Brad & Lisa Johnson 
are building a home designed by Neil Cownie. Here Lisa talks about the process so far.

Can you tell me how you came to choose Neil as your architect?

We interviewed a handful of architects and we chose Neil because he seemed to be truly interested in our project. We told him we loved off-form concrete and he mentioned that he had always loved the off-form concrete in the Law faculty at UWA where I studied, so it was a great fit.

He understood quickly the aesthetic and the style of house we wanted to live in. He didn’t come across as a pushy salesman. Everything seemed to be about building a beautiful house and not imposing his vision onto us. It was more about helping us achieve our vision using his skills. 

We also thought we’d be comfortable working with him over a long period of time on a project which we knew would be stressful at times.

Neil seemed like a laid back, easy going person and that’s what his references said about him. We rang a few of his previous clients and they all said he was very open to the client changing their mind, and dealing with new ideas. He wasn’t precious about abandoning ideas that he might’ve worked very hard on if they weren’t suitable for whatever reason. His other clients also praised his attention to detail and I can certainly vouch for that.

In what ways do you think he’s different from other architects?

He’s very, very hands on across all aspects of our project, from the large scale to the very small details. He’s really across all aspects of the design and also the implementation. For us the construction phase so far has been one on one with him and very hands on. It’s been a very personalised service and very detail oriented, so no details have been left up to the builders. Neil has visited our site many times and continues to meet with the builders frequently to ensure our house is getting built exactly as planned.

The level of detail in the architectural drawings was very, very high, so we did feel that there was no stone left unturned in terms of how the house was going to get built.

It’s reassuring and you feel like there won’t be too many major problems or major cost overruns because everything’s been mapped out in such detail before we went to tender for the builders.

Can you describe to me how the design process worked when you sat down and worked through it with Neil?

We had our own general ideas about what we wanted in terms of living areas and bedrooms. We created a Pinterest board to gather ideas about the sort of look we were after. We showed Neil the Pinterest board before meeting with him and then discussed that when we met for the first time at our site. 

Neil developed an initial concept that was changed and refined, I think three times. By the third time it was basically there. The first concept was probably eighty percent there, the other twenty percent was just changing the pool and a couple of things about the layout to cater for our young family. It was just a case of us giving feedback, and him taking it away and incorporating that.

Over time Neil has evolved various details to the finishes which will really make the house incredibly beautiful and interesting to live in.

What’s your new home like?

Our house is a mid-century inspired home in Floreat. The main living areas and children’s bedrooms are all at ground level. Then upstairs we have a master bedroom and en suite which steps out to a rooftop courtyard and garden area. One of the featured materials is off-form concrete, which is concrete that has the texture of wood on it. This is done by the cement being poured into a wooden form. It’s slightly inspired by a few other mid-century homes in the area and so is the garden. Basically the main building materials are concrete, wood and glass.

You’re in the early days construction – how is it working out?

We’ve met with Neil on site a few times and the most important thing has been checking the samples of the off-form concrete. That involved the builder pouring some samples. We met together and discussed the colour and the textures. We ended up doing that three times. Neil was instrumental in supervising the builders to get the right kind of wood in order to produce a sample that was of sufficient quality that we were all happy to proceed.

In the background Neil has been meeting with the builders on site to supervise what they’re doing and reviewing the costs. Neil reviews the builder’s claims for invoices every month and then issues a certificate to us telling us that it’s been verified. There is still a lot of involvement from him, basically supervising the build and tweaking small details as we go, which takes a lot of stress away from us. That’s how it’s gone so far and it’s all going very well. The build is proceeding very quickly, which is great.

Has the process been as you imagined it would be?

Yes, certainly. I think because we’ve got Neil in there talking to the builders, for us it’s just a case of showing up and going, “Yes, that looks great,” and not having to worry about headaches, or to answer any kind of technical questions at all. Neil’s the conduit for all of those and most of the time probably doesn’t even need to involve us, he can just answer questions from the builder. The builder has been suggesting a few cost savings, which has been good, and Neil has been looking at where they can be incorporated and if they can, then he’ll adjust the drawings. That’s all part of the service, which has been really good.

How do you describe Neil to other people who are looking for an architect?

Neil is a very good listener with very good attention to detail. He’s unassuming but passionate about what he does. He’s not someone who wants to impose his views on you, so he’s very good at listening and trying to achieve your dream, but do it better than you can imagine. We had an idea in our mind about what we would like and the house that will get built is just a lot better than what we imagined.

He’s taken our dream and, with his skill, made it so much better.

Would you recommend him and what would be the main reasons for that?

I’d definitely recommend Neil for that bespoke, hands-on experience of working with an architect. He’s also good at not bombarding you with ideas and information. The design phase has the potential to be overwhelming. We’d never done it before and Neil was good at drip-feeding information in a way that didn’t feel overwhelming. 

At one meeting we’d talk about lights, and then another meeting talk about another aspect of the build. I found this quite a good way to digest each of the aspects.

Neil is experienced in managing people who are completely new to the whole process. At the same time he doesn’t get precious about anything. He could have worked very, very hard on something and it turns out that it’s outside the budget. It’s always the case that some things have to be left behind and he doesn’t get precious about abandoning those things if it becomes necessary.

How would you sum up the experience of working with Neil so far on this project?

It’s been about as stress free as you would hope. The main concern, as always with these things, is budget. That’s just been a case of looking at where we are and comparing it to where we want to be. Neil’s always been responsive to that and done the work that’s needed to bring the budget down, which involves a fair bit of additional work. Then we had to get the engineers to sign off and some alterations to our plans that would ultimately save us money. He was good at communicating where we were going with that and what was happening.

We’ve certainly felt listened to throughout the project. We’ve certainly felt that he has done all the hard work of liaising with all the various other contractors involved in the project and then ironing out lots of wrinkles and taking a lot of stress away from us.

Lisa reviews their design and build on Neil’s Houzz profile:

Neil Cownie Review Lisalef on Houzz Sep 2015