27/05/2021 - 15:29

Space Collective puts plan in motion

27/05/2021 - 15:29

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Three former directors of one of the state’s largest architecture practices have struck out on their own.

Space Collective puts plan in motion
Mandy Leung with Tom Letherbarrow (centre) and Felipe Soto. Photo: David Henry

Sometimes all it takes is a glass of wine to turn an idea into a solid business plan.

At least that was the case for Felipe Soto and Tom Letherbarrow, who had worked together at Hillam Architects, one of the state’s biggest architecture practices, for the past several years. 

The pair had been in discussions over the possibility of starting their own design studio for some time, especially during lunch breaks in a Subiaco park. 

(view a PDF version of this special report)

But it wasn’t until recently that they decided to take the next step. 

“We’d had a few glasses of wine and said, ‘Why don’t we give it a crack?” Mr Soto told Business News

“It was the right time in our careers after years working for a successful company like Hillam, and the right time in the market and in Perth to put our name out there.

“We were chatting years before, but it wasn’t such a great moment. We were growing our families … so we put it on pause for a while.” 

Messrs Soto and Letherbarrow later brought fellow former Hillam director and a current Western Australian councillor for the Australian Institute of Architects, Mandy Leung, into the fold.

Together, they launched Space Collective Architects in March this year. 

Mr Letherbarrow said Perth’s strong economic performance through the pandemic, and the subsequent spike in property activity, had presented an opportune time to launch the new venture. 

“What’s happening in property and the demand for good quality housing stock was one of the big pulls, there’s obviously an opportunity there,” Mr Letherbarrow told Business News

“And we think there’s a real market for a design-focused, quality architect that does really good mixed-use and residential projects, and that’s got a commercial slant to them as well. 

“Hillam and MJA Studio do them [those projects] really well … but for a city with the high demand at the moment, we feel there’s a real opening in the market.” 

Operating from an office in Shenton Park, the practice already has about 10 projects on its books spanning Scarborough, Como, Cockburn and the western suburbs. 

“We’re all advocates for Perth becoming a better city; we’ve looked into the problems of sprawl … and the opportunities for residential projects of various scale to contribute to the densification of Perth urban infill projects, regeneration, and making better places to live,” Mr Letherbarrow said.

“That’s one of the founding drivers for the practice.” 

Mr Soto said multi-residential and mixed-use project experience was limited in Perth, which presented an additional gap in the market for Space Collective to fill, pointing to the trio’s diverse skill sets and backgrounds. 

Ms Leung, originally from Hong Kong, specialised in technical compliance; British-born Mr Letherbarrow mostly focused on operations and business development; and Mr Soto largely provided the creative brains, applying a cosmopolitan flair to design, influenced by his South American heritage. 

“The advantage is we complement each other; we bring different skills in the way we think,” Mr Soto said. 

“Another thing that is important to us is we want to be seen challenging the way the typical collaboration is put together. We see the opportunity to collaborate with different architects, artists, landscapers, consultants … in different areas. 

“We don’t want to be seen as an in-house machine; we’ve identified [that] if you bring the right people to the table, you’re going to get a much better outcome.”

For example, Mr Soto said, there could be scope on a residential project to then collaborate with an external interior designer. 

“It’s about bringing people together into a multi-residential environment to have a different look at the same brief,” he said. 

Mr Letherbarrow said it was that collective philosophy that ultimately influenced the business’s name. 

“It’s a play on words,” he said. 

“Architecture is a collective of spaces but it’s also that we see ourselves as a wide party of consultants and other design professionals.

“We didn’t want to name the practice with our own names, we wanted to remove the ego part of it … to be a true design collective. 

“It’s all about like-minded, talented people.” 

During the past month, the practice had doubled its full-time staff, Mr Letherbarrow said. 

However, the principals were mindful of growing too rapidly, and planned for steady development of a team of 10-12 this year.

Growth of that nature could place the firm among the top 10 of WA’s largest architecture practices, as ranked by the number of full-time WA-based registered architects on Business News’s Data & Insights (see page 44). 

Messrs Letherbarrow and Soto said launching the firm during what could be a defining time for density design in Perth had been a rewarding experience, with design becoming more important in response to some of the challenges the community typically raised (such as height, overshadowing, bulk and scale). 

“We’ve been advocates for medium-density design and advertising codes, all of us contributed to those while at Hillam,” Mr Letherbarrow said. 

“And we just think we can do things better; we’ve got a wealth of experience from Hillam, with some of those projects starting to lead the way in residential design.”

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