Counterpoint Architecture

Susie Ashworth , 9 March 2023

“We acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of our region – the Wulgurukaba and Bindal people. We work across their country and we are very respectful and aware of what we do within their lands.”

Zammi Rohan and Mark Kennedy are co-directors in the Townsville practice Counterpoint Architecture. With a staff of 14, it is the largest practice in town and one of the larger architecture practices outside South East Queensland. Counterpoint was born of a merger of two smaller practices in 2017 and collaborates regularly with other architects on projects of varying scale.

“One of the great things about being in regional practice is that we have better access to a wide variety of work. It would really be very unusual in a big capital city for a young practice to be able to access all those different types of work and a lot of that comes from being able to collaborate with national practices on projects such as the stadium project here in Townsville. We are able to access projects across various sectors such as masterplanning, civic projects, sport, education, commercial and residential – and we don’t get pigeonholed.”— Mark Kennedy

On location

Townsville is a coastal city of around 200,000 people, located in North Queensland. Magnetic Island is only a 20-minute ferry ride away, and the Great Barrier Reef is within close proximity. Townsville is 1,350km north of Brisbane (similar to the distance from Brisbane to Melbourne) and 350km south of Cairns. The nearest towns are one hour away and the nearest cities are about four hours away.

“The weather in Townsville is a major drawcard. We’ve got some of the highest number of days of sunshine in the country. There’s so much to get out and do around the region, so many opportunities for outdoor activities. Livability and affordability are also big positives. You can buy a house for $400,000. Everything you need is within a 15-minute drive, and you can go to the beach after work or during winter. The quality of life is excellent,” says Zammi.

Starting in practice

Born and bred in Townsville, Mark Kennedy moved to Brisbane for university, and was away for a decade before returning to his home town to start a practice. Zammi Rohan grew up in Tasmania and studied in Launceston before moving to Townsville for a job opportunity with Troppo Architects in 2004. He headed up north with the inkling that he might stay for a year or two. “Twenty years later I’m still here. I’m now very much a local.”

Mark and Zammi set up their own practices in 2009 and 2011 respectively. They both had small practices with about five people and were working on similar types of projects. They and their teams knew each other reasonably well before the merger.

“The stadium project came up, where COX had collaborated with Zammi’s practice to win the design competition for this project. Early on we had a chat and saw the opportunity to bring our teams together to enable us, as the local architects on the project, to take on a significant portion of that job. So, we teamed up and grew into a larger combined practice. That was kind of a trigger point. It wasn’t the only reason to merge but it was probably the spark that made it happen. From there we really unlocked new opportunities from being a larger practice. We were able to start accessing different types of work that we wouldn’t have been able to service if we didn’t grow our team,” says Mark.

Both Mark and Zammi have a strong connection to Townsville and the surrounding region. They are passionate about making a difference locally, to bring value and fresh ideas to projects, and to provide the region with innovative design within the local context.

“The stadium was the catalyst for us coming together. And that was really about us considering, ‘how do we make a meaningful contribution to that project?’ How could we come up with a different arrangement that will enable us to have a very significant role in the project? It was important for our region that it was a genuine collaboration with locals,” explains Zammi.

  • Mark Kennedy (left) and Zammi Rohan

The benefits & challenges of merging practices

Mark’s Outcrop Architecture and Zammi’s 9point9 Architects became Counterpoint Architecture on 1 July 2017. For the two practices, there wasn’t drastic change, but the merger did require a mental shift for the directors. “When you’re a sole practitioner or a small practice owner, you’re often doing everything yourself and you end up in that mindset. So, it is an adjustment to step back from certain things and let them go,” says Mark.

In the last five years there has been an incremental evolution of roles. Though both Mark and Zammi are well across everything that’s happening in the company, they also individually lead different aspects of the business, whether it be documentation and production of drawings or winning projects and front-end business development. “It’s about becoming more efficient in how you operate. The point of us merging and sharing the workload wasn’t for us both to still have to do everything. It has taken us a while to realise that and to finetune that,” says Zammi.

The wellbeing benefits of the merger have also been clear. “For me, it’s been really positive,” says Zammi. “One of the great outcomes of the merger was just general quality of life for us as directors. Previously, it was Mark and I taking the full load of everything. For example, when we took leave we would still be checking emails, invoicing, paying wages and doing all that sort of stuff. You just couldn’t get that clear cutaway and downtime from work. So, having someone else to share that load is great. Also, it’s been really good to have someone else to collaborate with on a daily basis.”

The main challenges have been logistical – merging two systems into one. “They’re not insurmountable things, but it does take time to work through those things, especially for team members who might be used to using one kind of CAD program and now need to transition over to something else. But we haven’t had any significant problems. It just takes a bit of time because you are trying to create one entity and one united force rather than running two parallel streams,” explains Mark.

Another priority was bringing the team together as seamlessly as possible. It was beneficial that the teams had already collaborated and knew each other quite well. After the merger, the staff continued to work on the projects already in progress and then it was a gradual transition to working more closely together and become a fully united entity.

“One of the things that worked well for us is that we are equal partners in the business. I think that’s important. There’s that sharing of responsibility. With mergers where there’s an unequal partnership, it might be difficult for people to feel comfortable. But when you’re both in it together and you trust each other to do the best for the business, you usually end up with a better outcome than someone who feels they’re a lesser partner,” says Mark.

Clients, projects & changing the mindset

The merger triggered a difference in mindset in other ways as well. The practice became more structured and data conscious, with more internal review of projects and careful selection of clients and projects. “We are getting more selective, but coming from a small practice background, it is a shift. When you start out, you are grateful for every opportunity and you grab anything that comes in the door. We have found that it’s a mindset thing – you have to get your head around the fact that it’s okay to say no to some things, and you should say no to some things, because the client is not the right fit or the red flags are out there,” explains Mark.

Choosing projects is no longer just about the right size and type of project, the most tantalising site, or even the right fee. Disappointing project experiences can drain the energy and enthusiasm out of a practice, affecting office culture and morale. Increasingly, being discerning about the ‘right client’ is front of mind. “Is this the type of client who will support what we do and that we can have a really strong and productive relationship with? It’s a key consideration… The majority of great, amazing projects that you see out there are a result of having a really fantastic client,” said Zammi.

“The best clients are ambitious about design. They champion your ideas and are looking for your services to add value to the project,” adds Mark. “You might have the ideal project for your practice, but if the client’s not right, it can be a really unproductive, damaging process where everyone comes away stressed and unhappy. And then there are simple, small, unglamorous projects with a great client that can be the most satisfying thing you’ve worked on.”

  • Oasis (with Phorm Architecture & Design)

Diversity & collaboration in the regions

Diversity of projects is a big part of the appeal of regional practice for Mark and Zammi. “There’s lots of opportunity in regional areas. If you’re looking to progress a career, going regional opens doors to more diverse and interesting work. And that goes for people who are at different stages of a career… There are some great opportunities for those starting out and wanting to get into practice to learn and grow, but if you’re experienced and want to run your own show, there’s also lots of work around,” says Mark.

“We do have our own projects and a very broad range of projects, but we still do get involved in the big scale, civic type projects as well. So, it’s really diverse,” adds Zammi.

Collaboration with other architects is a key priority for the practice. It opens up a larger pool of projects to dip into, and offers opportunities to upskill, share knowledge and gain valuable experience. The practice collaborates on projects widely and regularly.

“We have now collaborated with COX on nine projects. COX are strong supporters of our involvement as local architects and genuine about the local component being a real thing. They want to see the local practice grow and learn and come out of it a stronger and flourishing practice. It doesn’t always happen with collaboration,” says Mark. “But it’s a really genuine strong relationship where they trust us and we trust them, and it’s been ongoing.”

Counterpoint works with other architects of varying scales, collaborating with local architects, and national practices such as Wilson Architects, Bureau Proberts, and Kirk. They have also collaborated with a smaller Brisbane-based studio called Phorm Architecture. “As regional architects, that sort of flexibility is important to us. If we’re really fixed on one mode of doing things, it limits what we can do. But that sort of flexibility – to team up if you need to team up, or run it yourself if it’s the right fit – means that you think about each job in a different way. And if you’re open to those collaborations, it really does open doors to be involved in these interesting, larger projects,” explains Mark.

  • Townsville Stadium (with COX Architecture)

Recruitment, remote work & upskilling

Recruitment and staff retention are ongoing challenges for practices in Northern Queensland, with no nearby architecture school to provide a pipeline of graduates. “We’ve explored many avenues when it comes to recruitment. But one of the approaches we’ve taken since the start of the pandemic is opening up opportunities for remote work. The way that we operate and the types of projects we have access to does appeal to a lot of people, but they may not be able to live in North Queensland for various reasons. Remote work is a good option for people with the right level of experience and knowledge, who can be quite autonomous. We now have two team members who work remotely from Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. It works very well. They’re registered architects and very good designers, and contribute significantly to our office.”

Frequent check-ins, participation in weekly team meetings and regular trips to Townsville for site visits and social events helps to maintain team cohesion and practice culture.

Longer term, there is potential to set up little bases in other locations to open up different possibilities for current and future employees. “It’s hard to be really strategic in this industry. Architecture practices usually grow through an opportunity pursued. So, I don’t think we’d ever attempt to move into a place we know nothing about and open an office. It will be about a network, a connection, an opportunity, a reason to identify a way to progress. I think it’s a lot about your staff – about being the right fit. If you can see a way to grow because you might have the right person that wants to live in that location and you know of an opportunity, you can build on that. But there isn’t a grand plan. It’s more of an organic kind of approach,” Mark explains.

Another key priority for the practice is upskilling the team wherever possible. Mark and Zammi are proud of the fact that they have supported six graduates on their pathway to registration over the last five years. For a regional location like Townsville, it’s a significant number. “We believe it’s important to support graduates on their pathway to registration. Business wise, we do wear some costs, but we are really committed to improving architecture in the region and that comes back to us building the team,” says Mark. “Your people are the most important component of your office. So, the priority needs to be creating a great culture and making sure they’re happy. Pay is an important aspect of that, but it’s not the only aspect. Job satisfaction and career paths are also extremely important,” adds Zammi.

The benefits of ACA membership

Counterpoint Architecture has been a member of the ACA for the last five years, with Mark Kennedy a fledgling member of the QLD/NT Committee. So, what are the benefits of ACA membership from their perspective? “The resources and the availability to contact professionals for employee advice, legal issues and business-related matters,” said Zammi.

Mark adds: “There’s a strong focus on things that you actually need in architectural practice. That’s what I really appreciate about the ACA – that focus on the support, the useful resources, and the CPD that is well-priced and affordable. Quite often we find them to be exactly what we need at a particular time. If it’s something that we’re finding more difficult, the ACA is talking about those issues or profiling people with similar business or HR challenges, or trying to improve the way they do things. For instance, we now have an employee assistance program in our office, which came about through an ACA CPD session. That has added to our practice. We haven’t come across that in any other way other than the ACA – an organisation providing really focused support and advice.”

  • James Cook University Indigenous Education & Research Centre (with Kirk)

Project photos: Andrew Rankin