Brad Hooper Architect
“I work on Dja Dja Wurrung Country, which has been defiled and despoiled by Europeans, especially during the gold rush. As a practitioner whose role leads to change in the environment, it is beholden on me to not do further damage and to seek to repair wherever possible. It is a duty to work with Country by listening, observing, learning, always with care.”
Brad Hooper is a sole practitioner with a shopfront in the main street of Maldon in regional Victoria. In a town where everyone knows everyone, he is the go-to person for anything from new residential builds to professional advice on heritage overlays and building approvals and even single screen doors. He is embedded in the community, is full of anecdotes and stories peppered with good advice, and loves his life as a regional architect.
“How does an architect work in the bush? We’re like country vets, country solicitors. We’re a different layer of tradespeople and I use that term very deliberately. We are traders on the main street. We are as valuable to the community (but not more than) the butcher and the baker and the newsagent. We are just part of the rich mix of service providers in a community. Along the way I’ve had the chance to craft some beautiful buildings for some lovely people. I’ve done some reasonably good sheds. I’ve helped people with fences. I’ve given quick advice to people who walk in the door. There’s an enormous variety of work in the regions.”
Maldon, about 140km northwest of Melbourne, is part of an Aboriginal cultural landscape that includes the traditional Country of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. Gold was discovered here in 1853, leading to the establishment of a township in 1856. Famous for its intact historic buildings, Maldon was declared Australia’s First Notable Town in 1965 by the National Trust of Australia and is known for its thriving creative community of artists and artisans. A popular tourist destination, the township has a permanent population of around 1500 people.
“I moved up here for the building – a beaut 1866 former ironmongery on the main street. It was on the market for yonks, and I remember looking at it online and thinking someone should buy it. And then the angel on my shoulder (or was it the devil?) said, ‘What about you?’ A lot of my work was already up here, so we bit the bullet and bought the place.
Moving into Maldon with heritage credentials as I had was a smart thing. There’s plenty of work for me here. The place is laden with planning issues if you want to do anything. For someone with a planning skillset, it’s a perfect match,” said Brad.
Starting in practice
Brad Hooper started doing drafting work for projects around Williamstown and Newport when still a student at RMIT. At the time, the course was three years full time and three years part time while working in practice. Brad picked up work through word of mouth, often from patrons of the front bar of the Steampacket Hotel. He was living in student digs in West Brunswick and his first desk was a secondhand door with the hinges still on it, tucked into a corner of his student room. He would often talk to clients from the public phone box around the corner.
“I emerged with a degree and registration and that became my client base. It also became the ethos for the last 40 years of practice, to be open to all kinds of work. But it also developed a project methodology of Triage, Interroger, Massage, Produire.”
Early projects included houses in Woodend, Port Melbourne and Williamstown. Early work included advocacy on behalf of Newport and Spotswood’s migrant community in trouble with authorities for illegal building works.
For two years Brad practised in South Melbourne doing small renovations, when he happened to visit Perth on holiday. His studio landlord and erstwhile collaborator, Bernie Joyce, encouraged Brad to contact a mate of his in Perth, Geoffrey Howlett. The call was made arranging a Friday drinks catchup, in turn leading to further drinks at Cameron Chisholm and Nicol’s office where Brad was shown a model of a project and invited to come on board to produce working drawings for it. It was a serendipitous trip that would lead to a move to Perth and into the corporate world.
“I had a philosophy that if you don’t take something up when it presents itself, you’ll regret it forever.” So, within a few weeks Brad had closed up shop in Melbourne and moved to Perth to start working for the large commercial practice. His diversion into corporate life lasted 10 months. He was elevated into the design department and was on an upwards trajectory, but he quickly realised that his penchant for adaptive reuse and the preservation of old buildings was not really a good fit. Neither was the city of Perth. So, he decided to move back to Melbourne.
Another interesting job Brad took on was working as a part-time urban design advisor for the Greater City of Bendigo, which he combined with his architecture practice over an eight-year period. The two day a week role was multifaceted and an “excellent training ground”.
“What was good about that was I learned how local government works. I learned how planners think and what rings their bells. They have their own responsibilities and that’s good, and we have our responsibilities and that’s good. But we do have to work together and not against.”
There was a design review component of the role. It was an excellent opportunity to promote the value of good architecture to local developers, and to encourage recognition of good architects within council. He did some work on revising the in-house procurement practices. He also had the opportunity to roll out his own urban design projects as an in-house architect.
Being a regional architect
Brad started doing projects in the country about 40 years ago and realised very quickly how key relationships were. Living in a country town means that everyone knows everyone and your reputation for being skilled, authentic and trustworthy is crucial. It’s important to recognise that you’re moving into a community and you need to become a part of it. Kerbside chats are a great way to get to know people and to find out what’s going on in the shire.
“When I moved to Maldon, it’s the first time I had been a shopfront architect. I put the shingle up and on the first day there were people coming in the door. Some were just there to suss everything out. Some had simple questions. Some were seeking advice about dealing with the council. What I learnt was that a lot of architecture practice in regional areas is about defining the problem and working your way through the issues that are in place created by Councils, CFA, Regional Roads Victoria, whoever the authority might be … The design of a building is probably very small in the scale of things.”
Living in the country also has many perks, including the opportunity to spend time in scenic rural locations. “I’m doing a project out at Kyneton South at the moment. The site looks over Coliban Reservoir. It’s beautiful. You couldn’t get a better bloody office if you tried. It’s a wonderful job.”
Challenges in the regions
The ongoing ripple effects of the pandemic have been the lack of trades, lack of consultants and general lack of resources. Private building surveyors are suffering under enormous insurance fee hikes and several have closed up shop in the area. A lot of older carpenters are doing work in the region, with amazing skills to pass on, but there simply aren’t the apprentices coming up and learning. A dramatic housing shortage has exacerbated the problem, making it hard to bring people in, because there’s nowhere for them to live. And projects are always at the mercy of the weather.
“Weather has big impacts. A wet weather day in South Yarra is one wet weather day. But here, a wet weather day might mean that you can’t get near the work site for a long time. Getting projects built and at lock-up stage before the May rains is always a high-pressure deadline. If we don’t hit that, we don’t get a lot done between May and September on some sites. The timeframes are very important,” says Brad.
Avoiding the tyre kickers
In his 41 years in practice, Brad has learnt many tricks along the way to be efficient and not to waste time.
“I always try to meet people onsite. If they’re tyre-kicking, they’ll avoid meeting me onsite. If someone is generally interested and keen, they’ll invite me to their land, because that’s a commitment. Then we’ll talk about the brief and do a bit of triage. If they’re still interested, I’ll send them a confirmation email with all the steps and explain that we need a written agreement. Once we’ve discussed the scope of the project and how I can contribute to it and assist them, I’ll give them a quote.
I’ll bring the concepts back to them on a piece of paper. There might be five ways to do something and I’ll talk to those. If they’re still unsure I’ll interrogate them further about their preferences. Drawings can be done on the spot to see what works for them. You can cover a lot of territory quite quickly. If we can’t pinpoint something in two hours, then I’m not doing my job. I need to be managing the discussion, asking the questions that need to be asked. If the client drifts off and starts to waffle, I’ll bring them back into line. It’s a wonderful, rich, two-way discussion with multiple cups of tea.”
Key to all of this is maintaining good communication with clients, putting all the time and skill into working out exactly what the client wants. “Interrogating the brief is the most fundamental thing an architect can do to avoid losing money. And also delivering the service in bite size chunks, so you know where you’re at at any given time.”
One of Brad’s core values is making architecture accessible to a wider group of people and avoiding architectural elitism and exclusivity.
“I often see glossy images of buildings with lots of detailing. And I think, ‘that’s cost a motza but hasn’t added one jot to the liveability or value of the house’. You should be designing for the client and for the context, not for the photographs, the awards and other architects.”
So, what is Brad’s practice philosophy? “Responding appropriately – whether you’re responding to the site context, responding appropriately in design and, most importantly, in your dealings with people, whether it be the client or the town planner in the shire. Maintaining good relationships, being respectful of other consultants and subcontractors, listening and being empathetic.”
Doing free work
We move on to the tricky subject of pro bono work. Do you do free work with future work in mind? Is it about embedding in the community or pure altruism?
“I was brought up until a teenager by a single mother. Didn’t have a lot of money. I was given a university education on the public purse. So, I feel an obligation to give back – and I do it cheerfully.”
Brad has always focused on the lower end of the market. He says that he’s always done work that no other architect would touch – dealing with impossible budgets and making them work.
“An RMIT professor once gave me the following advice: ‘If a little old lady comes to you wanting you to add a screen door, don’t turf her out. Because a) you don’t know what that screen door is going to be attached to; and b) you don’t know whose grandmother she is.’ So, I give her a hearing and I refer her to someone who can build a terrific screen door.”
Problems with the profession
Brad is of the firm belief that the profession needs to change its priorities to be successful and remain relevant, and to make more of an impact within communities.
“There are two issues at the moment that drive me up the wall. One is silly names that are given to projects. I always wonder if these names have been given after negotiation with the client. I believe it’s not treating the project with reverence or the client with respect. More to the point, is it the architects having fun on the back of someone else’s project – their home?
“The second issue is that we as a profession focus too much on preparing for awards, which suck up so much energy from practices and so many resources financially. And for what good purpose? The awards generally don’t get out to the public. Small projects that make a difference to the average person or family are largely unsung. Most architects are doing great work on tight ‘average mortgage’ budgets, but they are largely unrecognised. Awards go to expensive projects that are out of the reach of the vast majority of the Australian population. More people watch The Block than know about our awards programs, and yet the focus of the profession is on that. They would do much better to spend the time engaging with community.”
When it comes to the business of architecture, Brad recommends looking outside the profession for business tips, ideas and role models. There is much to be learned from other companies and the way they do business, including fee setting and invoicing. Brad shares a list of useful lessons he has learned over his years in practice.
“Remember that you’re selling time you can’t get back again. Work tight and only do as much work as you need to do and no more. Invoice frequently for the different stages. If you spread the invoices out too much, there will inevitably be slippage of an hour here or an hour there, and you won’t account for all your time. If you think that’s ok, it’s only a few hours – no, it’s not. Your plumber doesn’t do that. Your car mechanic doesn’t do that.
Be accessible. Don’t cut fees, but be prepared to adapt fee for serve to adapt to the need.
Listen, observe, be modest.
Define a market segment, learn it and understand it, and then serve it. Do it properly.
Don’t seek work from developers. They’re always after a deal and if it goes sour, you’ll be the first one to be hung out to dry. If you are going to work for developers, do it on your own terms. Limit and define what you’re going to do and do no more… And get paid upfront.”
Plans for the future
So, after four decades in practice, what are Brad’s plans for the future? “I’m transitioning now into a new business model. I’m identifying the juicy bits of practice that I really like doing. I like the creative side. I like the negotiation side. I like the advocacy side. I like walking around in paddocks and putting on little houses. I’ll continue doing that for the foreseeable future.”
The benefits of ACA membership
Brad Hooper has been a member of the ACA for four years and joined the ACA VIC/TAS Committee in 2022.
“I was attracted to the ACA because it’s all about the business of architecting. It’s no bullshit, straight to the core issues. What do I need to pay people? How can I be efficient in business? It’s accessible. It’s economical. And it’s just as valid for a sole practice as for a large practice with a payroll,” he says.
As an ACA Committee member, Brad would like to be able to share his experience, to “spread the wisdom that I’ve learned in almost 50 years of putting buildings on sites, especially with architects who are willing to operate out of a briefcase.”