Interview - Clare Cousins

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
14th of October 2011
'B House' - the recently renovated home of architect Clare Cousins, designed by Clare and built by her partner's firm, Maben Group. Photos by Shannon McGrath.
Interior, 'B House'  - Clare's own home.  Photos by Shannon McGrath.

Clare Cousins - photo by James Geer

Clare Cousins is just seriously impressive on every level.  Clare runs her own super busy and highly respected architectural practise in North Melbourne - Clare Cousins Architecture, supported by a team of six staff.  She's also a hands-on Mum to two very young kids - Ginger, 3.5yrs and Ivy, 8 months.  And in case things weren't quite busy enough this year, Clare has just completed a major renovation of her own home in Prahran, with her husband, who runs construction company Maben Group.  It's safe to say we have another overachiever in our midst!

I had the great pleasure of meeting Clare a few months back during a discussion panel we were both part of for the State of Design festival.  We chatted briefly about her work and her family, and I was instantly struck by her easygoing temperament, and ability to gracefully balance her demanding job with two young kids.  I couldn't believe it when she said her youngest was just 4 months old at the time!  I must admit, I was also equally impressed and somewhat distracted by Clare's excellent hair.  It is seriously good hair.  As you can see above, Clare is a very photogenic lady.  I realise this is not the serious backstory one would expect to hear about a respected local architect, but hey, this is The Design Files, not Habitus. (I love Habitus, BTW).

Clare Cousins Architecture has made a name for itself with a varied portfolio of award-winning residential and retail projects, and has also provided pro-bono design services for the Bushfire Home Service, and to other clients who lost their homes in the Black Saturday bushfires.

Clare is one inspiring creative businesswoman.  I hope when I grow up I can be a bit more like her.

Massive thanks to Clare for her time with this interview and all the stunning pics!

Tell us a little about your background - what path led you architecture, and to setting up your own firm?

It wasn’t until I had to select my university preferences at school that I considered architecture. I studied maths and science at school and didn’t want to become an engineer!

I studied architecture at RMIT and worked for a few architecture pracitices during this time. I studied a semester in Berlin and travelled before coming home to work for The Prince Hotel during the construction of the hotel and Aurora Spa Retreat. It was priceless experience being based on site, working for the builder and liaising with trades on a daily basis. During this time I met Wood Marsh who were the architects for Aurora, and after graduating from RMIT I began working for them. My time at Wood Marsh was an amazing learning curve, working on large scale and residential work. I learnt a lot from Roger and Randal. After three years I started my own practice. I always knew that I wanted to work for myself (perhaps it’s a first-born thing, needing to control things). I chose not to be in a partnership, so that I had the flexibilty to run it how I wanted.

Your projects are very varied – from residential to retail, pro-bono work and large scale fitouts. What have been one or two favourite projects in recent years?

I love the variety of projects that we work on. Everyday brings a new challenge (literally). We recently completed a ‘parents retreat’ at Melbourne Central. Our client, GPT looked to challenge the norm of parents rooms. There are few public spaces in the CBD where parents can comfortably feed and change children while also providing a safe environment for children to crawl or run around. We wanted to create an innovative public facility that provides a welcoming and playful space for families. It encourages people to dwell in the space and recharge. I took my girls and their friend Lili in for the photo shoot. The bespoke play equipment we designed was a big success!

Parents' Retreat, Melbourne Central by Clare Cousins Architects - Photos by Shannon McGrath.
Parents' Retreat, Melbourne Central by Clare Cousins Architects - Photos by Shannon McGrath.

Early this year we finished renovating our house. My husband is a builder so it was a real family affair. It is a project that has been on my desk for 4.5 years and kept going to the bottom of the pile!

It is difficult designing a house for yourself (I found). You need to keep switching hats (client and architect). I find making decisions for clients easy as I can be objective, but when it is for yourself it is not so easy. The project was an opportunity to be experimental to some degree. To test ideas. It is satisfying to finish a project and then be able to live in it and enjoy every moment. It was also a special experince to build a project like this with your husband. Even though we are in the same industry (and building at work) our businesses don’t cross over much. Fortunately we had a very similar vision for the house (or he was happy to see mine!).

We still love residential and retail projects however we have started work on larger projects, a mixed use building in Bendigo and multi residential project is in the early stages of development.

Picket Florist in Swanston st, Melbourne (opposite State Library) completed 2011.  Photos by Lisbeth Grosmann

Can you give us a bit of an idea of how your studio is structured?   Where is your office based, do you employ staff (if so, how big is the team?), and what significant tasks does the studio outsource to keep everything running smoothly?

We have been in the industrial pocket of North Melbourne since we opened the studio nearly 7 years ago. I have an amazing team of talented designers. There are seven of us, a mixture of architects, graduates and an interior designer.  Tara, Dita, Felicity, Jessie, Cath, Oliver (and Daley in accounts).  They are are highly passionate bunch with a great work ethic. Everyone contributes to the design and implementation of projects. I couldn’t do it without them.

The day to day running of projects is managed by the project architect/designer and lead by myself which gives me an intimate understanding of each project and enables our team to continue to develop their knowledge of design and the building process.

We don’t outsource much in our office, however we have a developed a network of regular consultants (engineers, quantity and building surveyors, landscaper designers) as these are required for each project. We are fortunate to share the building with my husband’s construction company Maben Group which is handy for occasional construction advice!

'Rail' toilets and 'Skyline' toilets, Melbourne central, completed 2010.  Photos by Lisbeth Grosmann

In addition to running your busy architectural practise, you are a super busy Mum to 2 kids. Can you let us know how old your kids are, and how you structure parenting and work? Is there such a thing as maternity leave when you run your own business!? What pearls of wisdom you can share with regards to that elusive work / parenting balance?

I have two girls, Ginger - 3.5yrs and Ivy - 8 months.  It has been a busy year juggling the two of them and work, and to top it off we finished renovating our house when Ivy was 2 weeks old (exactly what I advise clients not to do!).   For me there is no maternity leave. I am hands on with projects, and even though projects would survive without me I like to be involved. The positive to working for yourself is that you can choose how you work. My hours are flexible and in the early months I brought both babies into work (using the studio’s trade library as a makeshift nursery).

Any working mum’s life is busy so it helps when you have a hands on husband, and my mum is a life saver. We share a nanny, (Aliaa, the girl’s third ‘grandma’) and use childcare… It’s a busy timetable but it works for us.

Which other designers, artists or creative people do you admire?

I really admire creative people with integrity, originality and honesty. I recently bought NOMA, a book by the Danish chef Rene Redzepi who plates the most beautiful dishes. They are like architecture on a plate.

I love the landscapes of Teresa Moller who looks for the ‘jewel’ of the site to inform her designs. There is a subtlety and quietness to her work which is at the same time powerful and poetic.

Robin Boyd is a constant source of inspiration with his residential design. He really changed the way houses in Australia were designed and wanted to make good design available to everyone with The Age Small Homes Service. The Robin Boyd Foundation organises tours a couple of times a year through his houses (and his peers) and they are truly special.

Bushfire House, Christmas Hills Victoria 2010 - designed and documented pro-bono for clients who lost their house in Black Saturday.

Can you list for us your current top 5 go-to resources for creative inspiration?

I love magazines and books. Dwell magazine (US mag) has been a favourite for a long time. They were singing the praises of sustainable design and prefab technologies long before it was fashionable.

Film is a great source of inspiration. I have been known to photograph a paused scene in a film to explain an idea.

Often we have a concept that we are trying to develop and use Flickr to source abstract images to explore an idea or material. It is a great web resource.

From all of our books the one that has been thumbed the most is Japan Houses. The Japanese really are the masters of using space efficiently as well as celebrating materials used in their natural state.

The Design Files has become my morning flash of local inspiration (truly!). I often find myself unsubscribing to blogs within a month of signing up as I don’t have the time to look at them. TDF on the other hand is a little pleasure each weekday morning… - awww Clare you're too kind - Lucy :)

What does a typical day involve for you?

On Mondays I get up at 5.45 to get to gym group training (I wouldn’t get out of bed if I was doing it by myself!).  Home by 7.  Breakfast and a strong coffee.  I drop Ivy at Mum’s and Ginger at creche. On Monday’s we plan the week at our office meeting then get down to work. The work day is varied with a mix of client meetings, site visits, emails and design work. The day is busy and I tend to jump from project to project. Lots of talking (phone and in the office). I relish the days when there are no scheduled meetings as it is an opportuntity to slow down the pace.

I leave work to pick up the girls. We try to sit down for dinner all together by 7, an opportunity to talk about the day. Ivy with her token bit of finger food having eaten an hour earlier. Then it’s books, teeth and bed for the girls. We then flop on the couch with the laptop and a cup of tea to tie up loose ends from the day.

'B House' - the recently renovated home of architect Clare Cousins, designed by Clare. Photos by Shannon McGrath.
Bathroom - Clare's own home.  Photo by Shannon McGrath.

What would be your dream creative project?

At the moment I have two.

I love projects that challenge you, where you need to put yourself in the shoes of the future occupant or user. The parents retreat was a great project for that, balancing the needs of children and adults. I would love to design a kindergarten or childcare centre as I love the way children interact and explore space. They are so much less inhibited than adults and love to speak their minds!

My other dream project would be to design a series of housing types for a volume builder that are affordable and sustainable. The majority of volume housing is oversized, wrongly orientated, badly designed and in general very unattractive. There needs to be better solutions for stand alone housing, however even when inititiatives have been made by organisations (such as Vic Urban’s Affordable Housing Competitian in 2004) there seems to be very little uptake by the public.  Ideally these houses could be located on any vacant block not just in new subdivisions on the city fringe. With the high cost of land and construction these day,s one off architect designed homes are not afforable for the broader market. Someone needs to do for housing what Ikea has done for furniture. (I do love Ikea).

What are you looking forward to?

A week on a beach in a few weeks time… It’s been a busy year and I can’t wait for some R&R with the family.

Page st House, Middle Park - completed 2007.  Photos by Shannon McGrath.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

The city. I am in the city often during the week but tend to dart from A to B. I enjoy the city on the weekend for the variety of retail, food and culture. Remember to look up. There are so many beautiful buildings above the ground level awnings.

Which is your favourite bookshop in Melbourne for reference material and general browsing?

I don’t get there very often but Architext in Flinders lane is my goto bookshop. It has a great variety of design books and I never leave empty handed.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

The last time friends came for dinner, Ben slow roasted goat (and other things says she the vegetarian!). Nothing beats good food, wine and conversation.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Saturday mornings are busy with a visit to the toy library and then swimming lessons. It is my day with the girls as Ben usually works. I look forward to Sundays as they are usually a lot slower paced.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

It’s not really a secret but the Botanic Gardens. There is so much inspiration for gardens and to top it off the plants are labeled!

Aesop Fitzroy - completed 2006.

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