YouTube advocacy

Emoji; Emoticon; Dislike; Red

Late on Wednesday night, a colleague alerted me to a perturbing YouTube video uploaded by the Association of Professional Builders.

Despite its official-sounding name, APB is in fact a marketing agency that “specialises in helping building companies to increase their leads, sales, profits and professionalism.” Its goal is to assist builders to stay in business, which it facilitates through online training, blog articles, sales tools and video content.

Most of the videos focus on the owner / builder relationship, and leave architects out of the discussion entirely. The most recent offering breaks this mould however, and is entitled Why you shouldn’t use an architect to design your new home.

With an opening like that, you can see why I was unsettled.

The video has so far amassed just over 200 views, and has earned two thumbs up and nine thumbs down. These statistics are hardly evidence of an earth-shattering audience, but on principle I felt compelled to respond to the false claims made by the presenter and APB co-founder, Sky Stephens.

So instead of going to bed I wrote a characteristically lengthy rebuttal, which I hope will give some much needed perspective to any future viewers that happen to stop by. I consider this an act of minor advocacy on behalf of the architecture profession, and have decided to reproduce my comments here on the off chance APB decides to delete the video.

Dear Sky,

I am an architect and I’d like to challenge three misleading and unsubstantiated claims made in your video:

  1. That “80% of all architectural plans never come to fruition”
  2. That architects only focus “on what a home will look like”
  3. That architects “rarely factor in the cost” of construction

Let me unpack these claims in order:

  1. How do you know that 80% of architect-designed houses don’t get built? I strongly doubt that you can provide the research paper that supports this claim. Even if it were true, how can you possibly assert that the only reason projects fail is because of cost? Common sense and my own experience suggest that there are many causes for a stopped project: the owner might receive a job offer overseas, she might decide to move closer to her children’s school, she might use her savings to open up a business instead, her parents might get sick, she might not receive town planning approval, she might want a large four bedroom house but can only afford a small two bedroom one. The design and construction of a house is a complex undertaking, with many factors influencing a successful outcome.
  2. You infer that the definition of design is restricted to what a house looks like. This misses the much broader reality of architecture, and unhelpfully diminishes the rich and complex truth of the design process. Architects are indeed lovers of beauty, but this is in no way the only driving force behind good design. Design includes working out how a house functions, how it suits her client’s lifestyle, how it performs thermally in summer and winter, how it addresses town planning and building code requirements, how durable it is, how well it will adapt to the changing needs of her client’s family, how it addresses the history and culture of its place, how sustainably it sources materials, how well it opens up to the back garden, how soundproof it is, how watertight it is… The list is endless, and an architect addresses each and every item in the pursuit of good design.
  3. An essential part of the architectural process is the management of an owner’s budget. An architect is trained to understand what it costs to build, and provide reliable financial advice to her client. This regularly involves seeking input from either a quantity surveyor or a friendly builder, and designing in accordance both with what her client can afford and what the construction industry charges. This approach is not only ethically non-negotiable, it makes good business sense: an architect cares deeply about her client and about the house she designs for her, why would she jeopardise this by ignoring the budget? She is also invested in the future success of her architectural business, which she can best safeguard by helping her client build a house she loves and can afford.

I’d like to challenge you about the motive behind this video. Advocating for the value of builders is a wonderful thing, and worthy of doing. I have worked with many good builders, and would happily recommend the experience. Surely you can find a way of promoting builders without having to defame an entire profession of intelligent, hard-working, creative and valuable individuals?

Your advice sounds counter-intuitive because it is. Let me ask you this: would you choose your medical specialist before you know which illness needs curing? Would you head straight to the cardiovascular surgeon before confirming that you actually have a problem with your heart? Going to an architect first is the best decision an owner can make, because it’s the architect who will interpret her unique brief and transform it into a place to call home.

I offer these comments in the spirit of constructive criticism. Everyone deserves to get out there and advocate for the things they believe in, and I have no interest in preventing you from doing this. I’d welcome the chance to discuss any of my comments further with you, and hopefully help you offer more thoroughly researched content to your audience.

Let me finish on a more positive note, and mention a piece of your advice I support wholeheartedly. I agree that an architect can achieve the best design outcome for her client only when she collaborates with a great builder. A successful collaboration between architect and builder from early on in the design process is an essential ingredient to an excellent outcome. Yes, the primary goal of the architect is to provide creative vision, but this job is actually shared by the builder. Likewise, both builder and architect have important roles to play in ensuring a house is practical to build.

My philosophy is this: design doesn’t stop at sketch design, it continues all the way up until the moment the builder hands the keys back to the owner. I regularly find myself sketching details on timber stud offcuts, and watching on while builders do the same. An open and inclusive mind is the secret to this success, and why I love being an architect.

Regards,
Warwick.

I invite all my readers to head over to the video and add your own thoughts in the comments section, or just voice your disquiet via a cheeky click on the thumbs down button.

One last thing. When I woke up this morning, I thought of a better analogy than my cardiovascular surgeon reference. I’d hate for it to sink without a trace, so here it is:

Game of Thrones; King's Road; Northern Ireland; Ireland; Forest; Road; Analogy; Movie; Film; Television

The analogy of the forest

A team of builders are laying a new road through a forest. The tradies are the people pulling up trees, flattening earth and pouring asphalt. The builder is the person coordinating the tradies and making sure the road is straight. The architect is the person who arrives on site a week into construction and says, “You’re building in the wrong forest.”


Image sources:

  1. Thumbs down, author’s own image.
  2. Game of Thrones King’s Road, sourced from Tourism Northern Ireland.

A new advocacy player

ArchiTeam; Architecture; Logo; Graphic design; Melbourne; Australia
This article is co-published with ArchiTeam.

In July last year, ArchiTeam launched a working group tasked to find ways it might “educate the public about the value of architects through marketing and public outreach”. This endeavour proposes to engage in both marketing and advocacy activities, a canny mix of pragmatism and altruism that I believe has the power to simultaneously promote our profession and protect the built environment.

But before I elaborate, it’s worthwhile asking the question, why?

There are at least a dozen different organisations competing for a slice of the Melbourne architectural advocacy pie, and ArchiTeam is far from the largest, best funded, most widely known or most experienced in the sector. These are pretty compelling reasons not to get involved with the often poor rewards of architectural advocacy. However, they hardly paint a full picture of the importance of this work, nor the role ArchiTeam might have to play.

Pub; Demolition; Rubble; Raman Shaqiri; Stefce Kutlesovski; Developer
The Corkman Pub, illegally demolished by developers Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski.

Why get involved?

As I have discussed previously (herehere and here), the built environment has too many enemies reaping profits from it at any cost for the architecture profession not to have a go at stemming the tide. Increasing housing unaffordability, ever-present developer greed, the emerging effects of climate change, and a conspicuous lack of planning leadership from government are all hacking away at the future legacy of contemporary architectural production.

Confronting these challenges can seem a mountainous task, but as Gregg Pasquarelli has poignantly described, the architecture profession is guardian of the built environment. Our often lonely role in pursuing quality over quantity demands that we enter the fray whenever and however possible.

This means it’s not enough to just produce the built environment, we need to proactively defend it as well. Lawyers have successfully achieved this within the legal system by exploiting case law, an area they know best. Doctors have done it too, setting up referral systems between general practitioners and specialists that support the entire profession. Architects must do the same.

And indeed, there’s no time like the present. In Melbourne, Daniel Andrews is proving to be far more open to engagement than his predecessor, who infamously met with the Australian Institute of Architects only once during his tenure. In Sydney, the proposal to demolish the Sirius Apartments has met with considerable and coordinated public resistance. And in both cities, festival calendars are overflowing with architecture and design events attended by audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Now might also be the best time to address a rarely voiced truth: it’s not just the built environment that needs help, the architectural profession could do with a hand also. We are losing the fight for Darwinian supremacy, with any number of rival professions beating us at our own game. Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? Of course not.[1] Architects meanwhile must fend off competition from every project manager, building designer, draftsperson and real estate agent thinking they can do it better. If we don’t start protecting our territory with the necessary ferocity, we will soon find ourselves filling a curious yet extinct ecological niche.

So it isn’t really a question of why ArchiTeam should compete for a slice of the advocacy pie, but how.

Advocacy; Logos; Graphic design; Nightingale Housing; Parlour; Pecha Kucha; Open House Melbourne; Robin Boyd Foundation

How to get involved?

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of successful advocacy already at work in Melbourne. They operate at different scales and with different forms of agency, but all share the common goal of promoting architecture and architects. Some have been in action for many years, laying the groundwork for an increasingly design-aware public.

It’s important to distinguish here between public advocacy and government lobbying. The latter is a more procedural endeavour, with all manner of special interest groups clamouring for the same rarefied airspace. There are lots of special interests, but not so many politicians, so lobbying needs to be focussed and internally consistent. As our peak professional body, the Australian Institute of Architects has already assumed this role of government liaison, and should be supported in presenting a unified position to Canberra and Spring Street.

Public advocacy is in many ways the opposite of government lobbying. It is grassroots not topdown, generalised not specialised, conversational not dogmatic, and has room for diversity. The millions of individuals that comprise the general public all have their own interests and passions, and are constantly forming and reforming into tribes searching for chiefs. Want to knit some scarves for trees? There’s a society for that. Can’t get enough parmigiano reggiano? There’s a collective for that too.

So there’s room within the public advocacy domain for ArchiTeam to find its own voice, and its own tribe. To my mind, the organisations that have already carved their own successful niches and are undertaking the best public advocacy work in Melbourne right now are:

  • Melbourne Open House attracts hundreds of thousands of participants each year to its behind-the-scenes tour of the city. It captures the voyeur in everyone, inspiring intense curiosity in buildings and architecture.
  • The Robin Boyd Foundation has allowed a somewhat smaller but perhaps even more passionate audience to discover many of Melbourne’s best private houses. The Spring open day of residential award winners in particular gives a glimpse into the amazing things made possible by working with an architect.
  • Pecha Kucha is a global network of public presentations with architecture at its heart. It’s short, sharp and unpredictable, the diversity of speakers ensuring an equally diverse audience.
  • Nightingale Housing is an alternative housing development model that aims to disrupt the profit-incentivised status quo. Primarily an organisation that builds apartment buildings, it has dramatically altered the conversation around affordable housing within the profession and beyond.
  • Parlour has demonstrated that it is possible to affect positive systemic reform where business as usual is both entrenched and harmful. It has successfully injected gender equity into the centre of design, practice and leadership decision-making.

It’s also worthwhile mentioning the excellent Save Our Sirius campaign in Sydney, which is fighting to retain the brutalist Sirius building on the Sydney Rocks. Tracing its lineage to the Green Bans of the 1970s, this is an incredible example of smart advocacy that utilises a rich mixture of crowdfunding, legal action and public events to further its cause.

These and other examples can act as touchstones by which ArchiTeam shapes its own approach to public outreach. They catalogue the forms of agency already covered, or even saturated, and reveal the mechanisms by which other organisations are getting it right.

Game of Thrones; Small; Dwarf; Powerful

Small but powerful

So how does ArchiTeam fit into this heady cocktail?

Well, first and foremost it is unique in being a Melbourne-centric member organisation for small practice architecture. 80% of its 500 or so member practices are concentrated in Melbourne and rural Victoria, and almost all have fewer than five staff. This is in contrast to the AIA for instance, whose 11,000 + members are spread across every State and Territory, and work within every size and type of architecture practice.

Second, ArchiTeam members are pragmatists, and already positioned at the coalface of public advocacy. Fooi-Ling Khoo, a sole practitioner and director of ArchiTeam, observed to me that “we’re typically the first architects people work with, or even meet, and are often the ones who convince them they need an architect at all.” Crucial advocacy work is done on this one-on-one level, through an extensive collection of invisible and laborious interactions.

In the context of public advocacy work, small and pragmatic may in fact be better. The AIA was noticeably absent from the powerful anti-tollway sentiment that grew up around the Napthine Government’s doomed East-West Link. It was perhaps prevented from taking a strong stance by having to wrangle with the political implications of large practice members who were involved in the project.[2] The much smaller Australian Institute of Landscape Architects faced the same conflict-of-interest dilemma, but felt no qualms in taking a position and advocating loudly for it.

While larger organisations must somehow grapple with the conflicting and regularly mutually exclusive demands of a diverse membership, ArchiTeam is largely homogenous. It represents predominantly small studios, most of whom work on residential projects. These qualities make ArchiTeam more focussed, more nimble, less stymied by governance red tape, and better able to jump on an advocacy opportunity when presented.

Being small should allow ArchiTeam to concentrate on initiatives that resonate across its membership, to craft a singular voice on issues of interest to the general public, and to react rapidly when opportunities erupt from nowhere and evolve quickly. In time, this will allow ArchiTeam to become a public authority on small practice architecture, and contribute meaningfully on issues where small practice has a qualified opinion. This is an important ambition, and one that honours the member interest that sparked ArchiTeam’s decision to engage in advocacy work in the first place.

As a member of ArchiTeam’s advocacy working group, I’m excited to see where the energy of the membership will lead. The working group has now met a number of times over the second half of last year. These preliminary sessions were aimed at working out the why, the how and the what of advocacy, and have arrived at some inspiring conclusions.

I’ll cover my experience of this process in a subsequent post, but will leave you for now with this pertinent observation from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to a better world.”


Footnotes:

  1. Conveyancers perform a similar role to lawyers on simple property transactions, but there is no confusing them for the real McCoy.
  2. The AIA did release a position paper on the proposal, but avoided wading into the political battle. It instead focussed only on the proposal’s design qualities.

Image sources:

  1. ArchiTeam logo, sourced from ArchiTeam.
  2. Corkman Pub, sourced from Consulado España Melbourne.
  3. Advocacy logos, sourced from Nightingale Housing, Parlour, Pecha Kucha, Open House Melbourne and the Robin Boyd Foundation.
  4. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, sourced from HBO.

The challenges of geography

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography

There are many residential architecture studios in Melbourne whose portfolios are concentrated within specific geographical regions: the south-eastern suburbs, the inner-north, bayside, the Mornington Peninsula, Ballarat. I live in Carlton North and seem to see Robert Simeoni signs on front fences everywhere. Zen Architects does a lot of work in and around Northcote. Jolson Architects has nailed the Toorak market.

I don’t believe there’s any data quantifying the prevalence of this phenomenon, but common sense would suggest it’s widespread.

Architecture is a physical act: it leaves a mark on the built environment that acts as a type of calling card for future clients. Locals walk past a construction site, come across an ad in the local paper, or see the architect’s studio on a Google Maps search, and are pulled into the architect’s orbit. Each project develops its own powerful gravitational field that inevitably leads to more local enquiries than those from further away. The enquiries become projects, they produce new gravitational fields, and so on.

This chain reaction is useful for an architect, it’s a reliable pipeline of familiar projects that help establish a strong local presence and consistent portfolio. But what happens when the snowball never gets started in the first place?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; Data

A geographically dispersed practice

For reasons unknown to me, both the enquiries and commissions of Mihaly Slocombe are and have always been widely dispersed across Melbourne and rural Victoria.

Our studio is located in Brunswick East, and while we have a growing number of projects scattered across the inner-north, we are also working on or have completed projects in Albert Park, Ashburton, Bentleigh, Brighton, Broadmeadows, Camberwell, Caulfield, Collingwood, Doncaster, Eaglemont, Frankston, Hawthorn, Heidelberg, Ivanhoe, Keilor, Kensington, Kew, Malvern, Melbourne CBD, Moonee Ponds, Richmond and Rosanna.

Our version of local therefore is a sprawling 300 or so square kilometres, and that’s just our work in and around Melbourne.

Each blue dot on the map above represents one of our current or past projects. They tell an interesting story in and of themselves, most importantly this surprising insight:

  • Excluding two projects in Frankston, all of our urban commissions have been less than 20km from the city.

But what about enquiries that never get off the ground? And how do they relate to the ones that do? What else might a thorough mapping of all 160 of the enquiries we’ve received to date reveal?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Mapping our enquiries

We divide project enquiries into four categories: projects are commissions we win, with signed fee proposals; declined are fee proposals that are declined by the client; aborted are enquiries that never get so far as a fee proposal; and rejected are enquiries that are declined by us.

Overlaying the map for each category reveals a number of interesting things:

  • The pattern of our enquiries is reflected in the pattern of our commissions. In other words, there is no bias towards a certain part of Melbourne whose enquiries generate a disproportionately high or low number of commissions.
  • Of the four project categories, aborted has the highest density outside the 10km and 20km rings.
  • Excluding one project in Keilor, all of our urban enquiries (and commissions) have been from the northern, eastern and southern suburbs.
  • Our rural enquiries have been dispersed across much of Victoria, but our rural commissions have been mostly concentrated on the two peninsulas, Mornington and Bellarine.

These observations corroborate what was previously a set of educated intuitions about the pattern of our enquiries. They provide specificity too – We previously had no idea that the 20km ring is so important, nor that the western suburbs are so underrepresented amongst our enquiries. Most actionably, they have given us firm metrics to assess the likelihood of a project proceeding based on geography and other factors, and have helped us flesh out what we now call the three hurdles.

The hurdles are simple really: when a potential client first makes contact, we aim to discover as much as we can about her and her project. In particular, we want to know three things:

  • Where is the project located?
  • What is the broad scope of the project and what is the budget?
  • What are the client’s design ambitions?

The answers to these questions help us be pragmatic about our enquiries. We know statistically that enquiries outside the 20km ring are almost always non-starters. We also happen to know that projects with lower budgets are expensive for us to take on (more on this in a future blog post). And we know that clients who have strong preconceptions about their design outcome aren’t well suited to our openly creative design process.

If the client stumbles on two of the three hurdles, we can be confident that the project is likely to end up a yellow dot. Asking the hard questions early, and knowing the geographic shape of our portfolio, help us spend less time on projects that don’t lead anywhere, and more time on projects that do.

Victoria; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Challenges and opportunities

Our dispersed portfolio has meant a few challenges for our growing practice, some of which are only just becoming apparent as we hit our seventh year in business:

  • We are less visible. Our fragmented street presence across Melbourne means we are much less likely to make serendipitous connections with passersby.
  • Our portfolio is less coherent. If all of our projects were renovations to terrace houses in the inner-north, clients with that sort of project would be able to easily understand what we do. For us, a new house on a vineyard, a small sleeping pavilion and a renovation to a 1977 Kevin Borland house are too unrelated to paint a comprehensive picture of who we are and what we do.
  • Our growth curve is slower. The key quality of a localised portfolio is that it generates momentum. For us, we are only just beginning to return to suburbs where we’ve worked previously. In the meantime, all of those missed enquiries in far flung places were commissions that a localised practice might have won.

It’s not all bad news though, far from it. A dispersed portfolio has a number of benefits that I think will begin to matter more and more the longer we’re in business:

  • We have broad expertise. Having worked across many parts of Melbourne, we have developed an appreciation of unique topographies, prevailing weather patterns, demographics, histories, building stock, culture, and local council requirements. This makes us better placed to keep working across Melbourne, including into new suburbs.
  • We are hard to pigeonhole. Our well-rounded experience resists the pigeonholing that goes hand-in-hand with a localised portfolio. Our portfolio is full of unusual projects, and is only becoming more so. I expect this will open future doors for us that would be shut to a more homogenous practice, including assisting us to diversify into new project typologies.
  • We don’t get bored. Perhaps most importantly, the diversity in the locations and clients of our projects make our work more intellectually stimulating, and ultimately more enjoyable.
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Evening
Hill House, 2006
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Renovation; Kevin Borland; Evening
Chamfer House, 2015

Reflection

Understanding why our practice has evolved this way is difficult. Architecture is largely opportunistic. Clients approach us, not the other way around, so we work on whatever the world brings us. This leads to all sorts of unpredictable connections with potential clients.

Let me illustrate:

Our Hill House project led to the commission for Chamfer House despite the former finishing five years before the latter starting, the two sites being located 30km apart, and the two clients never having met. How can they possibly be linked? Well, in 2006 Hill House was completed, then in 2008 longlisted for the WAN House of the Year award. The longlisted entries were exhibited online. A television scout for Canadian television programme, World’s Greenest Homes, discovered the project and got in contact. In 2009, the house was filmed and the show aired in Australia on the ABC. Then in 2011, the show aired again on repeat, and our soon-to-be Chamfer House clients saw Hill House, liked it, and tracked us down.

The important thing to acknowledge here is that we had zero control over all of these steps. What’s more, I’m sure many of our projects would reveal similar stories if probed.

Twenty one years ago, Nicholas Negroponte predicted that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.”[1]

Negroponte’s argument centred around the death of cities, which of course has proven not to be true. But there is nevertheless a profound realisation in his prediction. Our cities may be thriving more now than ever before, but they’re not what they used to be. As Carlo Ratti has observed, “the digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.”[2]

The layering of the digital world over the physical has, for us, allowed us to make connections in new and geographically diverse ways. I can’t explain the spread of our early projects, but more recently our strong digital presence on Houzz has untethered us somewhat from the limitations of geography. Reviewing our last five projects won from online enquiries proves this point:

  • Ivanhoe East – AIA find an architect service
  • Princes Hill – Google
  • Northcote – Houzz
  • Kew – Houzz
  • Murrindindi – Houzz

In past generations, it was perhaps more difficult for an architect to develop a portfolio without relying on local personal networks and word of mouth. The Internet has by no means replaced these pathways to new projects, but they have certainly increased the chance of chance encounters. Now there are two worlds to navigate, the physical and digital, and in each there are opportunities for an architecture practice willing to master them.


Footnotes:

  1. Nicholas Negroponte; Being Digital; Hodder and Stoughton; 1996
  2. Carlo Ratti; Digital Cities: ‘Sense-able’ urban designWired; 2nd October 2009

Images sources:

  1. Map of Melbourne, author’s own image
  2. Melbourne data: project category, author’s own image
  3. Melbourne data: all categories, author’s own image
  4. Victoria project data: all categories, author’s own image
  5. Hill House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Emma Cross
  6. Chamfer House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Andrew Latreille

Footsteps of Leplastrier

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural

Day 1

It’s a Sunday lunchtime in late August when we leave Melbourne, giving us plenty of time for a leisurely drive through the Yarra Valley and out to Murrindindi. We’re following in the footsteps of the great architect Richard Leplastrier, who camps out on a site to feel the land and place as he designs. The weather has been wet in recent weeks so we drop into the Croydon Bunnings to buy gumboots. The smell of the sausage stall is too hard to resist, so we pick up snags and munch them happily on our walk back to the car.

As the road opens up along the Melba Highway, we crank the radio and watch the countryside rolling by. The hills get more pronounced the further we drive, and greener too. They look like a giant has dropped a bright green tablecloth onto the ground, the peaks and creases of its fabric forming the ridgelines and valleys of the lush landscape. Everything seems full of life, winter must be losing its grip on the world.

We arrive at the property and meet our clients, David and Louise, and the two youngest of their four children. While the kids fire up their peewee motorbikes, we pull on our boots and head out to explore the land. Nestled at the foot of a valley, the twenty acre property is mostly flat, with vineyard-covered hills rising up towards the south and west. The Murrindindi river gurgles noisily along the eastern boundary, carving a steep embankment and levy on its way out to sea. We stick close to the boundaries during our circumnavigation, enjoying the edge of the tree line. “Ah, the serenity,” we joke as the motorbikes buzz past.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Motorbikes; Peewee

We head back to the shed that will be our sleeping quarters, kitchen, bathroom, lounge and studio during our three-day stay. There used to be a modest weatherboard cottage on site, but it was demolished and cannibalised to convert the wool shed into a temporary place to stay.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Camping

The evening sets in, Louise heads back to Melbourne with the kids, and we spread out a 1:1000 copy of the land survey on the dining table. Covering it with yellow trace, we jot down our observations from our walk: the valley funnels the wind so it comes from the north all year round, both hot and cold; there is a long view of mountains to the south; shorter views to the north need landscaping to screen out the closest neighbour; the river offers paddling spots at specific points. We talk about the old house site, and the necklace of mature trees that circle it. In particular, there’s a beautiful Manna gum with a crown at least 18m in diameter. We pop back outside to step it out, “Yep, it’s a whopper.”

Soon, our stomachs remind us they need to be fed so we finish up for the day and head out to the local pub.

Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Dawn; Morning; Mist

Day 2

We wake up to an extraordinary mist blanketing the property. The house site is only 50m away but barely visible. Near the road, a huge Oak looms out of the mist, at once eerie and beautiful. This is why we’re camping here, why Leplastrier’s process is so inspiring. The mist gives us a tiny nugget of insight into the site, helps flesh out our sense of the place.

David cooks up a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon. After we’ve eaten and are clearing away the dishes, he heads off to mess with a couple of fallen trees. We hear the sound of a chainsaw being fired up. Is there any power tool more rural than a chainsaw?

We pull out the tracing paper again and get to work. Once more, our conversation turns to the land and its opportunities. There’s a wonderful rawness to our dialogue as we sketch and chat. In the suburbs, our primary interests are often manufactured: heritage building fabric; town planning; the needs of neighbours. Here, we discuss place, the relationship between house and land, view corridors, light and shade, trees, habitat. These are the essential qualities of architecture, and a joy to explore.

As we talk, we draw another overlay to our site analysis, highlighting important elements of the landscape and connections we want to make with the house. The distant view to the south is restful, maybe a good fit for guest bedrooms. The river view is more active, the sound of water would make a good backing soundtrack for the kids’ retreat. The light comes from the north of course, how do we elongate the house to make the best use of it?

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Kate Seddon

Before we know it, it’s late morning and we hear a car pulling up. Kate Seddon is the landscape designer we’ve recommended to David and Louise. We’re excited to have her design input on the project, to put as much consideration into the outdoor rooms as the indoor ones. As we’ve only spoken with her over the phone prior to this, her visit is both an opportunity to familiarise her with the site as well as talk design philosophy. We circumnavigate the property once again, and talk about tree species, earthworks, materials and water. Kate spots one of the fallen trees, “That would make a great bench seat within a garden,” she says. We discuss the way we want the house to emerge from the landscape. We discuss the swimming pool and fire pit, outdoor living and family barbecues.

Murrindindi; Bricks; Pallets; Building

Kate leaves after a couple of hours and we head into town to grab a quick lunch of meat pies and vanilla slice. Then we rendezvous with a local craftsman called Chris, who has some bricks he wants to sell. There are around 18,000 of them stored on pallets. “I pulled these out of the old church on Murrindindi Station when it was demolished years ago,” Chris says. The church dated back to the 1860s, one of the first civic buildings in the area. The bricks are a burnt orange colour, smaller than contemporary ones and curiously don’t have frogs. How can we make use of them? We do some rough calculations – we have enough for 44m of double skinned wall. Not enough for a whole house. We chat about Guilford Bell’s masterly use of brick as an inhabitable surface. Perhaps we’ll use them on the floor instead, or around the fireplace.

Returning to the property, we spend the afternoon focussing on the house site. Its slightly elevated position, existing necklace of mature trees, history of inhabitation and proximity to the river make it the best choice. Glenn Murcutt talks often about putting the house on the worst part of the site – there’s no use putting it on the best part, it’s already perfect. How can we use this to inspire us? Our sketches begin at 1:1000 and meander their way down to 1:200. Everything we draw and say seems to come back to the Manna gum. It’s far too big to wrap a house around, but can we stretch a house along its north edge, or slide one in to the south?

We make a list of the rooms David and Louise have requested in their brief – an open plan living area, plus a connected kids retreat, a master bedroom suite and a handful of extra rooms for kids and guests. Adding a mudroom, laundry and a few bathrooms brings us to around 250sqm. “Don’t forget the wine cellar,” David calls as he walks past on another errand. Okay, 250sqm plus a cellar.

Then there are the qualitative aspects of the brief, our loose conversations with David and Louise in our studio and on site. These are always the most important insights we get into our clients’ lifestyle and aspirations, the nuggets of personality that have the power to drive a whole project. David and Louise live in town, so the Murrindindi house will be an escape from city life, an antidote to the Internet, a place for their children to get comfortable with the natural world. The kids are really getting into the motorbikes, so perhaps the landscape needs to accommodate some natural obstacles. They’ll often have friends over, as will David and Louise, so the kitchen and meals area need to be the heart of the house. The valley traps the heat in summer, so a swimming pool is essential.

We draw bubble diagrams, stringing together rooms in an order that will facilitate these connections both inside the house and out. Distinct functional zones emerge – living, services and sleeping. We chop and change the relationship between rooms, aligning them to different parts of the landscape. We agree that the living room wants to face the sweep of the sun and views to the north. The master bedroom wants to face east to catch sunrise over the river. Do the kids’ and guest bedrooms face west? That might give them views over the neighbouring vineyard but will create heat gain issues. Maybe the south? There’s the long view towards distant mountains, but this is also likely to be the entry point for cars. We’ll need to consider privacy.

We have a lot of ideas, but not yet much resolution. It’s getting dark now however and the pub beckons. A conversation for tomorrow then.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; Manna gum; Eucalyptus

Day 3

In contrast to the chill and mist of yesterday, the day dawns bright and clear. We repeat the rituals of eggs and bacon, quick rinses in the outdoor shower, and a saunter outside to take stock of things. David once again heads off and we get back to the tracing paper.

We sketch plans over and over again, gradually evolving our ideas into three distinct proposals. The cranked house takes shape first, then the long house, and finally the compact house. They each preserve the essential zoning characteristics we settled on yesterday, but offer unique entrance sequences, and unique ways to engage with the glorious Manna gum. It’s hard to work out which we like best. The cranked house has a little of John Wardle about it, with its angled strands and busy junction at the centre. The long house is very long, 55m in fact. “Peter Stutchbury would like this” we say, pleased. It has more than a little of an Indonesian Longhouse about it. The compact house with its sliding walls makes us think of Kerstin Thompson. Is this our chance to finally have a play with breezeblocks?

We like to be open at this early stage of the design process, to encourage our clients to think creatively about the strategic layout of their house and engage meaningfully in its direction. We keep our rough sketches hidden from David for now, but reassure him that all will be revealed when we next meet. We mention Frankenstein’s monster to him, predicting that he and Louise will inevitably like parts of all three houses. “Option four will be better than all three of these,” we say, “It will have your stamp on it as well as ours.”

Once we have the rough dimensions massed in, we duck outside to check our handiwork. We pace out walls, squinting at the space between us as we try to imagine a house sitting there. There’s a dip in natural ground level to the east that would be the perfect spot for a swimming pool to emerge from the ground. With a bit of earthworks, it could be its own pool fence. Are we too close to the Manna gum? What about the old water tower and the Blackwood growing up through it? Can we snake the driveway around it and turn it into a treehouse for the kids?

Murrindindi; Sketch; Yellow trace; Drawing; Diagram

Ideas fly everywhere, and we rush back to our makeshift studio to scribble them down. Words flow freely and excitedly but are soon forgotten. We need to be careful to capture them all, the little sketches will remind us.

We draw repetitive series of pitched roof forms, simple narrow volumes with lean-tos. We want the house to be humble, connected to the strong Australian heritage of rural construction. There are countless corrugated sheds dotting the landscape, their long forms and gabled roofs powerful inspirations for our own intervention. The house will have its origins in the archetypes of fire pit and tent after all: a place to come together after a day out on the land, and a place to rest in anticipation of tomorrow.

We talk about the bricks, about building fireplaces and fire pits and screens from them. We talk about running them in strips along the floor. We talk about corrugated steel, plywood, timber and glass. Can we do this without structural steel? We like doing magical things with modest materials.

Finally and somewhat reluctantly, we pack up our gear, our sleeping bags and drawing tools. We feel we’ve accomplished more in three days on site than we might have done in three weeks from the studio. Leplastrier clearly knows what he’s talking about.

Murrindindi; Nashville; Photography; Landscape; Rural; Country; Countryside; River

We head back to Melbourne, our heads full of possibility. We feel we have it all worked out, but at the same time it’s all still up for grabs.

The article first appeared in the December issue of Mezzanine.


Image sources:

  1. Murrindindi, author’s own image
  2. Peewee motorbikes, author’s own image
  3. Campsite, author’s own image
  4. Morning mist, author’s own image
  5. Walking the perimeter, author’s own image
  6. Murrindindi bricks, author’s own image
  7. Manna gum, author’s own image
  8. Design sketches, author’s own image
  9. Murrindindi river, author’s own image

Houzz Pro membership

Social media, Houzz, Database, Photos, Logo
Houzz, pronounced /howz/

In August last year, Erica and I signed Mihaly Slocombe up to the Houzz Pro membership programme. This placed our sponsored project photos into the organic search streams of local audiences, increasing the visibility of our business in and around Melbourne.

We were required to commit to the programme for twelve months, a huge financial leap for us considering our marketing budget had previously been $0. When our membership expired recently, we took the opportunity to ask ourselves whether it has been worth our while. Has it increased the number of leads coming into our studio? Have the leads been qualified? Have they resulted in any commissions? Ultimately, we needed to work out whether we should opt in for another twelve months.

The Houzz platform is one I’ve discussed before, though I’ve not explored the membership programme, nor analysed the benefits and challenges it has brought to Mihaly Slocombe. The following discusses our history with the platform, our reasons for joining the paid programme, and the results we’ve seen from our investment.

Let me start at the beginning.

Houzz, Mihaly Slocombe, Homepage, Profile, Houses, Residential design, Architecture, Photos

The beginning

I created a Houzz profile for Mihaly Slocombe in October 2013. It had been three years since we formed our studio and I was eager to increase our presence online. Even then, Houzz had a database of photos well into the millions. I had the feeling that we were hitching our wagon to the Amazon of residential architecture and figured it was better to be flying along with them than left behind in their dust.

At that stage, Houzz was based only in the US. It would be another year until the launch of a dedicated .com.au site, so the majority of our early traffic came from overseas – the US primarily, but plenty of European countries too.[1]

During this period, our profile developed some very strong organic traction. Amongst our two dozen or so project photos, it was the Basser House walk-in-wardrobe that attracted the most attention. To date, a whopping 18,000 people have added it to an ideabook (the Houzz equivalent of an Instagram like). It has also led to us winning the Houzz design award three years in a row.

The popularity of this and other photos earned us a constant presence. Like Google, the Houzz search algorithms reward popularity with more of the same. Despite the youth of our studio and small collection of photos, we were beginning to pop up everywhere.

Houzz; Melbourne; Launch; Party; Architects

Houzz in Australia

In August 2014, Houzz spread its wings and officially launched its Australian domain. I attended the Melbourne launch party, and watched during the presentations (with some pride) as the Houzz staff used our profile as a case study.

During the drinks and canapés that followed, I met an architect whom I knew was enjoying just us much organic traffic as we were. I was curious to discover how she was going with her profile, and whether she’d won any projects through it.

Up until this point, our popularity on Houzz had not converted into any paid work. I had dedicated countless hours to answering technical questions from Houzz users, and even fielded a modest number of project enquiries that went nowhere, but I was just spending a lot of time selling our services to people who weren’t really buying.

I assumed my new friend would have had a similar experience, but discovered instead that she’d won sizeable projects with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. I was amazed. What was she doing that we weren’t? And what was it about our profile that attracted people with unreasonable expectations about the architectural process? We discussed this divergence for most of the night, but I left without any real understanding of why her success was translating into fee-earning commissions and ours was not.

Houzz project, West Brunswick, Renovation, House

If at first you don’t succeed…

In May 2015, we received our first commission through Houzz. An Italian couple were returning to Melbourne after many years living abroad and wanted to renovate their family home in Brunswick West. It struck me when they got in contact that this was one of the marvels of Houzz: a couple flicking through pictures on their laptop in Rome could discover us on the other side of the planet, and then commission us for a project located just around the corner from our studio.

Still, it was tough going. By this point we had racked up a total of 14 enquiries through Houzz (including a couple of exciting calls from interstate), but only one commission. Not a good success rate. I realised then that the risk of the Houzz platform was that it replaced our relationship-based marketing approach with one more akin to internet shopping: high volume, low conversion.

So we were still spending a lot of time on our Houzz enquiries without much to show for it. In 2015, Houzz accounted for 43% of our enquiries, but only 14% of our commissions. It was the age-old business conundrum: we were spending the majority of our time on the minority of our clients. Something needed to change.

Houzz, Melbourne, Map

The programme

In August 2015, we received a call from Houzz. With the dedicated .com.au website now a year old, the Houzz Pro programme was being introduced to Australia. The call didn’t surprise me. I had wondered a number of times when Houzz would monetise its platform. With over 35 million unique visitors each month, professional users were getting access to an enormous audience for free.[2]

The deal was intriguing and came at just the right time for us. We were enjoying great organic traffic to our profile, but in contrast to my launch friend, the vast majority of it was international and of no real value to our business. Our photos were appearing on someone’s screen around 300,000 times every month, but only getting clicked around 90 times. A lot of people were seeing our work, but a tiny .03% were engaging with it.

The Houzz Pro programme proposed to change this model. It would guarantee our appearance on the first page of photo and profile searches for any user within the Melbourne CBD and immediately surrounding suburbs, and thus push us in front of many more local eyes.

Our hope was that more local connections would be the ingredient we were missing, the thing that would convert all my effort engaging with the Houzz community into paying projects. We still thought long and hard about it though – as I said, it was a big commitment for us. In the end, we figured a year of membership fees wouldn’t kill us, and our business needed to take a risk to continue to grow. We set a KPI for ourselves: an acceptable payoff would be one substantial commission, or two smaller ones.

We were the first architecture studio in Melbourne to sign on.

Houzz; Houzz Pro; Advertising

Our decision to join

Residential clients are notoriously difficult to connect with, particularly for younger practices without the reputation and bag of awards enjoyed by established studios. If our portfolio were centred around restaurant fitouts, we could probably work out ways to connect with restaurateurs. But houses are hard. Our clients are everyone and no one.

Houzz provides this connection. Better yet, the Houzz Pro programme provides a local connection, one that is based on images of our design work. In late 2015, our organic traffic was already excellent, but unproductive. The programme promised to top up our organic international audience with a far more engaged Melbourne one.

We also felt that Houzz was a safer bet than Google or Facebook advertising. Houzz users are a subset of the general population, a pool of people already interested in residential architecture. In marketing terms, this meant the leads we hoped to get through Houzz would be more likely qualified.

Finally, we sensed that Houzz is an unstoppable train rolling out across the planet. The Internet is hardly growing less connected to our daily lives: Houzz is a part of this trend, a huge marketplace we’d be foolish to ignore.

Bangkok; Chatuchak; night market; market; colour; night

What happened next?

In August 2015, we paid for our first month of membership to the Houzz Pro programme. The good news was that we didn’t have to wait long for leads to come knocking: we received 3 enquiries that month. The bad news was that none of them turned into a project. And neither did the next 10. It wasn’t until March 2016, and our 14th Houzz enquiry since joining the programme, that a lead converted.

Five more leads rolled in without result, but in July our 20th enquiry came good too. Exactly as we’d hoped, both projects are sizeable, with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. We’re working on sketch design for them as I write.

When our membership came up for renewal in August, we did so without hesitation. We had expected the slow start, had even been warned about it by our Houzz account manager, but it seemed now that we had gathered a bit of momentum.

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Some data please

Since our renewal three month ago, the enquiries have continued to arrive. Two more have converted into commissions in just the last couple of weeks.

Examining the 14 months of our Houzz Pro membership, I calculate that 50% of all enquiries, and 20% of all new projects, have come through Houzz. These figures are both improvements on our pre-membership results, particularly the gross number of enquiries. Pre-membership, we received one enquiry through Houzz every 55 days. Post-membership, we’ve received one every 12 days.[3]

The main downer is that Houzz leads continue to convert less often than our other marketing activities. 20% of projects from 50% of enquiries is much better than it was previously, but still not great.

I think there are two reasons for this: first is the varied nature of the leads we receive – many have unrealistic budgets and come from people curiously not that interested in good design. We’ve realised that we can’t do much to stop these enquiries, but have at least worked out how to politely decline poorly matched commissions. Second, there’s the issue of trust, or more pointedly, the lack of trust. While a potential client recommended by a mutual friend tends to inherently trust our expertise and creativity, someone contacting us via Houzz can’t tell us apart from a bar of soap. The Internet makes it too easy to get in contact, and thus too easy to never return a phone call. Building trust with a stranger takes time, something we don’t typically have when we’re trying to win a project.

That said, the projects we’re now winning through Houzz are very exciting. Exactly as we had hoped, they’re for clients interested in design, with decent scopes and realistic budgets. Qualitatively, the projects have the same spread as those that arrive through other means: they vary in size and budget, in geography, client and design ambition. For me, they prove that Houzz offers a viable model for lead procurement.

Has the number of leads coming into our studio increased? Yes
Have the leads been qualified? Yes (well, at least more often than before)
Have they resulted in any commissions? Yes.

So, we had to wait patiently in the beginning for our membership to reap a reward, and both then and now must spend a lot of time fielding tyre-kickers. But I am in no doubt that the Houzz Pro membership has helped our business grow. For the success we’re seeing thus far, it’s worth it.


Footnotes:

  1. I know this because occasionally we receive a comment like this: “Die fensterläden sind ein echoer hingucker!”
  2. Houzz Facts; Houzz; 2015
  3. It’s important to note that this success isn’t just due to upgrading to the Houzz Pro programme. We put constant work into our profile, uploading new projects, managing photo metadata, answering user questions, contributing to discussions etc. The programme puts us in front of more eyes, but we’ve made sure what they see is worthwhile

Image sources:

  1. Houzz logo; copyright Houzz
  2. Mihaly Slocombe Houzz profile; copyright Houzz and Mihaly Slocombe
  3. Houzz Melbourne launch at Meizai; August 2014; copyright Sushii Photo
  4. View from street of Mihaly Slocombe’s first real commission sourced through Houzz; author’s own image
  5. Houzz Pro programme, Melbourne CBD coverage; copyright Houzz
  6. Houzz Pro programme; copyright Houzz
  7. Chatuchak night market in Bangkok; sourced from Shop JJ; author unknown
  8. Project leads through Houzz; author’s own image
  9. Projects through Houzz; author’s own image

Happy 6th birthday

Happy birthday; Panfilocastaldi; 6; Six

Today Panfilocastaldi turns 6, meaning I have survived another full year of blogging. As I have on each prior anniversary, I’m going to take this opportunity to reflect on the scope and focus of my writing. Why do I write? What do I write? Who is it for?

As I review the content I’ve published this year, what strikes me most is the stark contrast between my first year of writing and my most recent:

2011

  • My early articles spanned a wide range of topics, covering 17 different categories from food to theatre and many things in between.
  • I wrote prolifically, publishing an article on average every 3 days.
  • Though frequent, my articles were short. My very first piece, on the 2009 Mies van der Rohe Award, needed just 365 words.

2016

  • My articles this year focus almost exclusively on architecture practice, with all but one so categorised.
  • I write sporadically now, publishing an article on average every 21 days.
  • Though infrequent, my articles are long. My most recent piece, on the incremental tasks fee method, needed 1,119 words and was in fact the last in a series of 5 articles of similar length all exploring the architectural fee.
2011; 2016; Blogging; Infographic; Data; Word count
Word count comparison

Why the contrast? Well, I suspect that the changing nature of my writing is the result of the changing nature of my life.

When I started Panfilocastaldi, I was living in Milan (in a street called Via Panfilo Castaldi for those of you who didn’t know) and travelling a lot. Even when I returned to Melbourne soon after, I was still doing and seeing a lot of different things. Indeed, the inspiration for this blog came from a desire to continue living the traveller’s lifestyle: it encouraged me to seek things to write about, so I attended festivals and lectures and exhibitions, then wrote about them, then sought more things.

Today, I live in Melbourne, run a thriving architecture studio with my wife, and spend the majority of my spare time being a dad to my two young children. My daily experiences have narrowed considerably, and thus so has my writing. To be fair to myself (and parenthood in general), I do still get out and do things, I just can’t seem to find the space in my life to write about them.

2011; 2016; Blogging; Infographic; Data; Categories
Categories comparison – refer to sidebar menu for expansions

I often reflect on the carefree and exuberant time I spent in Milan. I even yearn for it on occasion. There was an oasis-like quality to my time there that reminds me of Ann Patchett’s sublime Bel Canto. It was a vivid experience insulated from the tough job of growing up and working out how to contribute to the world.

But returning home and having kids have done a wonderful thing to my perspective. My early writing was personal and mostly self-indulgent. I wrote broadly but shallowly, and primarily to amuse myself. Did anyone really need to know what I thought of kitchen utensils or nuclear fallout in Japan? In contrast, now that my time is so much more limited, my writing has become narrow but deep, and I like to think useful.

I still write for myself, as a sort of catharsis that helps me process the challenges of growing our architecture business. But I also write for all the other young architects going through the same challenges I am, and the many wonderful people thinking about engaging them to build something.

My earliest article on architecture practice (in early 2012) was fittingly about reinventing the wheel, and appeared amidst other articles on urbanism, product design and photography. Gradually, these other subjects have fallen away, and the intersection of architectural culture, practice and business has emerged as my (almost) sole focus.

This slow transition has helped me find my voice, one underpinned by the expertise I’ve gathered from founding, growing and improving Mihaly Slocombe for the past six years. Architecture practice has become my focus because it’s what I know and care about. It has also helped me understand two important things about the world:

Sharing is better than hoarding

There aren’t many architects in Australia, and of course far fewer architecture practices. In contrast, there is an ever-growing cackle of rival occupations eating away at our authority, territory and opportunities for creativity. Individually we sink, together we swim. This is why I share the things I share, some of which are quite private insights about our business. Whatever wisdom I’ve earned I feel the need to contribute to the profession.

Data is everything

Data about time spent on things, resources divided between things, money earned from things. I’m certainly not the first person to realise that knowledge of the underlying truths of our architecture practice helps us make the right decisions about its future. I may be the first to collect data about these truths so passionately. For me, data is just another way of saying the science of business.

2016; Blogging; Posts; Graphic design; Logos

Where does all this position Panfilocastaldi within the bigger picture? At the cutting edge I hope.

Architects love to talk about design. We share ideas via print and online media, within awards programmes and in exhibitions, during workshops and conferences. We gobble up every photo, diagram and sketch like a fat kid does a bucket of fried chicken.

But we don’t love talking about business. At university, I learned about the history and theory of architecture, about construction, detailing and sustainability, about design principles, communication and execution. I did not however learn about business. I remain incredulous that all that I know about client acquisition, marketing strategies, future planning, workflow management and income generation I’ve learned on the job by trial and error.

No wonder the profession is in crisis.

So anyway, this is my voice. I talk about these things because by and large very few others are. I have set about in my own small way to inject questions of money and productivity and marketing into our broader discussion. It’s my hope that this injection steers the conversation somewhat towards pastures more open-minded about the political economy of design.

All time; Blogging; Infographic; Data; Tags
All time use of business-related tags

I was chuffed recently to make it onto a list of important Australian architecture blogs, but a bit disappointed that the author used adjectives like pragmatic and everyday to describe my content. Yes, the articles I write are about the everyday, but I believe they are the things that facilitate the momentous. The crisis of the architecture profession is fuelled I think by a resistance to business. But design and business aren’t mutually exclusive, indeed they are tidally locked. Each can’t and shouldn’t exist without the other. Good business facilitates good design, and vice versa.

The origins of this blog may have been frivolous, indistinguishable from the hundreds of millions of other blogs floating around the internet, but I’m pleased they’ve led somewhere productive. This voice that I’ve found and am continuing to find has become a new source of inspiration, one that has evolved well beyond the original purpose of Panfilocastaldi.

So what next?

For me and my time-limited life, one of the attractive qualities of blogging is how incremental it is. The idea of sitting down to write a 200,000 word book scares the shit out of me, but taken together, that’s about how many words I’ve written across my 310 Panfilocastaldi articles over these past six years. One article at a time isn’t so scary.

Despite this, I think I would like to write a book. Something that gathers together the various threads I’ve explored on this blog into a cohesive, narrative-driven resource for the architecture profession. I have a few ideas about the what and the how, but I’ll keep them under wraps for now for fear of putting a mozz on myself.

A question for you though, dear readers: would you buy and then read a book I’ve written? Would it be useful to you in your daily lives? What do you think it should be about?

I think I’ll leave it there. Thank you for your support this year. Who knows what 2017 will bring, and whether I’ll ever find the pathway to putting together an entire book. For now, Panfilocastaldi continues to be a labour of love, self-sustaining because it’s enjoyable for its own sake. If you promise to keep reading, I’ll promise to keep typing.

Yours sincerely,
Warwick Mihaly.


Image sources:

  1. Happy 6th birthday, author’s own image.
  2. 2016 vs 2011 word count comparison, author’s own image.
  3. 2016 vs 2011 categories comparison, author’s own image.
  4. Article montage, author’s own image.
  5. All time tags, author’s own image.

Explaining incremental tasks

There are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client: the percentage fee, lump sum fee, and hourly rates. Inspired by the lean startup strategy, there’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices: incremental tasks.

This is the last in a series of five articles that will assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. It will analyse each from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Architecture; Architecture fee types; Fees; Money; Gold

Incremental tasks

Overview

The architectural fee is split into a series of discrete tasks, each charged as a miniature lump sum fee. The intention of this method is to break a project down into very small components, with a single deliverable for each.

The tasks might include things like building a physical model of the design, or preparing a town planning report, or writing a construction specification. Typically, the tasks will require a unique combination of time and expertise to complete, so are likely to be charged at different rates. Across an entire project, there would easily be as many as 50 tasks that require anything from a couple of hours to a couple of dozen.

Transparency

At the beginning of the project, the architect presents her client with the list of tasks required of full architectural services. Each task is accompanied by its own price tag. Some might be essential e.g. a sketch design floor plan, others might be optional e.g. a physical model. Like ticking the boxes on a room service breakfast menu, the client is then empowered to select which tasks she wants her architect to perform.

There is an inherent transparency to this process, as it demystifies an otherwise long and complex architectural process. However, the elegance of the room service menu works because there are only a dozen items and a handful of choices to make. An architectural services menu will have many more of both, which carries the risk of bamboozling the client with too many choices. It’s important therefore for the architect to provide clear explanations of each task, and the implications of not ticking certain boxes.

Fairness

The essential benefit of the incremental tasks method is that the architect gets paid for every task she completes and only the tasks she completes. If the client decides partway into the process that she does in fact want a model to show her family, then she already knows how much extra it will cost her and is probably comfortable in paying the asking price.

On the surface, it seems that this is the perfect way to calculate an architect’s fee.

Dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that like the lump sum fee, incremental tasks aren’t easily able to adapt to changes in design scope. If the brief at the outset of a project is for a modest 150sqm house, but this expands to 200sqm during the sketch design phase, the time required of subsequent tasks is likely to be higher than first anticipated. This introduces the hassle, likely compromises and possible conflict associated with fee renegotiation.

Not having used this method across a full project before, I’d welcome any reader feedback on this issue. Fixing it would make this method substantially more appealing.

Design

The incremental tasks method is one championed by architectural consultancy firm, Blue Turtle Consulting. I attended a seminar of theirs four years ago, an experience I blogged about here. Their argument is that a client presented with fee options is one more likely to value the services she is provided, and more willing to pay for extra services when required.

I don’t have a problem with this position at all, indeed I applaud it. However, there are many parts of architectural services that aren’t negotiable. Offering any of these up as options for a client to not tick risks the architect either delivering a subpar service or surrendering control over the results of her own design process. It seems simple enough to remove a fittings and fixtures schedule from the architect’s responsibilities, but what if the she can’t stand the fittings selected by her client?

Combined with the limitations of the method in adapting to changes in scope, I don’t believe it is well suited to high quality design outcomes.

Ease

By breaking a project that takes many hundreds of hours over many months down into small chunks, it becomes much easier for the architect to calculate how much time is required for each. She still needs to be careful not to shoot too high or too low with her assumptions, as this will either lose her the commission, or win her the commission but cost her dearly. However, the risk of the former is reduced at least as the client is able to deselect as many increments as she likes to bring the fee in line with her expectations.

Suits

Given the greater responsibility placed on the client in determining the services her architect is to perform, incremental tasks best suit projects where the client has worked with her architect before. This might be a developer who works regularly with a single architect to deliver many small (or large) speculative projects, or even a private client with experience in the industry.

Service or product

The incremental tasks method is strongly tied to the service offered by the architect, though this is mitigated by the calculations she is required to perform at the outset to determine how much each task will cost. A fittings and fixtures schedule for a $5m mansion will be substantially larger than one for a $500,000 renovation, thus will be charged at different rates.

Advantages

  • It’s fair. The architect is paid for the tasks she performs, no more and no less. This established a clear relationship between the work done by the architect and her fee.
  • It’s empowering (for both client and architect). The client is able to choose which tasks her architect will perform and which she won’t. Likewise, the architect has a mechanism in place to request more money when required: “Yes, I can design that extra piece of joinery for you, that will cost you an extra increment of $2,000. Are you okay with this?”

Disadvantages

  • It’s fragile. Like the lump sum fee, changes in scope that affect already agreed-upon future tasks are hard to renegotiate.
  • It’s inflexible. With the tasks required of the architect set in stone from the outset of the project, she is disincentivised to decide on a whim to change her process or build that model after all. Doing so would undermine the very basis of her fee structure.
  • It’s risky (for the design). With ample opportunity for the client to save a few dollars here and there, the architect risks not having a say in something that might actually end up having a strong influence on the quality of the design outcome.

 


Image source:

  1. Incremental tasks, author’s own image.