We have creative vision

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 an architect.

What follows is the 4th of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

4. We have creative vision

creativity

Designing a building is a sophisticated exercise in problem solving. Our clients come to us with a problem (you need your house to accommodate a growing family) and we provide the solution (a renovation comprising extra bedrooms and mixed use living spaces). This is much easier said than done. To design a house, we must navigate many oceans full of potential icebergs: functional performance, sustainability, contextualisation, planning regulations, building regulations, structural engineering, construction, durability.

The best solutions are the simple ones, the ones that resolve all the parts of the problem into a singular, holistic form. Neither draftspeople nor volume builders attempt this. The products that they sell are solutions for only a tiny fraction of the full problem. They sell houses that ignore the unique requirements of site, context, history, culture and client.

The reason for this is that simple solutions are very difficult to produce. They require deep research, sustained effort and a great deal of patience. They require creative vision.

The great German industrial designer, Dieter Rams, preached the maxim, “Less but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects… Back to purity, back to simplicity.”[1] Steve Jobs passionately followed this philosophy in establishing Apple, the largest and most design-focussed company in the world. He observed, “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”[2] Jony Ive, Apple’s head designer, agrees: “Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity… You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.”[3]

A building is as complex a product as any, requiring not only technical expertise to reconcile its many different requirements, but creative vision to do so in a simple, sustainable, resourceful, inventive, enduring and beautiful way. This is perhaps the greatest advantage of engaging an architect: our creativity stems from both technical and artistic understanding. We are able to solve your problem with both pragmatism and imagination.


Footnotes:

  1. Dieter Rams; 10 Principles of Good DesignVitsoe; accessed 22nd June 2014
  2. As quoted in Walter Isaacson; Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography; Simon & Schuster; United States of America; 2011; p. 343
  3. Ibid.

Image source:

  1. Creativity, author’s own image.
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What you see is what you get

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 an architect.

What follows is the 3rd of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

3. What you see is what you get

wysiwyg

The name, architect, is protected in Australia by the Architects Act, first established in 1922 to govern the registration and performance of architects. Only someone meeting the educational and accreditation requirements described by the Act is permitted to call herself an architect.

Thus, when you engage an architect, you know with certainty that she must have studied and graduated from an approved 5 year Bachelor or Master of Architecture degree. She must have trained for a minimum of two years under an already registered architect, and gained experience across a broad range of professional activities. She must have passed written and oral examinations that test her contractual, administrative and construction knowledge.

You also know that once accredited, an architect must be registered by the relevant State authority, which in Victoria is the Architects Registration Board of Victoria.[1] You know that in order to maintain registration, she must be covered by a professional indemnity insurance policy with a minimum $1,000,000 coverage. And depending on the State, she must undertake a minimum of 20 hours of continuing professional development each year.[2] You can view the national list of architect registration boards here or view the database of Victorian architects here.

Many architects, ourselves included, are also members of the Australian Institute of Architects, the professional representative body for architects in Australia. The AIA maintains a professional code of conduct, which requires members to uphold values of “ethical behaviour, equal opportunity, social justice, aspiration to excellence and competent professional performance”. The AIA also provides professional support and advocacy, and recognises the best new architecture each year via an extensive awards programme.

The minimum expertise of an architect is therefore well established, all that remains is your connection to our work ethic, client engagement and design philosophy.


Footnote:

  1. The ARBV is soon to be absorbed into the newly formed Victorian Building Authority, however its existing course accreditation, professional examinations and registration, and disciplinary processes will remain. The Architects Act will also remain as the regulatory framework within which architects practice.
  2. Continuing professional development is compulsory in New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland. It is also compulsory for A+ members of the AIA nationally.

Image source:

  1. WYSIWYG, author’s own image.
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Our work is site specific

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 an architect.

What follows is the 2nd of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

2. Our work is site specific

site

Just as important as your requirements are the requirements of your site. It has a specific climate, context, history and landscape. It has a specific shape and relationship to the street. It is regulated by local planning and building controls, and has a specific vegetation pattern and soil profile.

We ask questions like: do you live in the city, the suburbs or the country? Are your neighbours clustered in close or spread out over the horizon? Are you near the sea or deep inland? Which way is north? From where do the prevailing winds originate? Does your site have a rich environmental, cultural or building history? Is it bushfire, termite or inundation prone?

These may seem like simple questions, but neither a draftsperson nor a volume builder will ask them. The former will commit to paper whatever you tell her, with minimum contextual modification. The latter will simply rotate one of its off-the-shelf plans to face the street, the source of sunlight and wind neglected.

We believe however that these questions are essential to understanding the limitations and opportunities of your site. In designing for you, we consider and address them all. We spend time on your site, photographing and measuring it. If you are renovating your house, we draw it in detail, capturing every wall, door and window. We commission a land survey to confirm the location of your site’s boundaries, its trees and services, its contours and fencing. We investigate the planning regulations that cover it, its zoning and overlays, and determine any likely areas of non-compliance. We ask what you like about your site and what you don’t like about it.

If you live in the city, we examine the local built fabric. Do you live in an area recently established or dating back a century or more? Does it have a unified or mixed neighbourhood character? If you live in the country, we examine the landscape. What is its topography? Where are the best views? Are the plants native or introduced? Where is the best place to put your house?

If you were to commission us to design two houses on two different sites, even right next door to one another, you would receive two different designs. Our ultimate goal is a building that is as much a part of the land as the grass and the trees.


Image source:

  1. Site, author’s own image.
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Our work is all about you

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 an architect.

What follows is the 1st of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

1. Our work is all about you

20140702 you

Every client is unique. You have a unique personality and lifestyle. Your tastes are unique, as are your work habits and hobbies. You might work from home, entertain regularly or have your parents visit each month. You might be a passionate chef, film enthusiast or weekend craftsman. You may be starting a family, on the brink of your children leaving home, or not interested in kids at all. You might be cautious with the money you spend on your house, or excited about stepping into the unknown.

Unlike volume builders, we do not assume we know what your house should be like before we’ve even met you. We do know that your home should complement your personality and nurture your daily life. It should fit you like a glove, growing and changing as you do. It should delight, inspire and comfort you. It should be as unique as you are.

Which is why we design every project from scratch.

We start each project with a blank page, and keep it blank until we have taken the opportunity to learn about you, your family and your lifestyle. We assist you to formulate a detailed project brief, describing everything from how long you hope to live in your new house, to how many bedrooms you need, to what sort of storage requirements you have. We ask you to explain the requirements you have for every room, their sizes, intended furniture and connections to one another. We encourage you to develop a portfolio of space, joinery and materials ideas that you like, either online or in hardcopy.

Only then do we put pen to paper and begin our design work.

In architecture, there is no such thing as one size fits all. The house we design for you will be unique, with no other like it on the planet. It will be as powerfully influenced by your personality as it is ours.


Image source:

  1. You, author’s own image.
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Interview with WHBC Architects

Wen Hsia Ang and BC Ang are the two halves of WHBC Architects, a young studio in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As they explained in their presentation at the recent National Architecture Conference, they regard architecture as an exercise in problem solving. Each project demands a singular idea that can define and carry it. To attest to this philosophy, their website catalogues their projects according to simple sketches: if they can’t draw a single sketch to explain the core idea of a project, then the idea isn’t strong enough.

I had the pleasure of interviewing them after their conference presentation, and found much in common with their passion for ideas, craft and the making of buildings.

durian compoundDurian Shed, Negeri Sembilan

Thank you for your lecture, it was very engaging.

Wen Hsia: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Even though I was familiar with a number of your projects, the discussion of your thinking behind them offered new insights. Can you describe your work in its geographical context, whether you see it as particularly Malaysian?

BC: We believe geographical boundaries are man-made, so we relate first of all to the climate, which is pretty similar in Malaysia, Indonesia or other Asian countries. But on another layer, when you look at the construction context in Malaysia we have a combination of migrant and local workers. These different kinds of craftspeople make a big difference to the design. The climate, the people making the buildings and the people we are making them for all influence us. For us, there is no Malaysian design per se.

WH: Yes, we are always constrained by our tropical climate, the budget and the way our buildings are made. Certain materials may be cheap in Australia, but expensive in Malaysia. We do a lot of our projects in concrete because in Malaysia it is cheaper to build with concrete than steel or timber.

BC: Labour is cheap in Malaysia.

That was my next comment actually. Labour is cheap, concrete is cheap because it’s essentially just dirt, but steel is expensive.

BC: Yes, we have a labour-intensive culture, of building with wet works, reinforced concrete frames, bricks and mortar. This culture has existed in Malaysia for thirty to forty years and is cheaper than doing for instance a steel building.

As an Australian architect, I’m envious of the possibilities inherent in that culture. Here, the labour component of a project may be 60% of the construction budget, so we make decisions that use less labour but more materials.

WH: Yes, this affects our design decisions, but the other way around.

BC: We use concrete whenever it is appropriate as a way of responding to the Malaysian construction industry. Even when we are doing our early design work, we are already thinking about who can build it, which craftspeople have the skill to do it. If they are not available, we might have to relook at it…

WH: We might have to simplify some of the details, so the details evolve with the job. We have to think about how the builders will work and try and adjust our designs accordingly.

At last year’s national conference, Yosuke Hayano from MAD Architects in China discussed the challenge of building very large, highly technical buildings with old-fashioned construction techniques and labourers. Does this issue affect the way your ideas find their way into your projects? Do your ideas sit in the details or, knowing that the details aren’t necessarily going to be executed the way you want, in the bigger picture?

WH: That’s a very interesting question. We like our design concepts to be very strong. If our idea is strong enough, even if the details are not what we expect, the idea can carry the whole weight of the project.

BC: We like to be very pragmatic. On any project no matter its scale, the important component for us is still to have a good idea that solves a good problem. If our project can solve that problem, we go into the project with our eyes open, knowing that execution might not be as good as we really want it to be. We believe that doing good things is more important than crafting them perhaps.

WH: We do believe that all buildings should be well executed, and we try to be very particular about that aspiration, but in order to achieve it then we have to really think about how the building is going to be carried out and then work backwards.

So we struggle with exactly the same issues, no matter which country we are practicing in! Sometimes a project comes along with a very low budget and you know that you are not going to be able to execute it to the level of craftsmanship that you would like, so you make design decisions that can be achieved by a lower quality of craftsperson on site. It’s not ideal, but it’s a job and you do it…

WH: As long as the idea is achieved, that is something that we cannot compromise.

BC: If a project comes to us and we are just supposed to build the building, without adding any value or solving any problems, then there is no point doing it.

Do you say no to many projects?

WH: Yes, yes we do.

Is it hard to say no? It takes a lot of confidence to turn down a project…

BC: (Laughs) Even after we start working on a project, if we find it not working out then we will just have to move on.

That’s great. One of Glenn Murcutt’s pieces of wisdom that has always struck with me is that the future of our lives as architects is defined more by the projects we reject than the projects we accept.

WH: Exactly, yes.

dog hotelDog Hotel, Negeri Sembilan

What I think is interesting about your work is that there is actually much more than pragmatism, there’s also whimsy and humour. Like the skylights in your dog hotel, why wouldn’t a dog want some skylights? Is this a conscious process for you?

WH: (Laughs) Well, we love to have some sense of humour in all our projects. We tend to not take ourselves too seriously. We try and have fun with our projects.

BC: We have fun if the clients are good. With most projects, with the pole house and dog hotel, we become good friends with our clients.

WH: We know that we only have so much time, if we waste time on a project that we’re not happy about, then we can’t do really good work.

Yes, and then you start getting a reputation for doing bad work and all of a sudden more opportunities for bad work come to you.

BC: It’s like a vicious cycle.

telegraph pole houseTelegraph Pole House, Langkawi

You are partners in life as well as in business. Do you have complementary skills; do you share the roles on a project?

WH: It is actually quite good; we complement each other because we are two very different people in terms of architecture and in terms of thinking. The way BC thinks is quite German.

BC: We think in nationalities, I’m German or Japanese, very logical.

WH: And I’m more French (laughs), more intuitive and passionate. If I don’t like something, I’ll just come out and say what’s on my mind. We started working together seven or eight years ago and found very early on that we can be completely honest with each other. In Malaysia, people can be quite shy. But we have a partnership that works well because of our honesty with each other. We can tell each other off, I can tell BC that his scheme is really bad.

BC: So we have a fight about it (laughs), but then we get over it.Sometimes we both try to work on a design for one project, and will come out with different proposals. Whoever has the best idea leads the project, or whoever gets on best with the client.

WH: It changes from project to project.

Having been in practice together for a while now, do you know what you want for your future? Do you want your practice to stay the size it is now or grow? One of the issues with a small practice is being limited in the scale of projects you can take on.

BC: We are happy with the scale of our office now, just the two of us, but I disagree, I think a two-person office can do a very large project, but only one at a time.

That’s interesting. There are some strong similarities there with fellow Malaysian architect, Kevin Low. Has he influenced your approach at all?

BC: Yes, Kevin influences us a lot; he used to teach us both at school. I also worked with him at GDP Architects [a large Malaysian architecture office] before he set up his own practice. So yes, Kevin does influence us but the context of where he operates and where we operate is the same

Is the architecture community close in Malaysia? Is it knitted together across the whole country or if you’re practicing in Kuala Lumpur you don’t really know what’s happening in other cities?

WH: I think everyone does influence each other…

BC: But we are very quiet people so we don’t really go out and mingle. What’s more important is the craftspeople, the materials and the climate: they are the same problems that all architects in our region will face.

As you were saying earlier, it’s important to have the right craftspeople on a project. This reminds me actually of Low’s approach to construction, where he has developed an attitude where errors in construction are not necessary bad, and shouldn’t be replaced and covered over.

BC: I don’t entirely agree with that. I believe that you can’t start with the attitude on site that there are going to be errors. If you start with that attitude you will breed complacency. The industry will not improve; it will keep deteriorating.

How are your relationships with the builders and craftspeople on site established then? Do you deal only with the head builder, or deal directly with each trade?

BC: We normally engage each trade separately.

Is that typical?

BC: No, it’s not very typical. We used to practice by engaging the main contractor, and they would have their own sub-contractors. But then we started finding that the preferred sub-contractors would be busy and we would get someone less competent instead. This created whole kinds of trouble on site, so we started engaging directly with the trades.

WH: We request our clients to trust us while we are doing their project, and we trust our builders as well. In order to build that trust we need time to do the project our way. If a client can’t give us that trust, they will have to go to someone else.

So you are closely involved in construction, not just as observers?

BC: We don’t manage the site, but we are closely engaged in it. When we draw, say, concrete formwork using 8 x 4ft sheets of plywood, this equates roughly but not exactly to 2.4 x 1.2m. If we draw our lines at this distance apart, the builders have to spend their time cutting 20mm from every sheet that comes to site. So the builders speak to us about the materials they are using and we are able to save a lot of time, resources and money. Simple things like this engage us in the construction process. They allow us to change things to make building our designs easier not harder.

WH: This conversation doesn’t just happen on site, it happens while we are designing as well. When we design we are quite clear of the ideas that we want to have in our projects, but we are relaxed about the small things.

So we finish where we started: architecture is an exercise in problem solving. The central idea, as represented by the simple sketches you make for each project, is most important.

WH: Yes, that’s right.

Thank you both very much for your time.

house in chempenaiChempenai House, Kuala Lumpur

This article was commissioned by, and first appeared in, Architecture AU.


Images sources:

  1. Durian Shed, WHBC Architects. This and subsequent images courtesy of the architect.
  2. Dog Hotel, WHBC Architects.
  3. Telegraph Pole House, WHBC Architects.
  4. Chempenai House, WHBC Architects.
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The lifestyle is bitchin’

The 28th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

28. The lifestyle is bitchin’

the fonz

We currently run Mihaly Slocombe out of our spare bedroom. Our dining room, which is located at the front of our house, has one wall lined floor to ceiling with our architecture books, and doubles as our meeting room.

There is comfort in this arrangement, a threat to productivity no doubt, but a pleasure nonetheless. The commute time is exceptional – I can’t even begin to imagine where in my life I would find the two hours it used to for me to get to and from my old workplace. I never have to prepare my lunch in the morning, leftovers are reheated or jaffles are toasted as I feel like it. Working late if necessary isn’t a hassle as I can do it from the couch, all my resources still accessible but slippers on our feet.

The hours I work are flexible. Between three of us, we collectively work 9 FTE days a week. If I have to I can shift my days and hours around to attend workshops, visit remote sites, or take days off. I can match our practice work with teaching, other projects and, most importantly of all, parenting.

Our two year old son sees more of both his parents than most children and, in return, we have the joy of always being around. We have lunch together and Oscar works with his Daddy a few times each day, studiously playing with my phone while sitting on my lap, my arms wrapped around him to reach the keyboard.

The lifestyle is bitchin’.


Image source:

  1. The Fonz. Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, copyright Associated Press.
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The architect is a Renaissance Man

The 27th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

This lesson also formed part of a lecture given for the May Process forum, The Jump, exploring the challenges faced when setting up a practice. Process is a monthly information sharing series curated by the Victorian Young Architects and Graduates network.

27. The architect is a Renaissance Man

renaissance man

The daily life of an architect is far from linear. We must multitask across many activities, zigzagging between projects, project phases, skills and languages. I have never understood the interest in working for a large architecture practice, where each project is assigned a team, where teams are often restricted to single project phases, where individuals are employed to execute the same task over and over and over again.

Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance Man, an architect and urban designer and sculptor and painter and poet and inventor and builder. What an era and country in which to have lived, when the world’s artists were able to apply their abilities across so many media! The modern architect working in a small practice is no different. We are problem solvers and creative thinkers and craftspeople and scholars and leaders and businesspeople and politicians and polyglots.

The job is exciting, every element of it multifaceted. We draw by hand and in the computer, make physical and digital models, write fee proposals, town planning applications and specifications. We sit at a desk, visit showrooms and factories, and inspect construction sites. Some tasks are more enjoyable than others, but the discordant rhythm of them all keeps our minds engaged and our spirits fulfilled.

The architect is a Renaissance Man.


Image source:

  1. Vitruvian Man. Hal Robert Myers Photography, copyright Leonardo da Vinci.
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