Eggplant Miso and Sashimi Salad with Amelia Lee the Undercover Architect

Today I chat with Undercover Architect, Amelia Lee. Undercover Architect is a fantastic blog helping people who are building or renovating. Amelia also uses the wonders of modern technology to work with people all over Australia.

Eggplant Miso and Sushimi Salad with Amelia Lee the Undercover Architect

Ok, you've joined us for Lunch with an Architect, what's your favourite local lunch spot and what's the most delishious dish on the menu?

There's this brilliant Japanese cafe called Doma in Federal - a little village about 10 minutes from where I am. All that's in Federal is a general store, a hall, and Doma. It has just exquisite, exquisite food and it's always packed whatever day of the week. You sometimes have to wait 45 minutes for your meal, which doesn't really happen that often around here! I have two favourite meals there. There's an eggplant dish - a roasted miso eggplant dish and then they've got a salmon sashimi salad that's got a ponzu dressing on it. It's always just extraordinary.

Eggplant Miso and Sushimi Salad with Amelia Lee the Undercover Architect

I love the premise of Undercover architect. Can you tell us some more about what Undercover Architect means and why you started it.

I suppose a couple of reasons. Undercover architect is your secret ally when you're designing, building or renovating - so you can get it right simply and with confidence. I've been in the industry for over 20 years now and I got so frustrated by the fact that I could see time and time again, people investing big sums of money, often waging a 30 year mortgage on the bet that they were going to get it right with their home, but not getting the information they needed at the right point in the project to really make a difference to the outcome.

For me, we had a personal journey of moving to the Byron hinterland a couple of years ago. Before that I co-owned an architectural practice in Brisbane for five years and prior to that I had studios in Brisbane and Sydney and I also worked for a big development company for a long time. When we moved here I wanted to work in way that was going to enable me to work flexibly. I've got three small children and I didn't want to have to be traveling to sites all the time and I didn't want to be away from home a lot. At the same time I felt like I had all this experience and expertise that could make a difference to people if I could work out a way to inject myself into their process.

Undercover Architect was really about trying to help empower people through giving them access to good information that can help them to navigate the course to getting into their renovated or newly built home. And doing it in a way that helps them feel confident and in control so they can really get bang for buck for their project.

So much of the architectural industry is about creating these beautiful finished homes, but it's all locked up in a one-to-one service arrangement. There's over 150,000 home built each year in Australia and only 3% of them are built in a traditional client-architect arrangement. And I just thought, 'there's 97% of people missing out on the potential opportunities they could have with a really great design outcome if they just got the information at the right time.

Eggplant Miso and Sushimi Salad with Amelia Lee the Undercover Architect

I'm so impressed. Undercover Architect is a great idea and the blog is a great strategy for helping people...

I just feel the education and the experience you have as an architect is so comprehensive and yet it's locked up in that one-to-one relationship. It's always about working directly with the client. And yet, we're taught as architects about what it takes to make places and spaces great for everyone to enjoy.

Anybody on any budget should be able to get a great design outcome. So the premise of the weekly blog is, you don't need any money - if you've read the blog you'll be streets ahead, knowing what you need to do to get it right.

A client once said to me, 'it doesn't cost you any more to build the wall in the right place or the wrong place'. Building the wall in the right place just relies on you having the information you need when you need it.

That's absolutely true. There's so many little things you can do that make such a huge difference and unfortunately the little things often aren't being done. It's great that you're giving people the tools to get those things right!

You're working with people all over Australia in a job that's traditionally been very location specific. You're clearly proving that's possible with the use of modern technology like email, Skype, and Google maps, but what have been peoples reactions to this new way of working?

I'll be honest, I wasn't sure how it would work in the beginning. I knew that I didn't need to physically see inside someones home to understand how it works and how it needs to work to serve them better. I was confident that I could collect a lot of information digitally about a site and a home that would give me a very good impression of what the site is like and what the design would need to do.

But it's not for everyone.

The community and the clients I work with at Undercover Architect all have unique challenges and unique homes, but they have a consistent element in that they're really invested in getting a great outcome for their project, so they're willing to do the work. They want to know, they want to understand and they really love the idea of collaborating with a partner who can support them with the expertise they need to fill the skills gap between what they know they want and where they think they can get to.

This notion of working remotely with each other is becoming more and more regular in lots of industries. It's still challenging for a lot of people with architecture, but the Undercover Architect community are a special bunch and they really get it.

For me it is a partnership - we can't do it without each other.

That's right, in your clients' case, they get to work with the architect they want to work with, rather than the one that's closest. That's a pretty huge benefit of your way of working. Are there any projects that are too complex to take on site unseen (literally)?

My clients spend a lot of time reading the blog before they contact me, so they're working out whether I'm the right person for them. The point where they communicate and connect with me is up to me to understand if they're the best person for them and deciding if they wouldn't be better with somebody local.

If I don't believe I can do a good job, I won't take the project on. If I think it's too difficult for me to do it remotely, I won't do it. I need to know I can do a really fantastic job for the client and make a difference for their overall experience.

At the same time, I designed a house for a fantastic client who's moving to Adelaide Hills. It's a bush block, with some interesting topography and the work he did to explain that site to me - he shot videos, he took photos. I've had clients send me walk throughs, or during our Skype session they'll show me around. That's the thing, the clients use that technology as much as I do.

What's the best part of the job?

You know, Brodie, I've been in the industry for over 20 years. I am having the most fun I've ever had! I love that I get to help so many different people in so many different locations. I'm working on projects from 50,000 acre cattle farms in far western Queensland - I think they're the third or fourth generation to be moving into the family home - through to a metro home in Melbourne or a project home in Ballarat, right across to Perth.

I just think it's fantastic that I can be helping anyone, anywhere. I love that just reading the blog can make such a big difference to people - people contact me to say, 'that made a really big difference, thank you so much for what you're doing'. Of course, the fact that I can bring my expertise to the table and still be around my kids and work flexibly from home. I just love it, I'm very fortunate.

On your blog (which I love), you have this way of expressing what many architects struggle to explain. It's nice to read your blog, because I think, 'I've thought these things so many times, but I've never come up with the way to explain it!'

I've got to say though, I was a little bit shocked when I read the heading, 'The Top 6 Reasons NOT to Use an Architect'. I was ready to send you hate mail… What are some of those reasons?

Eggplant Miso and Sushimi Salad with Amelia Lee the Undercover Architect

That certainly caused a stir that article! It came out of hearing those reasons time and time again. At Undercover Architect, I'm generally working with people who wouldn't normally think to contact an architect and that's the first time in my career that that's been the case, so I've been hearing these reasons a lot! The 6 reasons I had repeatedly heard were:

1. Architects are too expensive

2. Architects will design me something that's over my budget

That's one that unfortunately gets perpetuated quite a lot but it's not particular to architects. So I wanted to be able to give people advice about how to help their project stay on budget. It's a two-way street when you're working with a designer.

3. An architect won't listen, or they'll only design what they want

4. My brother/uncle/aunt/another Mum at school has an interest in design and they're going to help me

Design is such a practiced skill, and makes such a significant difference to how you get to live, to me the focus should be on investing in design to get the right outcome. There are lots of talented people who don't have any training in design who are still great designers. Talking to someone who has an interest in design doesn't necessarily produce the best outcomes.

5. An architect will want to use my project to win awards

Unfortunately the architectural industry is set up to reward those types of projects and potentially leave the client relationship behind. It's difficult because the evidence of an architects' work is their built projects, but what's left out of that equation is what the architect is actually like to work with as a person.

And my favourite reason…

6. I don't want anything that's complicated, I just want basics

This makes me want to shout from the rooftops! The best design outcomes are the simplest ones! And [the simplest outcomes] usually take an extraordinary amount of work and skill to achieve…

That's right, simplicity is not easy, is it?

The reactions I've got from that article have been very interesting. Most responses have been very positive, once people read it they, realise what I'm trying to say. But there have been people who just read the heading and criticise me without reading the article. It was a great article to write and publish.

Be sure to read the whole article before sending your hate mail Amelia's way...

Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who was a little shocked, but now that you've explained it, I'll throw away the angrily worded letter...

You've also discussed the differences between an architect, a building designer and a draftsperson. I think many people misunderstand the differences, so what do you see are the main differences between these three fields?

Whenever you ask this question most people answer, 'well, an architect goes to University and building designer or a draftsperson can be self trained of go to TAFE, so it's a big difference in education'. But I think that's only one small part of it. There's a big difference in what their focus and specialty is. In my mind, as an architect, your area of specialty is in design. That's where all your education and practice leads to - the notion of exploring and testing ideas. Solving problems, basically.

Whereas draftspeople work in a different way - drawing, rather than designing. Their focus is more on documenting and delivering work rather than designing it.

It can be hard for someone outside the industry to understand the differences. Time and time again I have people come to me and say, 'I'm working with a draftsperson and they're just doing what I tell them to do, they're not really expanding my ideas at all or anticipating what I want.' But that's not their area of focus - their job is to turn what you want into a deliverable building.

It's an architects job to hear your ideas, read between the lines, interpret what you're wanting and turn that into a design that will work and then turn it into a deliverable building package.

Read Amelia's full explanation here...

What would you say to someone who says, 'I can't afford an architect?'

I always hope that when people think about what they can and can't afford, they recognise it's actually a decision about what they value and what they choose to invest in. The challenge with building and renovating houses is you're often dealing with a bucket of money that you're borrowing - and usually quite large amounts. People get a bit overwhelmed or they are a bit distant from it because it's a mortgage, so even though there's a lot at stake, it's different than handing money over the counter. I really encourage people to think about sitting with a pile of $250,000 and being told to invest it to get a really great outcome, what level of expertise would they want to help them choose an investment? I think that can help people get some clarity about where they choose to spend their money.

A lot of people approach building or renovating more like a shopping list - this kitchen, this living room, this desk and this bathroom - instead of thinking strategically about the best way to spend their money to get the best result.

What's your best tip for someone planning to build or renovate their home?


When you get to the point of deciding you're actually going to build or renovate your home, you've been thinking about it for donkeys. You've been looking through magazines, dreaming about it and pinning pictures to Pinterest for ages, so the point at which you say, 'yep let's do this', you want to just get at it.

But if you race through it, you can miss opportunities to save time, money and get a better result at the end of the day.

So my biggest tip is to get ready, plan and get the best advice you can about how to nail it!

Eggplant Miso and Sushimi Salad with Amelia Lee the Undercover Architect

Thanks so much for joining us, Amelia. I'll be sure to keep up with your blog and keep an eye out for all those projects you've been working on!

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