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Architects who Build – Interview with Clinton Cole

Clinton Cole is the founder of Sydney based Architecture & building practice CplusC. As both a registered Architect and licensed Builder, Clinton does not separate Architecture or design from the craft of building.

I recently interviewed Clinton who contributed to an article entitled ‘Why Architects Need To Get Back Onto The Construction Site’. Below is my full interview with Clinton who talks about his experience of working within the dual industries of Architecture and building.

The following conversation with Clinton raises a number of interesting questions, themes, opportunities, advantages and liabilities that exist when operating in his unique position.

LB: Rather than separating the two trades, why do you practice as both an Architect and Builder?

CC: I have no memory of not having the desire to both create and build. I grew up in regional NSW and our house was nestled at the edge of a town where there were more buildings sites than buildings and therefore plenty of ‘scrap’ materials to make things with. I regularly worked alongside my father who was a plumber and I had access to his tools and workspace in our garage. Tree houses and bows & arrows escalated into souped up billy carts, and a half pipe. I was also very lucky to attend a high school which had fabrication workshops, brilliant ceramics and art teachers and a great engineering science teacher. These environments contributed to the decision to pursue Architecture and construction simultaneously. Experimenting with materials and tools to design and make things that can be enjoyed by others has always made me happy. I practice as an Architect and Builder because that is the contemporary framework that defines what I do although the differentiation has always been a little lost on me.

For an industry which has some of the most brilliant problem solving minds and the most capacity to think laterally of any profession I have always struggled to understand why the very industry we rely upon to build our projects are almost invisible in the contemporary discussion of Architecture and its critique, particularly given the phenomenon of ‘two trades’ was formalised only 100 or so years ago. Architects focus on a large number of small issues with only peripheral exploration of one of the most obvious solutions to our collective issues, a solution that stares at us plainly, sometimes painfully, and always with great frustration, every day we go to work. Traditional Architectural services as they have been performed for the past 100 years are dying a very slow and painful death and the bulk of our issues around low incomes, long hours of work, lack of recognition, relegation to sub-consultant status under a Project Manager, novation to Builders and partial services concluding at 1:100 scale drawings are clear signs that our struggle for relevance and ineffective cries of advocacy are symptomatic of a professional model that has reached its expiration date.

The real question to me is why are there so few Architects who build? Industry associations, educational institutions and registration boards maintain an indoctrinated mantra that will ultimately consume them if they are unwilling or, as the case may be, incapable of change. They are a considerable obstacle to side step, both structurally and politically, before the real issues can be addressed.

CplusC-Curl-CurlResidence

Left: Curl Curl Residence Right: Curl Curl Residence

LB: Can you describe your work and the most rewarding aspect operating in both Architecture and building?

CC: I believe that each project should take both the successes and the failures of our last project and refine and resolve those outcomes for the benefit of the next. The additional layer of construction, costing, project management and past paced cashflow management presents significant opportunities for growth, refinement and opportunity compared to traditional Architectural services. It is rewarding to see the unique operation of our business become more widely recognised and to be in a position where I can assist others pursuing this model.

All of my work is a work in progress until I hand over the keys to a Client. Our projects then become a liability. An Architect walks away from a project upon completion with hopefully some great photographs and a happy Client. As both Architect and Builder we resolve any warranty issues with the building for 6-7 years after it is handed over to the Client and this includes any subsequent owner of the property in NSW (a similar obligation exists in all other states and territories of Australia). This obligation is a critical difference between Architects and Builders and whilst I wouldn’t describe it as ‘rewarding’ in the typical sense of the word the reward at the end of the day is knowledge. The warranty obligation (FYI: no license or warranty is required to act the Builder for commercial work in NSW) provides invaluable insight into how buildings age, leak, crack, move, wear etc. It’s like a very long and, from time to time, costly Post-Occupancy evaluation. These days the issues we have are very minor in nature and generally relate to settlement of the building.

CplusC-Bowen-Mountain-Residence

Left: Bowen Mountain Residence Right: Bowen Mountain Residence

LB: What are the advantages and disadvantages of both designing and building? 

CC: There is a certain freedom created by the working cash flow and capital that our construction services provide and this is advantageous to a small Architectural practice of 10 staff. We focus on what is important for all the projects we have on the drawing board. We are fortunate to be in a position where we can work with Clients that we want to work with rather than Clients we need to work with to maintain the design revenue stream. If we are slow in the ‘new design project’ department most of our staff can hop into a construction admin or site role. I view our total project workload as a single workload with our margins considered as a total goal rather than a set of individual goals and similarly the estimated project hours of staff are considered in terms of our total workload. I adopted this strategy in 2011 and it is allowing us to take on smaller projects, speculative projects, the occasional competition and to invest more time than we may have had on paper in terms of hours for a particular stage of a project. This allows more time to be allocated to projects which go through difficult design development stages, ensuring projects are not rushed simply to get an invoice issued. The drive to get the design and budget right is accentuated when you know you will be on site building the project and carrying those responsibilities first hand.

Budget and quality control in addition to speed are the primary advantages to both designing and building your own projects. Dealing directly with the Client from concept through to the construction phase is also an advantage but requires stringent quality control and communication systems to be adhered to by all staff to ensure expectations are met and promises are delivered in what is typically a highly emotional, fast paced environment for the average residential Client A comment made by a Client during the first design meeting is sometimes raised 18 months later just before handover of the built work and there are no excuses if it has been overlooked. Our practice essentially uses construction as a vehicle to ensure expectations are met, promises are kept and projects are built.

There is very little contemporary precedent for the structure of CplusC and this has been a disadvantage that has taken many years to turn around. Licensing, registration, insurances, contract structures and award classification of staff took many years to resolve when I started the practice. I have heard that Jackson Teece had a construction company that existed as a separate entity (unlike CplusC) and they built the first Medibank building in the ACT and the old stock exchange on Bond Street in Sydney but I’ve been unable to find much information on this. Lend Lease similarly separate their design and construction entities. Monster practices GHD Group and AECOM Australia do offer both services in house but under more of a Project Management or Construction Management model.

There have been numerous hurdles we have had to overcome in developing a business that delivers both Architectural and construction services through a single entity. I have had to work very hard to turn these challenges into an advantageous business model and as a result of this process I have a heightened awareness of the adversarial relationship between the Architectural and construction industries.

LB. In what way do you hope your work contributes to the practice and perception of Architecture?

CC: Architecture is invisible to the majority. There is very little understanding of what Architects actually do amongst the broader community. Architects surround themselves with other Architects, read Architectural literature, join Architectural associations and industry bodies and many form personal and business relationships (and often both) with other Architects. There is no denying that the inherent value of an Architect and an Architectural service is appreciated and accessible (at least directly) by a small minority.

Amongst the wider community there are misunderstandings about what we do. There is significant fear of the unfamiliar of a seemingly intangible service, a lack of confidence in what we do due to ‘when things go wrong’ horror stories that circulate through the community until they become urban legend, difficulties in accessing our services for lower budget projects and a statutory protection issue with the use of the title ‘Architect’ which has, in my opinion, contributed to a generation of graduates who cannot explain to their family and friends why they have studied for so long and have no legal right to call themselves a Graduate Architect. I suspect the high attrition rate of architectural graduates has something to do with this demoralising Limbo’ status in the true Dante’s Inferno sense of the word.  The perception of what an Architect can provide and whom they can provide it to needs to change but this will not occur without first dismantling the root causes of indoctrination and the industry coming to terms with the fact that the days of operating as the elitist educated Architectural class are unsustainable. Whilst there are many Architects that I respect (and Building Designers and draftspersons for that matter) they are too few in number in the context of an industry whose collective level of “reasonable competency” is arguably less competent than it was every moment it continues to maintain its distance from the construction industry.

I hope to improve the perception of Architecture to the broader community in the way CplusC practice as both Architect and Builder. The dual role allows us to take on small projects and build only projects, share our expertise with family, friends, locals and peers and break down the perception of Architects as pie in the sky hyper-theorists (whilst keeping the fact that we are pie in the sky hyper theorists to ourselves). I don’t believe Architectural associations are doing anything meaningful to improve the perception of Architects and Architecture to the broader community. Publicising glossy images of our annual best of the best is not meaningful advocacy, nor is the occasional quote in the paper from our Chapter Presidents about how they were not consulted over major developments.

CplusC-Tennyson-Point-Residence

Left: Tennyson Point Residence Right: Tennyson Point Residence

 LB. Given your unique position, how do you think CplusC is perceived in the industry both in Architecture and building?

CC: I guess ultimately how we are perceived is largely unimportant with respect to other Architects and Builders as they are generally not my Clients. With involvement in both industry associations I have and continue to sit on both sides of the ‘off form concrete fence’. Some peers regard me as a valuable source of information. When a phone call from a friend starts with “I need advice from the brains trust” it usually means they are in a pickle with their Builder during administration of construction and knowing the building side intimately means I can provide a diplomatic solution and limit the need for a legal solution.

LB. How do you see the future for the education of Architecture?

It is clearly unrealistic to expect every Architect to study to become a Builder but the causes of the increasing divide between the industries must clearly be addressed. I am aware of other countries that have:

–        separated Architectural studies into design Architects and construction Architects

–        have Architectural Technicians who specifically focus on construction aspects of a project

–        place the responsibility of certification of the built work on the Architect.

Over the past decade I have become increasingly concerned with the education of Architecture and our industries endless pursuit of Architectural enlightenment in the abstract. This is about the perception each University is trying to create to attract students rather than what students really need in an education. We need to focus on how our skills can be regarded as valuable to the broader community. Many of our University faculties are so far removed from the reality of building built that the construction industry is almost without alternative to gnaw away at the profession at the request of consumers and Developers who want more than just design quality in a project.

I was fortunate to study under Camilla Block, Anita Morandini, Henry Wolf, Keiran McInerney, Col James, Anna Rubbo and Tone Wheeler. Many design tutors employed today share their limited experience with students and few concede the fact that they are really substituting their low practice incomes necessitate, and ultimately reciprocate, unlawful employment practices to survive. We need to put our dreams of grandeur on hold for a while and work out how we can make a more valuable contribution to the broader community of this big beautiful island we live on and I believe we can do this in a uniquely Australian way. Many students and Architects pursue charity work simply to get in touch with the real world and real people in a directly hands on way without the burden of regulation and bureaucracy and in search of a more meaningful existence as an Architect. If our educators stopped siloing the education of Architects and exposed them to opportunities for recursive knowledge in the building industry we will all be better off in the long run. Imagine if every Architectural student was required to spend at least 12 months with a Builder either on site (for hands on experience) or in their office (for construction management and administration experience) during the course of their studies. This would shape a better industry for both, provide greater benefit to consumers, reduce litigation, and broaden employment opportunities for graduates. Perhaps architecture should be an apprenticeship substituted by course work much like a Certificate 4 in Building through TAFE NSW.

CplusC-Queens-Park-Residence

Left: Queens Park Residence Right: Queens Park Residence

 LB. You currently operate primarily in the realm of residential works. With the understanding that your buildings inform your Architecture and your Architecture informs your building where do you hope to take CplusC?

CC: CplusC are presently capable of taking on projects between $10-$20M as both Architects and Builders and this is what I am working towards over the next 3 years. Our ultimate design project is budget specific in terms of the management structure and growth of our company and whether that aim is achieved in a multi-unit residential project, a public building or 100 pre-fabricated houses is less important. All interest me and critical to this pursuit is ensuring our model maintains the capacity to assist a great Client with a 500k alterations project.

An ultimate design project would be a public building in Australia in the $50-$100M budget range where we acted as both Architect and Builder. I believe we can achieve this within the next 10 years. The confidence that the general public would have in Architects would be significantly improved if we were able to successfully deliver a project of this scale. Until that occurs Architects will increasingly find their contracts novated to a Builders and their role in our built environment increasingly reduced to that of creating eye candy, unbuilt renders and endless conversations about how misunderstood we all are.

LB. Where do you see the architectural industry heading in Australia?

In the context of the scale and political might of the construction industry our voice has very little impact and it is by our own hand, our own arrogance, our collective delusion and our fixation with what worked for a handful of our role models over the past 100 years that will continue to cure the concrete boots we seem ever comfortable walking in. I don’t care how many awards you have won, what the AIA spruiks about you, or which International Publication you have been featured, in the most part it is only other Architects that take any notice and the occasional Lord Mayor looking for a cultural ego boost (which is ultimately not a bad thing). Our industry has become a little desperate, somewhat needy and very afraid of embracing change with the exception of outsourcing abroad to lower fees.

With the liberating opportunities technology now provides, the uniquely ‘isolated’ built environment our businesses operate in, a great economy and a mostly happy population I think the Australian Architectural industry has more potential and capacity to take control of its own destiny now more than any other time or place in our history.

I’d like to thank Clinton not only for participating in the interview but also for being a great mentor (who also listens to great music!). If you’re interested in getting in touch or finding out more about CplusC, visit their website. You can also follow Clinton on twitter.

If you are interested in being interviewed and featured on archi-ninja, please contact me.

 

Discussion

2 comments for “Architects who Build – Interview with Clinton Cole”

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  • Julius Mitchell

    I thank Clinton Cole for pointing these problems out in architecture, I grew up in almost the very same conditions as he did but in America in St. Louis MO. My step-father is an electrician and upon graduating I spent some time landscaping went to the Marine Corp and finally was able to able to pursue my dream of becoming an Architect. I studied and got my Bachelors at SIU Carbondale, A lot if not most of my education unlike Clinton Cole’s was about abstract design. We had tech classes but emphasis was placed more on design than on technical aspects. When I graduated I was very unsure I was ready to contribute to a architecture firm. I didn’t know enough about buildings to be an effective designer. I could model out my ideas but when it came down to details I didn’t know what all options I had. When I finally started Grad School at the same University they were now focusing more on graphics and design process than on construction drawings. I believe that most of my education was based to much on design and less on how I can effectively contribute to a architecture firm from start to finish. I eventually dropped out of school because of family issues my father was sick. I chose not to try to get a job in architecture for the very reasons in this article and chose to get away form architecture and architects entirely (a civil engineer gave me this advice and I stuck to it). I chose to do construction and now am a union pipefitter. I love like Clinton loves doing both. I hope to get back into architecture are become a civil engineer. I really just don’t want to be able to do both.

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