Interview: Allison Smith, architect

CWC_2016-01-21_georgia-phase_insta-graphic_template By Emma Clark

Allison Smith is the woman behind Studio 15b, a boutique architecture studio based in Brisbane. With over 20 years experience in architecture, Allison branched out and began her own practice in 2013. You can follow her work on Instagram and Facebook.

What drew you to becoming an architect, and to doing what you’re doing today?

Architecture was the main idea that stuck in my mind as a possible career path during high school.  It’s a profession where every day is different, every project is different and as an Architect we are required to continue to learn and adapt to changes in the world. The variety is what keeps me going and motivated in this challenging industry.

I’ve worked in small, medium and large firms in Brisbane and London, which has seen me work on a large variety of projects from small alterations and additions, new large homes, multi-residential developments, heritage buildings, community, commercial, train stations and education projects.  Seeing a project from the very initial client meeting through to the finished constructed project can take years but it makes it all worthwhile when you see the final product.

I have most recently established my own small practice - Studio 15b.  In two and a half years I have built a small team but would like to expand this team in the future.  Having my own practice is an enjoyable challenge and I’m glad I took the plunge.  I feel that Studio 15b is able to provide a personalised service as a small practice that is backed by big practice experience.

Allison Smith_Studio 15b


Can you give us a little insight into your creative process?

One of my design strengths is being able to take the disorder and sometimes confusion of a client’s brief, along with all the other constraints that comes with building and then reorganise to give it purpose and reason.  Whether those constraints are budget related, to do with the site or council, I enjoy testing the options to produce one clear concept that fits the brief and the constraints best.

Creating interest and flair while fulfilling the brief is key.  We continually test ideas with form until we are happy with the results, before we present to the client what we feel is the best solution for a project.  I’m a very considered designer and prefer simple, refined solutions. The simplest solutions are often the hardest to achieve but I prefer not to take the easy road. I like designing the most efficient solutions that are not necessarily what the client imaged but end up fulfilling the brief even better than they could have anticipated.  This clearly demonstrates the value of our service to them.

Who is your typical customer/client?

Our clients could roughly be allocated into three types each with totally different needs.  We have a good understanding of each of their different needs and what they require from a project perspective.  We enjoy the variety that each client brings.

Typically our residential clients have generally never been involved in a building project.  For these clients we spend a great deal of time educating them in the process.  This helps them better understand and gives some reassurance to what can be a stressful process for them. It is our job to guide them through.  We are given a lot of trust, with in most cases their biggest investment - we value and respect this.  Design decisions are very personal choices and we aim to guide as well as collaborate with our clients.

Our multi-residential clients are generally developers with a range of experience.  We tailor the service to their needs.  Personal considerations are not usually a factor with these cost driven projects, however factors such as; designing to the current market, maximising the development in terms of saleable area and number of units plus aligning with the budget that is driven from sale prices all come into play.  We enjoy working with experienced and new developers to help them achieve the most from their development.

Our commercial clients also have different project requirements.  We have worked with a number of businesses to improve their fitouts.  Every business is different and I enjoy finding out how each of them tick.  Then we question whether there is a better way of operating from a business perspective as well as in the available space.  A well designed fitout can improve staff productivity which generally leads to increased sales or revenue.  We enjoy working with businesses big and small.

What does a typical day involve for you?

A typical day starts with getting on top of any urgent emails and quickly flicking through a couple of construction or architecture blogs such as The Urban Developer and ArchitectureAU.  It keeps me on top of the industry as a whole and also sets the tone for the day.

I’m big on writing lists, so weekly I put together a ‘to do’ list but I also have daily ‘to do’ notes which I often leave as reminders of urgent things to do.  Because I am the sole director, it’s important that I spend my time on the most pressing things first and prioritise well.  This list is constantly changing so it’s important to revisit it daily.  It serves as a good reminder to focus and help with my productivity.  I try to roughly plan out the week ahead for meetings at appropriate times, but also plan time for project work.

I usually arrange a coffee with an industry colleague or potential client every week or so.  Networking serves multiple purposes.  As a small practice it is important to seek communication with what is going on in the industry outside your own world.

Once I’m organised with a list of priorities, then a typical day could involve a mix of writing a fee proposal for a potential client, reviewing my staff’s project work as well as completing my own project work.  Depending on the stage of the project this could be some initial design sketches or design development, through to coordinating with consultants or visiting a project under construction.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

There have been many proud moments throughout my career and it’s hard to pinpoint just one.  The most recent being the start of Studio 15b and winning a HIA Interior Design Award with our first project.  It was totally unexpected but important to recognise and celebrate these achievements.  It certainly gives you motivation to continue what you are doing.

What's the best piece of advice you've been given?

A direct piece of advice doesn’t come to mind, but I’ve watched and learnt from many other architects that I’ve worked with.  I’ve tried to model myself on a little of all the things I admire about others but with my spin on it.  Things such as being proactive in sorting out any issues that arise, not worrying about things that are out of your control and keeping a good work/life balance most of the time.  These are all things I aim for.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to continue building Studio 15b.  I would like to grow our small team and create a culture of friendly and dedicated people who use their strengths to provide Architecture & Interior Design solutions to those that see the value in our service.  I encourage anyone to approach us for networking or project opportunities.  We are always available for a chat.