I grew up in Melbourne but moved to Europe with my family when I was eight. I spent time at schools in London and Germany while my dad was furthering his medical specialty. We also lived in Cornwall for a few months with family friends who owned a four hundred year old thatched roofed house. As a child, learning to adapt and seeing different parts of the world, being lucky enough to travel, opened my eyes to a broader culture of how people live differently.
The great thing about architecture is that it’s a broad discipline. The architecture degree is intensive and demanding. I studied at RMIT which was the right choice for a naturally pragmatic person. RMIT seemed more conceptual and ‘big idea’ driven. It took a while to get me thinking creatively, but they teased it out of me.
There are so many values and skills that you need to draw upon daily as an architect. Patience, effective communication, influence, and negotiating skills. It’s important to be practical, analytical and creative. I think people would be surprised how little of our day is creative (unfortunately). You have to be a jack of all trades. That’s what I most love about architecture; every day is busy and different from the previous. Multi-tasking and being well organised are an advantage, particularly when running a business.
From first year architecture, I started looking for architectural work. It was 1994 and the Australian economy was in recession. A family friend of a friend had an established architectural practice in Windsor and took me on one day a week while at Uni. I waitressed on weekends to make ends meet. The architecture practice was a mixture of architects and experienced draftsmen, where drawings were documented by hand. Everyone would break for morning tea because they didn’t want cups of tea spilling across drawings.
A year later I started working for a small practice in Fitzroy, working primarily for one director. Sitting next to his desk I learnt a lot listening to his conversations. That is something that has stayed with me; I put the newest person in our office next to my desk. A lot is learned by listening to others; like the appropriate tone and language to use with clients and builders.
My husband started a commercial construction company in 2004 and I started my practice the year after. We didn’t want to start new business’ at the same time. It’s a big leap of faith to give up a salary to try and make it by yourself. The best thing you can do is be good to your clients and the work will come.
I started when there was no social media and it took 3 years to get a project published (from start to finish). Word of mouth was really important. I think I’m a good delegator. Having kids forces that upon you, as there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve got fingers in many pies, so I’m lucky that I have such a great studio team around me.
Australia is a young country with a great sense of freedom, unlike European cities where many architects are limited to interior fitouts or conversions. I’m always proud of the amount of Australian architectural content published globally, which seems disproportionate given our population. Australia has great enthusiasm, optimism, and a diverse design culture across all facets of design.
There needs to be a greater amount of flexibility in the workplace for men and women. I think subconsciously it was one of the reasons why I decided to have my own practice. Architecture can be a difficult profession to do part time, but there are number of successful practices with a large portion of part time employees. There has been some real groundswell about flexibility recently; people are becoming more accepting of alternative working arrangements.
I’ve found developing networks in architecture highly valuable. A number of colleagues are some of my closest friends. It’s good to get on the phone and say ‘This is what I’m going through, have you dealt with something like that?’ A number of us are quite involved in the Institute (AIA) with forums, mentoring and committees. I like sharing the knowledge and experience I’ve accrued from ten years of practice.
I met my husband when I was eighteen. He bought a little flat when we were together, and we renovated it for eighteen months at night and on the weekends, while we lived with our parents. Back then it was more affordable. We employed a few tradesmen friends to help. Being surrounded by friends in construction taught me to think about the buildability of designs and benefits of collaboration.
My most hated construction faux pas is when apartment buildings locate air-conditioning condensers on balconies visible from the street. So much building stock is driven by speed and cost with little thought about occupants, sustainability and longevity.
I tell my daughters that it is important to be a good listener. They are still young, only four and seven years old, so they think the world revolves around them. They’re both strong minded but also compassionate. I encourage them to have an opinion but remind them it’s important to listen to others.
As local Melbourne architect Clare Cousins exemplifies; working hard and relishing every opportunity presented to you, are keys to achieving true success. Clare was so enthusiastic to share her extensive career and stories in architecture, noting a thing or two about a life lived in balance with her family. We were so excited to talk with a women who has become a real leader in her field. She is opinionated, driven and in her own words, a poor front seat driver! We hope you enjoyed this interview as much as we did.