Thinking Ahead

Mode Design

Rhonan O’Brien is founder and Managing Director of Mode Design, a company that grew out of a business he founded some 21 years ago. Both Rhonan himself and the company have a strong focus on design, underpinning all aspects of services such as architecture, project planning and management, graphic and visual arts, interior design, master planning and landscaping.

What makes this company different from the mass is that, “we decided a long time ago not to get to the size of 150 people at a single location. At the same time, we decided we did want to grow the whole practice, so we had the idea to establish a base in Brisbane with 60 or 70 people that could assist smaller studios with larger projects in a variety of geographical locations.

“We originally had an alliance with a number of firms across Australia but that didn’t really prove particularly fruitful.” However, one of those alliance partners was the Architect Studio in Darwin, whose principal asked if the team would be interested in having it as part of Mode Design. “That became the first step, then Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast seemed logical extensions of our own entities.”

The company then received a commission from Bank of Queensland to roll out its new retail outlets in New South Wales and Victoria. “From that, we established studios in Sydney and Melbourne.” Rhonan says Mode prefers this approach – project-led, so a new studio (or a compatible practice which is interested in merging) has worked from the outset rather than speculating – which was used in Auckland early in 2012 and is about to be used again in Perth.

The idea is that it is not necessary to have, say, a large contingent of interior designers in a location such as Darwin, to be able to deliver good interior design. “You need someone who can take a brief, interact with the client, do the initial concept work and then review the work that is done in Brisbane or elsewhere to assist the process. It means you end up with small studios as an integral part of a large practice with very high-end capability.”

The latest communications technology is crucial to such a concept. Not that the Mode Design studios are one-man bands – each has an appropriate amount of staff able to meet client needs. “It’s really to enable the specialist component of what we do to be delivered anywhere in Australia without a huge overhead,” Rhonan explains. “It’s being able to offer more than you could otherwise.” A proof of the pudding: the firm was recently asked by a New York company to enter a joint venture on a project in Darwin because Mode could negotiate with sub-consultants in Sydney and deliver design expertise particular to Darwin to the New York business “in a seamless manner without the need to employ three different firms.”

Rhonan thinks this is the future of the industry. “We are on the leading edge but people will follow; that’s why we have to keep running. The more virtual the world becomes, the more this will become the only way. You have to make the best use of all resources.” He says that to meet the current workload with independent offices in Darwin and all its other locations and service them as at present would require more than 250 staff, many overlapping with one another’s jobs.

What about the Murphy’s Law aspect – the more communication technology you have, the greater the opportunity for mis-communication? “We do have a high level of technology – everything from Skype to real-time 3-D modelling that we are all looking at at the same time. The downside is that the Directors do spend a lot of time on planes, because there is still nothing like face-to-face. That is as much about winning work as doing it properly.”

Rhonan looks forward to the day it might be possible to pitch for new business online instead of flying. “Our intention is that each of the studios we are establishing now will have its own satellite system as well,” meaning that Darwin might have ‘sub-studios’ in Bali and Singapore, while Perth might control Broome or Port Hedland and Auckland might have Christchurch. At that stage, each of the main studios might have a couple of resident Directors and could operate a little more autonomously than they do now.

Rhonan does not attribute this structure alone to the company’s success in this subdued marketplace. He cites Mode’s reputation – “we are now seen to be coming into the second generation of the architectural practice. Once past that milestone people tend to see you as a credible alternative to the third and fourth generation architects, designers and planners.”

Many younger staff have jumped at the opportunity that presents itself occasionally to run some of the studios and effectively work remotely, affording a career path and “a fantastic model for young people to enable their careers.” This, of course, brings responsibility to go with the freedom.

Mode Design, as distinct from Rhonan’s original practice, evolved into this modular structure in a progression, starting with a multi-disciplinary approach to offer architecture, interiors, graphics, landscaping and urban design, at which point Directors were identified to head up each discipline. Rhonan’s specialities were affordable housing and urban design. “From day one we wanted to be a national practice and multi-disciplinary.” He admits to a certain amount of trial-and-error between that ambition and the current structure, on which the main limitation remains the relative lack of “aware” potential partners – aware of the inherent advantages of such a set-up, that is. However, “we have an alliance with a firm in India which is beginning to bear fruit and we certainly see India as the place we want to get involved in once we have consolidated a little bit more in Australia.”

Mode has done work in Vietnam, Indonesia and further afield in Southeast Asia, but India has the relative advantage of its “British base, which is what I think makes it a lot more accepting of the [modular] idea,” and “has some of the areas of expertise that we are looking at. For example, demand in India for urban planning and master planning is enormous and affordable housing issues in India are paramount. Education is a significant issue and so is health – so all the sectors in which we are particularly strong have enormous demand.” Mode is proposing to get involved in the early design phase, setting up the projects to be as high quality as possible before engaging local firms to do the hard yards with minimal supervision from Australia.

Affordable housing is a sector that fascinates Rhonan. There is a need to be more inventive here, he believes. “The issue with affordable housing is not just that it should be affordable to buy but affordable to live there, so you have to minimise air-conditioning and heating, or waste, and maximise opportunities for using IT within the building. Our buildings get better as they get older.” Landscapes mature and provide better screening; the way the units are designed enables cross-ventilation; the way the materials weather actually improves the building’s appearance over time. “That is what we strive to do. There is also flexibility within the building, to enable it to change use rather than having to be demolished or significantly modified.”

Mode has strategies around car parking, communal entertainment areas, mixed tenure, “and we are developing more all the time.” On the leading edge of affordable and environmentally sound housing, Mode is ideally placed to apply lessons learned here to more high-end housing, and even into commercial buildings. Mode has no problem with high density buildings, but Rhonan tells clients, “if you have really high density, you need really good amenities.” In one recent project the company designed in a semi-indoor theatre for the use of all residents, semi-indoor vegetable gardens, indoor play areas for children and opportunities for development of businesses such as crèches in the space that could be used for residents to actually make a living within the building.

Any of these ideas “can be scaled up into more high-end real estate propositions as well,” while Rhonan is confident they will find favour in India too. Mode is also something of an expert in secure environments (with numerous defence projects and correctional facilities that include Lotus Glen prison and Long Bay forensic and prison hospitals), trying to work toward a completely carbon-neutral model, “which would be fantastic because only then can you get a low-cost long-term solution for government as well as something that can engage with the inmates” and educates them in the sustainability mindset, learning skills they can apply when released.

Rhonan says the trouble with being on this leading edge is that others – in this instance, clients, other consultants and contractors – are sometimes not running at the same pace. It can be hard work to educate them in simple matters – for instance, that by building substrates properly you don’t need a finishing coat. “Trying to find people [who can look at jobs in this way] is the difficulty,” he says. But it sounds extremely unlikely that Rhonan or his team will slow down anytime soon, so the message to the rest of the industry is to ‘get fit’ and catch up with the future.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

November 29, 2021, 1:09 PM AEDT