How three architecture grads built their friendship into a business

30 July 2018

Casey Hyun

Directors of GSBN Studio: Alessandro Belgiorno-Nettis, Robert Scarfone, Henry Goodwin. Photo credit Kevin Cheung. 

  • Henry Goodwin (Bachelor of Design in Architecture, 2013; Master of Architecture, 2016).
  • Robert Scarfone (Bachelor of Design in Architecture, 2013; Master of Architecture, 2015).
  • Alessandro Belgiorno-Nettis (Bachelor of Design in Architecture, 2013; Master of Architecture, 2015).

When Henry Goodwin, Robert Scarfone and Alessandro Belgiorno-Nettis met as architecture undergraduates at UTS in 2011, they became instant friends. Theirs was a bond forged over coffee and group assignments, an obsessive passion for naval and automotive architecture, and a desire to put their own stamp on Sydney’s built environment.

Over many hours spent working in the architecture studios on campus, they bounced ideas around – refining concepts, understanding design theory, and developing their own style of architecture. It would prove to be an excellent training ground for the future business partners, laying the groundwork for the establishment of their eponymous firm eight years later.

After graduating with a Masters of Architecture, they independently pursued essential early-career professional experience. They quickly realised however that their friendship, proven ability to collaborate, synthesis of their individual skills and shared creative vision were the perfect foundation for their own practice: GSBN (Goodwin, Scarfone, Belgiorno-Nettis) Studio.

By day they worked at Cracknell & Lonergan Architects, Borg Architects and Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, gaining valuable on-the-job experience. Then, by night, they would moonlight on GSBN Studio projects. On juggling the dual workload they say, “You’d be surprised how much functional time there is between 6pm and 9am.”

All three kept this up for several years until eventually, in March 2018, with the support of Henry’s father Richard Goodwin who generously loaned them a corner of his studio, they felt ready to make the jump and commit to working full-time at GSBN Studio.

It is their shared interest in “the automotive and naval architectural spheres” that is at the core of the business. This fascination with boats, motorbikes and cars – how they are designed, constructed and deconstructed, modified and reimagined for the future – informs their approach to architecture.

In fact the three of them have derived their design agenda from it, anchored by four key concepts: mechanics, movement, metamorphosis and operability.

“We want to create an architecture that cooperates with the user yet challenges the traditions of the built environment.”

In practical terms, this manifests in the creation of “transformable-places” – their solution to Sydney’s population and development explosion that has resulted in a “confusion of varying buildings and spaces, each aimed at a particular slice of the demographic, in effect dissecting society”.

GSBN Studio want to construct spaces that evolve and suit multiple purposes, rather than being demolished and rebuilt as needs change. “We want to create an architecture that cooperates with the user, yet challenges the traditions of the built environment.”

For one of their current projects, a café in Narrabeen, GSBN Studio has ingeniously configured a mechanical-seating arrangement that folds into the wall for weekday service when floor space is at a premium for customers waiting for takeaway coffee, and unfolds for the more leisurely weekend brunch culture.

“We aim to be versatile and non-conforming in our practice, with research, development and application of new technologies at the core of our vision.”

When it comes to collaborating on projects, they have an uncomplicated approach. Whoever of the three made the initial contact with a client will typically take the lead, but eventually each of their strengths will come into play at some stage in the design and build process. Both Henry and Alessandro have worked as labourers, giving them an insight into the complex construction practices that enable their designs to become a reality. And Robert spent six years working for a sole practitioner, which exposed him to all aspects of running an architectural practice from concept design through to construction documentation, project management and contract administration – experience that has been invaluable to the trio as they tackle running their own business.

As students at UTS they relished becoming part of a vibrant architecture community and exploring ways to integrate and experiment with other disciplines, such as photography and digital media. They were also exposed to design thinking from around the world both by studying under American, French and Spanish architects and working alongside foreign exchange and international students every semester. As a result they have “connections in all parts of the world!”

Two key lessons have proven to be integral to their practice: “Firstly, the success of your design is dependent on your ability to present the concept in a clear and engaging way. Secondly, imagery plays an incredibly important role in conveying an idea. A strong series of images, renders or diagrams is crucial to engage your viewers.”

To budding architects who may be considering setting up their own business they have a few words of advice. Find yourself a mentor, don’t underestimate the costs of running a business, learn from your mistakes, celebrate your achievements and whatever you do, “Don’t start a practice without having a portfolio of work and existing clients”. Working for others will not only shape you as an architect and make the transition more reassuring but, as Henry, Robert and Alessandro discovered, you might be surprised to find those employers will assist you later with projects and industry contacts.

Now that GSBN Studio is up and running, the ambition for the next few years is to expand their creative vision and explore multiple avenues for design, such as furniture and interior design, public works and master-planning, and civil projects like bridges and roads.

But first on the agenda is a restaurant on York Street in the CBD, and a new residential building in Bondi.

And in the meantime, you can follow their progress on Instagram @GSBN_Studio.

Byline: Clio Anne Ellis