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.

When the beast gets hungry

Continued from Feeding the beast

Our financial forecasting has proved to be a great tool to keep the Mihaly Slocombe beast satiated year-round. By starting with the money, we can prioritise projects and tasks to help us reach our earnings target each month. We can work out who’s going to work on what, how long it should take and when it needs to be finished.

At least, that’s the theory.

Mapping our monthly earnings against our forecasts back to August last year reveals two key insights. The first is positive: over time, our forecasting is (remarkably) constant, while our earnings are trending upwards. The second is less so: despite the general health of this financial picture, there’s enormous variation in both our forecasts and earnings from month to month. Generalised order, but localised chaos.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Each black dot represents a monthly forecast, ranging upwards from $0 along the bottom. The solid black line is the trend line.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Here, each black dot represents our monthly earnings, again ranging upwards from $0 along the bottom. The dashed black line is the forecast trend line from the last graph, and the solid black line is the earnings trend line.

Why is our income so chaotic?

Achieving a predictable and consistent flow of income requires a consistent flow of project work getting done. Unfortunately (and here’s the hitch), this is easier said than done. There are a number of causes that lead to scarce billable work hours, but in my experience there are only two really significant ones:

  • We spend too much time on a project. This stretches our fee thinly across more hours, as well as consumes time that could be spent on other (paying) projects.
  • A project goes into hibernation.

I’ve discovered that the efficiency issue is one that naturally improves over time, mostly I think because people get better at the things they do repeatedly. As our studio has gotten older, we’ve become more confident in our detailing, more familiar with our documentation systems, and better able to access shortcuts from past projects. Over the life of the project, there are lots of little ways that we can be more productive. Enough small time savings add up.

The hibernation issue is unfortunately not one that naturally improves over time. When our projects pause, which they all eventually do, the beast gets hungry.

There are many, many reasons a project pauses: town planning periods drag on; clients take longer than expected to approve a design proposal; a consultant from whom we need drawings is busy on other projects; the tendering period draws out beyond its schedule. A hibernating project might kick off again after months or days, but either way the downtime needs to be managed.

When I used to work at other practices and this happened to one of my projects, it was never a problem. My boss would replace the hibernating project with other work and I’d get back to it. Simple, right? Well, the most important thing no-one told me when we started our architecture practice is that when we’re the boss, replacing the hibernating projects is our responsibility.

It turns out that doing this is really hard. Transitioning momentum away from one project onto another means slow periods on both as the first slows down and the other speeds up. Managing workflow means stopping what I’m doing so I can coordinate the new activities of others. And while it would be nice to maintain a long pipeline of work to fill these gaps, in practice this just pisses off the waiting clients. So client expectations need to be managed too.

While poor productivity is the main cause of income dilation (that is, when we charge a bit less on a project in a month than we forecast), hibernating projects are the main factor in introducing localised chaos to our financial management process. The evidence of this is revealed when I analyse the earnings at a micro level on any given project.

Digging back through our timesheets and invoicing, I tracked the evolving finances of one our projects currently under construction.

Bubble graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

The black outline dots represent the fee invoiced in a month. The grey dots represent the number of hours worked in a month. The larger the dot, the larger the invoice / number of hours.

There are some fascinating insights here:

We began work very slowly on this project. It took us a good 8 months before we even started invoicing regularly.

The clustering of intense work periods is fairly typical for our workflow. We gather speed during each project stage, with an inevitable crescendo prior to delivery. You can see the big chunks of work at the ends of key project phases, with the biggest during documentation.

Also typical are the steadier hours during construction. You can see this in the second half of this year, once the project got on site.

Hours worked and invoicing are linked. Lots of hours are associated with more substantial invoicing. Likewise, fewer hours means sparser invoicing.

This project experienced two major periods of hibernation, from May – August 2013 and from March – September 2014. It is rare for us to experience such lengthy pauses and actually have the project restart. I’m pleased we’ve managed to proceed so far down the path with this one.

What can I learn?

Prior to taking on our current short-range forecasting approach, we did have a rudimentary form of time programming in place. The programming wasn’t linked to invoicing, and it was an annual exercise: two qualities that with the wisdom of hindsight I now see made it a tremendous waste of energy. In a consulting business like ours, time and money are two halves of the same coin. There’s no point looking at one without the other. And it’s simply impossible to know for certain what we’ll be working on a year from now.

Our forecasting now stretches only two months into the future, with the second month much sketchier than the first. Also, we never count on a project to continue predictably past any major milestone. The worst offenders are budget reviews: at these, we assume a project will die until told otherwise.

But despite our best efforts, at least once a year all of our projects go into hibernation simultaneously. This year, it happened in February and lasted a couple of weeks. By chance, we saw it coming, but even then it was tricky to stay busy. We used the time to sort out a backlog of administration work, and update our samples library. Previously, we’ve entered design competitions. Regardless, the things we find to fill our time are not project-related, so we have nothing to invoice.

Small or large, I reckon every architecture practice has to deal with this issue from time to time.

We try and minimise the trouble by keeping our forecasting tight, staggering our projects, and assuming we’ll have soft months. The tight forecasts improve our chances of being accurate with our predictions (though as the top two graphs show, this is far from a guarantee). The staggered projects reduce the likelihood that two projects will go into hibernation at the same time for the same reason. And by assuming we’ll have soft months, hopefully we can build up enough of a cash buffer to keep the beast fed.


Images

  1. Forecasts; author’s own image
  2. Earnings; author’s own image
  3. Project fees; author’s own image

Feeding the beast

Albert Mo of Architects EAT has observed that all businesses are beasts. A small architecture practice needs very little sustenance to get by, while a medium-sized practice, with around 20 employees on board, can easily have a hundred thousand dollars in salaries to cover each month, plus overheads and profit. A constant parade of new projects is required to keep such a beast fed.

The Mihaly Slocombe beast is tiny, but even it still needs to eat. I would love for us to have the luxury to pick and choose our clients, but in five years we’ve only declined 4 project leads. Perhaps one day we’ll be sufficiently established to be more choosy.

The analogy of the pet crocodile

Crocodile, Feeding, Feeding time, Feed the beast

The king of all beasts is indisputably the crocodile. Anyone foolish enough to own one lives a precarious life. His pet is not a fussy eater – chicken and fish scraps will do – but forgetting to feed it might land him on the menu. Fortunately, a crocodile only needs to eat once every week or so, and much less regularly during colder months. A crocodile is also a lazy predator, preferring to lie in ambush for its prey than actively hunt.

Thus the crocodile and the crocodile owner exist in an uneasy truce: as long as the weak-bodied owner keeps the chicken scraps coming, the lazy crocodile won’t use the strongest jaws in the business to convert him into dinner.

Running an architecture practice is much like owning a crocodile. It’s a touch less dangerous, but much more demanding. In place of chicken scraps, it feeds on expensive building projects commissioned by a very limited pool of clients. It needs to eat regularly and consistently, all year round. And when the incoming flow of money is interrupted, it turns nasty in the blink of an eye.

So the architecture practice needs a reliable supply of both commissions and work to do on them. In my experience, managing this supply is especially important for small businesses. Our margins are tight and we have very little buffer. We need to be constantly vigilant to ensure two things:

  1. That the money coming in each month covers the money going out
  2. And that the money coming in each year covers the money going out

In other words, we need to send out enough invoices to cover our known costs each month, as well as the unknown costs that will present themselves in the future.

In this endeavour, I am greatly influenced by Jeremy Wolveridge of Wolveridge Architects, who offered an unusual answer to the question, why get into practice? He dismissed authorship and autonomy (the most commonly cited reasons) as prosaic: “Of course authorship and autonomy are important, but they don’t justify all the headaches that come with running a business. I got into practice so I can go on a long holiday with my family every year.”

This is the essence of the crocodile analogy:

  1. My crocodile needs to eat a chicken every week
  2. However, I want to go on a holiday every December
  3. While I’m on holiday, I can’t catch any chickens
  4. How can I catch those extra chickens in the other 11 months?

A simple idea for crocodiles that turns out to be not so simple for architecture practices.

During the first few years of Mihaly Slocombe, we had no conception of long term goals or the future financial state of our business. We would arrive at the end of each month and work out how much we would be able to invoice. It was a bit like a lottery, and not often successful. In our first year of operation, our highest monthly income was 227% of our average. And our lowest monthly income was zero. In fact, we weren’t able to invoice a cent for three separate months.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

Wolveridge’s insight gave us an alternative approach. The method he uses to achieve his financial goals is now our method:

  1. At the start of each month, we calculate our staff costs and overheads
  2. We add enough extra to pay ourselves
  3. We add even more to cover future costs e.g. income tax, GST, registration, holidays
  4. We arrive at a number that keeps Mihaly Slocombe afloat for another month and builds our buffer by 1/11th of our annual goal
  5. We work out how much work we need to complete, on which projects, to achieve this number

The months following the implementation of our new approach were still a bit rocky. We had a bad month followed by a couple of good ones followed by another bad one. But by the end of the year, we had boosted our average monthly income by a huge amount and had also flattened out our takings. Our highest income was just 148% of our average and our lowest was a healthier 47%.

Line graph; Finances; Income; Business; Small business

This graph looks much better to me. Remember, the average is much higher than our first year of work, and there is also less unpredictability. We went from 6 months of well below average income to only 3. Our peaks aren’t as exciting to look at, but they no longer need to offset really deep troughs. All great developments for the health of our business.

There are likely a number of factors contributing to this shift, but our approach to money is an essential one. Before, we did the work then calculated how much it was worth. Now we put the money first, and our project productivity second. We’ve been at it for 18 months and have found we’re far better equipped to keep our little beast happy year-round.

There is, however, a hitch. A big one.

To be continued soon in When the beast gets hungry.


Images

  1. Crocodile feeding; sourced from Crocodile Feeding Time; Youtube; September 2013
  2. Finances before; author’s own image
  3. Finances after; author’s own image

You can’t sell an idea

money

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.[1] Thomas Edison said this in an era when inventions of the mechanical, electrical and medical varieties were constantly rewriting the script of modern life. Anyone can have an idea, he suggested, indeed good ideas are floating around all the time and all over the place. But success, and the genius that achieves it, lie in the months and years of effort to execute the idea, to turn it from fantasy to reality.

This is more true today than it has ever been before: the world is a small place now and the hurdles to creating something are at an all time low. Success, however, is as elusive as ever. Pop quiz: have you ever heard of PicPlz? How about Everpix or Color? No? Well, they have two things in common: 1) they are photo sharing apps for smartphone and web, and 2) they have all been discontinued.[2] Despite positive critical reviews and millions in seed funding, none made the cut. In contrast, Instagram is the archetype of success. It currently has around 150 million users worldwide and sold itself to Facebook in 2012 for AU$1.1b.[3]

This is as clear evidence of Edison’s insight as we have ever seen. The essential idea of Instagram is the same as its failed competitors, so cannot possibly be the reason for its success. The recipe of its genius instead involves ingredients outside the core idea, things like its functionality and style, the timing of its release and the networking of its founders.[4] In other words, the 99% for Instagram was about making sure the idea worked well and looked good, then executing it at the right time and knowing the right people to turn it viral. Luck, too, may have been a factor, though we believe you create your own luck… Build it and they will come.

How does this relate to the practice of architecture?

Comparing architecture to the volatile, manic depressive and massively lucrative world of software development may seem a bit of a long bow to draw. But dig a bit deeper and we discover that all creative fields are underpinned by the same influences. The methods may vary, but the parameters of commercial success exist independently of scale and industry.

The analogy of Schrödinger’s architects

schrodinger

A family wants to build their dream home. They are wealthy and passionate about architecture, and they want a house designed by one of Melbourne’s most recognised and highly awarded residential architects. They interview John Wardle, Sean Godsell and Kerstin Thompson. But they can’t choose between them, they love their work equally. So they commission all three to design their home.

Each design is unique and wonderful. Wardle’s is an exquisitely folded volume, its timber and zinc surfaces sliding over one another, its details impeccable. Godsell’s is an unapologetic masterpiece, a perforated, operable steel skin filtering the light to bold interiors. Thompson’s is considered and subtle, hugging the landscape, concrete and glass revealed in their natural beauty. The family retreats into a closed room to contemplate the three projects and make their decision.

Outside the room, the architecture community awaits the announcement. Which design will be successful? Much like Schrödinger’s unfortunate cat, at this moment, any of the three is equally likely to be chosen, and any of the three is equally likely to result in a magnificent building. The moment drags on.[5]

Considered in the broader context of Australian architectural production, does the outcome matter? We’re sure the family would live long and fulfilling lives in the Schrödinger house no matter its architect, but it would be less notable for its individuality than its position in an enduring body of work. The residential projects of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson are excellent, very different, but excellent. But if we and the family are unable to differentiate between them based on merit, what separates them?

The answer of course is the 99%: communication, style, persuasiveness, amicability, networking. In any competitive environment, the armature surrounding the architectural idea makes the difference. We thrive or perish depending on our relationships, how we present ourselves, our past experience, our enthusiasm, our fees. This armature influences how desirable we are to potential clients, the prestige of our commissions, our profitability, our success.

What can we learn?

The architecture profession dedicates considerable time to the 1%. We go to design lectures, read design journals, attend design conferences. We love our work and we love talking about it. Our ideas have great cultural value, they have the power to affect positive change in the built environment, but they aren’t going to make any of us Instagram. If success relies so heavily on the other 99% of our efforts, why aren’t we doing more to improve them?

Getting better at the hard work of executing our ideas, carving built reality from visionary fantasy, would benefit us all. The world of ideas is still welcome to operate within this framework, we suggest it would even benefit from such solid footings, but the 99% deserves more airtime. Imagine: we attend a design lecture and learn about the inspirational work of the speaker. But we leave with more than a sense of awe, we leave knowing the strategies the architect used to explore her ideas, the methods she used to convince her clients of their merit, the experimentation she did on site to resolve them. Simon Knott touched on the importance of this issue on The Architects preceding an interview with Indian architect, Bimal Patel.[6] He said,

“Coming up with good ideas is a small fragment of what architects actually do… Getting them built is the real challenge. Advocacy skills and your ability to fight to the death for an idea are critical. People working in really good design practices understand there’s a real doggedness to pursuing things to the end. Whether it’s a cupboard handle or a hinge or a screw fixing, it’s an attitude that flows right through the project.”

With the strength of Wardle, Godsell and Thompson’s design ideas being equal, the Schrödinger house would get built by the architect most capable of relating to the client, the one most persuasive, most seductive and most passionate. But no one teaches these lessons in school, and no one talks about them in the profession.

Don’t get us wrong, we love ideas. They’re what we fall asleep thinking about, and the reason we get up to go into work in the morning. But we need to loosen our collective grip on them, they’re holding us back from seeing the bigger picture. We need to take a leaf out of Mr. Edison’s book: ideas are all well and good, but genius is in being prepared to do whatever it takes to turn them into reality.


Footnotes:

[1] Thomas Edison; spoken statement circa 1903; published in Harper’s Monthly, September 1932.
[2] For an obituary of PicPlz, see this article on TechCrunch. For Everpix, see this article on The Verge. For Color, see this article on Mashable.
[3] Eric Jackson; What would Instagram be worth today if it IPO’ed?; Forbes; New York; September 2013
[4] For other commentary on the success of Instagram, see Why is Instagram so popular? on TechHive and Why Instagram is so popular: quality, audience and constraints on TechCrunch.
[5] Schrödinger’s Cat is the famous thought experiment devised by Austrian physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in 1935. It illustrates superposition and entanglement, two of the fundamental questions of quantum physics. This short video explains the paradox.
[6] Simon Knott and Rory Hyde, co-presenters; Show 368: Interview with Bimal Patel; The Architects; May 2013; 6.05 – 7.00min.

Image sources:

  1. Money. Author’s own image.
  2. Erwin Schrödinger, Top Yaps. Copyright Arun Thakur, modified by author.

Cost planning 101

budget craps

What was it?

Part two of an all-day seminar we attended late last month, presented by quantity surveyor Geoffrey Moyle. With the tagline, Under control or over budget?, the seminar provided strategies for effectively managing the cost planning of residential projects. In addition to broad commentary, Moyle discussed the results of analysis he undertook on eighteen recent projects he has costed for Melbourne architects (see below). We discussed part one of the seminar, Marketing 101 presented by marketing guru Winston Marsh, yesterday.

Despite having worked with Moyle on a number of projects, this was our first face-to-face meeting. With long hair, black T-shirt, jeans and boots, his appearance was more suited to a rock guitarist than a quantity surveyor. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised though: in our dealings with him, he has always been self-aware, passionate about architecture, and interested in thinking outside the box. He is as far from a bean counter as one can get, which is why we like working with him.

What was discussed?

Moyle began his presentation by defining cost planning as “monitoring, managing and maintaining a project’s cost, relative to a budget.” This is a critical distinction, as it identifies a client’s budget and her project’s cost as two separate questions, a statement that pleasingly ratifies our article from last year, Why your budget is not your brief. It is also important to adhere to the first part of the definition: a cost plan is not something done once and forgotten, it is something to continue developing alongside design and documentation.

Moyle noted that fuzzy project cost planning is common but dangerous. He recommended instead beginning an objective and transparent planning process as early as possible. This is not as simple as it might sound though. Indeed, it’s an issue with which we have been grappling ever since we started our architecture practice. Like it or not, the early days of a new project are a delicate balance between the truth and trust: deliver a client bad news before trust is established and she might walk; wait too long to deliver it and she might feel feel betrayed.

Early on in our practice, we were honest and upfront with clients about their budgets even before they had formally engaged us. This regularly led to commissions going elsewhere, we imagine to architects more willing to delay the cost planning discussion until deeper into the project. So we changed our approach, accepting clients’ budgets at face value but designing to their briefs. We then used a professionally prepared cost estimate as a gauntlet through which we had to pass before submitting a town planning application. Unfortunately, this led to one notable disaster, where our and our clients’ budget expectations were revealed to be grossly out of sync with each other and we lost the commission.

When we raised this complex balancing act with Moyle, he introduced the analogy of the mechanic.

The analogy of the mechanic

engine block

A young mechanic discusses his new business with an older, more experienced colleague. He complains about the cost of training new staff, “Why should I waste time and money training my new staff, when most of them leave within twelve months?” His colleague considers for a moment, then answers, “You might waste money training staff that leave, but what if you don’t and they stay?”

In other words, while being upfront with a client about the cost of her project may risk losing it, avoiding the truth may result in an over-budget project proceeding far beyond where it should have.

So by trial and error, and reflecting on the ideas raised in Moyle’s seminar, we have arrived at our current strategy. We accept our client’s budget, but prior to starting sketch design we map out a number of rough layout options for comparison, each accompanied by a simple estimate of its cost. This is essentially a design-driven feasibility study, one with three key benefits:

  1. It involves our client in the design process from a very early stage, empowering her to choose her preferred design direction.
  2. It educates our client about the relationship between scope and cost.
  3. It allows us to interpret our client’s brief, often reducing it in size, prior to attaching costs.

Once we have balanced the budget and brief, often via compromise of both, we finalise the sketch design and obtain a professionally prepared cost estimate. Though retaining the services of a quantity surveyor for the duration of a project can get expensive (at least relative to the small renovations for which we are regularly approached), our preference is to do so up to and including a pre-tender estimate. Thus the cost plan develops alongside the design plan, always in sync.

rippleside house option 1Rippleside House option 1, 180sqm

rippleside house option 2Rippleside House option 2, 208sqm

rippleside house option 3Rippleside House option 3, 221sqm

rippleside house option 4
Rippleside House option 4, 221sqm

rippleside house option 5
Rippleside House option 5, 221sqm

rippleside house option 6Rippleside House option 6, 221sqm

What did we learn?

There was strong agreement between attendees that Moyle’s recommendation of a staged strategy is the best way to approach cost planning. He advised we begin every project with a simple good egg / bad egg test to know whether or not its budget and cost are reconcilable. To do this, he armed us with construction cost averages based on eighteen recent projects on which he has worked:

  • The projects ranged in cost from $430,000 to $4,580,000.
  • They ranged in size from 130sqm to 540sqm.
  • They ranged in cost per square metre from $2,640/sqm to $7,420/sqm[1]. The lower end of the spectrum was still for architect-designed prototypes, but with simple forms, economic building components and basic finishes.

From his analysis, Moyle offered the following observations:

  • The size of a project is not necessarily tied to its construction rate. He had expected that larger projects would be slightly cheaper per square metre due to their economy of scale, but found no such indication. Indeed, the most expensive project per square metre was close to average in size.
  • The form of a project is also not necessarily tied to its construction rate. Most relevant is the complexity of its detailing: a rectilinear box might be simple in form but still have extremely fine detailing and be expensive metre by metre.
  • The average project cost was $1,790,000.
  • The average project size was 344sqm.
  • The average cost per square metre was $4,970/sqm.[2][3]

These were, for us, eye-opening figures. It was only recently that we were telling clients that $3,000/sqm is a generous construction rate at which to aim. But according to Moyle, this is only just over the minimum and will not allow for the design content we know from experience costs more. Yet, for a profession that has surrendered vast swathes of its responsibilities in recent decades (engineering, project management, environmental design etc.), Moyle’s figures are also empowering.

Construction rates are not our own, they are the construction industry’s: we can tweak but not reconfigure them. We need to be less emotionally encumbered by how much a building costs and more objective in communicating with our clients. If a client wants to add a roof deck to her project, it’s okay to be excited by the prospect of designing it while simultaneously informing her how much it’s going to cost. This dual perspective should not be alien to us: architects are, after all, jacks of all trades, skilled at synthesising conflicting agendas into cohesive outcomes.

If we are truly to monitor, manage and maintain a project’s cost, we must do so continuously, all the way up to (and during) construction. This is part of our role as architects, and by mastering this process we can only serve our clients better. No sheepishness, no discomfort, just integrity and hard numbers. There are too many stories of fanciful architects forgetting to check the budget, of projects that finish at twice the cost of where they started. It’s about time we get better at opening up the design process to acknowledge and incorporate cost. Understanding what it costs to build gives us a great deal of control over how a project proceeds or, to extend Moyle’s succinct analogy, whether the mechanic that stays is a joy or a burden.

We encourage you to attend the next instalment of Cost Planning 101 yourself, particularly if you’re interested in learning about the reams of additional advice not covered here. Moyle and Marsh are planning new seminars for 2014. They will repeat those discussed here, plus add Marketing 102 to continue the discussion and address topics not already covered. Once confirmed, details can be found on Moyle‘s website.


Footnotes:

[1] These figures are for new building works and include 15% external works, 5% contingency and 10% GST. The nett range of construction rates excluding these items is $2,030/sqm to $5,710/sqm.
[2] This figure is for new building works and includes external works, contingency and GST. The nett average construction rate is $3,820/sqm.
[3] For renovation works to existing buildings, Moyle suggested reducing the construction rate to 50 – 100% of the new building works rate depending on extent of renovation. For elevated decks, he suggested reducing the rate to 30 – 40%.

Image sources:

  1. Budget craps, Geoffrey Moyle, Cost Planner. Cartoon by John Allison.
  2. Engine block, Automotive Training Centre. Photographer unknown.
  3. Rippleside House option 1, Mihaly Slocombe. Author’s own image.
  4. Rippleside House option 2Mihaly Slocombe. Author’s own image.
  5. Rippleside House option 3Mihaly Slocombe. Author’s own image.
  6. Rippleside House option 4Mihaly Slocombe. Author’s own image.
  7. Rippleside House option 5Mihaly Slocombe. Author’s own image.
  8. Rippleside House option 6Mihaly Slocombe. Author’s own image.

Experimental architecture

kids' pod v1Kids’ Pod v1
Painted cement sheet cladding, timber external batten screen, timber framed strip windows, fixed timber louvres to windows, roof deck, steel ladder

What is it?

Our architectural design process at Mihaly Slocombe is pushed and pulled by many forces, though recent self-reflection has made us realise that perhaps no more so than by the opposing pair of conservatism and experimentalism. The conflict between wanting to be like everyone else and be different from everyone else sends powerful currents rippling beneath the surface of every decision we make.

On the one hand, architecture is a serious undertaking. It requires the commitment of very large sums of money and the preparedness of many people – our clients principal among them – to follow our creative vision even though they might not fully understand it. Spending hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars on an idea that might not work is not an easy sell. We make safe decisions: use details that have been successful in the past; choose materials that we know will be durable; work with consultants and suppliers that we trust.

This approach is not necessarily negative, indeed it leads to buildings that don’t leak, age well, are timeless. It makes sense to develop a common language through our opus that helps each project learn from the last. To paraphrase something we dimly recall Le Corbusier once said: we try to get the details right so the poetry of our ideas might be experienced unencumbered.

On the other hand, architecture is nothing without risk taking. We can’t live up to our duty as custodians of the built environment without venturing into the unknown. Be it a big idea about sustainable urbanism or a small idea about welded steel door handles, we must constantly search for the new: new possibilities for materials, new opportunities for inhabitation, new strategies for urban density.

Risk taking, together with its first cousin experimentation, involve nutting things out: on paper and in the computer within the studio; then with timber and steel in the factory and on site. It means prototyping options, testing the results, tweaking and testing again. It means evaluating materials and systems with our hands and bodies, understanding them at 1:1 scale. And through it all, it means accepting a certain level of uncertainty: the experiment may work brilliantly or maybe not at all.

kids' pod v1.1Kids’ Pod v1.1
Corrugated steel cladding, short timber overlap junctions

kids' pod v1.2
Kids’ Pod v1.2
Long timber overlap junctions

kids' pod v1.3Kids’ Pod v1.3
Galvanised steel vertical support battens

kids' pod v1.4Kids’ Pod v1.4
Timber vertical support battens

kids' pod v1.5Kids’ Pod v1.5
Green powdercoat painted support frame

kids' pod v1.6Kids’ Pod v1.6
Shadowline joins at timber ends

kids' pod v1.7Kids’ Pod v1.7
Overlap joins at timber ends

kids' pod v1.8Kids’ Pod v1.8
Clear sealed cement sheet cladding

kids' pod v1.9Kids’ Pod v1.9
Cement sheet cladding continues up to height of balustrade

kids' pod v1.10
Kids’ Pod v1.10
Clear sealed cement sheet cladding, black powdercoat painted support frame

kids' pod v1.11Kids’ Pod v1.11
3x batten spacings to window louvres

kids' pod v1.12
Kids’ Pod v1.12
4x batten spacings to window louvres

kids' pod v1.14
Kids’ Pod v1.13
5x batten spacings to window louvres

kids' pod v1.15
Kids’ Pod v1.14
6x batten spacings to window louvres

What do we think?

The opposite demands of conservatism and experimentalism enjoy an uneasy and ill-defined truce within our architectural practice. It is hard to know sometimes whether or not we are just reinventing the wheel, a necessary individual journey perhaps but hardly experimental, or whether we are truly striking out into new territory.

The analogy of the baker

bread

The architect spends her days working on projects with unique sites, clients, climates, histories, cultures, contexts and regulations. The ever changing matrix of these ingredients demands invention. Her designs are complex and unique, balancing the demands of their ingredients in new and unexpected ways. But are they experimental, or do they merely apply the same rules to different starting conditions?

In contrast, the baker spends her days baking the same, simple loaves of bread: every day, she makes baguettes, cobs and viennas. Experimentation is easy to detect and control here: an extra pinch of flour, a new seed or grain. It is the teacup principle at work, the daily sameness of the baker’s activity makes any change immediately recognisable.

The baker has three important lessons to offer the architect:

  1. Simplicity. It must always be possible to distil her architecture down to a handful of essential ideas. These ideas drive a project and every decision it demands, from the largest gestures to the smallest details.
  2. Critical self-awareness. She must understand her own design processes, the what, how and why of her decisions. Then she can begin to differentiate her successes from her failures.
  3. Restlessness. She must learn to evolve her ideas outside of the specificities of a project. Only when she can distinguish between reinventing the wheel and true experimentation can she be sure she is pursuing the latter.

kids' pod v2.1 closed

kids' pod v2.1 openKids’ Pod v2.1
Timber cladding, scissor lift external shutters, hit and miss vertical timber battens

kids' pod v2.2 closed

kids' pod v2.1 openKids’ Pod v2.2
CNC routed shiplapped timber lining boards

In his recent Australian lecture tour, Small Projects, Malaysian architect Kevin Low exclaimed gleefully that his own house “leaks like crap”. Before trying something new with a client that might sue or vilify him, he first tries it out on himself. And so, our recent self-reflection has revealed, is the case with us. One of our projects currently under construction and the indirect subject of this article, Kids’ Pod, is for family and so has been the recipient of an unusually high dose of design experimentation.

Our experience of this project has so far been deeply gratifying: relentless design testing in the studio; exhaustive analysis of materials, finishes, junctions and details; collaboration with builder, engineer, craftsman; iterative prototyping in the factory. All of which is only now finding its way onto site.

In the studio, we began with an idea for the identity of the project: a place for grandchildren should be like a supersized cubbyhouse. We sought to embody qualities of robustness, playfulness, theatricality, secrecy, the treetops. We examined every element of the architecture: its programming, siting, proportions, material, fixing, finishing, junctions, span and spacing. We tested materials and interrogated their availability, durability and section sizes; we looked at corner detailing; we investigated the limitations of laser cutting and CNC routing; we examined solar protection options, from fixed louvres to operable shutters. We iterated our design over and over again.

kids' pod v2.2.1 position #1

kids' pod v2.2.1 position #2

kids' pod v2.2.1 position #3Kids’ Pod v2.2.1
Steel shutter prototype

timber prototypesKids’ Pod v2.2.2
CNC routed timber prototypes with varied board widths, varied hole sizes, spacings and depths, varied finishes

In the factory, we needed to discover whether our ideas were both possible and affordable. We worked with our builder and metalworker to devise a prototype for an operable shutter system: we tested cladding weight, examined bearing options, shifted stopping tabs by 10mm. We worked with our timber supplier and CNC router to test cladding board widths, holes sizes and positions. We had our painter coat samples of both external cladding and internal linings with various finishes of various gloss levels. We returned to the studio to extrapolate our findings and then went back to the factory once more.

On site, it is all coming together. Kids’ Pod has a slab, wall framing, services rough-in, roof framing and roof cladding. The operable shutters are pinned temporarily in place while we wait for windows to arrive on site. Once installed, cladding boards will be installed, then insulation, internal linings, services fit-off, joinery, finishes.

We have yet to confirm how we will lift the operable shutters: we have ideas, but they have yet to be tested. We will order some components – a cheap boat winch, a couple of electrical switches, some wiring – and see whether they work. Fingers crossed our mathematic equations will permit the shutters to break smoothly open and not bind on themselves. We have yet also to decide on the finish for the timber cladding: do we want it to retain its colour or grey off? We will investigate the best sealers to use to achieve both the former and the latter.

What can we learn?

Architecture is a long game, with development in our ideas and processes leap-frogging across projects that take years to execute. It is tempting for us to err towards conservatism, easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture. The complacent architect responds by falling on the crutch of familiarity, but the genius manages miraculously to hold onto the trajectory of the bigger picture. It is whispered for instance that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had only one design idea, which he used for all his projects and evolved carefully across decades.

We can aspire to Mies van der Rohe’s commitment and self-awareness (though perhaps not his myopic focus). In a philosophical sense, this means an abundance of deep thought and self-reflection: a dedication to the long play. Practically, it means establishing the rigour of critique, regular intra- and inter-studio design reviews whose aim it is to draw out the meanings of things.

It also means a commitment to research and experimentation: architecture exists at the intersection of ideas and making. These realms collide in all sorts of interesting ways, both limiting and accelerating the other. A thought on paper is just as easily resolved as hindered by the exigencies of craft. It’s only when we put them together, shift from the representation of the thing to the thing itself, the architecture, that we can find out whether or not our ideas will work. And so it comes back to risk taking and the value of experimentation.

We guess it’s not called architecture practice for nothing.

kids' pod on site nw

kids' pod on site neKids’ Pod v3
On site, construction underway

Flinders Street Station Design Competition

Flinders Street Station from the northeast, courtesy of Major Projects Victoria

What is it?

An international design competition to redevelop Flinders Street Station, Melbourne’s busiest train station and home to 200,000 passenger visits a day. With a site area of over 40,000sqm and a significant presence between the Hoddle grid and Yarra River, the competition offers one of the city’s most important opportunities to redefine its southern urban edge and relationship to the river.

What do we think?

117 entrants from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, China and others submitted their Stage 1 proposals a few weeks ago, with competition organiser Major Projects Victoria (MPV) announcing the shortlist on Sunday afternoon:

  • Ashton Raggatt McDougall
  • John Wardle Architects + Grimshaw
  • HASSELL + Herzog and de Meuron
  • NH Architecture
  • Eduardo Velasquez + Manuel Pineda + Santiago Medina
  • Zaha Hadid Architecture + BVN Architecture

The 6 shortlisted projects will proceed to Stage 2 and undergo significant extra detailed design to resolve structure, services, finances and universal access. Despite their selection, they have yet to be released to the public and are not slated to be for some time yet, thus it is impossible to judge what sort of vision they each propose for the station precinct. MPV have promised they will stage an exhibition of all entries at the conclusion of Stage 2, some time in the middle of next year.

We aren’t certain why they are electing to wait so long, particularly when there is so much discussion of, and enthusiasm for, the competition at the moment. We sincerely hope the promised publicity does not get conveniently forgotten. The studios that entered the competition deserve to have their hard work rewarded with public exposure, the architecture profession deserves insight into the competition process, and the population of Melbourne deserves the chance to discuss the aspirations and future direction of their city.

This competition is an unsurpassed chance to start a conversation about Melbourne, about what it is and what we want it to be. The exhibition should happen right now.

Our competition proposal viewed from St. Pauls Cathedral

Our own submission, a collaboration between Mihaly Slocombe, Steve Rose Architect and Foong + Sormann, may not have been shortlisted but it has left us with lingering insights into the city, the challenges and benefits of teamwork, and the real value of architectural competitions.

What did we learn?


The north bank of the Yarra River

The city

The Hoddle Grid both defines and binds Melbourne. It provides order, a hierarchy of streets that encompasses the largest of thoroughfares and smallest of laneways, and supports towering office buildings and tiny clothing boutiques alike. And it crafts identity, a clear edge marking the extent of the city, a quality never more necessary than today, where the inexorable sprawl of greater Melbourne establishes an ever-increasing gulf between the centre and its fringes.

But this order and identity also limit the city, rendering uncertain its relationship with surrounding areas, whose urban plans reorient and dissolve the grid. This is no more evident than towards the south, where the city, despite 150 years of European settlement, still doesn’t know how it should behave. What was once a means for industry, the Yarra River is trying to redefine itself as a source of leisure and entertainment, yet the grid generally and Flinders Street Station specifically continue to obstruct this objective.

In rethinking the station as a conduit via which the city might connect to the river and beyond to the arts and leisure precincts of Southbank, we gained insight into Melbourne’s ballooning affluence and shifting aspirations. We learnt that cars and roads are the opposite of a new connectivity now recognised as the most optimistic path forward for Melbourne. Long gone is the 9am – 5pm central business district of the 1980s: what has usurped it is a rich and diverse urban environment open 24 hours a day and plugging directly into the natural and cultural resources around it.

An interface between programme (farmers market) and landscape (vegetable garden)

Canoe in Rapids by Winslow Homer, 1897

Teamwork: the analogy of the river

Belonging to a competition team that comprises three small studios, each with aspirations for, and talent in, design is like navigating a swiftly moving river in a three-man canoe.

Momentum must at first be extracted from nothing, yet in time it develops a life of its own, carrying the boat on a strong and irresistible current. The river has many forks, with some tributaries running true, others meandering maddeningly and still others ending abruptly. It is also of unknown length: the time taken to reach its end has a strict deadline, but the amount of rowing required to get there is impossible to predict. And through it all, rocks and eddies threaten to capsize or beach the boat at any moment, demanding vigilance and care.

When all is said and done however, three oars are better than one. Once they fall into a complimentary rhythm, the boat begins to eat up kilometre after kilometre, the river speeding by beneath the hull. There is a sense of synergy, that more is being achieved together than the single rowers could ever hope to achieve alone. And finally, there is the undeniable attraction of camaraderie: companions with whom to share the journey and celebrate its conclusion.

Our revised, luminous Elizabeth Street clocktower

International competitions

The competition guidelines enforced the strict adherence to anonymity, with submissions prevented from incorporating any “name, business name or logo, motto, identification or distinguishing mark”. Despite this, one juror confided to us that 80% of all 117 entries were recognisable. Such recognition went staunchly undiscussed, but we imagine it can’t have helped but nuanced the jury’s conversations and influenced their decisions. Thus it was without surprise that we accurately guessed 4 of the 6 shortlisted entrants.

On the one hand, we could argue that the big names in the shortlist deserve to be there a priori. Zaha Hadid and Herzog and de Meuron are world renowned starchitects, lending gravitas to any competition they enter. ARM and John Wardle Architects are local heroes, producing fine work of significant scale and importance. But on the other hand, what is the likelihood that the entries of all 4 were so much better than 111 other proposals?

The cynic in us suspects that the jury, easily recognising a Zaha Hadid project when it’s handed to them on a silver platter, had no choice (consciously acknowledged or otherwise) but to include it on the shortlist. The State Government and MPV, for their parts, have wasted no time in extolling the virtues of their star-studded cast, we imagine giddy with excitement over the possibility of commissioning the next Guggenheim. Minister for Major Projects, Denis Napthine, said that “this competition has always been about finding the best local and international talent to reinvigorate Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street Station precinct and looking at this shortlist I think we’ve managed to do that.”

Is it just us, or was the purpose of this competition to find the best architectural proposals to reinvigorate the Flinders Street Station precinct? A subtle distinction, but an important one.

At any rate, entering an international competition was a task we undertook with eyes wide open. We knew there was a strong likelihood we would be competing against a large number of established architectural studios both locally and globally, studios with greater resources and competition experience than our own. Between our three practices, we may have dedicated 350 hours to the competition, but this pales into insignificance when compared to the 19-strong project team of HASSELL + Herzog de Meuron. We knew also that there was little chance MPV would include such small, relatively unknown practices on the shortlist (our hats off therefore to the young and energetic Eduardo Velásquez + Manuel Alejandro Pineda + Santiago Medina).

From the outset, it was inevitable we would not win. Luckily though, winning was not our primary objective. Nor was it our secondary, or tertiary.

The real value in entering competitions is a topic we discussed some time ago, in a strangely prophetic response to a critic of their propagation. Now, as in then, we remain very clear why we entered the Flinders Street Station Design Competition.

We entered to learn something about our city. We entered to expand our design horizons beyond the much smaller work that makes up our regular practices. We entered to test our capabilities. We entered to learn how to work in a team of passionate designers. We entered to fill out our websites with another concluded project. We entered to enjoy ourselves. Most of all, we entered so we could be involved. The redevelopment of Flinders Street Station is our generation’s Federation Square: a project so big and so important it has the power to change a city. No way were we going to pass up that golden opportunity.

Landscape in the city: a public garden at the edge of urban grid and river

Competitions will continue to be an important part of our practice, a well-spaced but reliably consistent interlude between our typical projects. They push us, improve us and may one day even win us a commission. Perhaps next time we’ll opt for something a touch less ambitious than an international competition with a site the size of two city blocks… Maybe a project only 50 times the size of our biggest house.