love for the process of building and creating. Every time I teach a workshop in school about energy efficiency in buildings, I know I'm doing something good - I'm hopefully planting a seed in their mind which will help them see and understand things differently in the future.

About Petit Architect: this educational platform teaches after-school programs and workshops for all ages ranging from Kindergarten to Grade 12, online and in person. The website offers a wide range of downloadable classes and activities (in English and French), printables and even an online store, including a selection of architecture books and games.