On being an architect and a dad

oscar in the studio

I am an architect and I am a dad.

I’m lots of other things as well – a husband, a small business owner, a writer, a teacher, a runner – but these two things (together with being a husband) represent the biggest and most important part of me. They demand the lion’s share of my waking life and I dedicate to them the lion’s share of my passions and energy.

For many parents, both men and women, the separation of these roles is reinforced by any number of influences: the physical act of leaving one’s home to go to work; the contrasting mental spaces required to work and to parent; fossilised attitudes within the workplace; even the desire to safeguard the efficiency of work and preciousness of family. The latter was certainly the case for my parents, who put great effort while I was growing up into protecting the bookends of the day.

Deservedly, this subject has received a lot of recent attention in lecture, institution and media circles. The gender discussion is multifaceted, but revolves predominantly around equity, work / life balance and family. Thanks to excellent research conducted by Parlour, we know that women disappear from the profession as they get older.[1] We know that disparity between the career progression of men and women still exists. And we know that long hours and poor pay remain a systemic problem within the industry, conditions that prohibit the balance of work and family.

But this is not my experience.

For me, the presence of women in the workplace, together with a flexible, family-friendly approach to working hours are the norm. After graduating, I worked at Perkins Architects where half the twelve architecture staff were women, where part time work for returning mothers was encouraged, and where the day started at nine and finished at six. Since establishing Mihaly Slocombe in 2010 with my wife, Erica Slocombe, these conditions have endured. We work from home, enjoy flexible working hours, wrap up by six, and our son, Oscar, is an important (if sometimes destructive) part of the studio environment.

This is not to say that we are world’s best practice. We don’t have an official gender or family policy. Plenty of the choices that have lead to our current work / life balance have been unconscious. And our parenting roles are in many ways based on traditional gender divisions. We are not driven by a fervour for gender equity, we just live and work in a fluid way that feels right.

I wonder if this is a commonplace arrangement? Since so many architects at some point start their own practice, surely my experience is not unique. Surely there are other archidads out there sharing the parenting load… Which is why I’m writing this article. Amidst all of the wonderful energy devoted to revealing and correcting the gender imbalance and poor working conditions that we know persist in our profession, the role of working men in parenting seems to be a less popular subject. While the picture we have of working mothers is highly detailed, the one of working fathers is blurry at best.[2]

I’d like to share my story in the hope that it provides some (tiny) measure of balance to the gender discussion. There is no doubt that the old boys club, unconscious bias and the glass ceiling are men’s shame to bear, but when I reflect on my dual identities as architect and dad, or should I say, co-identities, I am struck by how unlike the traditional caricature of male architects my life is.

matchbox cars

Location, location, location

More than anything, this distinction is enabled by the location of the Mihaly Slocombe studio in our spare bedroom. Working from home means work and family flow into one another: I am around my family, and my family are around my work, all the time. Design presentations, emails and piles of drawings overlap with play, songs and piles of toys. There is a shifting but ever-present colony of Matchbox cars in every corner of our house, my desk included.

My day would not be complete without at least one stint of working with Daddy time, memorable sessions involving Oscar perched on my lap while he navigates my iPhone with unnerving aptitude and I try valiantly to tap away at my keyboard around him. Meetings and deadlines are scheduled around nap times, dance class and nanny days. Making any decision in our work life means negotiating the needs of our family life, and vice versa.

I even muse sometimes what influence this will have on Jake, our graduate architect. He takes part in the rituals of family lunch most days; he gets to enjoy Oscar’s regular visits to our studio space and interchangeable demands for John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance and Craig Smith’s timeless The Wonky Donkey; he arrives in the morning to tales of sleep deprivation; he has watched Oscar grow from a baby into a toddler.

Blurring boundaries

While working from home began as a decision to reduce our operating costs, it has evolved into an essential ingredient in the way we do business. This might strike many as highly counterproductive. And it’s true that a different office environment might facilitate greater profitability (as might slogging away at work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week). But in Oscar’s three years, I’ve never found the blurring of my identities to be a problem.

The practice of architecture has always expanded and contracted to fill the gaps in my life. All the way back to my primary school years, sketching houses was a weekend hobby. I undertook my first project commission while studying at university, and my second while working four days a week at Perkins. As a dad, architecture continues to bend and sway, to take place when it can and must.

I recognise this situation won’t last. Erica, Jake and I work 10 full time equivalent days between us, some of which overlap with us all working together. Our spare bedroom studio is very comfortable for two, but the third is challenging. Adding even one additional staff member would be impossible. But when a career first takes shape as a primary school hobby, even the difficult bits are imbued with a lustre of ease. I’m incredibly lucky to feel like this, I know, and recognise that for vast swathes of Australia, work is a chore. But for me, it’s just not. I love my family. I love architecture. While I still can, why in the world would I want to keep them separate?

Shared decision making

To use an old (somewhat gender-stereotypical) saying, it’s hard to say who in our family wears the pants. The same goes for our practice. As the primary carer, Erica is the expert on Oscar and so drives most decisions concerning him. As the primary businessperson, I drive most decisions concerning Mihaly Slocombe. But we are fortunate to enjoy both a work and life partnership where neither of us makes those decisions independently. The pants therefore are either large enough to fit us both, or we hop about wearing one leg each.

Ownership of our projects is also shared, as is any sense of individual authorship. This has only become more evident since Jake came on board two years ago, whose critical design input through modelling, detailing and documentation have come to reshape our design process.

Is this sharing of responsibilities rare or is it the norm? I’ve never canvassed opinion amongst either my friends or work colleagues, though it’s likely there exists a whole spectrum of structures. I do know it makes me uncomfortable watching Mad Men’s Donald Draper make executive decisions for his family. Perhaps it should be the norm. It is no coincidence that Parlour considers issues of gender equity as the canary in the coalmine for the whole architecture profession, women and men inclusive. We’re all in this together.

oscar playing shops

Future decisions

Writing this article has inspired me to reconsider my work and life ambitions. With a new baby on the way, and all the attendant furniture that will inevitably accompany her, the idea of keeping our studio at home has become more tenuous. But it’s an arrangement I hope we can retain, at least until Oscar and his baby sister head off to school, as it allows me to be the sort of parent I want to be. I like being around, listening all day to the sounds of Oscar’s play even if I’m not directly part of it. I like the zero commute time, the morning hustle to get the house ready for its use as a studio, and then the evening hustle to finish off work in time for dinner at 6pm.

When Erica returns to being a full time mum next year, having our studio at home will also enable her to remain connected to the work of the architecture practice that bears her name. Just as I am around Oscar all day, she will be around our work all day. Quick questions can be fielded, clients can be greeted, progress discussions can be had over lunch.

When I think about it, isn’t this what the entire gender discussion boils down to? How can we, as individuals living in a contemporary, egalitarian society, live our lives so the parts are in balance with one another? Working long hours sucks. Spending evenings locked up in the office sucks. Working the right amount to contribute meaningfully to the broader community while still dedicating the right amount of time to my family feels great.

I like my life.

oscar on site

 

This article is co-published on Parlour, an online resource on women, equity and architecture.


Footnotes:

  1. Around 45% of architects in their twenties are women. This number declines to less than 10% for architects over 55 years of age. Statistics sourced from Gill Matthewson; The numbers so far; Parlour; March 2012.
  2. I refer here to the general tone of the gender equity discussion. Since I am by no means an expert, I may be entirely wrong here. Please feel free to correct me if I am.

Images:

  1. At work with Oscar, author’s own image.
  2. Matchbox cars, author’s own image.
  3. Playing shops, author’s own image.
  4. On site with Oscar, author’s own image.

 

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We are surprisingly cheap

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the last of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

10. We are surprisingly cheap

spend now

There is an enduring myth about architects that we are expensive, that we charge through the nose and grow fat with profit. But while it is true that architects collectively have a love of beautiful things (you shouldn’t trust a slovenly architect in the same way you wouldn’t a skinny chef), our wealth is grossly overrated. In one of life’s great ironies, we spend our careers crafting beautiful buildings for our clients, but often cannot afford them ourselves.

So let us dispel the myth.

For a typical residential project, your architect’s fees might be in the order of 10 – 15% of the cost of construction.[1] If you are spending $500,000 on your renovation, this means you’ll spend $50,000 – $75,000 on your architect. This can be put into perspective in three ways:

  1. The significant trades on a project, like carpentry or windows or joinery, also tend to be in the order of 15% of the cost of construction. On one recent project of ours, worth $550,000, the carpentry trade was $115,000 (21%), windows were $75,000 (14%) and joinery was $100,000 (18%). In other words, you spend the same amount on your architect as you do your carpenter, window fabricator and joiner.
  2. The majority of our time on your project is not charged by the hour. We charge for the project as a whole, and assume all the risk of getting the job done in a timely manner. Considering the unique nature of architectural design, this is immensely beneficial to you: our work is highly susceptible to fluctuations in time demands, yet the fee you pay us remains constant.
  3. Within the construction industry, architects are amongst the most poorly paid. The average architect’s salary on offer on Adzuna (which recently absorbed MyCareer) is $84,000.[2] For engineers and project managers it is $116,000, and construction managers $119,000. These salaries are strongly correlated to the fees charged by companies in each field. The architecture profession is collectively seeking to remedy this inequality, so you should make the most of it while it lasts.

In short, architects charge less than our similarly (or lesser) qualified counterparts in other  fields within the construction industry. We assume all the risk of fluctuations in project-related demands on our time. And ultimately, our fee is equivalent to a single trade during construction.

But what does our fee buy you?

Our fee covers our involvement from the very first visit to your empty (or unrenovated) site to the very last visit to your finished house. We drive your project through each of the seven stages of the architectural process, and guide you every step of the way in what will surely be one of the most substantial commitments you’ll ever undertake.

It is no coincidence that most Grand Designs projects in which an architect is not involved encounter some sort of calamity. To quote a recent Australian Institute of Architects campaign, you wouldn’t ask a hairdresser about heart surgery, so when it comes to renovating ask an architect. Renovating might not be quite as life-threatening as heart surgery, but it comes close. It also takes much longer and involves many more opportunities for disaster. You would be either very brave or very foolish to tackle this task without an expert in construction on your side.

Thus a critical element of our role is supporting you throughout your project, and protecting your interests against both the unintentional and malicious intent of overworked town planners, disgruntled neighbours and inattentive builders.

 

Most of all, by engaging an architect you engage someone who will love your project as if it were one of their own children. This is perhaps our greatest weakness: we are reliably more in love with your project than even you are. Howard Roark, the architect protagonist in Ayn Rand’s polemical The Fountainhead, famously forfeits his entire fee to rebuild a wing of a house with which he’s not perfectly happy. Like the rest of the novel this is an extreme caricature, but it is nevertheless an accurate portrayal of our general intent. We can’t help but dedicate ourselves tirelessly to the job of perfecting our babies.

With the many dangers inherent in construction, and the dedication we bring to your project, the real question is: how can you afford not to engage an architect?


Footnote:

  1. This range will vary up and down depending on the size and complexity of your project, and the reputation, workload and office structure of your architect. It should not be relied upon as any indication of a specific architectural fee.
  2. Figures obtained on 28th October, 2014 by searching Australia-wide for advertised jobs in the construction industry within the nominated fields.

Image source:

  1. Money, author’s own image.
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We design for environmental sustainability

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 9th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

9. We design for environmental sustainability

sustainability

Our planetary ecosystem is under sustained attack. Doomsday sirens of peak oil, rising sea levels, environmental refugees and global economic collapse ring louder with every passing day.

In Australia, as in any country, the built environment plays a major role in the consumption of available energy and resources, and the emission of greenhouse gases. The embodied energy in our existing building stock is equivalent to around 10 years of total energy consumption for the entire nation.[1] Each time we build a new house, or renovate an old one, this figure increases.

It is a fundamental responsibility of the building industry therefore to strive for the highest possible level of environmental sustainability in every house we build.

Unfortunately, sustainability has become an oft-cited but little-understood term. What does it actually mean? Does sticking a solar panel array on your roof give you licence to build anything you like? Is steel the right material to use, or timber or brick or concrete? Does it matter where the materials used in your house come from? Does it matter how big your house is, or which systems you use to heat and cool it?

Answering these often tricky questions is a challenge that architects have taken on board with great enthusiasm. Like volume builders, we are well versed in the regulatory requirements for energy ratings for housing, but unlike volume builders, our interest goes much deeper than tick-the-box minimum requirements.

We appreciate the fundamental principles that drive environmental sustainability, ideas like ecological footprints, embodied energy and long life / loose fit. We understand the value of passive solar design techniques, and indeed have collectively employed them for many decades. We track the movement of the sun, local wind patterns and rainfall to tailor your house to its climate. Most importantly, we know that the most sustainable outcome for any building is to make sure you love it. By designing your house uniquely for you and your site, we achieve great synergy between its thermal performance and the lifestyle patterns that shape the way you use it.


Footnote:

  1. Construction and the environment; Year Book Australia, 2003; Australian Bureu of Statistics; January 2003

Image source:

  1. Sustainability, author’s own image.
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We design for your future

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 8th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

8. We design for your future

future

Buildings last a long time. The best of them last for hundreds or even thousands of years and come to inspire the whole world. Even the most humble or utilitarian of buildings have the hidden potential of transcending their generation.

The power of a building, even a house, to affect those not yet born makes the act of making one a serious undertaking.

It’s important therefore to design and build to last. The humble workers cottages of Carlton North and Fitzroy are as solid today as they were 120 years ago. Can you imagine the McMansions of Taylors Lakes and Caroline Springs boasting the same remarkable longevity?

Volume builders are focussed on selling products for maximum profit and minimum risk. They offer a long list of housing packages, but look closely and you’ll see that they’re all essentially the same. They fill their houses with shiny European appliances but use the cheapest possible structure, framing and cladding materials. They build quickly and economically, but are not dedicated to a quality outcome.

Designing to last means using durable materials, choosing finishes that eschew fashion, and crafting timeless forms that are as fresh in fifty years as they are today. It means building with care, ensuring the structure of your house is strong and its envelope is suitable to its climate. Most importantly, it means designing a house that you will love, for there is no better way to guarantee the longevity of a building than to have its custodians love it.

Designing to last also means allowing for a flexible future. The houses built when your grandparents were young reveal a very different social attitude towards living than we have today. Kitchens and bathrooms were tucked away at the back of the house; windows were small; construction materials were heavy. Who’s to say how future generations will live or what their lifestyles will be?

If you plan on living in your house for decades, not only will society change its norms, so will your family. Young children will be grown; school age children will have moved out; adult children will have families of their own. Your house should keep pace with this evolution, and remain as comfortable in twenty years time as it is today.


Image source:

  1. Future, author’s own image.
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Quality not quantity

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 7th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

7. Quality not quantity

quality

Australia has the largest average house size in the world. Since 1985, our houses have steadily grown from 150sqm to 215sqm.[1] We now eclipse the United States (202sqm) and almost triple the United Kingdom (76sqm). Despite this growth, during the same period the average household size has actually decreased, from 3.0 to 2.6 people.[2] To do some simple maths, this means that in a little over a generation the residential floor area required for each Australian woman, man and child has grown from 50 to 83sqm.

Volume builders play a large part in pushing this trend, with “top range” models like this from Metricon or this from Simonds weighing in at over 400sqm. The impact of these McMansions is twofold. Not only do they provide the opportunity to purchase and live in a supersized home, they shift the entire home-buying public’s expectations of what is normal.

Architects do not design such bloated houses. We will always encourage you to consider a more modest scope for your home. Our reasoning is simple: smaller means less expensive. It means less energy for both building materials and heating and cooling, and less of your valuable time in cleaning and maintenance.

Smaller doesn’t equal meaner however. We aim for fewer corridors and wasted corners. We dedicate ourselves to the smart design of compact spaces: rooms that are trimmed of their fat and serve multiple purposes, but retain their generosity, warmth and access to natural light. Instead of a study you use every now and then, plus a guest bedroom you only use when your mother visits from overseas, we combine the two and use clever storage design to facilitate both. A room for your toddler now can become a music room later. Your laundry can serve double duty as your pantry.

This prioritisation of quality over quantity requires the skill and vision of an architect. It requires our technical understanding of how space works, and our ability to synthesise your lifestyle into smart space. It also requires your enthusiasm and willingness to buck the trend, to make responsible use of our planet’s finite resources.


Footnotes:

  1. CommSec; Australian homes are the biggest in the world; Economic Insights; November 2009.
  2. Australian Institute of Family Studies; Average household sizeFamily facts and figures: Australian households; 2011.

Image source:

  1. Quality, author’s own image.
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Research and development

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 6th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

6. Research and development

research and development

A house is a complex organism, comprising tens of thousands of individual objects: sheets of reinforcing steel, lengths of timber stud, panels of plywood cladding, bricks, tiles, noggins, light fittings, appliances, bathroom fixtures, screws, bolts, nails.

For each item there are endless options available, each measured by a plethora of characteristics. Take floorboards for example: are the boards solid timber or engineered? What timber species are they? How durable are they? Where was the timber harvested? Do they conform with FSC or PEFC custodianship certification? How wide and thick are the boards? In what lengths are they available? Do they have a long lead-time when ordering? How expensive are they?

To make matters more complex, the building supplies industry evolves constantly. New materials become available and old ones are discontinued. Suppliers change their processes, create new colour options and occasionally go out of business. Considering the many months of documentation and construction, this shifting terrain makes choosing materials particularly tricky: a tile we specify in March may no longer exist by the time the builder is ready in October to start tiling.

All of which is why undertaking regular research and development is so important.

Architects take great care in the systems, materials, fittings, appliances and finishes that we specify. A significant part of our role on a construction project is researching these items and specifying them on your behalf. We develop and maintain a library of items we use regularly, and always have an eye on the next new thing. We value the visible qualities of materials as well as the hidden: ethical production, local manufacturing and environmental sustainability.

Unlike draftspeople, whose work is typically light on detail, we invest a great deal of time in understanding every last element of your house; from the sheeting on your roof to the secret nails in your floorboards.


Image source:

  1. Research and development, author’s own image.
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We tell you how it is

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the 5th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

5. We tell you how it is

truth

The building industry has a reputation for being filled with sly half-truths and good intentions that go unfulfilled. If you’ve ever had a plumber tell you “I’ll come around tomorrow” and never call back, or a volume builder lure you with promises of rock bottom prices but then reveal the cost of all the hidden extras, you’ll know what we mean.

Building a house is like navigating between submerged rocks in a fast-moving river: almost impossible to do without a guide who knows the river like the back of her hand.

An architect is such a guide.

How much does it cost to build? Should you knock down your house and build new, or is renovating a better option? What planning zone and overlays affect your property? What considerations do you need to make for your neighbours? What advice should you seek from specialist consultants? What are the highest performing appliances and fittings on the market? Where can you source the most environmentally sustainable materials? With which building regulations do you need to comply? What are the standard construction technologies in use in Australia? Once you start on site, how often do you need to pay your builder?

These are just some of the questions you’ll need to consider when renovating or building your house.

Unfortunately, you will at times also find yourself embroiled in adversarial relationships: neighbours who think you’re overdeveloping your land; specialist consultants who don’t meet their deadlines; subcontractors whose work is of substandard quality. Such interactions are even more challenging as the other party is almost certainly more knowledgable about your dispute than you are.

Architects have significant expertise across all phases of the design and construction process. We appreciate the importance of strong creative vision from start to finish; are familiar with town planning and building regulations; understand the work of allied professionals like structural engineers and landscape architects; and can engage meaningfully with the builder during construction. There is no-one better equipped to understand the opportunities and limitations of your site and brief, and to design your house to navigate every requirement.


Image source:

  1. Truth, author’s own image.
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