An urban + country collaboration – Jan 2019 Architectural Bulletin

Architectural Bulletin Vol 75, Number 3, January 2019

Sitting at the drawing board in 2005, our Sydney practice of Mackenzie Pronk was about one 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 and Christian from Fisher Design and Architecture had relocated to the Mid North Coast some years earlier. We had worked together at Tonkin Zulaikha Greer in the past; catch ups were brief and focused on some noisy Sydney watering hole.

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

Yet 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 worked till late, getting blurry and spilling wine on drawings.

Our partnership agreement was that we would aim to split all workloads and any fees 50–50, unless otherwise agreed. This has worked well for later projects, as have intensive periods working in the same room.

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

In over a decade we have completed about ten projects together with few disagreements and now have a little bag of awards for the work we have done together. Pitching for work early on as ‘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. There appeared no major barriers to working in this way. Sometimes with clients we worried that we might be seen as interlopers; other times Christian joked we were the grunt from the big city. But one thing we often 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. It was 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. This meant we absorbed the cost of flights and when out of Sydney we slept on the very comfortable Bellingen 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.

Neil Mackenzie is a director of Mackenzie Pronk Architects, Sydney. They collaborated with Fisher Design and Architecture, Bellingen on the above design for Jetty4Shores Stage in Coffs Harbour. The bandstand won a commendation for Small Project Architecture in the 2018 Country Division Architecture Awards. Their Jetty4Shores Revitalisation Project with Coffs Harbour City Council also won the Urban Design Award.