Poke Bowl and a Big Ol' Yarn with Melonie Bayl-Smith

We had the absolute pleasure of taking a peek behind the curtains of Bijl Architecture and the industry in general with Melonie Bayl-Smith. Earlier in the week we featured one of Bijl's latest projects, CrossCut House, check it out in case you missed it.

Poke Bowl and a Big Ol' Yarn with Melonie Bayl-Smith

Brodie: If we were lunching together today, what would you order? What's your go-to lunch choice? Melonie: I'm pretty big on poke bowl, to be honest. I'm very much a convert. Or a green bowl. I just love vegetables, but it makes you feel like, yep, I've definitely ticked that vegetable box.

What drew you (pardon the pun) to architecture? So my uncle was an architect and he cultivated an interest in me, from quite a young age. He taught me how to draw, do technical drawings. He even used to give me technical pens as birthday presents much to the chagrin of my mother because I tried to fill the ink over our white Berber carpet in the bedroom which ended quite badly.

I also love drawing and I had another great uncle who was a painter and he used to encourage me to do painting. Not that I'm any great painter or anything, but there was a lot of encouragement. Another uncle was a building designer. Another uncle was a builder, you get the picture. I was always a bit of a curious bear. I always loved observing what was around me. On car trips, I was always fascinated about looking at buildings and just design in general.

I remember having a boyfriend when I was about 17. He was a bit older and drove a large old-school Ford Falcon, which I used to call the shoebox on wheels. I was very opinionated about design.

Even as a child I was obsessed with colours, where the colours fit together and would drive my mother nuts, because I go, 'that red doesn't go with that red.' So I was always very interested in design, I was very interested in the detail of things, how things fit together and places. I think it was inevitable in a way.

At school, I was pushed to apply for medicine, which I did do. The day I found out I got into architecture I was upset that I didn't get into medicine for the sum total of about three minutes.

[Applying for architecture] really confounded a lot of people who hadn't known me for a long time. The school principal and other people probably thought, 'why has she chosen architecture?' But my friends who'd known me in primary school were like, 'yeah, that makes complete sense.' They didn't think that was odd at all.

I think the other thing, my mother was always very encouraging to pursue what I was interested in. She was very much, it doesn't matter if it's a field that's male-dominated, which at the time it was and in many ways, it still is and certainly, the industry we work in still is and probably will forever be male-dominated just because that's the nature of the building industry and who is going to literally be doing the heavy lifting. So I think there was that encouragement as well from a different perspective.

On the topic of a male-dominated industry, I've heard from some women about the challenges of working in the industry and heard of some horrible experiences. What has your experience been like?

I've had a few unsavoury experiences in different contexts actually, not just on-site. But, having run my own practice for quite a long time and pre-qualifying builders to tender on our projects, these have to be people who I can see and I know are going to be respectful and who are going to maintain a respectful workplace. It's not just about them being respectful as the business owner, or the foreman or anything like that. It is about maintaining a respectful workplace and ensuring it's a safe workplace. So, within the last, however, many years I've been running my own practice, I would say we've had very few instances of anything like that. Unfortunately, there are still all sorts of derogatory and oppressive behaviours in the industry, but I would like to think that they are on the outer.

Step Down House

On a completely different note, what is your very mild superpower?

My staff would say it's my ability to spot a spelling or grammatical error from five meters away. It's the first thing I'll point out, I'll scan the page really quickly and go, 'ah, yeah, that's, it's with an apostrophe.' They bought me a T-shirt for Christmas last year that says, 'I'm silently correcting your grammar.' I would put that down to my mother. She was a high school teacher. She retired last year after 50 years of teaching. She was a high school teacher but then became a primary school librarian. So I was very much brought up with a focus on correct grammar and spelling and writing well. I pride myself on my writing. And I love editing actually. These are skills that a lot of architects are like, 'oh, who needs that.' But to be honest, I think even writing a good specification is about good editing. Writing great site meeting notes is about understanding where's the focus and what's the purpose of what you're trying to say. So I really love editing and reviewing. It's how I have been brought up and I think that eye for detail really comes through into our systems and the way we design and what do in practice.

Yes, that eye for detail must really help out in your practice.

It's really about communication. Looking at a drawing and thinking, 'what is this drawing trying to tell me?' 'Who is this drawing, trying to communicate to?' Sadly, I think a lot of younger graduates and architects don't understand unless they've worked at a really good practice that really values what great documentation can communicate and how it can solve your problems ahead of time. I think a lot of people don't understand the power of doing the line weights in the section properly. Not just cutting the section, but where do you cut the section, those kinds of interrogation techniques. These are things that I've seen for a long time as someone teaching at universities. And I do understand where it comes from. It comes from not allocating enough time to documentation, not having good QA systems. A lot of it is connected to the race to the bottom which is probably the worst aspect of our profession, certainly at the moment in Australia; it's fee-cutting which is just unsustainable. It does nothing for our value as a profession. This is the problem, Brodie, I'm not gonna talk about fluffy stuff.

No, it's great! It's a glimpse behind the curtain, whether it's pretty or not, which is really helpful for people. They want to understand the value of architecture, so I think it's really important to discuss.

You do get what you pay for, you really do. We are a practice of seven and we do a lot of houses. We're competing against sole practitioners, we're competing against building designers who are not architects, design and construct builders, who employ an in-house designer, whether that be an architect or a building designer, we're competing against a whole raft of different players. That's not to say that some of these other people can't do a good job, but I think it's important for people to understand what their fees are paying for and also to interrogate how their fees are being charged.

I had this conversation with a potential client on Friday, which was around the fact that I've been very clear that we charge lump sum fees for most stages of the process. We don't ever charge a percentage fee, certainly not for residential projects. She said, 'I think it would be hard as the client to track how much I'm going to get charged.' And I said, 'well, that's part of the problem.' As someone who's been doing these sorts of projects for more than 20 years, I'd like to think that I have enough timesheet data, and I understand enough about what we need to do to be able to offer our clients a lump sum fee that they know is going to be roughly divided up across a number of months. I don't need to have my fee methodology create tension between myself and the client from the get-go. It's hard enough building the trust bridge with clients anyway, not because clients are difficult but from the point of view that building a trust bridge takes time and you can burn the trust bridge down really quickly. So who needs their fees which are critical for the running of their business to be something which could quickly and easily drive a wedge between you and the client?

The other thing is, going back to what I was saying about you get what you pay for, there are a lot of people who go and work with a sole practitioner. That sole practitioner might charge fewer fees because they have fewer overheads and so forth, but they may not be able to resource a project in the same way as a practice of seven, for example. That doesn't mean that that person won't do a great job, but this is where clients need to interrogate what they are paying for.

This is why we again, offer a lump sum fee structure where we articulate what services that covers. I learned this lesson from the mother of my daughter's friend at cricket. For the entire season of cricket, I heard about her renovation woes. She kept talking about how the design just didn't really reflect what she wanted. And these were architects she was working with. Even on Saturday mornings, I'm very professional and I'd never chuck people under the bus, but it greatly concerned me that from the beginning to lodging their development application with Council, they'd had the sum total of three meetings.

In New South Wales, a DA (Development Application) is a big investment, because you are expected to get every key aspect of the design, certainly from an external and windows and doors point of view, nailed. People are investing, anywhere between $50,000 to $90,000, between architects, consultants, the council fees themselves, people investing a lot of money. So you want to make sure that what you're going to council with is what you want because to then go through a revision of the approval is a time consuming and expensive process that will then potentially delay your project.

So, as architects who love a good design process, we really encourage clients to work with us, and so we probably have something like seven or eight meetings before submitting a DA. So I was completely horrified when this friend said, we had a total of three meetings! I'm like, but it's a major renovation, how could they have revised the design? How could you have given your feedback?

Every time I've come across people and they've given me feedback about the things that they've found unsatisfactory about the process, I've gone back and looked at our process and thought, 'okay, maybe we've never had a client express that concern. Maybe we don't have an issue, but let's go back and have a look at it.' And I think that spending the time reflecting on how best to serve the clients and serve the process and serve the project is incredibly important as a practice, but I think a lot of practices, by virtue of the fees that they're charging, are not giving themselves enough time in practice to do that.

It's one thing to be a great designer, it's another thing to get the execution right. That's another thing we've observed over time, different people have come from other architects saying, 'oh, we really liked their work, but it took nine months to get to developed design.' To me, that's a lack of respect and empathy for the client and their timeframe.

I'm not here to pull down other architects, I'm just illustrating the different things that we observe about why people engage us and what really defines an architect's fee. Think about what the fees actually entail, the number of meetings, the services the architect includes. I've spoken to other architects who keep their fee low, but then it's like McDonald's: 'you want a BASIX report that's X.' 'You want us to deal with the consultants? It's X.' So again, think about what's included, what's excluded. And if you're not sure, just call the architect up and ask them because even though we'd like to think our proposals are extremely clear and I've edited them to the nth degree, occasionally, someone will read something in a different way and it makes them very unsure. I would like to empower people who are looking to do a renovation project and say, just ask the question nobody's going to mind. You're going to be asking a lot of questions in this process because this is a long process with a lot of things that you've never dealt with before. If the architect gets cranky and doesn't like you asking one question about their agreement, or what's included or what the process is, then they're not the architect for you.

CrossCut House

CrossCut House

Tell me, what's your favourite thing about residential architecture?

I think my favourite thing about residential architecture is working with people on a building that will house their life. It will be a place where there'll be happy times, there'll be sad times, there'll be frustrating times, they'll be family times. A house has to be incredibly flexible and, I use the word robust a lot, I rarely get out of an interview without using the word robust. But this time, I mean the word robust from the point of view of it can take a few punches to the gut. When you go to the library, the books are there, you sit in the window, you do some reading, you borrow the book. In many ways, the library has a fairly limited focus. Whereas in a house, we're expecting people to do their most intimate daily activities: to cook food, to bring people together, to sleep, to work. Especially now, we're working at home in a way that I don't think was ever envisaged.

What I love about it is that the house has to be able to do lots of different things and it will mean lots of different things to people. So, therefore, it does need to have a strong sense of self and a sense of identity, because people expect it to perform in so many different ways.

Some people say, 'oh, yeah, everyone can design a house.' Yes, there are lots of people who can design a collection of spaces and put labels on them and say, these functions could happen here. But it's a bit different when you're talking about the spirit of a house. I like to envisage, how would I feel about living there?

Working on houses can be very draining for us because of the emotional component and the educational component because we're usually working with people who haven't done a renovation before and, even if they have, things have probably changed a lot since their last renovation. Or they're renovating in a completely different place to where they may have renovated previously. Or this is a much bigger project than the other one. Or they're doing a new house. So, even for the seasoned renovator, there's still a learning curve and it can be very draining for us, but that also means it can be very rewarding when you see the impact that your design directly has on people.

The other rewarding thing I would say is that we've had amazing responses from neighbours to our buildings. When we did the Naremburn House, people wrote letters to council supporting the DA! We've actually had people during construction say, 'Oh, we're so excited to see what the house is going to look like.' And, 'we're so happy to have a Bijl Architecture house in our street.' And I'm like, 'Wow, who are these people?' It's like having an unsung fan club or something! It's really interesting to see the response that we've garnered in different places, the feedback and the interest that the people have. And I'm sure many other architects get this sort of feedback when people can see that something really interesting and beautiful is evolving. So never discount the impact that even one house can have on a street and the local community.

Perhaps this overlaps a little, but what is the biggest challenge or even the most rewarding challenge of residential architecture?

The most rewarding challenge is balancing the many different and competing needs. What I mean by that is, the client will tell you that they need this, this and this. The council say they need this, this and this. Your consultants say they need this, this and this. The bank tells you they need this, this and this. But even beyond that, there's the broader impact of what you're designing. So it's listening to and thinking about how can I best serve the client in the long run? What is the lifecycle cost of this building? How am I best serving both this client, as the current owner, and a future owner of the property? How can I best serve the environment and the ecology where this house is. It's really about thinking about design in a very total way. That can be very challenging, because clients, sometimes just do not understand why you're trying to give consideration to things that are really outside what they might perceive as being the most necessary things. So I try to do that by stealth.

There are probably people who say, 'well, Melonie, giving consideration to so many things detracts from the intensity of your design concepts. Maybe your architecture would be stronger if you didn't try to listen to all these other things.' But I'm trying to listen to the voices of the future. I'm trying to listen for things that might happen later on down the track. I think what we've managed to demonstrate in our projects like the Stealth House, Doorzien House and Naremburn House, so many different projects that we've done, is that when we are given the opportunity to think in a broader way about how our buildings contribute to the total environment, but also to the future of our cities, our projects do have a very strong direction. The clients who are supportive of that get a lot, they get more out of us, to be honest. They get more out of us if we're given a bit more rein to explore. I look at the Doorzien House, and I think, you know what, if we didn't use zinc, and we'd used something else, probably would have looked pretty good. But it would have saddled the client with an endless maintenance regime and the lifecycle cost of the building would be horrendous and a future owner would be saddled with that. The other thing is, how do you future proof your house from getting your project from getting demolished? You want to design something that people go wow, hasn't that weathered well and it imbues your project with value and integrity. That, I think, has to be more important than fashion. Some of our clients are in houses that they've been in for 16 years and they love it, they never want to leave. That's why we designed it this way!

What's a project you're most proud of and why?

This Home Shines By Extending the Living Area Into the Verandah

I'm proud of different projects for different reasons, but I think the Escu House, which was a very modest project. It was a substantial project for our clients who are friends of mine. In many clients' eyes, they weren't spending a lot of money, but for them, it was a lot of money. But their willingness to invest in a quality design process and a quality end result, that's testament to them as much as to anything we did. But the fact that we could transform a house through really simple, compelling moves demonstrates that we don't need to knock down our suburban housing stock. There are smart ways to think about our average building stock from the '50s, '60s and '70s. From a footprint point of view that is a modest house, and that's where some other with other people would say, 'Oh, we've got to put a second story on' and, 'We've got to do this, or we've got to do that.' And these clients went, 'No, we don't need that, we don't want that. What we really need is to be able to best use the footprint that we have.'

The house is quite far back on the site, so the backyard was a reasonable size, but naturally limited by the point of the back of the house. So, how can we make better space use of the space at the front, which was this defunct and ridiculous sort of front veranda that sat above the road and everyone saw you and you saw everyone and it was not very private. But, of course, it was where the best solar gain was because it's north. That project just captured everyone's imaginations, it got published from one end of the world to the other.

Being proud of a project is not just about how much it gets published, but the fact that it demonstrates a way of transforming a modest dwelling to not be much more than what it already was, but to make it work so much better, with careful moves. It demonstrates that this is something that is achievable for people and that we should respect the embodied energy of our existing suburban housing stock. As architects, we of all people should be able to think better and do better by those buildings, and not create behemoths. Architects love to mock McMansions, but I hasten to say that there's plenty of architects who are doing enormous houses. I don't care how much you're trying to make your massive house into Passive House, for the average person, that's not achievable, or you're saddling them with massive lifecycle costs that I don't think are particularly ethical, or they're unconscionable.

I'm going sound like I'm getting on my high horse, I'm sure there are things that I've designed that I would go back to and think, well I'd never do that. Again, I'm saying this because I see that I've made mistakes. We have done things on projects where I think, you know what, I would not let a client hedge me into that position again. Some people say, 'Yeah, but you're the architect. I'm paying you and you just do what I say, right?' Yeah, well, what you're actually paying for is someone who's not just a glorified drafter, you're paying for someone who brings a design intelligence. Design intelligence means that person is considering and thinking and weighing up because buildings are living things, and they will want their buildings to outlast us. We know many buildings will outlast us. We're not going to be the only owner. We're building on country, so we've already marked the ground in a particular way, let's at least be respectful in the way that we choose to move forward.

These things are foreign concepts for many people and a lot of homeowners are like, 'yeah, but Melonie, I just wanted a nice kitchen. Why am I having a conversation about embodied energy?' But if we, as the conduit of people's desires, don't bring to people's attention the true impact of what they're wanting to do really is, then who is? Who is going to point that out?

I think it's really interesting when you hear all these stats about the construction industry being one of the biggest emitters of carbon. There are people who are developers who are building to sell, but there are also a lot of building owners and people who are commissioning buildings. So for those people who are commissioning those buildings, it's the responsibility of the sector to bring to their attention the impact their construction, or their commission is having. It's not just about the construction industry doing a better job, it's about it being a shared responsibility. I'm not saying it's easy, I think it's very challenging.

The average person doing a renovation project would find some of these concepts foreign and think, 'well, how can I make a difference?' Or, 'why does this affect me?' But I think if we don't start having better conversations with our clients about the impact of what they're looking to do and why they should spend more money on something that's better quality that will last for longer, for example, then I can't say that things are going to get vastly better, we can ask the industry to be as green as possible, but nothing will change. I say to my staff all the time, we can design the most energy-efficient house, but all it takes is the client plugging an appliance into every powerpoint and running them all at the same time and we've shot that to bits. It doesn't matter if you're offsetting that with your PV cells or whatever, at the end of the day, it's about behaviours.

So, back to your original question, the Escu House is a project we're very proud of, for all the things that it encapsulates.

What's something about architects that you wish more of the general public knew?

I wish that the general public knew that architects are not just there to be designers. Architects have a whole range of skills beyond design. We talk about design a lot because design is important. But really, architects are good at different things. Some architects aren't the best designers, per se, but they're very good at being a project architect and they are good at making the project come to life. I think at the end of the day that architects are not just concerned about design, or the building, per se, they're really concerned with the way that we live. And when I say the way we live, I don't just mean in the house. But how do our cities work? How can we bring about the best future? The Venice Biennale theme, how will we live together? I do think that architects' concerns lie beyond the individual project and lie beyond design. Architects have many skills to offer. You don't spend all day drawing. It's about communication. It's about negotiation, persuasion and facilitating and bringing people together and coordinating. The making of a project really comes from those skills, as much as the design, the documentation, because the design and documentation are mute until it's activated and brought to life to become the building.

So when clients say, 'oh, you know, maybe we'll manage the project with the builder on our own.' I have to say, well, you've spent a whole lot of money tapping my design intelligence to design, document, wrangle through council, deal with everyone else, form a contract with a builder, but the carrying out of all those things you've decided you don't need that expertise? And yet, that's actually where the rubber really hits the road, in bringing those things and all of that design intelligence and that investment to life. Builders are very good at building, there's no doubt, but engaging the architect to be part of the process and to be the contract administrator, which is another skill that I think our clients sorely underestimate, which is the capacity to really understand what is the builder claiming? Why does the builder need more time to do X? Why? Why? Why? Those skills should not be underestimated. And I understand that it costs a lot of money and this is why it is important for architects to talk about the fees involved with running project administration upfront.

For clients who think they will save money by us not being there (for contract administration), some builders, if they know architects are not going to be involved in contract administration, will charge an administration fee for all the communications and dealings they know they're going to have to do with the client that normally the architect would take care of. And I have actually had clients come back to us after they have done a build on their own saying, 'oh, that was completely exhausting.' And these were people who were in the industry. They didn't realise that the builder would call and say, 'oh, but I need an answer now.' And, 'oh, there was a problem with the tiles, I had to coordinate a new tile selection, oh, I just didn't know what to do and it delayed the project by two weeks.' These things don't happen when a competent architect is running the process. And these things cost money and time. So an extra two weeks just to try and choose a tile. That's another two weeks of rent you're paying.

Unfortunately, sometimes we've had to tell clients the worst case scenarios, not to scare them, but just to say that these are the things that can go wrong. If you've got no one there bearing the burden and being an expert on these things, someone who can put the builder back in their place and can answer this question for that person and deal with that invoice, whatever it is, you're going to shorten your life by five years.

Absolutely true! Thank you so much for your time, today Melonie, it's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.

Browse similar articles by tag:

Lunch with an Architect