Meet our That Mama, Britta Butler, architect, author and mum of two!
We were able to catch up with Britta Butler, founder and owner of Hong Kong architecture and interior design firm, B Squared Design Limited. Britta, who has a degree in anthropology from Harvard and a degree in architecture from MIT, not only runs her own design firm while raising her two children, but is also a children’s book author as she’s recently published her first holiday-themed book, Santa Claus is an Architect. Clearly, Britta is nothing short of impressive. We chat with this real-life Super Woman about what inspired her book, what she loves about her work as an architect and how she keeps it all together juggling work and family life here in busy Hong Kong.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I am a mother of 2 children, Didi age 10 and Gavin age 7. We have been in Hong Kong going on 9 years now. I was a “trailing spouse” as so many of us are who end up here!
What inspired you to go into a career in architecture and interior design?
Since I was about age 4, I always knew I wanted to be an architect. That was always my answer when someone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I still have all the sketch books from my childhood that I used to carry around, and I would design houses and skyscrapers, draw imaginary floor plans, and build models in my bedroom out of cardboard and paper.
Can you tell us about B Squared Design Limited?
B Squared Design Ltd. is a design office that I founded one year ago. Before I moved to HK, I was working at an amazing firm back in Boston called The Narrow Gate that specializes in affordable housing (which was my thesis topic as well). As we all know, affordable housing is hard to come by in Hong Kong, so I had to change my focus somewhat: I am still doing residential design, but here it is usually apartment renovations-not buildings from the ground up. I do still get to help people realize their visions, though, which is a blessing, and a lot of what I do is also for newcomers to Hong Kong, so I find myself being a guide to the city as well as a designer. It’s helping people feel at home – in a home they love.
You have recently written and illustrated a Christmas-themed children’s book, Santa Claus is an Architect, can you tell us about the book? What inspired you to write it?
Well when I moved here my daughter was not even 2, and once she grasped the concept of Santa Claus, the very next thing she did was start to worry about how he was going to be able to get into our apartment on the 22 floor. She would ask me over and over if he could figure it out, and I had to get creative with my answers because I couldn’t leave the window or front door unlocked, and she wasn’t buying my “oh he’s magic so he’ll manage” answer. I started to point out the various elements of the building we were living in that he could possibly use, like the fire escape or the air conditioning ducts- and the idea was born. If Santa Claus was an architect in his time off, he would know about all these things and be able to figure out a way in!
What do you love most about working as an architect?
I love that I am creating spaces that improve the quality of life for my clients. I love working with people and taking their ideas and thoughts and turning them into reality. I love giving people homes that they love to live in.
What about your job could you do without?
I could do without the accounting. So much of my time is spent reconciling invoices, keeping track of hours, and following up with suppliers. Plus, I really do not enjoy chasing after people if they owe me money. I find that very uncomfortable, even when I’m completely justified in doing so.
How do you balance working and being a mother?
It’s not easy, that’s for sure. My kids have had to adjust to my full-time job, and me not being there after school everyday when they get off the bus. Luckily, since B Squared is my own company I can do a fair amount work from my home office, so often times my children and I are working side by side in there, kids on homework and me drafting. But I think it is healthy for them to see that I am more than “just a mom” and that I do have a life and career outside of them, AND that it doesn’t mean that I love them any less.
Any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Hong Kong?
I say just go for it – whatever it is you want to do! Hong Kong is such an amazing place for women and mothers in this way. It is not difficult to set up a business, and the mama network and support is so strong. Talk to other moms who have done similar things to you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And don’t keep the fact that you’ve been out of the workforce for a while hold you back.
Now that you’re a published children’s book author, do you plan on writing more books?
I am thinking of doing a whole series of books around these classic characters. If Santa Claus is an architect, then what could the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy be? We’ll see…
Your favorite children’s book(s) to read to your children?
Some of my favorite children’s books are “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “Jumanji,” “The Big Orange Splot,” and “Eloise.” I love books that have a magical quality to them and get children to think and dream.
How do you save time? Any organisational tips and tricks?
I am a spreadsheet queen. I have them for work and home. Also, I have painted a chalkboard wall in our dining room where I put the kids’ schedules. It’s great because it doubles as a homework wall as well when we need to practice math problems or write Chinese characters.
What do you do when you need to have some “me time”.
This past summer I got into yoga for the first time. I had tried it before, but this is the first time it really stuck. I have just started doing it with an amazing instructor named Chaya on the Stanley Pier in the mornings after I bring the kids to the school bus, and before I start work. There is something really wonderful about being outside next to the water holding these poses. I cherish this time to myself.
Your favorite thing to do with your kids in Hong Kong?
Honestly, I like to just go into a neighborhood or wet market and walk around and explore with them. Things change so quickly here that a shop that you knew was there one week could be gone the next. We call it “going on an adventure.” It also usually involves brunch, which is another one of my favorite things to do – eat!
What do you love most about Hong Kong?
I love that in this city you can have kids and give them this amazing expat experience. I love that it’s safe. I love that I can be a working mom and that I have affordable help. I love that I have met (and continue to meet) amazing women from all over the world. I have made friends for life here – it’s the best!
The most challenging part of parenting, so far?
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the situation, that you’ve got everything under control and things are going smoothly, the kids change and you have to adjust. There doesn’t seem to be a moment where I can really just sit back and say “ah, now everything’s taken care of.” Life with kids is constantly in flux.
Where do you like to eat in Hong Kong with your kids?
We love 208 in Sheung Wan and Café Causette and Zuma brunch in Central. Southside Pinot Duck is a big hit, and of course Pizza Express is the go-to when they are ravenous.
Favorite family holiday spot?
While we all definitely enjoy an all-beach resort vacation, I think my favorite trip with the kids was actually when we flew to Xi’an to see the terracotta warriors (which surpassed our expectations), then took the bullet train to Beijing (an adventure in itself) to explore there for a few days, and then flew to Sanya to end on a beachy note. It was a perfect mix of educational and relaxation.
What’s your idea of the perfect day spent with your kids?
A perfect day with the kids would be for them to let me sleep until 7am, we take our pug on a walk to have breakfast somewhere, there is no iPad in sight all day and the kids still get along, we eat dinner out somewhere (like I said I really like to eat) and then we come home and read lots of books, and I sing them to sleep like I do every night that I am home.
Can you tell us about what being a working mom was like pre-babies and how it’s different post babies?
Well, pre-babies work was my main focus. I got out of architecture school and loved being at the firm and learning from the partners and others around me. After the first baby, I went back to work after 4 months. It was different because suddenly I was not doing it just for me; I was working for her too. It was hard to be away from her, and the lightning focus I always had simply wasn’t there. At the same time, for me, work was also exactly what I needed. Having a baby really turned my world upside down a bit, and it was helpful to me to have those hours in the day when I could be around other adults and remind myself that I was still me, even though I was also a parent.
What’s the best and worst piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Best piece of advice would be to “do the best with what you have and don’t beat yourself up about anything.” The worst advice would have to be, “check the internet if your child has such and such symptoms.” Once you go down that rabbit hole, all it will do is scare the living daylights out of you. Go to the doctor!
Something that no one ever tells you about motherhood?
Motherhood never ends. This may sound ridiculous of course, but until you have your own child, you really do not realize this. Forever after you will be wearing your heart outside of your body.
As a mama, I wish I were better at…
Asking for help. I lost my mom to cancer when I was 20, so since then I have (whether consciously or not) really always felt I needed to keep control of the things I could. But I’ve learned over the years that with children there really is very little you can control, and recognizing this and asking for assistance is one of the things I find most difficult. I like to help other people; I do not like to ask for it for myself.
What has been your most humbling mama moment?
Realizing that my daughter is not a mirror image of me. I remember thinking years ago that if and when I ever had a child, and if I had a girl, it would be so easy because I would know exactly what to do because of my own experience. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth! While we share DNA, so often I find myself looking at this person thinking “who are you?” She really is nothing like me! But that is the beauty and the mystery of being a parent.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about…
If my kids will be prepared for the “real world.” Hong Kong can be such a bubble, and I worry if we were ever to move back to the US that they would have no street smarts and wouldn’t know how to handle anything.
Bedtime is always smoother when…
We follow the routine: Shower, pajamas, floss, brush, books, sing. If one of these gets left out, then all hell breaks loose.
My favourite moment of the day is…
When I come home from work and I open the door and the kids come running to greet me. They still do this. Even the older one. I know it will change at some point, so I cherish it.
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
Taking some time for myself with my friends. Whenever my children complain that I am going out, I always say to them that I need to spend time with my friends for “play dates” just like they do. This they can understand.
I always feel saner after…
Seeing my friends and having this down time. It doesn’t have to be wild and crazy. I am perfectly happy to hang out on someone’s couch for hours and talk.
I wish I had more time for…
Continuing education. I feel like there are so many advances in architecture in terms of technology, green design, etc. that I should know about, but it is really hard to find the time on top of everything else that I have going on.
Even when my children are grown and have families of their own, I’ll still…
Worry about them and hope they are happy and healthy and good citizens of the world.
All photos in the above article were taken by talented photographer Sakshi Verma of Sakshi Verma Photography.