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.


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’.

Sen. Ludlam awarded by the Planning Institute of Australia


Last Friday, CODA Director, Kieran Wong, was proud to accept an Honorary Fellowship from the Planning Institute of Australia on behalf of Senator Scott Ludlam.

Ludlam has been awarded the fellowship for his contribution to the ground breaking report #designperth, which was released in June this year as a collaboration between the Australian Greens, CODA, the Property Council of Australia (WA) and the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP).

Kieran said the report delivered a comprehensive comparison between the cost of residential development in infill areas and greenfield sites.

“In addition to demonstrating the economic benefit of urban infill, the report discusses the positive impact of creating denser communities that are well serviced by public transport, in which people can live, work and connect,” he said.

“Senator Ludlam has made an incredible contribution to the planning profession in Western Australia, and to increasing the profile of conversations about the future development of Australian cities more broadly.

“I commend Senator for his visions and contribution to the #designperth report, propelling this important topic into both the public sphere and parliamentary debate.”

Also receiving an Honorary Fellowship was our local mayor, Dr Brad Pettitt, making the awards ceremony a thoroughly Freo affair!

Infill development three times cheaper than greenfield, report finds

Architecture AU

Written by Louisa Wright

17th August, 2016


A report has found that developing Perth’s greyfield sites alongside rapid transit networks could save the government up to $94.5 million for every 1000 lots developed, compared to developing greenfield sites.

The report, Design Perth, is a joint study between the Property Council of Australia, the Office of Senator Scott Ludlam, CODA Architecture and Urban Design, and Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP).

The large savings come from the difference in cost to government in providing infrastructure such as roads, water, communications, power, emergency services, health and education. The report found that for greenfield sites the cost is $150,389 per lot while greyfield sites cost $55,828 (almost three times less) due to much of the infrastructure already being in place.

Increasing Perth’s infill target from 47 percent to 60 percent (the original target under the WA government’s 2014 Network City plan) will save $23 billion before 2050.

The Design Perth report compared current development to transit-oriented development with a proposed Light Rail node. In comparing these, the study found that the latter delivered a:

260 percent increase in the number of dwellings and residential population
352 percent increase in commercial space and employment
187 percent increase in public open space and 27 percent more homes within 200 metres of green space
335 percent increase in active frontage
Significant increase in dwelling diversity with 52 percent more low- and medium-rise apartments
CODA worked with students from the University of Western Australia to research the areas identified as future transport corridors in the draft State Transport Strategy. All sites selected were greyfield sites that, with the addition of public transport, had the potential for high-quality amenity.

A one-day intensive design charrette was held and eight design teams, including engineers and planners, were each assigned a site and given the task of preparing initial design responses to present to an expert panel. The designs included design options for different housing and commercial spaces, and identified limitations by current policy that might prevent the design from coming to fruition.


Co-founder of CODA, Kieran Wong, said out-of-date urban policy designed for low-density suburbs was not allowing for innovative design-led solutions. The average age of local planning policies in Perth is 14 years.

“I think the major challenge for the state is to try and upgrade planning policies at a local level or provide some kind of overriding state policy around best design and better medium-density outcomes that applicants and developers can use. At the moment we’re in a bit of limbo because the local policies are really inefficient and too old,” Wong said.

In June 2016 the West Australian government released its public transport plan, Transport @ 3.5 Million, but Wong said the plan does not address significant challenges in relation to the provision of light rail and rapid bus transit. He said a targeted approach towards public transport should be taken to accommodate for the development of greyfield sites.

“You can see the numbers in a sense, where growth occurs in other cities around Australia and around the world, it’s all linked to an underpinning of solid public transport networks and that’s something that the state needs to commit to,” said Wong.

Community consultation was also key to the design process. Wong said typically in Western Australia, the community was either consulted at the very beginning of the development process and then ignored, or consulted at the end and told what was going to happen.

“That in a sense is something we consider to be part of the issue in relation to community protest around infill, that [the community is] not part of the conversation all the way through. In a sense they’re almost viewed as a kind of impediment to development and we’re trying to turn that model on its head a little bit in this report,” he said.

WA ‘falling behind’ on infill targets

The West Australian

Helen Shield

13 July 2016


The State Government is failing to create an environment in which its 47 per cent housing infill aspirations can be met, industry experts say.

Despite debate about assumptions underpinning #designperth, a report by the Property Council of Australia, the Australian Greens, Curtin University and architects CODA, one of the authors, CODA director Kieran Wong says the Government has fallen behind its 47 per cent infill goal.

The target, set to cater for an anticipated 3.5 million Perth residents by 2031, is lower than infill targets set by other State governments and the actual rate of infill was closer to 30 per cent, he said.

For the Government to achieve its goal, which was never going to threaten greenfield housing development, the rate of infill needed to rise to 60 per cent, Mr Wong said.

“It’s not an either or argument,” Mr Wong said, referring to an Urban Development Institute of Australia attack on #designperth. “I’m not advocating that we don’t need to do greenfield development. There needs to be a balance but the balance (right now) needs to be more heavily weighted to infill.”

Think tanks, interest groups and ministerial reviews have identified a need for a whole of government approach to curbing Perth’s sprawl and providing affordable housing, citing the need for a co-ordinated approach to transport, local government planning schemes and identifying suitable infill housing sites.

Mr Wong said the Urbis figures relied on by UDIA to argue that taxpayers do not pay for infrastructure costs associated with greenfield developments demonstrated that Perth developers paid the least for greenfield infrastructure compared with those in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

“The Urbis report states clearly that State Government infrastructure costs are excluded from its assessment,” Mr Wong said. The Urbis report found greenfield developer returns were highest in Perth and the National Housing Supply Council of 2011 queried the sample sizes, which led to Urbis concluding infill was more expensive that greenfield development.

“To be clear — the Government is footing the bill for infrastructure provision,” Mr Wong said.

However, he said, the backlash experienced by some local government areas attempting to embrace infill and increase density, demonstrated the need for the Government to better communicate its vision and show stronger leadership.

“There’s too much focus on height and setback,” he said. “The focus should be on design and amenity.

“People get freaked out about height at the expense of quality.

“There are plenty of places with crappy five-storey developments compared with (potentially brilliantly designed) 20-storey developments.”

In recent weeks:

The Property Council and Master Builders WA have, separately, called out “inconsistent local councils” for planning failures and costly delays.

The Property Council has started talking to local business networks to point out higher trade and revenue spin-offs from infill.

The Greens, Property Council, Curtin University and CODA have released #designperth, a strategic blueprint to address urban sprawl and save on infrastructure spending.

A ministerial review of LandCorp urged it to redouble its efforts to assemble appropriate sites for residential infill.

The Committee for Perth, with motoring lobby group RAC, has been fine-tuning a comprehensive road, public transport and active transport plan for Perth to reduce congestion. Chief executive Marion Fulker is also working on a pitch to Perth residents to reconsider hysteria around high-rise developments, Densifying the Suburbs: High Rise and High Emotions. “I don’t think we should compromise quality of life just because we are living vertically,” Ms Fulker said.

Strata Community Australia WA, UDIA and the Property Council stepped up pressure on Lands Minister Terry Redman for fast tracked strata title reform.

#DesignPerth launches at the Hyatt

It was a full house at the Hyatt this morning for the launch of #designperth, a follow-up to 2013’s ground-breaking study, Transforming Perth.

Devised as a collaboration between CODA, the Australian Greens, the Property Council of Australia (WA) and the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP), the report delivers a comprehensive analysis of the cost of residential development in infill areas compared with greenfield sites.


CODA Director, Kieran Wong, joined Greens Leader Richard di Natale, the Property Council’s Lino Iacomella and CUSP’s Peter Newman and Jemma Green in championing the report to a diverse audience of politicians, developers, planners and designers.

As well as demonstrating an obvious economic benefit, the report outlines the positive social impact of creating denser, more active communities in which people can live, work and connect within close proximity to home. Professor Newman described the approach as ‘coordinated precinct scale urban regeneration’. Di Natale likened it to the communities of old, which we remember growing up in.


CODA is thrilled to be involved in a visioning for urban planning that has community at its core. Kieran Wong said, ‘this report outlines a vision for Perth that utilises design thinking and expertise to leverage greater outcomes for communities on key infill sites across the metropolitan region. #designperth imagines a more vibrant people orientated delivery of density, not simply measured in the number of people per hectare but in quality and access to social and public amenity and infrastructure.’

It was fantastic to see so many of Perth’s property industry in the audience this morning, actively engaging in conversation about the formative planning of our city and communities, and proving once again that #designmatters. It was great also to see so much coverage of the launch in our local media. Here’s a link to an overview of the morning and the report, which aired on the ABC news.

A copy of the report is available for download here.

Conversations at Stackwood: Peter Drew


Our first Conversation at #stackwood was almost too special to write about succinctly.

We had been planning to kick off the series in June, but serendipitously (and with a bit of help from Instagram) we were able to connect with Australian street artist Peter Drew and convince him to share a bit of his story with us.

Peter’s the artist behind the ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ project and someone we’ve admired for a long time. He was in Perth as part of his latest work, adhering 1000 posters of Monga Khan, a new Aussie folk hero, to buildings around our capital cities.

The beauty of the Aussie posters is the gentle way in which they invite us to consider nationalism and identity. Without being overtly political, they capture your attention and cause you to think a bit deeper, even if just for a moment.  They are also seriously beautiful works of art. We’re so glad to have one on the side of our building, and two more just down the road!

With his gentle and generous storytelling, it felt a privilege to be in Peter’s company and to delve into his other projects, including some exceptional film-making. We dare you not to be moved by this one!

We are busy planning our next Conversation.  With limited numbers it offers a rare opportunity to really explore and discuss issues and to ask questions broadly without necessarily needing to get down to a finite answer.

Kate Woodman on Geelong, CODA and the trial of Registration

Kate Woodman

You studied at Deakin’s architectural school in Geelong, a town that in some way seems similar to Fremantle; tell us about your experience living there and the impressions of the town that have stayed with you.

I think you’re right, there are many similarities between the cities. Like Fremantle is now, Geelong was an industrial port city full of old warehouse buildings and is also in close proximity to a much larger neighbouring city. The identity of Fremantle has evolved significantly over the last 30 years. With industries closing and Melbourne’s sprawl moving closer, Geelong is currently looking at ways to redefine its economy and its identity.

Living in Geelong while studying Architecture was a great experience because the city was a fantastic case study for both good and bad examples of urbanism. The Geelong waterfront redevelopment has successfully reoriented the city towards the bay and has been the catalyst for the redevelopment of a number of the old woolstores. Deakin was actually housed in the old Dalgetys woolstore and was a great building to study Architecture in. There are equally plenty of examples of ill-considered design along with urban sprawl and high car dependence.

Having lived in Geelong for the duration of my study, 5 years in total, I became passionate about the city and could see a lot of potential in its underutilised pockets. While I was living there, a series of warehouses that overlook the Barwon River were occupied by creatives at one end and the new Little Creatures brewery at the other. In my final year of my masters, some friends and I rented a studio space in one of these old warehouses which, I am told, has been occupied by Masters of Architecture students ever since. It is exciting to have contributed in this very small way to the momentum in this part of the city.


Geelong Brewery

Prior to heading west, you worked for some time in Melbourne. How does the experience of practicing there differ to working in WA?

One thing that struck me moving here is how different the Western Australian landscapes are from Victoria. I think the wacky flowers, sharp shadows, big bright skies and the drama and ruggedness of nature contribute to some of the Architectural responses here.

Melbourne has a very vibrant design and art scene that is very inclusive to the general public and as a result I think Melbournians are frequently exposed to the value of design. I think the National Gallery of Victoria is a great champion of this in Melbourne as they create fun and engaging exhibitions many of which include commissioned Architectural work.

Here in Perth there is perhaps less exposure to design and the value it can bring to projects and communities beyond luxury projects. I think CODA have shown many ways that design can add value and create highly beneficial results. There are also a number of other local Architects that are very passionate and advocate for design through hosting and participating in talks and in the general media which I think is really great.


What drew you to CODA?

The variety of the projects was really attractive. Since working here I have worked on educational, landscape, commercial and residential projects across all stages of design and I enjoy the challenges and opportunities to learn that come with the variety of work.

Coda has a really strong office culture fostered by social events, talks by other architects and designers and a lovely office and courtyard. I really enjoy getting to know  the people I work with and I think the scale of the office is great because you are able to do this while still having a big enough team to do interesting and impactful work. Lastly, I think in a male dominated field it is great to be in an office that has so many strong female role models. I think this influence has been really important at this early stage in my career.


Having just sat the Architecture Board’s Registration Exam, what’s the standout thing that you’ve learnt during that process, and what influence is it having on the way you work?

More than just being a professional hurdle, I have found registration to be an important learning process as it puts all the bit and pieces you learn from experience into context. From my study I have a clearer understanding of the framework and the impact of our interaction with authorities, consultants and legal requirements. Above all else, I think the process has reinforced how important it is to clearly articulate scope and expectations to everyone involved in a project in order to avoid disputes and ensure a good outcome.


 What’s the best thing about what you do?

It is such a great feeling when you have a number of concurrent problems that need resolution and they all come together with one really simple solution. It doesn’t happen all that often but when it does it feels pretty good! Also seeing projects that you have laboured over getting constructed and then being occupied by the end user also feels very rewarding.