Undercover Architect Interview

1. You’ve had your practice for over 14 years now. Can you tell us a bit about what that’s been like, how you’ve managed to sustain it over that time, and the range of projects you’ve worked on?

Like many mums of my age I had a wonderful career in London, working for the state govt architect and then when I had children it was impossible to get work while having children in Perth – no one would employ you part-time so you did little projects aound kids.  At the time I was married.  My husband was an Interior Designer and we set up a business in 1999 –  I did the books (great training), got the work and then had to be there for kids. 

So when I divorced I had to start again in 2004… I set up my practice in my bedroom with one project (a resi project that paid my former firm), 4 very small children under 6 and no money so I always think it could never get harder than that. 

In the early days I did anything – calling on old work colleagues from my time working as an architect in government – worked for dept of justice providing archi advice for works to a womens prison, became a heritage advisor for two councils among other things. A former staff member with small children came with me and we worked part time around kids. Cat Lee is still with me as an Associate today.

My divorce lawyer was saying give up the work particularly the resi project but I knew that was my future so I didn’t.  I still work for those clients just recently finishing a refurb for their winery Leeuwin Estate. They are my biggest cheerleaders. 

My life training was a god send and I set up SHA with the intent of staying small and personalised,  always doing my best, to be honest, and to never take the amazing opportunities my clients offer me for granted. 

More recently it has been tough for most architects in WA. I feel lucky I have had this really non-linear career now as I believe professionally I can be a bit more agile.  Yesterday I was meeting a couple who want a multi-million downsizer; to designing affordable housing options for a builder and then a heritage refurbishment.

2. As an architect, you have quite a few roles of advocacy as well – your roles with the Institute, with Curtin University, with Government . why do you take these roles on, and what do you seek to do with them? (Basically, why is the advocacy of architecture so important to you!)

Hmmm The Block and other shows like it that show an unrealistic take on how the design and build process is.  And As I am now probably seen as an elder woman in our profession in WA I think it is encumbant on all of us to advocate for our profession and design thinking skills to the general public in (most importantly) an accessible way. I want people to understand that beautiful architecture is good for you – spiritualy, emotionally and physically..

I also want to show people that architects are just people that love designing and not all of us arrogant or scary.

3. Amongst some homeowners I speak to who haven’t worked with an architect before, feedback and concern I hear is that architects only design expensive houses, they’re not for everyone, they can’t design to a budget, they’ll control the design outcome too much . do you find you’re overcoming similar objections? What’s your thoughts on this?

Definitely but in WA we also get the feedback I am better to go to a builder then an architect and this is just wrong…We do small, large, affordable housing and v expensive houses and give everyone of them the same rigourous consideration

4. A question I regularly receive is “I’m doing a renovation or new home . who should I use . an architect, building designer or draftsperson? . and should I just go straight to the builder and use whoever they suggest so I have half a chance of it being on budget?” I can imagine you receive this question too – how do you respond?

In my recent column for the Post I talked about what the training of each of us is and how an architect will listen to you and consider your brief, your site, te councils requirements, the orientation, sun angles, capturing breezes or here in WA protecting from them.  We are trained in passive design and active solar design principles to ensure your house is environmentally sustainable, cheap to run in the long term, beautiful and most importantly will offer elements of absolute delight that you never expected to experience when you move in.  In addition we have studied for 5 years, have to do rego exams, keep up CPD’s and PI insurances, are registered under an Act

What’s your approach to helping your clients establish a budget, stay on budget, and create a design that’s in alignment with their budget as it develops? Do you bring builders in early? Have so many similar projects, you have a good handle on costs, etc?

I call this beer budget champagne brief chat – we need to find a nice Margaret River vino. 

We start with a comprehensive chat about Total Project Cost and Cost of Works and the impact that the size of the house and the material selections have on the cost of building.

– We use based on our experience a sqm rate

– Use a QS

– And then a builder

– On some projects  – smaller ones – we bring a builder in early but do a check price with the QS.

– I am continually informing the client if I feel that they are over doing it

Of course we don’t start on site untl they are happy with the price – there are always things that an be reduced.

5. One of the benefits of many years in your own practice would be seeing how your homes have served their owners over the long term. What do you think makes a family home work when it’s a ‚Äòforever’ or ‚Äòlong term’ home?

When a home has eben designed by us with them for them then they take ownership and love it to bits even the bits that are not necessarily that successful! IT helps that we do the ID and the architecture in parallel.  We do an audit of their collections and try to ensure that we have places for them so the house looks like theirs from the start.  The house has to reflect their personality not mine -but my job is to lead them to parts of their identity that they didn’t know existed.  After all it is their home. 

6. How have clients’ request changed over the years? (I’m personally seeing 2 things happen . 1 is that people are wanting more, more rooms, bigger rooms etc . and then at the other end of the scale, people are wanting to simplify – although the latter is the minority!!)

In WA our housing identity is the ¬º acre block big yards and house. Now we are seeing people moving away from huge houses to more sustainable smaller homes  – less t.v. rooms back to more shared spaces.  But I do keep getting asked to have an ensuite for every child (Especially girls) – WHY I ask – they are expensive, more to clean and in a few years the kids move out into a shared house with 5 people and 1 bathroom (toilet in it). Its our responsibility to teach them!

7. How do you suggest homeowners get the best from working with their designer – both in that initial onboarding, and then navigating the process overall?


Call you local board and find out qualifications – just because they say they are an architect means nothing

Ask to speak to clients of projects on their websites that you like and to see some of their work

Meet with them and ask them about their process, how you will be involved, how they work and what will you get at each stage

And then when you have selected them listen to them, respect their advice and realise this is their business.

If their fee is substantially less than the others you interviewed so will your service. If they are shoddy notify the board

8. I find every architect handles the scope of their role slightly differently . some insist on being involved during construction, others are happy to only do the design part, or finish at documentation . how do you do this in your business, and does it vary across projects?

It is my preference to do full service even helping select a block if required,  I love being on site and feel that without the architect on site you are at risk of losing the elements of delight but most importantly an architect will ensure that your design thread from that first meeting is retained and not value managed out by a builder.

Designing and building in West Australia . whenever I’ve worked with WA clients, I’ve been surprised at how different the conventional construction methodologies are . double brick external, single brick internal, suspended concrete slab on upper floor.

That’s a tricky question to answer – we use a lot of natural materials and bricks have always been made here. Many architects are trying to change  the publics fascination with the double brick mentality (but there was a very good add campaign in the 70’s).  Builders design and build the majority of houses and they do brick as it is the cheapest.

Architects look at alternatives.  We do a lot of reverse brick veneer, rammed limestone and concrete as well as brick. At the moment we are doing a project in SW in a bushfire zone which is timber framed, clad externaly in fibrecement and sustainably forested pine that has been kiln dried 3 times.

9. What ways do you know WA building is different from other parts of Australia, and why is this?

I am not sure

10. What’s WA climate like, and how does it impact your approach to design, material selection, construction choices etc?

WA is a third of Australia so we have the weather of Qld, NSW and Victoria and Tassie in our state but with the beautiful Indian Ocean orientating us to the west. Half of the state is desert

In Perth Extreme temperatures from -2 to 44| second windiest city in the world. 

Our architecture is climate driven, has to be environmentally sustainable and use as much local product as possible as it is more expensive to get products here across the Nullarbor.  Some parts of the state have earthquakes and most summer there is cyclonic storms. 

11. Are there any tricky considerations for renovating and building in West Australia that homeowners should be aware of . specialist consultants, difficult planning legislation, or specific allowances that need to be made in the budget?

I am not sure people understand who is in the design team and the time for the regulatory approval process.

We work with landscape architects, planners if the council regs are prohibitive, engineers, energy efficiency and certification consultants for planning and building approval.

Plus the time the councils are given for the regulatory approval processes really eats into the programme. For planning approval they are given 60-90 days and for energy efficiency, certification and then council sign of for BL it is 6 weeks.

Listen to part of the podcast here https://undercoverarchitect.com/podcast-working-with-architect-suzanne-hunt-perth/