I’ve always had a ‘big picture’ purpose behind my property investing and business. And that’s to help reshape housing in Australia, so that it’s more affordable and that it creates and fosters community. My guest this week is someone whose work is right up my alley. Rebecca Caldwell is an architect and mother who fuses ethics and social responsibility in her work. Join us as we chat about the future of housing and why adaptable homes are a bright star on our housing horizon.
Rebecca of Maytree Studios is designing the kind of world she wants to live in. Her design philosophy combines ethics and social responsibility with the forward-thinking sensibilities of contemporary architecture.
Originally from New Zealand, she aesthetically leans towards the rich, textured and rugged forms that define this part of the Antipodes. This tangible aspect of her practice is typical of Rebecca’s warm, empathic nature that endears her to clients. She is genuinely invested in what’s important for our clients and works closely with them to provide advice that is in their best interests. As a project progresses towards completion, Rebecca keeps communication channels flowing between clients and builders, collaboratively exploring ways to create buildable outcomes within budget.
Becoming a mother has strengthened Rebecca’s residential practice by giving her a first-hand understanding of the importance of future-proofing homes to accommodate growing households. The sleep-deprivation of motherhood hasn’t affected her tongue-in-cheek humour, though, which remains razor sharp.
Thanks for joining us for the Small Talk Big Ideas Podcast, a podcast to enrich your soul, where we have conversations with inspiring people about all things property, business and life. And now the host of Small Talk Big Ideas, Ian Ugarte.
Ian Ugarte (00:24):
Hey there. Welcome to this episode of Small Talk Big Ideas, and today we’re talking to Rebecca Meredith, someone who thought that she wasn’t going to be an architect, but ended up being one. And being a mother has strengthened her resolve to make sure that when she works with clients, she lowers their costs, and more importantly makes their house adaptable for the next 10 to 20 years. Enjoy this episode of Small Talk Big Ideas. As always, you can follow us on all the social media channels, and you can find out more information at ianugarte.com.au. Hey, Rebecca Caldwell. I remember. How are you?
Rebecca Meredith (00:24):
I’m good. Thank you.
Ian Ugarte (01:03):
I purposely don’t go and find out too much about the guest that I have on the podcast, because I want to try and draw out stuff from who you are and what you do. So firstly, let’s start you off from you’re an architect.
Rebecca Meredith (01:15):
Ian Ugarte (01:16):
Tell us about that business.
Rebecca Meredith (01:19):
Yeah. So my business is called Maytree Studios, and I’ve probably had that for around eight or nine years. It largely started as a bit of a hobby and grew really quickly. And then I downsized it after I had a kid and realized that motherhood and business was not incompatible, but there had to be adjustments made. Since I sort of downsized, I’ve been able to kind of rebuild that in a way that I’m much clearer about the work we want to do and the position we want to do the work from.
Ian Ugarte (02:00):
What is that? Yeah, what particular [crosstalk 00:02:04]? Where have you specialized and where have you ended up?
Rebecca Meredith (02:08):
Yeah. I mean, we do I guess a lot of renovations and some new girls in housing. So we’ve moved away from any sort of developer-driven or commercial work and really working for the one-off home owner with a strong emphasis on it being for people who are planning to be in their home for 10 plus years. So it’s less of people are renovating. Their drivers are about creating lifestyle and buying something for their family that’s untethered and away from the home as an asset and more about the kind of life that they want to build.
Ian Ugarte (02:54):
Yeah. So essentially, you’ve targeted on a market that there’s, “I want to renovate my house. I want to make sure that it can grow or shrink with the family in the next 10 years, because I know I’m going to be here,” and that’s very smart because the amount of people that go out there to do a renovation and they base their renovation on the cost, “I want it to be as cheap as possible to get the most bang for my buck,” where you’re saying you’ve concentrated on those people that have said, “I’ve got money. I want to do a renovation, and I want to make sure I can stay in this renovation and stay here long term on the property.” I was doing some media the other day where a real estate agent over in Perth had over capitalized on his property, but knowing that in the next 15 years it’s going to be worth a truckload of money anyway, so it didn’t really matter, but they were looking for… Is that right?
Rebecca Meredith (03:42):
I think when you are looking at a home over its longer term, then that question about the future value becomes less relevant. I wouldn’t say irrelevant. When working with clients who are mortgaging their renovation against the future value, so we look at what the renovations are going to do, they might look at that total end value and they borrow up to 80 or 90% of that say using the equity of their home or their cash to do it.
So for those clients, the value of the home does matter. But for those clients, I guess the ones we’re working with and doing so through being really active about educating people, is that rather than do one really big renovation poorly and cheaply, is if you do have a long term vision for the home, then you can talk about staging and you can talk about a master plan for the home. So rather than trying to get everything done in one hit and maybe compromise, pick your hero, do something really nice, really special that does something great for your family. Maybe the carport. That’s where having a long term view of a property gives you that freedom.
Ian Ugarte (04:51):
Yep. Have you noted is it high end renos that you’re doing, or is middle market, or is there any particular client that’s coming to you?
Rebecca Meredith (05:01):
Yeah. I mean, I would think anyone working with an architect, it’s a luxury service, I think. So I would say we do high end. It’s always a scale, though. There’s lots of architects work where I’d say, “Well, everything’s rolled in glitter.” I think most of our clients were remaining pretty budget savvy on and picking the thing that’s special, but not making it special everywhere. So I’d say whilst it’s high end, it’s not completely unconstrained in terms of budget.
Ian Ugarte (05:43):
Do you also project manage the construction part of it as well?
Rebecca Meredith (05:48):
Yes. So we do. And I guess part of the emphasis of my business and why I was really drawn to your… I heard you on Urban Planners Queensland, and I think emailed Rebecca and said how impressed I was with the openness and vulnerability and honesty in that podcast. I don’t think you hear that in the property and development sector a lot. It was really refreshing. So the premise of our business is really about trying to make architecture more accessible and within reach of a broader population. You might think architects might do maybe 2% of the housing in Australia, if that, right? It’s always been this very elite thing. So I think we really pride ourselves on the fact that our clients are… There’s a lot of IT guys and teachers and nurses. They’re not all independently wealthy doing this renovation.
Part of the way we do that, in answer to your question, is that we step back a little bit from all of the processes that an architect would typically do. So the bulk of our clients would pay us to do full design and full project management right through pricing and building. But we are flexible where clients do want to spend a little bit less money on professional speed. So if their budget is reasonably constrained, they can elect services to remove so that they can… It’s just one of the ways we kind of make that architecture a little bit more accessible to everyday people.
So where an architect might have charged 10 to 12% of the construction budget, for some of our projects they’re sitting somewhere between six and 8%, and there’s just a bit of work there that the clients have to do. But in doing that, in handing that over, it’s also really important for us to manage those clients, the risk. Like we know building is a very complex process. So we’ve also kind of built up systems for those clients so that they can do their interior specifications and coordinate that properly with their drawings and have a good level of specifications set for the builders so that they know what they’re going to get at the end.
Ian Ugarte (08:01):
So you say, “We.” Who’s we? Is it you and your partner, or…
Rebecca Meredith (08:06):
No. It’s my business, but the business is a co-owned structure. So my other three full-time employees, two of whom are architects, one’s an interior designer, are shareholders. And the idea is that the business, as it grows, which hopefully that’s not fast, hopefully it’s nice and sustainably slow, is that after two years of employment that they have the opportunity to buy into the business as well.
Ian Ugarte (08:38):
That’s a nice structure. That’s a nice structure. Yeah. It’s a nice structure to have that there, because it’s not as much as an incentive. It’s much more about culture and saying, “If you’re in this for the right reasons, then hang around and be part of it.”
Rebecca Meredith (08:55):
Ian Ugarte (08:56):
I like that.
Rebecca Meredith (08:58):
Actually, the designers are very dedicated people. I don’t know if clients even fully realize how much I spent last night just thinking about a project for hours. We get really embedded, and they’re like that as employees as well, just really committed generally speaking. And it just seems crazy, like talented people are going to go off and see their own business, which is also fine. But if you want to hold them, then there’s got to be a reward for the level of investment that they put into the business.
Ian Ugarte (09:30):
Let’s go way back. Where were you born?
Rebecca Meredith (09:36):
New Zealand. So down in central Otago, which is just near Queenstown, which people might… Yeah.
Ian Ugarte (09:43):
[crosstalk 00:09:43]. Your young years were there, obviously? And then-
Rebecca Meredith (09:46):
Yeah. Until 12, and then moved with my family to Australia. I’m one of six kids. I’m fourth in the line, and my father was a Presbyterian minister. And so I think we were raised with a really strong kind of social functions. The Christian framework isn’t one I subscribe to now, but I think it leaves you with a lot of hangovers that you can’t shake, and just kind of a strong sense that you’re in the world to do more than just profit. You’re in the world to do some good as well.
Ian Ugarte (10:20):
Yeah. I mean, my membership to the Catholic church has lapsed recently, so I’ll have to… When I say recently, how old am I? Half my life ago. All right. So you came over with 12. The reason was because of your father being a minister. Is that why you came over?
Rebecca Meredith (10:34):
No, no. They left ministry and came over here just for really a change of scene. And my mom was a teacher, so she started working and supported the family for a couple years while my dad retrained. Yeah. I mean, we were from a really solidly middle class family, and education was always super important. I guess my parents would say that’s been the great thing that they’ve been able to give us here in Australia is a really broad foundation in terms of education and just a lot more opportunity here than in New Zealand.
Ian Ugarte (11:14):
So where did you land when you came over? Where in Australia?
Rebecca Meredith (11:18):
Like on the plane? Brisbane.
Ian Ugarte (11:23):
Brisbane. All right. What suburb was the first suburb you guys lived in?
Rebecca Meredith (11:27):
Well, look. This one’s a bit embarrassing, but west culture. Yeah. That’s a period of my life I’m happy to skip, but we actually did end up settling on the Sunshine Coast and have kind of all spread out from there. Maytree is based in Brisbane, but we have a small Sunshine Coast presence as well.
Ian Ugarte (11:51):
But you’re in Brisbane at the moment?
Rebecca Meredith (11:54):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Ian Ugarte (11:55):
Okay. All right. So you went through school. Did you play sports at all?
Rebecca Meredith (12:01):
Yes. These are not the questions I expected, Ian. Yes. I played a lot of cricket, basketball. Haven’t stuck with any of it.
Ian Ugarte (12:15):
Could you have been elite?
Rebecca Meredith (12:19):
I doubt it. Yeah, no. I mean, I’m not a strong talent.
Ian Ugarte (12:27):
Sometimes it’s not the [crosstalk 00:12:29]. It’s the development of skill that gets people to the top, not the talent.
Rebecca Meredith (12:32):
Ian Ugarte (12:33):
Yes. Went through schools. Did you know that you wanted to be an architect?
Rebecca Meredith (12:39):
No, I didn’t. I think I really wanted to be an interior designer. I had read a series of books when I was a kid about these school girls whose mom was an interior designer, and that had always piqued my interest. Architects often come from families of architects. Like you’ll meet a lot of people at uni whose dad or uncle or someone was an architect. Design is completely not within my family at all. It’s all sort of farming and teaching. So I went to uni and started teaching. It lasted about a year and dropped out, and then potted around until my sister-in-law enrolled me in a diploma of interior design and said, “Get off your butt and just go and do this thing.” So I did that diploma, found I loved it and went to uni to do architecture.
Ian Ugarte (13:32):
So when you were doing teaching, what sort of teaching were you going to do? Were you going to do primary, senior, vocational?
Rebecca Meredith (13:39):
I can’t actually recall that. And I’m not sure if you specialize in the first year or not.
Ian Ugarte (13:46):
You sort of. Yeah. I mean, you [crosstalk 00:13:49] major at some point.
Rebecca Meredith (13:53):
I think it would’ve been secondary because I was very interested, and still am, in political sciences and humanities and things like that.
Ian Ugarte (14:00):
Okay. All right. So you started interior design, a diploma of interior design. So how did it flip from there into architecture?
Rebecca Meredith (14:07):
I think that comes a lot from my family. Like my parents couldn’t give us a lot, but what they could give us was like a real drive to educate ourselves. And so I think it was actually just this kind of sense that I had to do the best possible thing that I could. And all my brothers and sisters had basically had one degree if not a postgraduate in something. So it was kind of this probably just basis to kind get the best education that I could. And I don’t know that I 100% knew what I was getting myself into, but luckily I found a career that I know I’ll be doing until I’m 80. I’ll be sketching on envelopes.
Ian Ugarte (14:58):
From what I hear, what you’re saying was the drive was to get the best qualification you could possibly get rather than the attraction of drawing lines on pieces of envelope.
Rebecca Meredith (15:08):
Yeah. I didn’t really know where it would go. I was really lucky to get into work really early. So in my second year of university, I started working for a building designer and had a really great experience with him, and then moved to work for an architect. So I worked all the way through uni and that training was 100% more important than my university studies. We’ve still got to tick the box, obviously. But that insight, I think if I hadn’t had that insight into what the actual work environment was like, I probably would’ve dropped out.
Ian Ugarte (15:47):
Yeah. I mean, I’ve always said the same thing. I mean, I’ve got a teaching degree in vocational education, in adult education. So I had spent the job that I loved back then, and I love what I do now, the job that I loved back then was teaching at TAFE in New South Wales. And the interesting part about that was that I, as a plumber, I was teaching plumbing, realized that 95% of my learning, if not more, was out on the tools and on the job, and 5% was in TAFE. So here I was at TAFE trying to do the best I possibly could to teach kids… Really mostly kids. They ended up being adults towards the end because everyone needs a qualification in Australia, which I think Australia’s overqualified.
From that, what I would say to the kids is, “I’m going to teach you the very minimal stuff. It might be feeling like a lot of information, but you’re going to learn so much, and the experience is where you’re going to learn.” And that sounds like working in those offices is what gave you your skill that you developed rather than the actual… Sometimes I think in some of the things we teach and we just go, “When are you ever going to use that?” I did say that once about Pythagorean theorem, and then I turned up on a job site and now we’re using the Pythagorean theorem, so there you go.
Rebecca Meredith (17:07):
Yeah, no. There’s a lot in architecture. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? Building buildings, like it’s complex, but it’s technically complex, but you spend a lot of time in an architecture degree learning very flowery theory. Some architects are going to change the world. They’re going to build amazing public spaces that absolutely transform cities or transform how we experience space, but most of us are just doing some nice houses.
Ian Ugarte (17:37):
Yep. Were you an elite student? Like did you get-
Rebecca Meredith (17:37):
Ian Ugarte (17:43):
Rebecca Meredith (17:45):
No. I was working and I loved it so much that I just wanted to pass. So I just did what I needed to get through, and I threw a lot of my energy into my work. I was also renovating houses myself with my then husband. And so that took up all our time. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:18:07].
Ian Ugarte (18:07):
Yeah. You got children now. You said, “Then husband.” Does that mean that you’re a single mama?
Rebecca Meredith (18:16):
No, I’m not. No. So I got divorced at around 30, and that’s when I sort of started Maytree Studios and started going to a contract role with my employer and met my now partner on Tinder a couple of years later. So we got Tinder babies, two and a half and four and a half.
Ian Ugarte (18:37):
Nice swiping. Okay, that’s awesome. What does he do?
Rebecca Meredith (18:43):
He’s a police officer.
Ian Ugarte (18:44):
Rebecca Meredith (18:46):
Ian Ugarte (18:46):
A man in uniform.
Rebecca Meredith (18:49):
Our worlds. Yeah. I’m a sucker for him. And his friend. I mean, good lord. And bearded. I mean, it’s the trifecta. I just got to remind myself of that every now then.
Ian Ugarte (19:00):
Well, we won’t tell anyone where you live because you’ll end up with a whole bunch of uniformed men with beards walking past in front of your place. Let’s think about it. I’ve got a mate of mine, Drew Heath. You can’t really see it, but he designs all our houseboats that we build. And I don’t know if you know of Drew Heath. He’s a decent architect and does some pretty high end stuff around the place. I went to him with a brief. We lived on the Hawkesbury River for 10 years and I saw this houseboat go past the front of my place that had… It was a fiberglass ugly thing and it had a barley hut on the top of it, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I said, “Drew, we’ve got to do something about these houseboats.”
So I gave him the brief. I said, “It has to weigh under 10 ton, it has to look good and it has to open up to the water. So do whatever you want from there.” So he came up with some beautiful designs, and Arkiboat is what it’s called. A-R-K-I-B-O-A-T. I always loved sitting next to him watching him design and how he did it. And so his form of design was he’d draw and sketch the externals, so just the basic outline. And then he would draw circles as, “This is living, this is bedroom, this is bathroom, this is open plan.” What’s your process? How do you go through a design? And you were talking about thinking about it. So what’s the process for you?
Rebecca Meredith (20:31):
Yeah. The circles are really helpful, actually, and sometimes clients are really thrown by the fact that we start there. Maybe it’s a little universal, but because the minute you start drawing boxes, you become very constrained in your mind about what that is, the shape of the space and what it’s doing. I think there’s kind of two architects in the world. There’s architects where you go to them because they produce one type of work, and they’ve refined it over years and years and years, and they’ve got a thing that they’re researching. My approach is very different, and it’s people-focused. So for us, where we start is the conversation, and it’s understanding the client really deeply and spending a lot of time in that.
We put something back to our clients in writing before we even go to them with any drawings, and we try and encapsulate who they are, what the project is in words, what the opportunities of it, what the constraints and risks and those kinds of things, all in words so the clients can feel really heard. Make sure that they read that and they go, “Yeah, that sounds like me,” and before we start drawing. But in terms of design, I mean, I love finding something to bounce off, and I think that’s why I really enjoy renovations because there’s some rules to fundamentally unpick in a home when it already exists that you can try and find the logic, or you can find what it’s missing. Then a project kind of emerges as a response to those things. When we’re building new, I guess we’re doing the same, but we are saying, “Where are the views? Where is the sun coming from? Where do we need to create privacy?” And that starts to create some rules.
I kind of like to say that I build the projects from the ground up, I guess, rather than coming at them with the preconceived notion of what the right approach is. And I think architects see things in different ways. So I definitely see design and work from the floor plan and from the logic of the plan, and I like to find a really strong logical grid there. We say Andy, who’s one of the other architects in the office, he thinks in sticks, so his projects are always kind of these sticky, sticky architecture. Lots of poles and screened and things like that. Whereas probably I’m trying to create space and volume and a bit of drama in terms of height within spaces.
Ian Ugarte (23:09):
Yeah. It’s one of the things Australians miss out on, that height. They go the standard 2.4 ceiling, and they just miss out on the concept of how much space 100 millimeter makes or 200 or a meter makes. I thought I just built my dream home, and I’m not sure yet. That for me, my dream home would be just this big open pavilion that’s six meters high and that has rooms off that. That’s the dream home. So in your form, you’re saying that height’s important. Is there any particular substrate that you use more than any other?
Rebecca Meredith (23:48):
No, there’s probably not. We do work with a lot of concrete in the floor plane and increasingly some concrete roof gardens, because they’re awesome insulators and create beautiful vistas from within the home. But no, I think that’s why if people said, “Oh, what’s your style?” I don’t know that I could probably tell them. Maybe in 10 years I will. I feel like right now we’re still so committed to drawing the project from the loves of our client that I’ll kind of work with anything. I mean, we’ll object if there’s something just completely distasteful. The things that we would draw a line at would be like fake materials. So making things look like they’re rock or look like they’re masonry. Using the products that are really genuine and really honest. And we typically are trying to make our homes as simple as possible, I think. And they’re all about expanding and opening out rather than like strongly… It’s not about the features of inside the home. It’s about how the home kind of dissolves and opens up to the outside.
Ian Ugarte (24:57):
Yeah. Don’t even start me on stack stone. Oh my god. I hate it so much. It’s so disgusting. Oh, man. I just can’t believe people do it.
Rebecca Meredith (25:09):
I know. We don’t hear it too often anymore, but we used to.
Ian Ugarte (25:14):
And then the feature wall, like the bright purple feature wall of some sort. I don’t mind a feature wall that’s nice, but these one color feature walls, they’re so tacky. The Block doesn’t help, because that’s the other thing too. The renovation market, I’ve consistently said for the last 10 years, “Renovation for me, I’ve never had childbirth, but I’ve seen it, and I think it’s a painful experience, renovation, that you forget and you go back and do another one, just like childbirth.” I really don’t like renovation, especially with The Block and that original renovated show, and then House Rules and all of that sort of stuff. Drew Heath was one of the judges on House Rules. You may already know him [inaudible 00:26:03].
I’d just look at those shows and that you don’t see the amount of undertone and work that is required to get them to painting stage, and it really blows you out of the market as far as… When I say, “It doesn’t blow you out of your market,” it blows your perspective out of the market because someone comes to you and says, “Well, I saw them do it in two weeks on The Block. Why are we going to take it that long?” Or, “They did these finishes and it only cost them a thousand dollars. Why is it costing me that much?” Do you find that a lot?
Rebecca Meredith (26:35):
We don’t now, but in the past I think we would’ve because we were less explicit about who we worked for and the kinds of clients we work for. So I think by becoming really clear about that, we’ve kind of culled a lot of that. We put out there, “It’s going to take six months before we can start your project.” And if you aren’t thinking your design process is going to take six to 12 months, then… By putting that out there, and Instagram’s a great tool for educating people, that means that you get people that ring you that are kind of prepared for how long a process takes.
But people are always surprised about costs. That never goes away. They think, “Oh, well. It’s just a bathroom, and that’s 20. And the kitchen’s 30, and I might redo the floors and paint.” But you’re like, “Yeah, but you’ve got asbestos, so we’ve got to pull out all of the wiring and we’ve got to reshape everything and you’re still [inaudible 00:27:34]. You’re not just going to need a plumber. You’re going to need to trench the slab.” They add them up in little piecemeal projects, but that’s not actually how a project’s costed [crosstalk 00:27:42].
Ian Ugarte (27:42):
The Internet’s a great tool, but it’s also a tool that can be detrimental for someone who just Googles some keywords to find out answers that not necessarily are the right answers. What about sustainability? I mean, do you throw that in as much as you possibly can, and give us some idea of what are the things you do?
Rebecca Meredith (28:03):
We are building that up in terms of the library of materials and things we are using in our projects, but from a fundamental point of view, I guess that’s one of the great things within architectural training is particularly here in Southeast Queensland, at least is what I can speak to, is you’re trained to respond to the environment. So passive heating, passive cooling, a home that doesn’t need its light switches on during the day is what we would be aiming for. A home that doesn’t need air conditioning, ideally. That’s got natural cross ventilation and is naturally passively cooling. I think we’re designing largely for the heat here, at least.
I think those fundamental things do a lot. The second thing that we do is about size. So building less and building for permanence. So not building cheap products that are not going to last more than five, 10 years, but building really permanent and maintainable buildings and adaptable buildings that… We talk with a lot of our clients and offend some of them, but we talk about aging in place and future proofing the home for later stages. They might have a home where their bedroom is upstairs, but we might say, “Hey, let’s have a think about if one of you needs a hip operation where you would stay in this home without stairs.”
Ian Ugarte (29:45):
You should probably not start the sentence with, “You old two farts. You probably need a bedroom downstairs.” That just doesn’t help, Rebecca, I’m sure.
Rebecca Meredith (29:54):
If the client’s in their 60s, they do not want to face the truth. They do not want to [crosstalk 00:29:57]. And yet, we’ve seen it. Lots of people that it’s their late 60s stage where it’s they’ve almost missed the boat. The energy and the cost to go and then renovate and adapt the home is a bit too high, and so they end up having to sell the family home.
Ian Ugarte (30:12):
It’s one of my bugbears, because you look at these mini mansions they’re building all over. There are estates everywhere. And you go into them. If they’re a double story, they will have a bed downstairs, but generally will only have the powder room downstairs, so you still got to walk upstairs to get to the bathroom and you go, “What sort of designers have you got out there that are building the sort of stuff that they can’t make room for a shower? Like really, let’s get with it and think about aging in place.” And I love the fact that you’re talking about adaptable homes, because if you’re going to build something for 10 years, not only is it the sustainability of the product, the voracity or the strength of it, but it’s also can it date and age as opposed to a current trend?
I look at black tapware at the moment and I go, “Oh, geez. That’s a quick fly-by, that one, and that’s not going to look good in 10 years.” Where chrome, you know? I’ve just about finished my house. You really need to come and have a look at it. I’ve got 130 cubic meters of concrete with a rooftop garden. The rooftop has garden hasn’t been done yet, but it’s dug into the hill. Sorry. 25 meters of window frontage or glass door frontage, double insulated glass. And in there, same thing. Like all the house is adaptable.
I’ve got five bedroom, five bathroom, and there’s three bedrooms in the back end of the house that have a fully rollered moving wardrobe walls. Basically, fold the bed up in the room, take this rolling cabinet, which is a massive cabinet, and push it to the side, and now we’ve just increased the floor space by 16 square meters in the living area. I’m waiting for one of my daughters to nick off so I can start opening up the living area, but I’ve got a small space. We’ve got a five bedroom, five bathroom and 150 square meters. In Australia, that’s unheard of, right? It’s something that you seem to be concentrating on a lot in size as well.
Rebecca Meredith (32:10):
Yeah, that’s right. It’s a funny question because your question’s about sustainability, but we talk about in a response to that generally about permanence. You’re talking about a whole lot of concrete, and concrete’s got a horrific environmental cost.
Ian Ugarte (32:10):
Rebecca Meredith (32:24):
But that building will not go anywhere. And it’s a problem if you’ve not made it adaptable, but you have. So then you offset the cost of it with something permanent. It’s both the structure, and it’s the finish, and it’s never going to wear down or need to be replaced if it’s done properly. So there’s kind of this trade off there. I think what we’re hearing from people more is people in Southeast Queensland are more interested in double glazing than a thermal like keeping homes with a more, what’s the word, consistent internal thermal temperature. That’s not specifically my training.
My training is about homes that breathe. I think definitely I’m finding that clients are more educated in terms of sustainability, and they’re asking for less. I’ve kind of consistently seen like people are just… I don’t know if it’s a response to coronavirus, but just more engaged in terms of the home that they’re creating and wanting to do something that’s not just about… Like it’s detaching that thing from it being an asset and more about this space that nurtures and that protects you and all of those lovely ideas that architects really easily latch onto. And it’s a real delight to work for clients who have the same kind of idea. But yeah, there’s a long way to go. You can be really clever with sustainability. I wouldn’t say we’re there yet. We’re just working on the fundamentals.
Ian Ugarte (34:05):
No. Definitely. You’re exactly right. You look at I drive a electric car, which is considered to be sustainable, and then I think what about all the mining that took part to pull all of that lithium out of the ground? You just to go, “Oh, I’m not sure about this one.” I put together a agreement between TAFE New South Wales, Canada, and the U.S. to do sustainability training across all trades. One of the big things that would always come up is, “Oh, yeah. We’re going to replace our hot water heater with solar.” And I go, “Great idea. How long’s left? What, are you going to do that right now?” “Yeah.”
You would then go out the back and have a look at their hot water heater, and the hot water heater’s three years old. I said, “So you’re going to rip this three year old hot water heater out with all the energy that got made and then go and turf it, and then they’re going to have to recycle that while you go into…” That’s not sustainable. You really have to look at it in a different aspect, because that’s the other thing about electric cars too. You then go and charge it off if you’re not using solar to charge it, you’re still burning coal or of some sort of fuel to be able to produce electricity to recharge.
Rebecca Meredith (35:19):
That’s why that’s one of the things that’s where we would put in every project, and I would think if we’re doing it, it must be kind of across the board. But as a really decent solar system, more clients… I would say a few years ago, people were saying, “Oh, we’ll put in batteries in the future.” More clients are now putting the batteries in straight away. So there’s kind of that threshold of efficiency that’s being crossed, and we’re always putting three phase running to the solar system in the car storage area. So even if they don’t have an electric car now, all of our clients are planning for it. But I hope to think that these suburbs are probably not, that the old project home would not have any of that stuff, and how [inaudible 00:35:56] people or not they are to-
Ian Ugarte (35:56):
Yeah. Some of the new project homes are putting solar as a standard unit onto the system, and it cost you an extra 10 grand or something like that. I was just reading an article the other day that there’s an Australian invention, which is the hydrogen battery, which stores 40 kilowatts of energy. We’re talking about 35k. They’re taking pre-orders at the moment. It’ll be released later this year, but it sounds like a really efficient type of battery system from what I read. What is the one thing that you wish your clients would come to you with that they don’t?
Rebecca Meredith (36:34):
The thing that we’ve always battled is about size. We always joke that we make our houses, we draw them about 20% smaller knowing that the clients are going to ask for everything to be made a little bit bigger. So we’ll kind of as a negotiating tactic start smaller. So probably it might be that. I think what clients think they need in terms of space and what they really need in terms of space are two very different things. So it’s probably that. I think-
Ian Ugarte (37:06):
So what’s the one that they come to you with which you wish they didn’t come to you with?
Rebecca Meredith (37:17):
Stack stone? No. What do we do? What do we roll our eyes at that we hear a lot of? I’m trying to think.
Ian Ugarte (37:20):
Well, maybe. Your clients are coming to you word of mouth most of the time. Is that right?
Rebecca Meredith (37:27):
Not as much as it used to be. No. It’s largely through social media because we do so much. We’re so proactive about making the process of architecture and the language of architecture accessible. So we don’t use fancy language. We talk about design really simply. We’ve put out blogs that are like build small, build well. We’ve written another one recently that says, “We’re getting really good at disappointing our clients.” That’s the title. And it’s about talking about how our first job is to teach you whether your brief or your budget are in alignment. And if they’re not, help you figure out by setting up a framework and a value system around your project about which is more important, the money or the outcome. And getting people to maybe build a bit smaller and maybe up their budget to suit that, to build better, or whatever that is. Or stage it.
They might come to us and say, “We want to add a bedroom, a bathroom, a lounge room, and a pool.” And we’ll say, “That’s great. Your budget can do three of those things, but not four of them. So let’s work out what’s most important.” I think because we put out these really clear info pieces I guess, we are lucky enough to get clients that have already been researching us. It’s a bit of a gut feel, but I reckon people spend at least six months thinking about the architect they want to work with, and then they might ring up and talk to three or maybe four. And so when we talk to them, we’re pretty upfront. We talk about how long it’ll take. We’re very upfront about our fee position and how that works. Then if they are digging into us, they’ll get these really clear blogs. If they want a really big house for cheap, like everything they read about us is going to turn them off. That’s-
Ian Ugarte (39:27):
Well, and that’s fair enough. That’s good. That’s targeting your market. So Instagram’s most of your stuff?
Rebecca Meredith (39:34):
Yeah. And think it’s just visual, right? Architecture, it’s about communicating space. We spend a lot of time doing a lot of videos. So putting our clients in the front of the video camera and letting them talk about process. So letting their learnings also educate future clients. So people find that really comforting as well. I had a client send me about five pages of amazing feedback on her first round of concept design on the weekend, and I was kind of overwhelmed by it. So I put it to the side, opened it with a cup of tea and had a good read of it and texted and said, “Hey, thanks for your amazing feedback. I can tell you’ve put in heaps of work. I’ll digest over the week and come back to you with some responses.” And she was like, “Oh, you’re still talking to us.” People are quite intimidated. You work with an architecture [crosstalk 00:40:27]. Yeah. I think there’s this kind of persona, the architectural persona out there in designer glasses and black clothes, and we’re this like really a loose-
Ian Ugarte (40:38):
Sorry, can I just stop you there? Can I just stop you there? You’re wearing designer clothes. That’s-
Rebecca Meredith (40:42):
No, I’m in Blue Ribbon.
Ian Ugarte (40:44):
Oh, it’s Blue. Okay. But you’ve got designer glasses on too.
Rebecca Meredith (40:50):
Yeah. Oh, no. I’m totally the stereotype. It’s fine. But there’s this kind of like it is a luxury, you normally work with an architect once in your life, maybe twice, if you’re lucky, so most people are a little intimidated, and they’re intimidated that they’re not going to know enough to tell you about what they want. So I think most people, their biggest fear is like, “What if I engage this person and pay them a ton of money and I get something at the end that I don’t want for the single…” We always remind ourselves as a team like, “This is our client’s single biggest spend of money on anything for themselves. It matters to them that they get their concrete bath and their own suite.” It might not rank that high in our priority list because we’re doing 10 other projects at the same time, but for them this is their one big spend of money. So we try and find-
Ian Ugarte (41:50):
That’s a really good point. It is the most important thing to them, and they can sometimes think that maybe it’s not important to you, but it is. As an architecture, your heart and soul is in it as well. I mean, it’s your signature. The signing at the bottom of the portrait is the design and the finish and how it looks at the end.
Rebecca Meredith (42:09):
Yeah, that’s right. And you’ll lose sleep over whether or not the robo vacuum cleaner that actually does fit in the slot that you designed for it to go. So not only are you resolving like really complex things, building approvals, sighting relaxations, you also need to know that the bloody robo vacuum cleaner is going to go back to the place where you designed it to go. And if that doesn’t work, that’s going to really shit the client in about six months when they’re… So you’ve kind of got to go from really big picture right down to fine grain and be on top of all of it. So understanding what their priorities are is really critical.
Ian Ugarte (42:49):
So what’s your Instagram account?
Rebecca Meredith (42:53):
Maytree_studios I think so.
Ian Ugarte (42:54):
You’ve got to spell that.
Rebecca Meredith (42:59):
M-A-Y-T-R-E-E underscore Studios with an S on the end.
Ian Ugarte (43:07):
Awesome. You’ll have at least another one or two followers by the end of this podcast. Let’s hope a few more than that. All right. I’m sorry. Are you sitting in a project at the moment that you’ll be renovating?
Rebecca Meredith (43:22):
I’m sitting in my house, yes, that maybe one day I’ll renovate. But my partner and I have this off grid cabin up in the Hills in Maleny that is our current project, and it’s where we want to retire. So that’s kind of where all our finances are going. And also my kids are still at the stage that they draw on walls, so I’m loath to begin anything until they can reign that crayon fetish in.
Ian Ugarte (43:51):
Fair, fair. You need to put a picture rail in and put whiteboard paint all the way underneath there. You’ll be all right.
Rebecca Meredith (44:00):
Yeah. Yeah, sure. I’m kind of just like, “Whatever. I’m going to repaint eventually. Go for your life.” So yeah. So, no. Love to eventually live in something that I’ve had the time and money to do properly.
Ian Ugarte (44:16):
Yep. You need to next time you’re up here, come by and have a look at the house.
Rebecca Meredith (44:21):
Yeah, I would love to.
Ian Ugarte (44:22):
I’m terribly proud of it. The view that I wake up to is pretty awesome.
Rebecca Meredith (44:28):
Is it in bedroom?
Ian Ugarte (44:29):
It’s at a place called Diddillibah.
Rebecca Meredith (44:31):
Ian Ugarte (44:35):
Yeah. Yeah. The name of the street’s interesting as well. I’ve been waiting for my daughters to get drunk and tell a taxi driver the address, because they won’t be able to get it out their mouth. It’s just a mouthful.
Rebecca Meredith (44:44):
Ian Ugarte (44:46):
All right. One last piece of advice that anyone that’s going to see you.
Rebecca Meredith (44:54):
I think the people that get the most out of the process are people who are really open minded. People who come with very fixed mindsets about the outcome get the least out of the process, whereas people who are open to real learning, because we always think architecture is a problem, right? And it can be solved a whole bunch of different ways. So our clients think, “I’m here at point A and I’ve got to get to point B,” and they get quite fixed about that. Whereas ours is we’ll go, “Okay, cool. I’ve heard what you want about B, but what does C look like? D and E? Let’s weigh those things up.” For some people, that’s really quite a threatening process because they’re used to engaging a professional and, “I want this and I’m going to get this.” But the people that come with kind of a sense of adventure and openness, they have a really enjoyable process. Yeah. That’s what I would say. Bring an open mind.
Ian Ugarte (45:52):
Rebecca Meredith (45:54):
Maytree Studios, M-A-Y-T-R-E-E Studios.com.au
Ian Ugarte (46:02):
Thank you for time, Rebecca. It’s been awesome.
Rebecca Meredith (46:05):
Thank you, Ian. It was lovely. I’ve been listening to all your podcasts since I heard you. My favorite’s with the older lady who’s living in the… [Glennis 00:46:19], yeah. I just wanted get to know Glennis.
Ian Ugarte (46:20):
Yeah. I love Glennis. I think she’s so awesome. Yeah. Every time I drive past, got to visit. Got to visit. Yeah. Okay. Awesome. Thank you.
Rebecca Meredith (46:30):
No worries. Thanks for your time.
Ian Ugarte (46:32):
There we have it, Rebecca Meredith. You’ve got all her links and Instagram accounts that you can go and have a look at the work that she does. A very interesting conversation. I can’t wait to show her through my place. As always, you can follow us and subscribe to this podcast and all social media channels on Instagram, and also go to my website, ianugarte.com.au, where you can get lots of information on all the housing that we do, especially the affordable and adaptable housing. We’ll see you next time on Small Talk Big Ideas.
Thanks for tuning into the Small Talk Big Ideas Podcast. We hope we’ve succeeded in our goal to inspire and challenge you, and we look forward to catching you on the next episode of Small Talk Big Ideas with Ian Ugarte.