Today we chat with Wesley Spencer from RARA Architecture. Wesley's been a regular contributor on Lunchbox Architect and we always love hearing his insights on design, practice and, now, discovering his very mild superpower...

Chicken Wraps and Upside Down Barrel Vaults with Wesley Spencer

Brodie: It's Lunch with an Architect, so the question on everyone's lips: what's your go-to lunch choice?

Wesley: It's a chicken wrap with some lettuce. Very simple and straightforward.

So what drew you to architecture, Wesley?

I wanted to become an architect since I was 12. The sequence of events was me walking Dad through the house, saying, 'if we put a window here, it will capture the north light. And if we do an extension, that will make the proportions of this room better and the dining table would fit more comfortably.' And he just turns to me, and he said, 'Why do you want to become a lawyer?' And I said, 'so I can so I can make lots of money, and design beautiful houses.' I was fully committed to being as successful and rich as possible so I could do this to the point that, at 12, I had already had my dad purchase me law books. So he just goes, 'well, if that's what you love, why don't you just become an architect?' And I said, 'what's an architect?' And he goes, 'it's a person whose job it is to design houses.' And I said, 'there's a job for that?!' So that was it locked in stone, never even wavered for a minute, never wanted to be anything else.

I had an ear problem when I was a little boy, so I wasn't allowed to go to the weekly swimming class with my school. And so I was forced to stay at school and draw. I would sit there drawing houses, I became quite obsessed with it.

From year seven, all the way through, I'd go to the careers night and hassle the architects and show them my plans. Then, by year eight, I decided that I wanted to go to Deakin University because I'd read all the reviews about the different universities and at that time. So I'd already picked my university, already stressing about my ENTER score from year eight and I got into Deakin, just like I wanted.

It was really never really a question was it, once you'd decided?

No, not at all. There was a bit of a love-hate relationship, because about a year after I graduated, we went through the GFC and architects were particularly hit by by that. Then there was the introduction of Building the Education Revolution financial support from the government, which was funding to build new buildings for schools around the country. And so, suddenly, there was plenty of work for architects and I got a job, but the problem was, it also attracted offshore architects. People from Ireland, Germany, all the architects flooded to Australia, because they knew that there were jobs. Then once those projects ended, they hung around. So we only made the problem worse over the long run. After that, I just decided I didn't want to do educational buildings or medical-related buildings, I just wanted to do houses, which is where my passion came from, right from when I was a kid. I was never really interested in commercial buildings or that sort of thing. And so, as the business has grown we've started to narrow it down to houses and living because that's what we love.

Monolith House by RARA Architecture

Speaking of business, what made you want to start your own practice?

When we had that global financial crisis, the best I could do at the time was to get a six-month contract, then a two-month contract, so I ended up hopping around from practice to practice, and pretty much just fix the problem they had and then they'd sort of move me on. It was a horrible, horrible experience. So, because I got this experience working for so many different small practices, I got to see a lot of how they operate and I was full of ideas about how I would like to do things better. So eventually, after I became registered, I just thought, why don't I just start my own thing? And so I did.

For my first project, friends of mine said, 'Oh, we've got a friend who's opening a bar, why don't you design his bar?' So I charged him a completely nothing fee and got completely involved in it to such a point that I actually was helping with the building of the bar to keep it under budget and it was my first project and I wanted to make a good impression. And so there you go, that's how I got started. The bar closed down, so don't ask to go there.

Haha, okay, we won't talk about that! Okay, for a bit of a change of scenery, what is your very mild superpower?

All of the architectural work I do comes from a passion but, at the same time, it's not for me. So, from a long time ago, I realised, you're providing a service to somebody who's employing you to design something that specifically caters to them. So, you have to be able to observe and tap into their style and create something that responds to that or synergises with that. It's not that it's a gift, it's a superpower that's born of observation and training and it's something that I've spent years cultivating, paying attention to personality characteristics that I can drag out of the person and apply to a space. So, within a few minutes of meeting somebody, I can pretty much tell you what they're going to like, what they're not going to like, how much money they're going to justify spending on something... So, I can figure it all out. It surprises me when I receive comments from people saying, 'Oh, we already spoke to another architect or another designer before you and they made this recommendation' in a tone of criticism, and me thinking, 'why would they recommend that? That's completely off the mark of what this client is all about.' And so it's something that I can see quite quickly. And I think that that is a gift that I have and it really does help because it means that we are able to really tap into creating a design for our clients that makes sense to them.

Perched House by RARA Architecture

What's your favourite thing about residential architecture?

There are a couple of things. One is the synergy between what was there and what will be there. It's a game of finding that synergy. I'm not kidding, 99% of our briefs are identical. It's, I have an old, either Edwardian, Victorian or California Bungalow with a crappy lean-to attached to the back, we want to demolish the lean-to, we want to refurbish the interior of the front, and then do a two-storey extension at the back with some kind of connection.

So, one could find it annoying, boring, or basic to have the same brief, but it's fantastic because we get to be perfectionists at it. And we get to explore different ways that we can make that happen each time. You know, 'do we do this passageway on one side, do we do it in the middle? Do we reconfigure the entire existing floor layout and do something else entirely?' So it's about tapping into the character of the existing house, what that wants to do, how the family wants to live, how separated they want to be from each other, that sort of thing. I find it really quite beautiful when it comes together in the end.

So that's one and two is, what people don't realise is, as an architect, I've actually made so many decisions that are going to make them live a certain way in this home. For example, I've designed this dining room in this specific proportion that means that, from now on, whoever lives in this house forever, will need to have a round table and not a rectangular one. These are decisions I've made that they may not even realise until they move in, and then they go, 'Oh, our rectangular table won't fit here, darl.' So, as the architect, I decide where they put their socks in the cupboards, things like this are all thoughts that go through my head. I'm not going to discuss them and get permission for every decision we make with the client. It's way too much. I'd basically be teaching them an architecture degree to do that for them. So I think what's great fun is being able to put myself in their heads and understanding how they live and the language of how this family works and making that synergise with the house as well. For me, that is one of the most beautiful things that I love to do. And people don't realise when they're frustrated about something, that it's just bad design! You know, when you have that plastic wrapper with a little red ribbon around a carton, and they never give you the little bit of extra red ribbon, so you can peel it off, and you're sitting there scratching at it trying to find the bit to pull. That's designed. Somebody had to make a decision that meant, I can't be bothered putting that little bit of extra red ribbon so that it's easier for you to peel it off. Whereas we love to make those decisions where we say, 'oh, but they're going to want to peel this off. Let's put that little bit of extra ribbon.'

I had a consultation the other day with a woman who asked me to review her design. I said, 'Sure, but I need to know more about you. Can you please answer the following questions? Are you left-handed or right-handed? Can you please tell me your height?' And followed up with more questions about her family and how they all work together? She was like, 'oh, it never even occurred to me that you would need to know this kind of information.' And I'm like, 'well, absolutely, you have to load a dishwasher, you wash the plate with your dominant hand and then you load the plate in with your less dominant hand. So it means, for you, that your dishwasher must be on the left.' So it's things like that, that if you don't think about them, can actually be quite jarring when you're in a space that's not designed for you.

You mentioned that one of your favourite parts of the job is the synchronicity between old and new and bringing those two elements together. Does that mean you prefer to work on renovations as opposed to new homes?

It doesn't matter whether I'm working on a new home or renovation. The truth is that because we do most of our work in inner-city Melbourne, most of our work is renovations and extensions. I also cut my teeth working for a heritage architect so I've had a lot of exposure to it, know how to deal with it and, and as a result, we do get a lot of enquiries that are heritage related. In fact, right now I'm studying my Master's Degree in cultural heritage architecture. But then with new houses, they're really fun, because you can really explore and you have fewer constraints. So you can get exciting. The other thing is, looking at famous houses in Melbourne, like the Hello House, for example. It's adorable. And of course, Fooi is an extremely talented architect and I adore her, but she was able to make her mark within the industry, not just because of her talent, but also because she had street appeal. She had a house that could be plastered all over the place. Whereas with 99% of our projects, we can show people what the backyard looks like, but we can't show them anything of what we've done from the front. It's just a typical Edwardian, you can't see anything. So that's what makes it really exciting to work on a whole new house because we can really make our mark.

Right, let's talk music. What's the first album you ever bought.

I can't remember what album, I can tell you the first single that I bought, it was Killing Me Softly by the Fugees. It's great actually because even now, that song happens to be on one of my playlists, which is like, 'Wes's Old Favourites.' And, in addition to that song, I also have the original song by Roberta Flack, which is great as well. But what I love about the Fugees' version is that it's this beautiful, soft ballad Sung by this sort of '90s punk-ish, rock-ish group who have really put their own flair on it, so there's a lot of that same sort of synergy between old and new.

What's one of your projects that you're most proud of, and why?

I have been very open about the fact that this is my favourite project of all time, and the client knows it. We're actually just about to start construction works on it. This house is a new, two-storey, three-bedroom house in South Yarra. What I really love about this house is that we've had a really good client-architect relationship. I get along with all of my clients, it's not that I get along any better, or any worse with other clients, but in this case, it's the stylistic connection; we're on the same page. And so right from the beginning, when we described our design intent, our concept, the client came on board with that adventure and has maintained that aesthetic. Of course, there have been changes that we needed to make to reduce the cost and to simplify things or to adjust things to suit the family's lifestyle, but the clients were very respectful of the overall and overarching concept. The client really understood and would email questions like, 'what would you think about this?' And, 'how would you prefer to do that?' And so I've explained my logic behind certain things and they've always said, 'Yep, that's good, we're happy with that.'

The design has become this spectacular, very unusual form that's entirely made out of concrete. There are very few windows, but there's still plenty of light. The master bedroom quarters obviously has a walk-in robe and a bathroom. But the ensuite and the bedroom are also connected externally via a little courtyard. And the courtyard is like an upside-down barrel vault, so the floor is actually curved. The idea is that they're going to run some creepers down along the floor so you end up with this sort of curved floor covered in vines. It's elements like that where the clients just came on board with that adventure and said, 'yep, okay, we don't really understand why you think this is going to make a huge impact. This is costing a little bit of extra money, but we're willing to put our faith in you.' And so the outcome is this really unusual space with plenty of light, it functions perfectly, it's not overly big, but it doesn't need to be big, it functions perfectly well, just as it is. So I can't wait to see this built. It will only be a few months away, but once it is, I'm going to rock it.

Amazing, we can't wait to see it either! What's something about architects that you wish more of the general public knew?

I wish the general public knew that we have studied just as much as doctors have. If they could appreciate that, they might appreciate that we deserve to be paid accordingly. A doctor might charge a lot of money, but they might only see you for three sessions or something and charge $15,000 where we might have a professional engagement that goes for two years and sometimes longer. So of course, our fee is going to be substantially more, but there's also substantially more work that we do. We often come out to people's houses and consult with them and discuss their house. Now, it's taken me, half an hour to drive there, two hours there, half an hour to drive back. That's a total of three hours, not to mention the time around that of preparing for the meeting, preparing the fee proposal. So effectively, I've spent almost an entire day on that project. Now, in what world would you expect a doctor or other professional to provide you with about six hours or seven hours worth of work for free? So at least have the courtesy to say thank you for the fee proposal. Thank you for coming out. I really appreciate your time. You know, be respectful. It's quite alarming how easy it is for people to request for us to spend our time and to give our time and professional opinion and they may have decided not to engage us and that's fine, but at least have the courtesy to say thank you for your time.

Margaret Thatcher comes to dinner and Wesely asks her some tough questions. Who's she joined by?

Okay, if you are having the ultimate dinner party, who would you invite from any time period and why?

I would like to have dinner with Margaret Thatcher. Not because I'm a fan, I'm just curious to see this person at dinner in a social environment, rather than a political environment. I have questions, I'm curious to know what she thinks of people within the lowest socio-economic status. I was born in Egypt, in a middle-class family there, came to Australia and became a lower-class family, because my parents didn't fit in and flourish. And, so I come from an upbringing where we've been taught to just work really hard to achieve things. So I hear her speeches and I think, 'well, yeah, that's what you're supposed to do just work hard.' But I know that a lot of people got screwed in that and so I'm curious to see what she thinks because there are people who didn't have the choice.

I would like to have dinner with Cleopatra because I'd like to know how attractive she was in reality.

I would like to have dinner with Queen Latifa because I watched a very charming, heartwarming film of hers called Last Holiday. And in this movie, she went to dinner at this fancy restaurant, and she ordered everything on the menu because she had to try everything this chef created.

What is some life advice that you've received that you think has been helpful?

Communication is key. When I first started my business, I just wanted to be the person who made people happy and give them the answers that they wanted to hear and then work really hard to achieve those results. Whereas now, with all the experience that I've had and through people teaching me, I've learned that if I just explain the concerns that I have at the beginning, explain the expectations that I have, and explain some of the pitfalls and some of the risks, then, if those things were to arise, the clients are a lot more understanding that these are not things that were in my control.

That's a great point and, in that case, what would be some advice that you would give to someone planning to build or renovate?

I have two main pieces of advice. One is that the architect is the person who's going to manage all the ins and outs of permits, getting builders, making sure that construction right, making sure it's built safely. And really, any architect can do this and is qualified to do this, and will do a good job. So, when you're choosing an architect, you're not trying to make a decision between whether one architect provides service A or doesn't provide it, they're all essentially the same even though it might be packaged up differently or charged a little bit differently. What you are choosing is someone who needs to understand your family and how it functions. So if if you want to choose an architect that's right for you, you need to make sure that that architect gets you and can design a space that responds to you. So it's not just about this is a fashionable architect, this is a great architect who gets into The Design Files every other week, it's got nothing to do with that, forget about that. You need an architect who responds to you. So that's the first bit of advice.

The second bit of advice is to understand your budget and be upfront and honest with your architect about your budget. One of the things that I see on almost every single project is that a client comes to us and we discuss the budget. In 99% of the cases our fees are based on that budget, we will then design them a house that is based on the budget they gave us. So then what usually happens is, we've designed the house with that budget in mind and it's sometimes a little bit smaller than what the client had expected. And because it's smaller, the client then comes along and says, 'oh, that's great, but can you add a bedroom can you add this, can you add that, make it bigger, add a fireplace. Sometimes in the space of one hour, the client has unwittingly added about $150,000 on top of the project.

So what's frustrating is we'll design all of your requests, we'll get to the end and then the client is shocked and horrified that it's $150,000 over their budget. Understand your budget in terms of what you're asking and realise that if you ask for more, it will cost you more. This may also affect the architect's fees. We've got clauses in our contracts which basically state that we have the right to adjust our architect fee at the end of the project, to correspond to the construction cost, so it's no longer beneficial for a client to approach an architect, tell them, and I'm not exaggerating, I've got a $250,000 budget, I then give them a fee proposal based on a $250,000 budget and then a year later, they're signing contract with the builder for $850,000. And I only got paid a fee that's relative to the $250,000 budget. That no longer happens now. So if that were to happen and the client decided to understate their budget so that they can save money on architects fees, they're going to get slapped in the face when it comes to contract signing, because we're going to just hand them an invoice of like $40,000. And they have to pay it.

If you're clear and upfront about what you want, and what your budget is, we'll be able to design you a house that's suited to that budget, rather than designing a small house that has this attachment of an extra room on the side, and then this thing that sits on top, and then, 'oh, I want another deck.' It becomes a mess. To get the best outcome it's really important to be clear, upfront and honest with your architect.

Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Wesley. We look forward to seeing more of RARA on Lunchbox Architect and can't wait to check out that upside down barrel vault in your South Yarra project, sounds incredible!