Documenting Subiaco House


14 April 2022

Online presentation for UWA School of Design's ‘Talking Architecture’ series
coordinated by Emily Van Eyk

View the lecture here

Image by VP
An edited transcript of ‘Documenting Subiaco House’
Stuart Vokes:
… it was sometime last year, to an audience predominantly in London, but it was broadcast to a bunch of people that joined in from all over Europe. There was a question at the end of the talk about why it was that we hadn't shown any floor plans or any drawings in our presentation. We were asked what would it be like if we gave a presentation of only drawings. Well, you guys are the Guinea Pigs.

This is a talk that is heavily drawing-based. It's probably 80% drawings and 20% photos. It was really interesting for us to think about that. But in short, in nineteen years of working in a practice, there's lots of talking and lots of things that get said around the drawing board and I thought I might just share with you a series of statements that I know that I've made over these nineteen years about drawings. Some of them are really obvious. Some things may be a little bit more useful. So in no particular order:

We're not in the business of making drawings.

We're in the business of making buildings.

A drawing is not a building. It's an abstract of a building.

A drawing is an instruction to build a building in the absence of the architect.

One's drawings and pictures should match one's words.

We're often required to know everything about a building before we know anything. So for example, the planning application process assumes that we know everything about the building very early on in the process.

A concept drawing is not a design (it's something I often tell clients) but simply, an accessible visualization of a thought bubble that the architect has. Sadly, it looks like a building because that's how we draw, we're good at drawing buildings, but really, the concept drawing is just a way of revealing the thought that we have, that we wish to kind of discuss. Invariably drawings can be so convincing that they're mistaken for buildings, and that leads to a range of different reactions, sometimes not constructive or favourable. A client might think they're looking at a building that's built and respond in a way that can be quite absurd. You have to remind them that they're just looking at a drawing, not the building.

Just like other forms of language, drawings can be instructive, legible, accessible, articulate, and clear forms of communication.

There's a linework economy linked to the economy of practice. Each line costs dollars. The fewer drawings you make equals a smaller fee for the client, or it could mean more profit for the architect for the practice. Therefore, one should strive for an economy of line work. We’ve historically worked in analog, pencil and paper.  We transitioned to CAD like every other practice, but being of my generation, the problem that I've always had with CAD production, particularly 3d modelling or 3d documentation software is that it generates literal drawings of buildings with, invariably, too many lines. All of those lines are things that you then have to manage.

We think and solve buildings in 2d plans and sections because we think that one can occupy those kinds of drawings by engaging the imagination. You can be in a plan and you can be in a section, unlike the 3d model that is experienced externally as a discrete sculptural form or a precious artifact that you're constantly spinning and admiring at the same time.

Successful drawing requires one to think abstractly and compositionally, just like the architect's act of design. So we feel like the act of architecture shouldn't shift from drafting or drawing a building to designing a building, it's all the same thing.

Most people, including architects, struggle with scale perception and the hand-drawing process of the past connected us physically to knowledge about scale. For example, the elbow and the shoulder together knew just how far five meters were or how far five meters at 1:100 scale would move the hand in the pencil across the drawing board. So there was a kind of physical, embodied memory. CAD has divorced us from that bodily knowledge, and that's something we're constantly working on: knowledge and control of scale through drawings.

All drawings, particularly 3d models can be very persuasive. I think that's because of the general lure of miniature, small drawings of buildings and small models on a screen always look so beautiful.

We have to be wary about the power of a drawing as well. Drawings are extremely powerful.

One can't expect a builder to build something that isn't drawn.

Draw daily. This is the discipline of the architect. Come to work every day and draw, that's how you solve buildings.

It's the drawing, sadly, that one often doesn't make, that reveals the critical piece of the building. So on one hand we need to work with an economy of line, but we also need to make lots of drawings to solve a building or a problem.

So over to the pictures …
Aaron Peters:
The talk is divided into five different sections: documenting the setting (they're roughly chronological) design documentation, the drawing is a persuasive tool, translating design intent and documenting outcomes.

The first section: documenting the setting.

We put this in because we figured that there would be a tendency to want to focus on construction documentation, or maybe design documentation, the kind of drawings that we might make in university, doing a tech class. But for us, a lot of the documentation that shapes the kind of work that we make begins before we've put pen to paper.

Part of that springs from the history of our practice. We began in Brisbane in 2003, and the vast majority of our work to date has been alteration and addition projects. These projects demand that we go out and we measure buildings.

Over a period of twenty years, we've produced a vast archive of measured drawings of different buildings. That process starts to condition us. It starts to not only expose us to a whole bunch of different buildings and rooms and landscapes and streets and spaces, which start to form this kind of repository that we draw on as a design tool, but they also start to make us think differently about what the design process is.

I tend to think a lot more about designing as a form of adjustment rather than producing discrete, autonomous architectural artifacts. Our work I think is much more interested in what already exists and how we might modify that existing condition.

The image that's on the screen at the moment is, is a series of photographs. Just ordinary things, beautiful things, rarefied things.
Stuart Vokes:
Well, we kind of realized that what we were documenting in the measure drawings of these existing houses wasn't just the building, it was also the things that we found, the artifacts in the backyards of these settings, or the things that belonged to the street or the neighbourhood, which is what this image on the screen is trying to kind of allude to, that one starts to build a picture about the setting at the scale of a neighbourhood.

The process of documenting the setting is all about observation. I had a life drawing teacher once that said, everyone can look, but not everyone can see. So the act of seeing is critical to the architect. It's no surprise that the drawings you make of a building in year one of architecture school look really naive. By the time you graduate you know the anatomy of the building and the drawings you make, with an economy of line, look more convincing as buildings because you've been making those key observations.
Aaron Peters:
This is a sensibility, that when we were invited to work in Subiaco, we automatically brought to the project, perhaps even without being especially conscious of the fact that we were doing so.

Subiaco house is a new house. There are a couple of images that have been flashing up of the site as it was when we first saw it. The images that are now appearing on the screen are images from within the local neighbourhood of building frontages.
One of the first things Stu did when he first went over to meet the client and take a look at the site was to walk around the local streets, searching for what the architectural character of that neighbourhood might be. By photographing, documenting the setting through photography, we can start to build a kind of repository of Perth architecture, which I guess is similar to the one that we have amassed in our back pocket of Brisbane.
Stuart Vokes:
Yeah, there's a lot of familiarities here in the local vernacular stock, particularly in the inner city ring of suburbs around the centre of Perth. Sure.

There's a conversation around the tradition of brick making and brick building in Perth, clay roofs and et cetera, but there's also a really fine tradition of carpentry, ornate carpentry and decorative joinery, door and window joinery. That's something that we're awfully familiar with together with some of the kinds of spatial typologies: the veranda and the built-in veranda. There's a long history of sleepouts in Perth. That gave us this confidence that we could potentially work in a place like Perth and transfer our process of design and building from Brisbane to Perth.
Aaron Peters:
So then we start to move into producing design documentation.

I guess in this phase, there are two principle groups that we are drawing for: the first is the client, which is fairly obvious. We're at a point in the process where we need to get a job over the line. We've been commissioned, yes, that's great, but we also need to convince a client that it's worth continuing with the process. So that's one of our agendas. The other agenda, which is also really important is to convince ourselves that we know what it is that we're trying to make. We're working in a team, so there's Stuart and me, but we're also working with several other collaborators within the office.

At this point in the process, the kind of drawings that we make is about finding solutions. Finding ideas, but also communicating them within our team, so that as a team, we can start to understand what this thing is that we're trying to make.
These little sketches are key in trying to hash that out and build that argument.
Stuart Vokes:
Yeah. And you can see things that are emerging early, so an interest in room-making and particular rooms.

There's a good room with subset rooms, like the little alcoves of a bay window, which come from Queensland architecture and Perth architecture.

There's a sense of an enclosed or occupied veranda in that image on the left-hand side. But there's also a clear presence of the garden in the arrangement and massing of the interior and in the relationship to the street.

There's a consciousness about the kind of urbanism and how this building might react to the street corner and of being built on what appeared to be a remnant miniature civic park.

This scheme started being developed and we pitched this as an idea to the client. We received some feedback and you can see some notes on the drawings about influences and prep for the client presentation.

We got feedback and then we went back to scribbling to discover, I guess, another suite of ideas. We decided that that initial design direction, with the kind of feedback we were getting, was probably going the wrong direction.

In these drawings we're back exploring the same things, the same combination of things, the valuing of open space which appears as gardens and captured gardens, and the making of beautiful rooms. Thinking about its relationship to the street.
The scribble in the centre of the screen at the moment is the first time that this device of the garden pushed to the extreme corner of the lot appears and the making of a cloister is a way of occupying that extreme edge of the site.
Aaron Peters:
And again, that acquired knowledge, that history of buildings and spaces that sits in our back pocket starts to come to the fore. At this stage, we have an idea about wanting to make a garden on the edge of the street, but we need to convince ourselves that that's something that can actually work.

What kind of a room could we make, or what kind of an interface could we make between the site and the street that would allow you to occupy that edge comfortably, that would make someone want to go out and use this space and have it not just be a thought bubble of an architect that gets built and that is never occupied? The cloister, as a room type, as an archetypal space, begins to be something that we start looking at more closely.

At this point, we're looking at modern architects, like Alvar Aalto, and less modern architects, like Edwin Lutyens and CFA Voysey. The Arts and Crafts movement used a lot of ‘L’ shape plans, which is what Subiaco house essentially is. So we’re trying to bring all of these influences to bear, mixing those thoughts with observations about the local setting and all the other constraints that are placed on the site to try and find how we would make this kind of a room or that kind of a garden.
Stuart Vokes:
You can see these drawings are starting to get closer and closer to what was the final arrangement. In this instance, we're probably at the point where I like the plan the most, and that shows the car accommodation pushed into the far Northeast corner of the site, even though that low structure, in some ways, would've potentially impacted morning light in winter.

It meant that we could have kept the existing tree. So it's not just enough to understand cloisters, or those spatial types, or to look at photographs of them.

There were some early sketches on the screen that show us in tabletop conversations, scribbling and talking, revealing our knowledge about what those spaces mean. We're not just making a drawing, as Aaron said, to persuade our client to like our building design, we're also drawing for each other. We're drawing to each other.

It's not always words that Aaron and I share. Drawing is so critical. I never understand someone who doesn't have a pen handy to be able to talk with their pen.

I haven't been focusing on the screen for a moment, but you can gather that there's a drawn-out process where you can see things starting to layer on these drawings, things that are getting us ready so that the drawings are prepared for telling a story in our absence. There's critical foliage being drawn on the elevations. People are appearing in the drawings. There's the drawing on the left-hand side of the screen, there are some notes written upside down taken in a meeting with the local planner at the Council.

We had several pre-lodgement meetings with the Council. So I'm making notes about the feedback and what I need to tweak in the drawings. And there's a little scribble on the left-hand side that is evidence of me pitching the idea of the value of the cloister and the value of preserving that open space at the corner. So the drawings are also there as a tool for persuasion with the Council as well.

The drawings need to be modified and they need to reveal things that are going to help you pitch that idea convincingly. It's something that you guys in masters would already be familiar with in the design studio when you are presenting your work. I guess the message is that that doesn't change. You've gotta continue to work on that ability, that skill to persuade people. Not just with talking, but with your drawings. And that comes back to pictures matching your words. Quite often they don't, particularly with the work that we do as students.
Aaron Peters:
One of the things I like about looking back at some of these drawings, that's been enjoyable about preparing for this talk, is seeing how leaps are made in the progression of the design. So you'll see a moment when we get confident about something and that aspect of the drawing starts to get hard-lined in. That becomes something that doesn't have a lot of scribble on it. Then we move on to another section of the plan.

Or even just evidence of things that aren’t gonna be apparent to you guys, because you're not intimately familiar with the project, but off in the margins, these little notes that happen that record other things that happen while we're working on these projects. We're never able to focus on doing one task at a time. There was one note earlier that said something about a pump station; I have no idea what that would've meant, but-
Stuart Vokes:
There was a project that we might have been-
Aaron Peters:
Right. Yeah. So we take a phone call in the middle of trying to work something out. We make a few notes, and someone's phone number is written down on the page. I've got drawings where I've written things like “pick up art at three-thirty, cancel Netflix subscription.” All of this stuff is going on.

It also involves jumping forward. You would've seen the little hand-sketched cross sections and ideas starting to develop showing 1: 10 detailing that won't come back into the process until much, much later. But Stu, in making that sketch, is trying to give himself the confidence that he knows how he might deliver this particular thing that he has in his mind. They get parked and we come back to them.
Stuart Vokes:
So those three-dimensional images represent the end of Schematic Design. And that is the prelude to lodging an application with Council. This is where this idea that I ran on about, the pressure on the architect to know everything about their building before they know anything about the building, is so relevant.

As Aaron said, some of those drawings show very careful consideration of how we're going to make the building, even in schematic design. After we go through the act of persuasion, selling, pitching and presenting the building design through the development application process, and we finally get approval, we wanna make sure that we can deliver on those drawings. We can't spend months on fantasy buildings, get approvals and everyone high-fives – because then you go back to your office and realize that the building has to be taller or wider for the structure to work.

It's a period of anxiety if you haven't worked your building out. There's a lot of pressure to know everything before you know anything. It's a crazy paradigm.
Aaron Peters:
These images on the screen are from a guidebook that was written by a local architect in Perth, and Stu made a stop-in at the local library and took a few photos. A lot of the images that you see here from the guidebook are also replicated in the photos that flashed up earlier from those first site visits. They're houses in the local Subiaco area.

What we started to understand through reading this guidebook was some of the rules that govern the planning, massing and form of local architectural vernacular. As we launch into this phase of the building design process, which is about preparing documentation to convince the municipal authority to give us approval for this building, understanding all of that stuff becomes really, really critical. At this point, we're starting to develop drawings that are trying to illustrate that we do understand those things.

And frankly, no one else cares, we don't need to make these drawings, because we already get it. Our client doesn't care, they don't need to see any of this stuff. This is this bizarre circumstance that you have to get into when you lodge a DA, where you make a whole bunch of drawings that don't progress the building forwards, but you have to do it to allow the building approval to proceed.
Stuart Vokes:
So those three diagrams on the previous slide reveal that we satisfied local planning instrument agendas around the streetscape rhythm, because the Subiaco Council have a sensibility concerning the garden suburb, about bulk, scale and height, and about activation of the street and the preservation of the garden setting. So pretty important diagrams.

As Aaron said, the builder doesn't care about them, and the client doesn't care about them, but they need to be drawn, and in a genuine way, to get the building approved.

I think what we've always liked is that our ambition for the buildings and the ideas that we bring to the buildings, generally supports the agenda of most planning instruments. So in a way, all we were doing was making further drawings to explain what was already embedded in the building anyway. It wasn't something that we had to fabricate.

These are the original stamped approved drawings. So you know, just making endless drawings to jump a hoop. They satisfy the Council that there's a kind of rhythm and there's a kind of height and a scale that's in keeping with the established streetscape.
Aaron Peters:
The next section is about construction documentation. This is when it all gets really real.

Projects can be an awful lot of fun up until this point, then you realize that you haven't done your homework properly. The more experience that we get, the more we anticipate getting to this stage and the more that we start to take care of things earlier in the design and documentation process. That's just part and parcel of becoming an experienced architect.

It's got to the point now where I think I enjoy this end of the process more and more. When I was a recent graduate I probably saw it more as a challenge. Now I see it as something quite enjoyable, finding the right way to document something.

I think there were one hundred and twenty-one A3 sheets documented for tender for this project. It's an awful lot. They're all gonna appear on the screen in a second in a series of matrices. So you'll get a sense of just how intense the drawing documentation was. That's not including the Schedule of Materials and Finishes, the consultant’s documents, and a whole bunch of other stuff that we also have to manage.

Where I'm at now is starting to think more and more about the art of documenting the right things in the right places, and what exactly is critical information that you need to present to a builder.

Stu and I will often have a sense of what a building is meant to be. You know, we want it to be rough, we want it to be smooth, we want it to be heavy, we want it to be lightweight. We go through this process of thinking, okay, what material can do that? What sort of edge, profiling, or shape will achieve that feeling?

When we get to this point in the process, we also have to say to ourselves, what is the least amount of drawing work that we can produce to make sure that someone gets that critical moment in the building right, that makes it rough, makes it smooth, makes it fat, or heavy or whatever. Because if you draw three hundred drawings, you can feel like a champion, but a builder's not gonna read them.

So that's a problem.

This is about communicating. It's not about stitching someone up, so you can point at them and say, “you fucked up do it again,” because they won't, it's not how the world works.
Communication does become an art form. Knowing which moment to zoom in on, whether you need to make a 1:10 section through the entire wall of the building, or if you can just make a three-sentence note on an important part of the documents where it will be found and implemented.
Stuart Vokes:
It's that whole thing about using an economy of line. You can do the same with words. Sometimes it's best not to dimension everything, sometimes the best note, in terms of how you set out a building is just an arrow that says: “this brick must align with the concrete edge” or something like that, and not try and dimension everything.

Straight after the DA arrives, what we're trying to do is jump back into the plan and the section and work out how it is that we're going to build this thing. So at this point, I always talk about wanting to lock in the grid lines and the RLs.

The grid line is related to the skeletal structure of the building, and the format of the building envelope in plan. The RLs are the height levels through the building. So in this building, there was really strict kind of control of floor levels.

The Datum of the concrete upper floor runs through the whole house. You can see in the middle drawing on the screen at the moment, there's that strong datum there between the brickwork and the concrete. What height is the concrete and how many brick courses are there between the floor and the concrete? They're not just a random number of bricks that turn up on-site. That is all heavily controlled.

I think that's probably really obvious to you guys in Masters, but we're immediately jumping into questions like, how many courses and how high, and how are we going to achieve that?

In this building, rowlock courses allow us to slightly adjust the coursing of the brickwork to achieve desired heights through the building.

There are also important questions around what's the buildup of the floor. We're gonna pour a slab, but the client wants a timber floor. In that drawing in the centre, you can see the arrangement and the detail of how it is that we achieve a timber floor with a batten on top of the concrete slab. Each of those things has a dimension and each of those has an RL, which is an instruction to the builder to pour the concrete to a certain height.

If you had time and the fees you could document the building as a series of trades, say, we're just going to document the concrete. Now we're just going to document the brick. Now we're just going to document the carpentry that sits on top of all of it, but of course, there's no time. The fees aren't big enough for us to be able to do that, to just think about it as one linear process and draw as the builder builds. We've gotta think about how you make a documentation package that brings all of those things into one legible package.

Sometimes I wonder how builders do it. I mean, it's, it's quite remarkable.
If you buy a packet of Lego or a plastic aeroplane model you get all of the pieces, but then there is a step-by-step procedure manual that shows you how to glue parts one and two together, and then glue five and six, but our drawings don't work like that-
Aaron Peters:
Stu glues, his Lego
Stuart Vokes:
<laugh> Once it's built I glue it together.
Aaron Peters:
This, this final section is perhaps one that you may not have been expecting us to talk about, that is, the documentation of the project after it's finished. To keep your business alive, this is actually really, really important.

We Instagram things, we do social media, we do all that. But the thing we particularly wanted to talk about was this creepy, middle-aged man, Christopher Frederick Jones, who is our photographer.

Finding the right photographer is so critical. The record that photography makes of the building is the only enduring part of the building that can be broadcast. Very few people will ever get the chance to walk through this building. I haven't even been there to see it fully finished, myself.

It's so important that you have a record of the building that actually expresses what it was that you were trying to do because that's the basis on which you will get subsequent work.
Stuart Vokes:
What was the term that you used? You love the photo on the left because here we are, again, recording the setting, but this time recording the setting with our building as part of that composition. I really like that.
Aaron Peters:
Yeah. And that's what I mean about values. It's about settings and observations, an idea present at the very beginning of the design process, that embedded thing that our practice is all about, expressed through the way that we record and present the completed building to others. The idea of just getting far enough back with the camera, being willing to show other things in the street, other houses, trees, all of that contextual stuff.  

I think, in a very subtle way, and maybe it gets missed, it makes it apparent that we do care about the setting.

The other observation that we'd make about working with a photographer is that there are a lot out there. Some are quite expensive. Chris is not cheap.

Others are cheaper and some photographers shoot in quite different ways. There are a lot of lifestyle photographers going around, photographers who are more interested in knickknacks on shelves and bed linen, these very rich, palette-based, interior-focused representations of the building.

The way that Chris shoots the building is very much as an architectural photographer. And that's what we'd like. He's interested in the action of light on surfaces. You'll notice one of the things about Chris' work is that he probably shoots 75% of his stuff in section and elevation. So he'll keep everything upright. He doesn't shoot obliquely. He's almost recording the building in the way that we have documented the building: in section and elevation and even in plan, to a degree.
Stuart Vokes:
The image on the right is an example of how we might photograph the section of a completed building.

Thinking about the building in plan and in section, understanding the history of ideas through plans and sections of other buildings that we've studied helps us then generate a building which we then draw in plan in section. We sell it to the client and the Council in plan in section; it gets documented for the builder in plan and section, predominantly.

We don't do a lot of contract documentation in three-dimensional drawings because we don't feel like we need to.

And here we are, again, documenting in plan, section and elevation.
Aaron Peters:
That's perfectly timed, Stu, well done.