21 FEB 2020
At the age of 25, Rosanna Lawn MRICS has already had a whirlwind career. From president of her university’s Property Society, to working for entrepreneur John Hitchcox, co-creating a network for young professionals, and now helping to take hi-tech modular houses to the masses with start-up Project Etopia. To cap off a glittering 2019 in which she was named an Estates Gazette Rising Star and Property Week’s RESI Trailblazer, she passed her APC in November. What’s next in her sights?
Given her early achievements, it is somewhat surprising that property did not feature in Rosanna Lawn MRICS’s initial career plan. “I wanted to be a vet, but didn’t get the A-levels I needed, so I went to work for my granddad and managed his property portfolio that he’d been building up. I found it quite interesting,” she explains.
By the time Lawn had completed the first year of a real estate degree at the University of Westminster the bug had well and truly been caught, and she was nominated for a “Women in Property” national student award for being the top female student in her year.
She was also passionately involved in the university’s Property Society. “I felt that students at my university were overlooked as they weren’t engaged in the industry as much as students at others. I wanted to make sure that students felt confident in networking environments,” she says. Lawn secured £5,000 for the society from the university – establishing a now annual funding award to help put on events. It was an idea to which she would return later.
Her first job out of university was as assistant surveyor with Cushman & Wakefield. She enjoyed her time there, but felt its traditional, corporate culture did not suit her. “I have quite an entrepreneurial spirit, I’m constantly trying to reinvent things and break the mould, and I felt the corporate structure was hindering me a bit. I wanted more freedom and implementation of thought.”
Enter John Hitchcox. The chairman of design-led developer Yoo had been invited to speak at one of Lawn’s events while she was at university, at which she’d told him of her aspirations. He now came to her with a proposition. “He thought I was the perfect fit for the company he wanted to set up to invest in prime London residential.”
The move was both exciting and challenging for Lawn. From the support structure of a traditional firm with a hierarchy of managers, in her new role, her direct line manager was the chairman of the company. “I was making day-to-day decisions in where to invest his money. He would say to me that if I believed in it, buy it, and he’d back me. It was an interesting position to be put into.”
The role gave Lawn a whole new understanding of business. “It really pushed me right to the edge of my capabilities to grow and grow quickly. You have to think on your feet, be strategic, you have to think of all outcomes. I loved it, and learnt a lot in two and a half years.”
Lawn’s experience with event organising at university also inspired another of her current projects, the CREation Property Network, aimed at early-career professionals. She set the network up with CBRE senior consultant Harri John MRICS while they were both at Cushman, after they discussed similar frustrations that industry networking opportunities mainly targeted a much more senior level, typically charging for attendance. In Lawn, John found a kindred spirit. “We bounce off one another and complement each other’s strengths, and that makes a real difference when working in partnership with someone,” she says. “Rosanna brings energy and enthusiasm everywhere she goes, and that has made setting up CREation extremely enjoyable and rewarding.”
The network kicked off in January 2018, with over 300 people representing 100 companies at the launch. The free events were initially in London, but have already expanded to cover Manchester and Bristol, with Birmingham to follow later this year. “We’ve been getting people coming out of the blue wanting to set a network up in their area, it’s almost like a franchise model. There are around 25 volunteers working on it, 1,500 members, and we now have about 13 sponsors. It’s gone from strength to strength,” says Lawn.
Never one to stand still, Lawn left Yoo in October to join another start-up, Project Etopia. The company specialises in modular homes and schools that combine energy-efficient passive design, affordability, rapid construction, renewable energy generation and storage, and intelligent heating and cooling systems. Its investors include former Conservative Party treasurer and hedge fund manager Lord Stanley Fink, and the Reuben brothers.
The company’s aim is to use modern methods of construction to solve the housing crisis. Its first big project, a 47-home development in Corby, Northamptonshire, was chosen as one of five “Building for 2050” research projects funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.
We’re disrupting the industry, challenging the norm
“Etopia” stands for economic and environmental utopia, she explains. “How we can build homes at an affordable price – homes that incorporate energy, construction and intelligent technology. We are working to fulfil seven of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals through our products, we’re partnering with the Building Research Establishment on new sustainability guidelines – and we’ve also got a documentary in the works.”
Lawn’s motivation at Project Etopia comes from a growing desire to improve communities. “I’m becoming much more passionate about the norms we create about the world. I genuinely feel that inspired placemaking can enable really positive environments for generations to come. That’s why I started really focusing on building communities using real estate.”
The environmental ethos of the firm also appeals to Lawn. “It’s vital that we focus on energy reduction in materials as well as the energy used to run the homes. We should be looking at every single stage of the process,” she says.
Working for the company fits into Lawn’s ethos of approaching problems from different angles, she says. “We’re disrupting the industry, challenging the norm. That’s where I like to see myself – confronting the status quo no matter where I’m working, so that we can deliver something that benefits others.”
With Lawn’s somewhat atypical career path, it almost seems surprising that becoming chartered remained a priority – not least in finding the time for it. Did she have any reservations about doing her APC? “RICS is a highly regarded, reputable institution, and there is great need for it in the industry,” she says. “However, I feel the APC programme does need to adapt.
“There is a huge growth in skill requirements for companies and while I believe that a regulatory institution is valuable, I do feel that there is a more practical way of approaching the assessment process. We are trying to promote diversity in the workplace and draw a wide range of young professionals into the industry. There should be more focus on endorsing current topics, promoting and supporting diversity of thought and process.”
Not content with disrupting the construction and housebuilding industries, Lawn now has her sights set on the profession as a whole. Who would argue against her?