Mark Zoller is the Development Director for Nicheliving, specialists in large scale housing developments in Perth. Neil Cownie has been engaged as the architect for two major Nicheliving projects (each with over 90 homes). Here Mark discusses those projects and the nature of Neil’s involvement.

Can you describe the projects that you’ve worked on with Neil?

We’ve worked on two projects, the first one is at Madeley in Perth’s northern suburbs. It’s a part green title and part survey-strata development. There’s sixteen houses on green title lots and there’s ninety houses on survey-strata lots. Neil worked with our project town planner to prepare the design for the subdivision plan (106 lots).

We first engaged Neil to design a range of homes. We decided whether they were single or two story, how many bedrooms and what size they were within a price range. Neil came up with a number of designs, we got our development approval, we got our subdivision approval and to date we’ve built about 60 lots out of the 106. It’s been very successful.

The second project we worked with Neil on was a 95 home development in Hammond Park. It’s been a similar working process. We sat with Neil and worked up the design brief in terms of single story and two story, size and accommodation and how many of each. He designed the houses, we critiqued them and then he produced the final designs. Neil then worked with our town planner on the master sub division plan.

We prefer our town planner and architect to work together. We never leave the town planner to do the design on the sub division because we find that the homes might not necessarily fit. Neil understands that. He works with us, takes on board our requirements and has come up with designs on both projects.

The thing that I’ve liked about the way he’s worked with us on those two projects is that, he’s one of the few architects who I’ve come across who doesn’t have an ego that gets in the way. He doesn’t try and persuade us that what he’s come up with is how it should be. Others that I’ve worked with do that, they’ll defend their initial design.

We know our customers, we know them extremely well. Neil accepts the fact. When we give him a brief and he comes up with draft plans, he expects them to change. It’s really hard to get it right until someone puts something down on a piece of paper. Once you’ve got a design on a piece of paper, you can then sit and constructively critique it. He takes it all on board. He goes away, makes the changes, brings them back and that’s how he’s worked on those two projects.

Are these houses designed to be built to a specific budget?

Yes. We know what we think the market will pay for a single story and what they will pay for a two story. It’s driven by accommodation and the size of a property as well. We are very much in the market of affordability.

Affordable means different prices in different suburbs and giving people value for money. Neil gets it, he’s designing to a specific budget to a specific design brief. He understands the complexities of all that.

What’s Neil like to work with?

Very easy. Neil is one of the few people that I’ve met who is both creative and easy going. He’s creative because you need your architect to be creative but he’s also very commercial, which is important. He understands that excessive detail which gets hidden can cost money and add no value in our market. He’ll sit here, ask questions and listen closely to the brief so he’s got absolute clarity. Having said that, briefs evolve, all designs and all briefs evolve.

I’ve been working with Neil for two years. During that time he’s produced a lot of designs for us. I’ve never come across a circumstance when he’s been defensive in the face of feedback. Not once. That’s quite rare.

Neil does designs for much grander homes. We are in a different market. Our market place is value for money, it’s about affordable homes in suburbs both north and south of the river. Neil introduces as much flair as we can afford, while remaining commercial at the same time. The developments Neil worked on were both successful.

It’s not just the aesthetics, the floor plans have to work. The kitchen has to work, the bathrooms have to work, the room layout has to work. It has to look good and be very functional. You need as much external flair as you can afford but at the same time functionality for your floor space.

When people move in they have their friends over. If their friends say, ”Wow, this is really nice”, then those friends are going to be our next customers. Neil pays a lot of attention to the orientation of a house and the orientation of living spaces. We try to get as much northern sun into those areas and into the courtyards.

It’s very much about design meeting a budget meeting a design brief. Neil needs to consider all those things at the same time. Some of our lots go down to 180 square metres, which is pretty small. Even then he’s still mindful and still keeping a close eye on the orientation of the house because that influences what it’s going to feel like to live in.

Do you want to talk a little bit about project documentation?

This is the other thing that I really appreciate about working with Neil. We have our own drafting team that does the building licencing. Neil accepts that. He was happy to accept the fact that his service to us is about working from a brief to create the drawings for a development application. We get our development approval from his documentation and that’s where he stops.
I have met architects who say, “If I’m not going to have the whole job, I’m not going to do it.” Neil accepts how we work, he’s more than happy to provide us with that service.

On both of Neil’s projects we’ve got our development approvals through in a reasonable period of time.

How is Neil different from other architects you’ve worked with?

You can sit down with Neil and say something doesn’t look quiet right. You don’t even need to be able to say why. You can just say something like “This doesn’t flow, this doesn’t feel right.” Every time he’s come in and every time we’ve sat down and every time we’ve gone though changes he’s just asked questions. He’s asking questions because he wants to make absolutely sure that he understands what we want so he can go away and give us what we want. That’s rare.

We believe, for example, that you should have a mix of roof lines. Some skillions, some hips, some gables and other various roof lines. You’ll find this in numerous other subdivisions where people are building their own houses. One architect I spoke with insisted it’s either going to be one or the other. He was absolutely adamant that if he was going to be involved, they all had to be one roof type. It couldn’t be a mixture.

With Neil, he’ll say something like “Lets see how that works. Let me put a streetscape together.” That’s what you want to hear. It might not have worked, we might have gone with one type of roof line but what I’m getting from Neil is, “Okay, lets see what it looks like.”

Neil’s personable, talented and good natured – a nice person. We’re all busy and the people you want to work with are the people you can work with easily. You want people who are nice and pleasant, that’s Neil to a T. It’s an absolute delight and pleasure to work with him.

If you were talking to someone else thinking about working with Neil, what would you say?

Discuss your project with him, pick his brains. You’ll find someone who will listen to what you want, give you creative options and willingly make changes if you need them.