Emma Williamson at PRAXIS 2017

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At this year’s Australian Institute of Architects’ Conference, Emma Williamson joined Huw Turner and Penny Collins, John Wardle and Neil Durbach on stage to provide an 8 minutes insight into practice. This is the transcript of her speech:


Fortuitously the invitation to speak today has coincided with our practice turning 20 and a kind of yearlong “mid-life crisis” that Kieran and I have been having as we look back on what has passed and try to make a plan for the next 20!

I am not going to talk about any projects in particular this morning but I do want to discuss the conscious way in which we have crafted our practice.  To give some context a series of images will run in the background – so hopefully there will be something for everyone!  These represent some of the project work of the last decade and have, for the most part, been captured by Peter Bennetts, a dear friend and collaborator who we have very much enjoyed working with over this time.

Collaboration has always been a big part of the way we wanted to work.  We set up CODA as a multidisciplinary practice straight out of uni, with 2 other couples.  We felt certain we could tackle any design challenge through the coming together of our shared skills, our passion for design, our belief we could make a difference and our youthful enthusiasm.  It was great fun and created a strong foundation from which CODA the architecture practice could then evolve and grow.

We have built important and ongoing relationships. We have been supported by mentors, we have collaborated with artists, developed products with suppliers, collaborated with other architects, and importantly with our clients.  We have experienced enormous professional and personal generosity in building up our practice and we have, in turn, looked out for ways in which we can be generous within our community.

In roughly 5 year bands, the story of our practice has evolved into a series of chapters or versions:

Chapter 1 / CODA 1.0         the naïve multi-disciplinary practice, projects for people we knew, no money, no staff and lots of energy

Chapter 2 / CODA 2.0         the alts and ads, houses, no money, 4 staff, 2 kids, not enough sleep, lots of energy

Chapter 3 / CODA 3.0         the shift from residential toward larger work, no money, 12 staff, 3 kids, not enough sleep, feeling quite tired

Chapter 4 / CODA 4.0         public projects, education projects as well as urban design and masterplanning, still no money, up to 25 staff, 3 kids,  –  did I mention that I am quite tired.

From the beginning we have talked things up.

With nothing to show for ourselves we built a story that was bigger than we were.  We have had a pretty consistent “fake-it-til-you make-it” approach that has propelled us to work toward the space we have somewhat falsely declared we are in!

Early on we struggled with the idea of narrative within the studio.  With little in the way of practice history or a portfolio of work –  and with a desire to open things up rather than demonstrate a single hand – we found ourselves not actually to be great directors because we weren’t decisive enough! And over time we came to realise that people need direction.

We also struggled to reassure our staff that each step or change was part of a grand plan, and we didn’t properly anticipate the need to communicate a practice vision with strength and clarity to our staff. In the early days, there were real challenges around the idea of architecture embracing more invisible work, such as research and urban design, as well as the idea of creating more structure within the studio to allow us to grow.

With the benefit of hindsight these resistors helped us to articulate our position and create yet another story for the studio to grow into.

We came up with 4 words:

To be useful            and do work that could benefit many rather than a few

To be joyful             in the way that we work with one another but also in the spaces that we create

To be generous      in our interactions with others and in seeking out generosity in the way we design space

To be stealthy        in using our skills in ways that can have influence but may not be clearly identifiable as architecture

These aspirations helped to frame the way we work together and where we see opportunities to make an impact.  They galvanised the studio and allowed for many voices and the many valid and valued ways of being an architect to coexist.

In such a visual profession it has been hard to communicate the complexity and importance of some of our more invisible work, even within our studio.  The work cannot be summed up with beautiful photographs or even a few well constructed sentences. This work will remain largely invisible but the outcomes have the potential to affect many more people than a single building – no matter what the scale.

Collaboration is an ambitious goal – and it’s harder to pull off than you might think when you really scrutinise it. Kieran and I have learned through a process of trial and error that collaboration is not a form of socialism; in fact, this makes people nervous and they can’t do their best work when they are operating without boundaries.

The easy form of collaboration is where you have the genius idea and everyone works together to pull it off.  But true collaboration allows for many voices to come together to influence a project and make it richer. You need to have the capacity to put your ego aside.  You need to be ok with moving into terrain where there are potentially more questions than answers – where the problem explodes and becomes even bigger before you can reach a solution.

A successful collaboration needs leadership. The capacity to guide these voices and move the project forward. The capacity to recognise a good idea – even when it’s not yours – and the ability to make connections and join dots so that multiple ideas can come to influence the final outcome.  Our practice has evolved out of a dialogue in which we are not experts but we are deeply curious.  We are not afraid to ask questions in place of giving answers and we have learned to listen.

We use all the typical tools of an architecture studio – we sketch, we draw, we make models and we talk.  Importantly, we create a story for each project. It needs to be robust enough to change hands and have different “ghost-writers” and it needs to be strong enough to survive the hand of a ruthless editor – that by cost, or any other reason for that matter, sees fit to trim the fat off a scheme.

With the benefit of 20 years of practice we can no longer claim the space of the fresh faced, enthusiastic young turks that think they can do anything. We are mid-career. And we have a portfolio of work to show for our efforts.  The images are still moments in time and behind each of these is a unique and different story that was created through the collective efforts of our studio and collaborators.

Thank you

#codais20: celebrating our staff

As part of our 20th Anniversary, we’ve created a series of short movies that celebrate the various elements of our business over the past two decades. Projects, office dogs, craft activities, lunches we’ve eaten and cocktails we’ve drunk – no aspect of our office culture has been left unturned! First up is a flash through the 56 talented people who have worked with us over this time. Enjoy!

‘Chasing the Sky Launches’ in Sydney



Last Thursday night, Emma Williamson was in Sydney to celebrate the launch of Maven Publishing‘s new work, ‘Chasing the Sky: 20 Stories of Women in Architecture.’ Emma is profiled in the book, alongside 19 other inspiring women practitioners. Copies can be purchased here.


All’s WELL in Workplace

In an article in the Property section of today’s West, our recently completed office fit-out for Charter Hall was recognised as the first business in WA to receive accreditation according to the internationally recognised WELL Building Standard. Launched in 2013, the standard provides businesses and communities with a method  to improve the comprehensive health of their employees. The standard is the world’s first certification focused towards mental health and well-being, and takes into account aspects of health including nutrition, fitness and mood. A recent article in ArchDaily provides further insight into the Standard and details some ambitious overseas projects that are embracing its principles in their design.

The West Australian

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Words: Claire Tyrell


Communal eating spaces, office retreats and a focus on mindfulness are among the attributes of a commercial building standard taking hold in Perth.

The WELL building standard, introduced to Australia two years ago, is described as the next frontier in building standards after the environmental NABERS rating.

Colliers International sustainability manager Patrick Jeannerat, WA’s first accredited WELL professional, said the US standard grew from a need to emphasise wellness in the workplace.

A building’s air, lighting and water quality, nutrition and exercise opportunities and thermal and acoustic comfort are measures of WELL accreditation.

Mr Jeannerat said the WELL standard added a new dimension into the into the commercial property space. ‘Until now we are talking about landlords and tenants. This brings a third instance into the game, which is the actual staff and employees – the individuals within the space,’ he said.

Take up of the new standard has been higher in Eastern States offices than in Perth, but Mr Jeannerat said Perth would catch up as more businesses cottoned on to the idea.

Charter Hall is one of the first Perth-based businesses to apply for WELL accreditation, for its 225 St Georges Tce space.

The company’s executive of people, brand and community, Natalie Devlin, said Charter Hall was an early adopter of the WELL system. ‘We looked at our cultural values and when we relocated to Sydney we went to one of the purest forms of activity-based working. As part of that strategy, I thought a lot about the wellbeing of our people.’

Ms Devlin said when the WELL accreditation came to Australia in 2015, Charter Hall was already half way there.

She said since implementing the WELL standards, the property group had increased its employee engagement and performance.

A short film about a giant transformation!

CODA have been busy working with local agency, Bright Yellow Productions, to develop a series of short films about our recently completed projects.

First up, we’d love to share with you our work on the transformation of an underwhelming atrium space at St Stephen’s School into a vibrant, flexible library and community hub.

We are thrilled with how positively the project has been embraced by students and staff alike, and would love to share it with you…

The ACA and the Institute – distinct but complementary

In a recent issue of Architect WA, ACA – WA President Kieran Wong was interviewed by Institute WA President Philip Griffiths. Kieran explained that the two different organisations have quite distinct agendas, objectives and services for members and discussed how the two organisations might work more cooperatively and collaboratively.

This interview is republished with permission from the Spring 2016 issue of The Architect.

Philip Griffiths: What is ACA and what does it do? 

Kieran Wong: ACA was born in 1987 out of a growing demand from practice owners and directors for greater representation on industrial relations and employment issues, particularly following the introduction of the Architects Award. These areas have always been a challenge for architects because of the nature of their work and the diversity of their workplaces. Employment matters – such as pay and conditions, employment contracts and general HR support – are as important today as they were then. In 2012 the ACA developed a new strategic plan, which saw the expansion of the organisation to encompass the business of architecture more widely.

We firmly believe that architects need good business skills if the profession is to prosper and contribute meaningfully to the built environment. Members are supported with practical tools such as the Architects’ Time/Cost Calculation Guide, Model Employment Agreements and the soon-to-be-launched Salary Calculator. All are related to contemporary practice and have proven to be incredibly useful tools for our members, who can easily access them through our super-helpful website. We also provide tailored advice to members in business and employment matters.

We have branches in each state. We work together at a national level, but also understand the different regulatory issues in the various jurisdictions and operate according to members’ concerns and interests.

How is ACA different from the Institute?

Many people are involved with both organisations, but ACA members are the practices themselves, not individual architects. This means that those active in the ACA are the leaders of practices – the people making the decisions and dealing with the business of architecture. That’s a very important distinction because it enables us to focus on practice management and employment issues. Our advocacy is centred on important objectives, such as improving procurement environments, encouraging good business practices within the profession and consulting with government – most recently on planning policies and Development Advisory Panels. The Institute has a much broader scope of activity, including the Awards program, Venice Biennale participation and so on.

The ACA model is working very successfully. Concentrating on the business dimension means we have a very clear role in the industry. We don’t have offices and keep our overheads low, allowing  us to channel our resources into practical projects that directly benefit our members, such as the new salary calculator.

How do you engage with your members?

In WA we run a series of events to keep members enthused and participating, and they enjoy the networking opportunities. What I find really helpful is that the events enable me to talk to people who are in the same professional situation as me. We are all owners and directors talking about common issues, whereas the Institute events have a much wider audience, which reflects your membership.

The ACA also runs some Continuing Professional Development [CPD], mainly online through the ACA Insight national webinar series. CPD has become a very competitive space, but our material is always consistent with our focus on practice.

How can our organisations help each other and our members?

I am very keen to work more closely with the Institute. Historically the relationship may have been seen as competitive, but each organisation has a very clear mandate and these are complementary. The ACA looks after business issues and the Institute concentrates on advocating the benefits of architects to government and the community. We do share a common purpose in advancing the interests of the architecture profession, as we believe that a solid business foundation underpins the ability for our members to do great work in the built environment.

Joint events might be a good way to make progress on this and I’m sure we can find opportunities to connect members, such as our recent panel discussion on DAPs and DACs. Jointly advocating for issues that affect our constituencies will also be useful. ACA met recently with the Minister for Planning to advocate strongly for our members’ position on DAPs and DACs. Teaming up on this sort of initiative could be very useful for all our members.

What issues are going to be most important to the profession in the next 10–20 years?

This is where a more productive relationship between our organisations will benefit architecture in Australia. Practice is undoubtedly changing, and the small- to medium-sized practices face the biggest challenges. The key question is how these firms will be able to successfully compete for the appropriate projects. In WA we seem to be less keen on joint ventures than in other states and that is to our detriment. In fact, there has been a bit of a hiatus in the growth of medium practices, with those emerging tending to be small operations with two or three people.

The ACA is committed to gaining a better understanding of the shape of the profession, and to generating productive debate and discussion about its future. One of the problems is a dearth of data – it is hard to strategise for the future when you don’t know where you are. ACA – SA has recently conducted a research project to understand more about the profession there. We hope to expand this nationally, and have started with some excellent reports on data from the last three censuses. Following on from this research we have published a number of reflections by a wide range of practitioners on the future of the profession – under the banner “Where to From Here”. We’d love to have some WA voices contribute to that discussion.

There is great opportunity to collaborate. The Institute will lead the way in the marketing of architects and architecture, and ACA will continue to assist practice leaders to stay viable in a very uncertain profession. That will be very unifying.

Emma Williamson on Leadership

This article was published last week on Parlour, an online advocacy for women and equity in architecture. As previous Chair of the AIA’s National Committee for Gender Equity and a Director at CODA, Emma Williamson is perfectly placed to share her perspective on the challenges women face in carving out leadership positions in practice.

In preparation for writing this article I have read part 9 of the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice, ‘Leadership’, several times, all the while wrestling with my frustration that there are not more female leaders in architectural practice and reflecting in part on my own career development.

You see, I am by nature a leader. This quality has mostly been jokingly referred to by my family as bossiness – something I used to be embarrassed by. It wasn’t intended as a compliment and I’m pretty sure none of my brothers were referred to in the same way.

This quality has driven me to create a practice that includes others and works together on a shared vision of positively impacting our community through our efforts. I have not worked in isolation and I have always made sure that I made an effort to sit myself at the table and be an active part of discussions.

Now in my mid-career, I am increasingly curious about leadership, the different roads to a leadership position as well as the types of leaders we can be when we get there. I am interested in the relationship between leadership and generosity, and also the relationship between leadership and flexibility.

It seems that often our career trajectories are set early and rely on the right combination of ambition, circumstance and support. If this is the case, then I’m curious to know why it is that men occupy more positions of leadership then women? What are the barriers that prevent women from reaching the top? And if there is something missing at the beginning of their career trajectory, what is causing women to miss out?
Nowhere is the disparity between men and women in architecture more glaringly obvious than in the boards and executive management of the architecture profession’s top practices. Without adequate organisational diversity it is almost impossible to create the impetus for increased responsibility and promotion that allow women to progress. Unconscious bias sees us giving opportunities to those that most directly reflect the cultural norm; shifting this towards diversity, requires cultural change and a conscious and committed push from those at the top. In my experience, this takes generosity.

Practice leaders need to provide opportunities for all team members during the early stages of their career, and encourage them to maintain focus on their own professional development. Generosity means we are able to extend praise and encourage people to step forward and up; it means we can genuinely enjoy someone else’s success without feeling like it comes at the expense of our own. As practice leaders we need to focus our attention on women in the beginning of their career, ensuring they have the experience and skills to feel confident as professionals and as team leaders.

It’s difficult to discuss women and professional leadership without mentioning the impact of motherhood. For women who want to have children, I would argue that it is critical to build up one’s professional experience to the greatest extent possible, before having a family. Men have generally undertaken an unbroken career pathway, building solidly on experience gained through long hours in the office and on site. For women, it’s a completely different story; the career break is like a broken bone that never really heals. I reflect on my own experience of working part-time for over a decade and it’s hard to imagine what leadership opportunities would have been on offer in commercial practice.

”The career break is like a broken bone that never really heals.

It always feels to me like an unfortunate confluence that the cementing of a person’s career and the formation of their family seems to occur simultaneously and with such intensity! Regardless of your gender, this can only mean that hard choices need to be made. With few exceptions, this has by and large resulted in career breaks for women and time away from family for men.

Unfortunately, the impact of these early choices makes a considerable impact on the rest of our lives. For women who break from professional life, there is often the barrier of confidence to overcome when considering a re-entry into practice life; a perception that the choice to come back to architecture will need to be full time, that the pay will be low, that there is a lack of technical ability as ‘things have moved on’ or that the work will not be meaningful.

The women I know who have made it through this period have two things in common: first, they belong to a supportive workplace, with leaders who genuinely support the need to strike a balance between the different demands of their working and domestic lives. This is not work/life balance but rather life balance, and it takes a flexible leader to enable it to occur. Second, they have a supportive home environment, either through the willingness of the other parent to step back on the work front or through the support of the extended family to help manage the often chaotic matrix of deadlines, school holidays and illness.

Interestingly, those who have worked continuously and find themselves in leadership positions often have very flexible and dynamic workdays. They are the presidents of professional associations, part-time professors, government architects, board members or experts giving papers at conferences. They may have several part-time roles (involving travel) and yet no-one complains that they are not in the office every day, or that they might be somehow less interested in practice because they have a role (or ambition) outside it. Imagine if we could support people to take on leadership roles as well as to maintain the flexibility that supports the life balance they are seeking.

Women make great leaders. The lessons learned raising a family are invaluable to the workplace. Efficiency, pre-emptive problem solving, complex negotiation skills, emotional intelligence – to name just a few! Having more women as leaders will open up the architectural profession, creating opportunities for us to become more relevant within the current social, political and economic context in which we practice. Women bring an alternative dimension to architecture, and our built environment will be better for it.

To quote Parlour ‘…substantial research shows that companies and organisations with diverse leadership groups consistently outperform those without. The ethical and business cases for gender-diverse leadership are abundantly clear’.

CODA to open on January 26th

CODA Studio is re-thinking the Australia Day public holiday.

Our studio will remain open and active on Thursday 26th and closed on Friday 27th January.

It begins, I think, with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. We failed to ask, how would I feel if this was done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

Paul Keating, Redfern, NSW 1992


Image: Daniel Boyd, Untitled (detail) 2013

2016, a year in summary…

Despite the challenges of 2016, we end the year feeling so lucky to be part of an amazing community of colleagues, clients, fellow designers and friends and to have delivered a body of work of which we feel immensely proud.

None of our successes would have been possible without the support we have received from so many difference channels. So, thank you and have a very merry Christmas and a fantastic 2017!

Before we go, we would like to share with you some of the highlights of our working year:


Awards we’ve won:

St Stephen’s School: IDEA High Commendation Public Spaces

WGV: Australia Award for Urban Design, Policies, Programs and Concepts

Victoria Quay: AIA (WA) Urban Design Commendation

BCC Mercy Stage 1: AIA (WA) Education Commendation

MLC Boarding House: Australian Interior Design Awards Commendation


Conferences + Invited Lectures we’ve given…

Indigenous Business + Enterprise Conference, UWA

DesignSpeaks: Health Care/Health Design, Sydney

PIA WA Regional Conference Keynote, Bunbury

State Library of Queensland UQ Design Series, Brisbane


Competitions we did quite well in…

K2K Urban Design Competition Finalist


Projects we’ve completed:

Charter Hall Perth

Karratha Super Clinic

Murdoch University Peel Campus 

#DesignPerth research report

Groote Eylandt Masterplan and Housing Audit

Claisebrook Design Collective

St Stephen’s Primary School Upgrade

Tom Fisher House

Boonooloo Road Group Housing

Elizabeth Quay Kiosk 6


Juries we’ve been on…

Australian Tapestry Awards Jury

NGV Pavilion Jury


Publications we’ve been in…

Karratha Super Clinic, Architecture Australia

A Space to Exhale, Architecture Australia

Infill Development Three Times Cheaper, Architecture AU

Lessons in Design, Contemporary AU

WA Falling Behind on Infill Targets, The West Australian

Building a Brand New Campus, Associate Magazine

The Backhouse, The Design Files

BCC Stage 1, The Architect

Are we out of touch? Or out of time? The Architect

Gender Equity: An Interview, The Architect

Claisebrook Design Collective, Artichoke Magazine

Social Media Spotlight: CODA Studio, Social Media Marketing Institute Journal