The pandemic demanded rapid adaptation for Kirby Architects, but the experience was also empowering, revealing the possibilities of positive change and bringing the team closer and more determined to do great work.
When was the practice established and what were its early ambitions? How has the practice evolved over time?
Kirby Architects was established in Melbourne in the 1990s and currently has a close-knit team of five people. The founder and principal architect, Kirby Roper, brings more than 25 years of design experience in residential, multi-residential, commercial and community projects.
While we always have one or two community-focused projects on our books at any time, we have evolved to have a strong portfolio of high-end residential new builds and renovations.
What is the practice philosophy?
Lasting design is about quality and timeless aesthetics, but also the functionality and sustainability of the layout, fittings, environmental impacts, and social factors. As an early advocate for design that supports ageing in place, Kirby Architects is at the forefront of this movement in Australia. Concepts of liveability and universal design are prominent overseas, but we are often behind the curve here in Australia.
We sum up these concepts as “Lifestage Design®”. This means we prioritise creating long-lasting, positive homes that will evolve and adapt to suit the owners’ needs as they go through life. Whether we are designing a home intended to grow with a family, one for multi-generational sharing or with smart ideas for future-proofing and sustainability, Lifestage Design® puts life at the centre of every brief.
We aim to create inspiring and nourishing spaces that clients will enjoy over many chapters of their life, not just one.
Can you tell us about a key project or business initiative that provided a turning point in the life of the practice?
It wasn’t one pivotal project that has influenced our change and growth; it was the accumulation of many projects that led us to trial the hypothesis of how to live with better access and adaptability.
For example, in 2019 we saw our first fully sustainable off-the-grid house reach completion. That felt like a huge achievement, one we are very proud of. After lockdown ended, we were able to revisit the project in the Mansfield region and see how well the homeowners are living there – the garden is getting established and is already very productive.
During lockdown, the house made room for two generations, as older sons and their girlfriends came to live and work there, alongside younger family members who were remote learning. The house proved it could flex from accommodating its usual three inhabitants to welcoming seven. Everyone is still talking to each other, and the family declare it was a great success.
From a technical perspective, the climate measures and energy initiatives performed very well, with the house feeling comfortable during 2020’s very hot summer followed by a cold winter. We plan to keep pushing ourselves on more sustainable projects.
What are some of the most important business management lessons you have learned?
When it comes to business operations, there is a temptation to attempt to control everything, but that is self-limiting. Realising it is better to share the administrative load, we find it crucial to balance oversight, control and delegation. Having the right business infrastructure and resources for your practice is critical.
Getting others' viewpoints on business management is one reason I joined the ACA; being part of a group that shares insights and experience in managing a practice has been invaluable. We all work differently, but we can also learn from each other.
It is very helpful to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” and assess business actions as rigorously as we do for projects. This helps me to prioritise and identify the value of what I am doing; it’s a beneficial approach to ensure I am not getting distracted.
2020 was an extremely challenging year with many restrictions and additional stresses. What did you miss most about normal practice life? Were there any positive changes that you plan to take forward post-COVID?
The amazing thing about 2020 was the incredibly rapid pace of change. We had to adapt very quickly and learn to coordinate projects in an entirely new way. We learnt so much about new ways of collaborating, the dedication of my team was impressive, and we worked through the stresses together. If anything, the experience of 2020 has brought us closer and made us more determined to do great work.
There were some positives too. Working with authorities, trades and clients through remote meetings sometimes sped up decision making and was a more efficient use of our time. The big learning for me is we can do so much more as a collective if we just put our minds to it.
Returning now to face to face contact is great, but remote meetings are here to stay. We save travel time. The Zoom phenomenon has been interesting. I noticed that on Zoom, the meetings are a bit less formal and are more empowering. I think of Zoom as the third way now – a great additional form of meeting.
Australians’ approach to COVID shows we are adaptable and can drive change. While we were all trapped in our small environs, we collectively tackled burning issues and could step outside our immediate private concerns. Let’s get together to do the same for other big picture challenges.
What are the biggest issues involved in running your practice?
Business administration can be frustrating, especially if you feel that you would prefer to be creating. I find it helps to think of the administration side of the practice as creating as well. Staff growth, integration and recruitment are always important considerations too.
How has technology impacted on how you conduct business?
Well, we can’t do without tech these days, can we? During COVID especially, everything changed as we had to learn how to work remotely. Had the pandemic happened 20 years ago, everything would have fallen over, but tech kept us going.
In 2019, we made a conscious decision to shift to presenting designs to clients using 3D visualisations, rather than the traditional drawn plans and elevations. Visually walking clients through the spaces and providing fly-through videos has become the norm. The transition to 3D design software positioned us well when COVID lockdowns imposed remote meetings and co-working.
We’re now extending our 3D and visualisation skills in the studio and keeping pace with software developments. Better quality, more detailed visualisations help clients understand the design before we commit to construction.
How do you market your practice?
Word of mouth (WOM) has been incredibly valuable for our practice. Importantly, WOM translates to new leads that are well-qualified and a close match with the type of client and projects that we enjoy.
Now we are putting marketing actions in place to increase WOM. For example, we self-publish a book annually with recent works. When we give the book to clients, they are thrilled to see their project in print, and they share the book with their friends – it’s a real conversation starter.
The other thing is professional photography of projects is a must. We find the images of our work are key to winning the next projects. With lots of great photos, our social media looks good too. Our Instagram and website feature quality project images; it helps potential clients understand where we are coming from and what they can expect when choosing to work with us.
Another recent initiative is that we started a regular newsletter in 2020, so our contact database has come under the spotlight – we’ve quickly realised a quality well-managed database is marketing gold. Publishing a newsletter is quite a commitment, so we limit newsletters to four issues a year; we aim for quality over frequency. The newsletter gives us a voice and allows us to share ideas and contribute to debates around built environment issues like sustainability and design value.
What are the ambitions for the practice?
One of our key philosophies is we want to make architectural design quality more accessible. So, we are developing a series of plans that we market as limited edition home designs. I’ve distilled my 25 years’ experience as an architect designing quality homes for every Lifestage into a series of house designs for 1, 2 and 3 bedroom homes that we call the Kirby Collection. All the designs are a limited edition. The Kirby Collection is for people who aspire to the quality of an architect-designed home, but prioritise a known construction cost and build time over a bespoke design process. By offering exclusive access to a ready-made design, the whole procedure is radically simplified for them.
We know we are not alone in thinking this way; there are other practices who are also venturing in this direction. We think it’s great to see this movement and we intend to be a part of this initiative.
Where do you see the business in the next five years?
We are looking forward to more collaboration. We are open to working with other architects. We are also in conversation with product developers and builders who are developing sustainable products such as SIPS panels and other innovations in construction and sustainability.
We think that 2020 has been a tremendous learning curve and are itching to push ourselves even further. Australia and NZ have proven that when faced with huge challenges, we can be great innovators. If we could take the energy and focus that made us one of the most successful countries in managing a pandemic and put it towards solving the climate emergency, who knows what we could achieve?
If you had one piece of advice for someone starting out, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to discuss the budget with your clients. Budget is about weighing up the ‘wants’ with the ability to finance those. Our job is to guide the client to help them make an informed decision on their budget.
Think about sharing more with your profession. As designers, each of us has our own niche; it’s healthy for our practice, our profession and our environment to be open to sharing knowledge and ideas. Think global first, then local, then personal.
How long have you been a member of the ACA? (And a member of the committee)
I joined the ACA in 2016 and haven’t looked back. As soon as I joined, I wanted to get involved and joined the Vic/Tas branch committee. My reasons for joining the ACA committee were to help our profession to share more, to mentor the next generation and invent new forms of practice to meet the new challenges that are ahead.
It’s been a rewarding process; my personal philosophy of giving back to my profession and making a broader contribution to the built environment means it felt like the right thing to do. But the truth is I have gained more than I ever expected. I encourage others to give it a go and get involved.
What do you see are the main benefits of membership?
Like most architectural practices in Australia, ours is a small practice, so on a practical level we find the resources, information and especially the ACA Business Toolbox invaluable. Accessing others’ expertise and resources and avoiding reinventing the wheel saves time and money, and allows us to get on with providing a quality service to our clients and supporting our people with confidence.
But more than that, the collegiate environment and opportunities to connect with other practices are brilliant.
What future initiatives would you like to see the ACA pursue?
In 2020 I got involved with the Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum in Australia, which is a fantastic initiative. I’d like to see this focus continue to ensure our profession stays strong and healthy. We particularly need to support newcomers and graduates joining the profession and encourage diversity.
As a society, we have much to learn from our First Nations peoples and their connections and understanding of this country, the climate and the earth. I would love to see more initiatives that encourage more Indigenous people to study architecture and become registered.
As architects, it is incumbent upon us to keep learning and doing things better; an open-minded approach and asking questions will contribute to keeping the ACA relevant and a valuable resource for everyone.
Photos: Jacqui Henshaw