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  • Neil Mackenzie

An Urban - Country Collaboration

Sitting at the drawing board in 2005, our Sydney practice was about 1 year old. We were busy over-servicing our very local residential clients, we had a small baby in the office and not enough work.

Our friends Anna & Christian from Fisher Design and Architecture had relocated to the Mid North Coast some years earlier, catch ups were brief and focused on some noisy Sydney watering hole, we had worked together at Tonkin Zulaikha Greer some years before.

Out of the blue Christian emailed us a brief – an EOI followed by a limited competition for National Parks - it was due in a week. Suddenly without blinking or thinking we were working together again, exchanges of emailed sketches, text and drawing files. We quickly devised a system of working together including operating the others mouse from 500kms away during skype calls - it felt like the remote working future had arrived.

However nothing beats being on the ground. I checked frequent flyer points and which airline would allow two surfboards and a design workshop was on – work should be fun and life should triumph. We cruised the coast looking for the best waves then with sandy feet in the Bellingen studio we work till late getting blurry and spilling wine on drawings.

Our partnership agreement was that we would aim to split all workload and any fees 50/50, unless otherwise agreed - generally this has worked well for subsequent projects, as has intensive periods working in the same room.

For a young Sydney practice we enjoyed the broader range of projects, we enjoyed getting out of town, we enjoyed working with friends. For the guys up the coast on acreage teaming with a Sydney practice expanded the capacity of their office to aim for bigger projects.

In over a decade we have now completed about ten projects together with very few disagreements and we now have a little bag of awards for the work we have done together.

Early on pitching for work as an ‘Architects in Association’ it seemed like a web of complexities may open up. We tested the waters with our insurers, lawyers and over time clients and there appeared no significant barriers to working in this way.

Sometimes with clients we worried we might be seen as interlopers, other times Christian joked we were the grunt from the big city. But one thing we commonly noticed was a sort of pride from commissioners that a local firm was involved but equally the project was important enough that a Sydney firm was also involved a three way win.

Our only real competitive angle for structuring our fees was that the client shouldn’t have to pay extra to have both practices working on a project, meaning we absorbed the cost of flights and when out of Sydney we slept on the very comfortable Belingen studio floor – on reflection a very efficient practice.

Many regional centres in NSW are both expanding and being bypassed - a strange paradox. We Sydneysiders all know any number of design professionals who have sought refuge beyond the big smoke, some find a different culture and expectations. By working collaboratively we have only dipped our toes into these realities in the regions. We did however grasp certain lifestyle benefits on offer and now feel a real connection to this area that we have been fortunate to have worked in.

Published in Architecture Bulletin Vol 75 No3 - January 2019

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