Extraordinary Routines

Extraordinary Routines · Clare Cousins

We have long admired Clare Cousins, whose award-winning architecture firm in North Melbourne has just celebrated its 10th year in business.

We love Clare’s design aesthetic, and we’ve photographed her own home. We’re also endlessly inspired by Clare’s incredible ability to balance a hugely successful career and growing business with the needs of her young family.

We sent our monthly contributor, Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines along to learn a little more about Clare’s jam-packed daily routine.


Madeleine Dore

Architect Clare Cousins on site at one of her firm’s latest projects. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Studio details. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Architect Clare Cousins in her North Melbourne studio. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

The North Melbourne office of Clare Cousins Architects. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Details from the studio of Clare Cousins. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Clare Cousins and her team member Laura at work in their North Melbourne office. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

The North Melbourne office of Clare Cousins Architects. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

3D models in the studio of Clare Cousins Architects made by Jess Wood. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Madeleine Dore
27th of November 2015

Clare Cousins tells me that the magazine-perfect bunch of flowers sitting on her office table are never usually there. ‘We had our 10th anniversary party last week,’ she says, ‘it’s never like this, it’s never perfect, it’s usually just crazy all the time.’

Founder and director of the successful architectural firm Clare Cousins Architecture, and a hands-on mum of two young girls Ginger and Ivy, Clare isn’t one for sugar-coating.

From her self-deprecating description of her typical day as a ‘non-overachiever routine’ to trusting her gut and running a studio with complete transparency, it’s understandable clients and team alike are drawn to working with Clare.

She also has a reputation for nurturing young architects, particularly women in the typically male-dominated field. ‘There’s always been an unintentional dominance of women in our office,’ she said.

‘I like to talk through problems and ideas with people, and mentoring assistance is really important for both men and women. I’ve always sought the opinion of people I work with and try to give them as much insight into the running of the business as possible.’

Managing an award-winning firm alongside raising a young family has led to Clare often being dubbed as the ‘poster girl’ for working mums in architecture. ‘People are always asking, how do you do it? But I’m always saying, do not do what I did – I went straight back to work and the babies were practically under the desk! It is really hard, but you just manage whichever way you can.’

For Clare and her husband, builder Ben Pedersen, juggling work and life is a team effort. ‘It all comes in fits and spurts, I don’t do everything, it is a negotiation.’

From the pleasure she finds in her daily commute, to making sure she is home by 5.00pm most evenings, Clare reveals how she structures her days in order to spend more time with her daughters, as well as her guilty pleasures of watching The Block and The Real Housewives on TV.

Clare Cousins’ Extraordinary Routine

A few mornings a week I try and get up at 6:30am to go to the gym, but more often than not I can’t stand getting up – seven is early enough.

My husband Ben is in construction, and unless he is doing the school run, he often leaves early. Microsoft Outlook is key in our relationship – everything is scheduled from who is picking up the kids, to a small catch up in the office.

In the morning he’ll make me a coffee and the girls a babyccino. Ben is the chef in the family and will make a beautiful gourmet roll for Ginger’s lunch and even tie it with a little brown string. When I make the lunches they are a total let down.

Often the only way to get exercise in is to hop on Ben’s stationary bike in the studio above our garage. I’ll turn on ABC News and go through emails on my phone so by the time I get into work, a lot of them are cleared out of my inbox. It also makes the time go faster!

The girls will get up and make their own breakfast. I have instilled a lot of independence in them as I’ve been working since they were babies.

Trying to get out of the house in the morning is always a struggle, no matter how much time we have. I put on a load of washing, tidy up and it’s time to go
The nice thing is that I get to spend two hours in the morning with the girls and I am often home by 5:30pm, so I feel like even though I work full-time, I still get a lot of time with them.

After the rush to school, I drive from our home in Prahran to the office in North Melbourne. Everyone always wonders how I do the commute each day, but I really enjoy it. I find it is my one quiet time of the day. It’s funny, I get my creative ideas in the shower or in the car because it’s often the only time I’m by myself.

If I’ve got site meetings near home, I tend to schedule them in the morning or in the afternoon to  avoid crossing town in the middle of the day. My typical day is back-to-back meetings all day – it’s really busy.

Clare on site at one of the firm’s latest projects. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

A behind the scenes looks at one of Clare Cousins Architects latest projects. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

The Clare Cousins Architects team from left to right: Tara Ward (architect), Laura Norris-Jones (practice manager), Oliver Duff (architect), Sarah Consentino (interior designer), Brett Wittingslow (graduate architect), Alistair Nancarrow (graduate architect), Candice Chan (graduate architect), Clare Cousins (architect and director of CCA), and Sarah Birthisel (student architect). Absent: Jess Wood (student architect and model maker). Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Architect Clare Cousins in her North Melbourne office. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

If I swing by a site, I might not get into the office until 11:00am. If it’s the beginning of the week, we will have a work-in-progress meeting. It gives us an opportunity to run through deadlines for the week and assess who needs help.

I’m often hungry by mid-morning so I’ll go into the kitchen and make a rice cake and peanut butter snack that keeps me going. I used to be so busy I’d forget to eat and wondered why I felt so flat. So I try to eat more regularly and have nuts on my desk, that sort of thing.

I feel like the day is just about putting out the most urgent fire. There is no structure, I don’t write lists, it is all in my head. Our practice manager Laura has taken a lot off my plate administratively, which allows me to focus more on projects and design. I have a tendency to procrastinate, but when you’ve only got small windows to do things you just can’t.

Lunch is generally leftovers. Because I’m not in the office all day I don’t feel like I need that mental break, so I often just eat at my desk. If it’s sunny sometimes we will order in and eat together out on the deck for half an hour.

In the afternoon there might be a client meeting. In the early years, those meetings were very much clients interviewing me, but now I am seeing whether we are compatible as well. It doesn’t benefit anyone if we are not on the same page.

Our projects go for such a long time and are rather intimate – particularly residential projects – so it’s important to listen to your gut feeling of what a person will be like to work with. A good client leads to great projects – it’s amazing how there is such a parallel there.

Getting out of the office is always a challenge so I call the studio and clients from the car. I try to utilise the time in traffic as work time.

I have one night a week where my Mum picks the kids up, so if I have to meet a client later, I book that in advance for a Monday. Otherwise my rule is that I don’t work late or on weekends.

I’m always the last to arrive and the first to leave the office, and I used to feel guilty that maybe I’m not working as hard as everybody else. I know my team doesn’t think that, but it’s that silly thing we carry in our heads that we should be working the longest and the hardest.

I’m supposed to be home by five but I’m always late. The girls and I might head to the grocer before they jump in the bath. We do carrots in the bath and the girls love it – you empty the plug and there is a smattering of carrots at the bottom of the bathtub! They really enjoy that time playing because they haven’t seen each other all day, so bath time is usually quite long.

Children are such an amazing sense of priority. I used to be at work until nine most nights before children, whereas with kids you have to draw a line in the sand. Some days I could work 24 hours a day, but you just can’t. Being a parent really forces you to prioritise and delegate.

Ben usually gets home at 6:30pm. While we’re prepping dinner Ginger will do her homework at the kitchen bench and Ivy will do some colouring.

By the time dinner is on the table it’s usually closer to seven, which people might be horrified about, particularly for my four-year-old. Dinner time is always us sitting down at the table, talking about what happened in the day.

We try to have the girls in bed by eight. Sometimes there is guitar practice and Ginger will do five minutes before asking if it’s enough. I’ll say, ‘no, fifteen more minutes’ and you sort of think, are we being pushy parents? She loves it, but the act of having to practice challenges her.

Lately there has been lots of work to do after the girls go to bed, but I love the nights when I have nothing to do. I will just flop on the couch and watch some trashy reality TV – it’s my guilty pleasure. It could be anything from The Block to The Real Housewives.

We also have this desk nook, so maybe half the week I have to do some work when the house is quiet. I find I can’t do design work during the day because I need to be in the right mindset to be creative. My ideal would be that I don’t do any work at night, but unfortunately it isn’t realistic at this stage.

Even though I work at night, I have made it a rule not to read emails after seven. I find if I check them, it will be a client with a small anxiety about something and then I will worry about it and it affects my sleep. But I’ll still browse Instagram and things like that.

I’ve become obsessed with chai tea, I’ll have a bit of milk and honey and it is my favourite thing at night because it is a sweet, creamy treat.

I’m quite drained at the end of each day, so I haven’t got a lot of energy to talk. I just feel like I talk all day long to clients, to my team, to my children, I can’t talk anymore… it’s all gone! Ben goes all the time – he works really hard but then on the weekend he will cycle or doing some physical project. Whereas I’m just need that shut down time to sit on the couch, read a magazine. I need time to recharge.

I need eight hours sleep, I’m not much good on less. There is no technology in our bedroom – it is a bit old school, originally because I didn’t know about the Do Not Disturb function. But now I couldn’t think of anything worse than having your phone next to your bed.

I wish I read books at night, but that never happens because by the time I get to bed I’m exhausted.

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