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

Architecture is slow

The 24th instalment in a series of lessons learned over the years. What do I know now that I didn’t then? What wisdom would I impart to my younger self, given the opportunity?

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

24. Architecture is slow

litle turtle

In our university days, a project took precisely 12 weeks: no matter how resolved it was, come the end of semester we presented, were judged and moved on. In practice, 12 weeks is a blink of an eye. Hill House, our first project, took us six years to complete. Basser House and Farmer House took us three. Howard Street is an ongoing labour of love, five years old and counting. The musician has an enviable relationship with her art: design and feedback are simultaneous. Architecture is the opposite… slow.

The slowness of architecture has a few notable effects on architecture practice.

First, it is no coincidence that architects are considered young until at the very least we’re 40 (the digital maestros of Silicone Valley are considered ancient once they’re 30). It’s remarkable that the great Oscar Niemeyer continued working until his recent death at the age of 105, but maybe it was just because it took him so long to get started.

Second, it takes decades to explore, test, refine and perfect new ideas. A steel door handle detail we designed for Farmer House in July of 2012 is only now being fabricated. It may be many months until we use the idea on a subsequent project, and many years until we resolve it to a point that we feel sufficiently comfortable to use it with abandon.

Third, the growth of our practice matches the pace of our projects. We established Mihaly Slocombe in 2010 and are only now reaching the end of our first round of built projects. We have a graduate working with us part time now, which represents a 50% boost in personnel. We’re very busy, but in no need of further expansion at the moment. This is a glacial growth rate when we compare ourselves to a friend of ours who started a yoga studio not long after us – she is already in the process of opening her sixth outlet.

Fourth and perhaps obviously, architecture requires patience. The approach required to be a successful architect has a lot in common with long distance running. Every step must be considered in the context of dozens of kilometres, every ounce of exertion measured against the hours of running still to be done, every moment of pain acknowledged as advanced payment for the glory that awaits at the finishing line.

Architecture is slow.


Image source:

  1. Little turtle. Mr. Wallpaper, copyright Ines Martinez.

Leap of faith

What’s on Your Desk? – November Process

We attended Process at Loop earlier this month, a session of the Australian Institute of Architects‘ long running young architects’ talks entitled, What’s on Your Desk? Presenting current projects and a few miscellaneous ideas were our friend and colleague, Steve Rose, together with Jack May and Andy Yu.


Killing Time by Ricky Swallow

Standout content included Rose’s neat life-imitates-art-imitates-life reference of Ricky Swallow‘s Killing Time that explored draped stone detailing for his kitchen benchtop. Of lasting interest, and the subject of this post, was a discussion sparked by Yu’s explanation of what he called, Unsolicited Architecture. Inspired by his lack of what he referred to as the holy trinity of young architects – rich family, rich uncles and rich friends – he explained he is forced to produce the architecture first and find the clients later.

In most instances, the realisation of this idea in Yu’s work is less aggressive than it sounds, relying principally on competition entries. However, it sparked an interesting question from the audience, wanting to know how Yu made a living off this approach to practice. Yu’s answer was: he doesn’t. He works full time elsewhere and undertakes competition entries and small collaborative projects in his spare time. This was a somewhat deflating response that diminished our perception of Yu’s determination to succeed in architecture: working from the safety net of a salaried job, he can afford to dabble during evenings and weekends. Far more exciting would be an individual risking all on the value of his ideas, Howard Roark style, creating architecture then finding clients to pay him.

Following this question, Rose, the most established of the three architects and the only one with built projects to his name, was asked how he got himself started on his own. He responded by revealing a promise he had made himself while still employed at Perkins Architects: when he was able to accumulate 4 private jobs simultaneously, he would start out on his own. We asked, why 4? He admitted that while it was in large part economical, it was also gut feeling: 4 projects were involved enough to keep him busy and numerous enough to provide sufficient buffer against a couple of them drying up.

This got us thinking, what did it take for us to make our leap of faith?

For starters, ours was less a leap than a gradual submersion. It started with our first commission in early 2000 to design Hill House for my parents while we were still students. We finished this project a few months before I graduated in 2006. To maintain progress on our second built work, Basser House, I kept Mondays free while working 4 days a week with Perkins Architects (where I met Rose).

In 2009, with a few years of experience under our belts, we decided we would travel, see the world and live in Milan, Italy. It was a natural break in our work lives, so without labouring the idea too much we established our company, Mihaly Slocombe. It was less a decision than an intuitive inevitability. We kept working on a couple of projects while we travelled, though not regularly. Our travel instead evolved, as it does for many architects, into an architectural pilgrimage: we experienced many great buildings across the Northern Territory, Asia and Europe.

Upon our return before Christmas 2010, more worldly and inspired, we resumed work on a full time basis with three or four active projects. Cashflow proved an early stumbling block however that required Erica to seek contract work with O’Connor and Houle for a period. By the end of the year, our project list grew to six or seven and Erica returned to Mihaly Slocombe. Though we are always on the lookout for more work, this number of projects is just enough to sustain us.

What have we learnt?

Reflecting on the evolution of our practice, it is clear that we should not be so quick to judge Yu’s safety net. Ours is a well-established trajectory that relies on knowing (or being related to) the right people, the early cushion of  salaried jobs, plenty of hard work and word of mouth. Though we enter an architecture competition at least once a year, we have yet to receive paid work through this avenue. Instead, with the exception of one current project, all our projects to date have come through an ever-expanding circle of relatives, friends and friends-of-friends. The exception, Farmer House, came to us thanks to determined self-publicisation by way of awards, exhibitions and publications.

Such is the power of word of mouth that had my parents wanted a restaurant fitout or a factory or a library instead of a house, we are certain Mihaly Slocombe would look very different from how it does today. Thus Yu’s holy trinity is both an invaluable source for project commissions as well as a significant determining factor in the shape and direction of an architecture studio.

Beyond today, we understand that the most reliable way of securing longevity is to seek clients in as many ways as possible. Our social network will always remain an important element of this, but so we hope will competitions, expressions of interest, awards, printed media publicity and social media presence. We never know who will want us to design a project for them next, nor how they’ll find us, so it’s best we be prepared.

Come see me participate in the upcoming December Process, which will have me polishing my rusty high school debating skills in response to the question: Are competitions beneficial to architectural practice?

Reinventing the wheel

On more than one occasion, we have overheard builders grumble about architects’ inexplicable need to constantly reinvent the wheel. These builders are invariably referring to the sophistication of our construction details and how difficult they are to execute.

Why do we constantly reinvent the wheel? The answer, after years of occasional reflection and contemplation, is pretty straightforward. It is a matter of priorities.

The aforementioned builder’s paradigm (which is thankfully not shared by all builders), demonstrating expertise in standard detailing and familiarity with the cost and availability of building materials, is bound by the tradition of expediency. A cursory inspection of many of the details we see in vernacular construction reveals a widespread and committed dedication to this tradition: face-affixed skirtings hide the floor to wall junction and make plastering easier; ceiling grids remove the need for plaster stopping altogether; hipped roofs minimise tricky edge flashing; weather beading on windows make use of standard timber dowel sizes; floating floorboards eliminate the need for gluing and nailing; expensive cupboard faces hide cheap joinery carcasses and expensive carpet hides cheap chipboard; veneers of all kinds may be inexpensive but they are dishonest.

Expediency is the enemy of the architect.

The architect values quality, craftsmanship and excellence. We seek the truth in structure and materials, and dedicate our designs to their expression. We do not assemble materials in a certain way because that’s how it has always been done, or those were what was available at the hardware store. We start with first principles, endeavouring to discover the heart of a problem and ensuring all that follows seeks its eloquent resolution. We recognise that our buildings are intended to last lifetimes and deserve careful consideration across all their dimensions.


All photos of Hill House by Mihaly Slocombe, 2006

The wheel is fine as it is, if all we want to do is travel from A to B. As architects, we hope instead to savour the journey.

Twirl photography


Original photo: Hill House by Mihaly Slocombe


Original photo: Basser House by Mihaly Slocombe

What is it?

An interesting photography manipulation technique for Photoshop learned via The Artist Makena and Digital Darkroom Techniques:

  1. Start with any photo
  2. Filter > Pixelate > Mezzotint > Medium lines
  3. Filter > Blur > Radial blur (slider = 100, blur method = zoom, quality = best)
  4. Repeat step 3 up to 5 times, as desired
  5. Duplicate layer
  6. Remain on original layer. Filter > Distort > Twirl (angle value = +80 or as desired)
  7. Select new layer. Filter > Distort > Twirl (angle value = -80 or opposite of step 6 angle value)
  8. Alter new layer’s blending mode to lighten
  9. Merge layers
  10. Finish

The secret: do good work then put it where people can see it

This post is part 6 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

6. The secret: do good work then put it where people can see it

Like it or not, buildings cost money, lots of money. Of all the arts, architecture is in many ways alone in this respect – concrete, timber, glass and steel all cost far more than the architect can afford himself. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how brilliant your ideas if you can’t find someone to pay for them to be built.

Knowing people with money and the need for architectural services is an important ingredient to starting an architectural practice, but so is having your work seen by your prospective clients, that is, the rest of the world.

In architecture, where word-of-mouth is king, your best advertising weapon is your work itself. So the not-so-secret secret is to do good work and put it where people can see it. The first step is hard yakka and there are no shortcuts – do work, seek feedback from your peers, improve, do more work. The second step used to be hard but is easier today than it has ever been, all thanks to the internet. Putting up your shingle (simply being available) and a handful of local architectural journals are no longer the only outlets for your work: there are online building databases, international awards programs and ideas competitions happening all the time, in every corner of the globe. Submit every project, both paper and realised, as often as you can and to as many places as you can – you never know where one good win will lead.

True story:

We submitted one of our finished projects, Hill House, for the House of the Year competition held by World Architecture News, an English architectural resource, where it was long-listed. A scout for a Canadian television show, World’s Greenest Homes, saw the project and contacted us via American social network, Facebook. After it aired, we received enquiries from potential clients across Australia – here in Melbourne, in Canberra and in Perth.

Do good work then put it where people can see it.

Side projects and hobbies are important

This post is part 5 of an adaptation of How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)this engaging and instructive essay by Austin Kleon, a Texan artist and writer. Kleon states that “when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.” What follows here is me talking to a previous version of myself, one 10 years younger, hopelessly naive and about to embark on a life in architecture.

5. Side projects and hobbies are important

Time and time again, history has shown that side projects can turn up trumps. Google Maps is famously the result of a side project, Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout poetry started life as a side project, my first ever building, Hill House, was a side project – designed, documented and built while I was still a student, and the foundation of our architectural practice today.

Side projects and hobbies occupy a unique mental space – no matter how difficult or serious they are, they never feel like “real work”. They are the things we to do relax, but can nevertheless be extraordinarily productive.

I have two such side projects: I write this blog, an activity that is cerebral but requires far less diligence than the work I do as an architect. The articles are short, simple, easy – I write them while I eat lunch or instead of reading before bed. I draw a lot too – I am up to the 32nd volume of my sketchbooks, a constant companion since my first year of architecture studies in 1999. Both contribute actively to my architectural work and who knows, one day we may get famous because of them.

Side projects and hobbies are important.