A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE CAN BE FOUND ON THE DESIGN FILES. PHOTOS: MINDI COOKE. WORDS: JO HOBAN. VIDEO: LOU LIDDIARD-IMESON.
MEET SUZIE WILEY AND LAURA PASCOE
Suzie Wiley and Laura Pascoe have combined their skills to provide a specialised service within the architectural design space. The pair describe their business, Surroundings, as a human-centred design consultancy. Surroundings offers facilitated workshops that bring together the people involved in residential and commercial renovation and build projects, to stimulate discussion and share their ideas in a supportive environment. The central goal is to define a “human brief” that complements a functional architectural brief. Essentially, Suzie and Laura are advocates for richer, in-person conversations; their focus is on engaging a diversity of voices within a design process from its earliest stages, expanding opportunities to have varied opinions and ideas heard. Those ideas can then meaningfully influence a project. The upfront engagement also enhances the sense of community alongside the building process, empowering people to connect and converse as things evolve.
“Our workshops inspire stakeholders to discuss ideas, viewpoints and experiences, creating a culture of trust and inclusion between the community, design team and project owners.”
There is a lively chorus in the air on the Summer day we visit Suzie and Laura in their new garden studio; the buzz of insects forms the bass line while birds warble freely over the top. The mood befits the morning, as the women are preparing for a workshop to be held in a couple of hours that will gather a different group of voices, this time of the human variety. As they work their way through a couple of last minute tasks, and discuss how the workshop might unfold, one senses an undoubted ease between the pair - the kind that only comes with time and experience.
Both trained architects, Suzie and Laura practised for a number of years in the early stages of their careers before meeting at the suggestion of a friend who thought they might be able to help each other. Apparently said-friend now regards them as “his best set-up!” The women laugh heartily when they relay this. I sense they are both amused, and proud. Indeed, their partnership has proven a good fit to date. Their small business has lately gained exciting momentum with a range of new clients commissioning their services, and existing clientele coming back for more.
Having grown up in a fourth generation ‘building family’, Suzie recalls that her family made beautiful spaces that were later filled with good memories; her stomping ground was often houses in the process of being built or renovated by her family, and that had been designed by her uncle, an architect. After studying Architecture at QUT, Suzie spent a year in Italy, then worked in Brisbane and London before starting her own practice, Surroundings, in 2007, focused on residential houses.
Laura always loved art and making things. She would help her father with building projects and was constantly inspired by her mother’s interior decorating work. After completing an Architecture degree at UQ, Laura lived and worked in Shanghai, China, and Vancouver, Canada, before returning to Brisbane. She worked in The Architectural Practice Academy before joining Suzie at Surroundings in 2011.
“When we first met we discussed the basic idea of creating the Home Masterclass, and Laura also had lots of thoughts around that, so the idea just got legs,” Suzie explains. “We found the architecture industry systemically wasn’t addressing a diversity of human needs and had become somewhat standardised – architects can at times fall back on their own experience or bias, leading to a solution that fits one but not many. Schedule and fee pressure also restricts the architects from having time to delve into the community’s needs.”
“We saw a gap to efficiently and meaningfully plug in as a consultant.”
The two combined some exercises they had developed to create a workshop that forms a journey in itself. Since 2011, the Home Masterclass workshop has become well-refined, and has also acted as the basis for other workshops the pair have developed. The women have now run workshops in areas as diverse as education, health and social support services, land regeneration, retail and more.
“Each whole workshop is a customised experience rather than just snippets or disjointed exercises.”
During 2017 and early 2018, the women took a step back from Surroundings project work to focus on their other respective projects. Laura has a flourishing ceramics practice - Brush and Wheel - so she ramped that up, exhibiting her work, and attracting high-end Australian furniture business, Jardan, as a stockist. She also travelled to China to further her ceramic studies, all the while working on finding and developing a new communal creative studio space, which is excitingly now coming to fruition (more on that below).
Suzie was managing various consulting projects and focusing on renovating her Queenslander home, including the downstairs studio, in consultation with Laura and others in their community. By August 2018, what was once a weedy hill, with dirt, some border lattice and a few lumps of concrete, had been transformed into an enchanting creative garden studio that beautifully blurs the lines between indoors and out.
To celebrate the completion of Surroundings’ unique new base, Suzie and Laura opened the studio to the public in October as part of the Brisbane Open House event, offering a couple of free workshops, which were gratefully received.
Both the upstairs and the downstairs were originally dark, closed-in spaces, so Suzie subtracted a whole room and introduced an atrium that floods the home and studio with natural light. With access to a bit of Vitamin D, it’s like a jungle down there!
Suzie tells me the build took nine months to complete: “It was quite a bit of work to design and draw it, while working at the same time. I also had to keep to a reasonable budget so there was significant redesigning involved.” She surveys the space, and smiles. “My mum’s a real gardener and we grew up outside, just always with her playing in the garden. Or with Dad in the shed. I can remember making creations with my brother and cousins.”
“This garden studio is my “take” on a creative space under a house.”
The studio remains open to the elements as not all sides are walled, which is part of its beauty, but also creates some challenges. “I kept fighting myself to enclose it because I thought that’s what society requires – you maximise value, resale and all of that. But then it would be just standard house downstairs, rather than the special ‘under the house’ that I wanted. It’s much nicer as an experience without walls… In the past when it’s been cold Laura and I often work upstairs on the sunny deck. We like to move.” Laura agrees and elaborates:
“We are nomadic workers and find shifting spaces keeps our brains fresh and creative.”
“We meet at the studio as a base a couple of days a week, then work from our homes, or in cafes around the edges. I can also now be found at the creative studios, Vacant Assembly, that I’ve opened with collaborators, Sarah Seminutin and Sam Eyles.”
Vacant Assembly - a multi-purpose communal, creative space - is a new venture for Laura and her collaborators. Previously a large industrial warehouse in West End, the rabbit warren of interconnected rooms and spaces has required significant redesigning and is undergoing evolving renovations. Many would be daunted by such a project, but not this hands-on crew who are excited by the warehouse’s broad scope for creativity. In fact, the space presented its first couple of events – an art exhibition and a Monster Creative Maker’s Market – at the end of 2018, and has played host to many more since!
Keen to get the hub happening and for real activity to help shape the space as they go, Laura, Sam and Sarah have largely been prioritising renovation work according to most immediate short-term needs. At the same time, they recognised that with the large space in such early stages, it was a valuable opportunity for a Surroundings design workshop, to spark and share ideas between key organisers and some of the new studio occupants. So, after starting our day noseying around the Surroundings studio, Mindi and I were lucky enough to sit in on this special workshop process too!
Seven people, including Laura and Suzie, gather around a table in the voluminous, main space of the Vacant Assembly warehouse - apparently this is more or less the ideal size, keeping the workshop intimate. Present are Sam, Sarah, Giovanna, Caroline, and Sue: amongst them a potter, visual artist, picture framer, furniture maker, and experiential events co-ordinator. The session begins with a worksheet urging participants to explore their personal direction, and to imagine how the space could potentially support that growth.
Ambient music plays in the background, while contemplative faces stare for seconds at a time into distant corners of the warehouse, then turn back to their paper and madly scribble down their notes. “Tell me if the music’s too serious and we can change it,” says Laura, amused. Everybody laughs when they realise how easily they lost themselves in the task. Soon the round-the-table sharing of ideas loosens the group up for the next activity. Suzie and Laura introduce one of their custom-designed card sets called ‘Elements’.
Workshop participants are encouraged to each choose some cards, arrange them in a specific order, and reflect on why they were drawn to those in particular. With a little bit of initial hesitation, Suzie gently urges the activity forward:
“Don’t think about it too much. Go with what you’re instinctually drawn to and try to reserve the thinking for afterward.”
It is a wonderful opportunity to be part of a group session while simultaneously being encouraged to explore ourselves, in relation to what we do and how we operate. A lot of questions hang in the air: What do we believe makes an ideal work environment? How do we like to, or aspire to, collaborate with others? What underpins the decisions we make? The insights gained on a personal level are a nice offshoot of the workshop’s core function: to develop a robust human design brief that represents the whole community.
The human brief will be an invaluable anchor point to help guide Vacant Assembly’s evolution from both a spatial and experiential perspective. Later, when I’m chatting with Suzie she describes more about how she views the workshops generally: “They’re an unearthing – something better to experience than describe.”
“It’s about celebrating the individual, and then overlaps between individuals inevitably occur which help clarify ideas and shape a community.”
Further into the workshop, the energy is heightened with the sharing and categorising of ideas for the space on some brown paper (what is a workshop without brown butcher’s paper, after all!). This time Laura selects some upbeat tunes to help the session along, and there’s a buzz of excitement as the group mill around brainstorming, listing, organising, and re-organising. They seem to have found their groove, and the session results in abundant ideas, with some clear commonalities starting to emerge.
The final activity for the day focuses on drawing, and I have a go at this too. The mood becomes imaginative, even dreamy, as we each attempt to synthesize ideas into some form of visual representation. Again, all of these are shared and discussed at the end of the session, so everyone has a chance to contribute. It does feel like a rich, unguarded conversation where opinions and concepts are explored, as opposed to simply put forward.
After a workshop, Laura and Suzie take all the information they have gathered and analyse it carefully, before developing their report – this is the human-centred brief we have been referring to, that will accompany the functional architectural brief. At this stage, while still bouncing ideas off each other, Laura tends to focus on graphics and analysis while Suzie writes the report. They play to their complementary strengths: “Our work is more than the sum of us somehow,” they say.
It’s not easy to facilitate diverse groups, although if done well it might appear that way. Laura tells me the main challenge is managing group dynamics:
“We get the full range of personalities, so our process is designed to give a voice to everyone and modulate them as well.”
“It is important with any group that we have a diverse mix; we want each participant to be as unique as possible so they can experience a broad range of perspectives. Also, we often have architects at the table. The wider the representation will lead to a more inclusive design.” Another challenge, albeit one the women particularly enjoy, is adapting their process. The women try to continually reflect and trial ideas as they arise. For example, a recent project spurred on the creation of a brand new card set.
“Over the years we have developed a series of tools, exercises and methods. We use them as a base and adapt them to the current project. We are always inventing so new ones come along regularly.”
When asked whether they have run a workshop or series of workshops that particularly stands out – where the end design beautifully translates ideas that arose in the workshop – both women noted Hummingbird House, Queensland’s first children’s hospice. Surroundings was commissioned by Queensland Kids, the charity behind Hummingbird House, to connect with the project’s many user groups and gain insight into the functional and emotional needs of the hospice community. For kids facing life-limiting illness, their final days are often spent in hospitals and clinical adult environments unsuitable to their needs. Queensland Kids wanted to change this.
Surroundings held a series of custom-designed and facilitated workshops in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne; they visited the only other two children’s hospices in Australia to learn and build on their best practices; and finally, they studied all of their collected information to develop their human-centred brief. During the workshop process, a number of significant, nuanced details were unearthed. For example, the act of bathing their kids was a treasured moment and calming experience for many families in this emotional situation. As a result, the architects, Thomson Adsett, adapted their design to extend the main bathroom to include an alcove at its entrance, where families could gather. You can read more about Hummingbird house here.
To date, Surroundings has grown organically via word-of-mouth. And that time has seen a marked interest on a global scale in the empathic philosophies that underpin human-centred design. Now, the pair are sharpening their focus on developing their design process offerings into the future. “I have so many ideas!” Suzie says energetically. “It would be great to find people who could co-facilitate with us who had different expertise.” She talks about how they’re exploring the digitisation of some of their offerings for people that can’t make it to a workshop in person, for various reasons. And offering personalised digital workshop support using video call applications. There is mention of a complementary Design Guide to go with the workshops, and stronger regular collaborations with architects and storytellers to help communicate the human brief in a more resonant format. “I can really see our work extending beyond the start of the project,” Laura muses. The women have noticed this unfolding particularly with their social and institutional work (schools, shelters, etc).
“Often our process informs the service delivery as well - the everyday running of a facility, not just spatial solutions. There’s so much we learn about human interactions and the flexibility required from design.”
How all this will play out, only time will tell. For now, Surroundings are looking forward to continually evolving and exploring new pathways: “I do think we’re good at recognising opportunities where we can add value,” says Suzie. “Rarely do people in workshops say ‘I’ve got this!’” Laura adds. “Most people are thinking ‘Ok, if we want to do a good job, we need help!’”
For more info, check out Surroundings and their customised, human-centred workshops. Follow their journey on instagram: @surroundingsees
Surroundings also now offer online Home Masterclasses and consults. Follow @surroundings_home
This story has been produced in collaboration with Surroundings.