#52 | Residential Architecture with Rebecca Caldwell of Maytree Studios

With a non-traditional business model, well-articulated service offerings and beautiful designs; Bec Caldwell’s Maytree Studios is a Brisbane favourite for architectural design. 

In this episode Jessica Reynolds and Rebecca Caldwell discuss what starting a small business is really like and the different approaches Bec has taken with Maytree Studios to make architecture more accessible without ‘cheapening’ the product.

Speakers: Jessica Reynolds, Rebecca Caldwell

 

Jessica Reynolds:

Hi there. Welcome to the Creating Australia podcast. My name is Jessica Reynolds and I’m a private town planner and business owner based in Brisbane, Queensland. I’m passionate about engaging with the amazing people that make the property and development industry what it is today. In creating Australia, I want to learn from experts in the industry and share their knowledge and wisdom with you.

 

In each episode, we’ll talk with different people and unpack their past experiences and innovative ideas for the future. Join me now for an episode of Creating Australia, where we dive into the industry exploring local stories, projects, businesses, people, ideas, and more.

 

Hi Bec. Thank you for joining us today. Your full name is Rebecca Caldwell. I was like, I’m going to butcher this name, and I did again, even though you’ve told me a million times now. You’re the director of Maytree Studios, which is an architecture firm based in Albion, Brisbane. I do know that you do work over Southeast Queensland, a bit of Sunshine Coast as well. Can you tell us a little bit about what your focus is on, what do you design for?

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yeah, so we work across two spaces. We work in housing, so a lot of residential renovations and new builds. And we work with families who are planning to be in their home for 10 plus years. And then we do one off commercial interior fit outs. So if you’ve been to the lovely garden room down at Rome Street, Parklands, that kind of space is something that’s unique and injected with a lot of personality.

Jessica Reynolds:

That sounds so fun. How did you fall into that? Cause that’s fairly niche.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yeah. I have a really, I was really lucky as a architecture student to get into practice really early, a little bit like yourself, I think. And worked with some great people across both residential and the commercial space. And so, yeah, so really when I started Maytree Studios, I mean, I think maybe lots of people sort of started business out of, I mean, for me, the story’s pretty similar for a lot of architects.

 

It was one key project, and I was working on my brother’s house, which is called the Glass House Residence, which is a big recycled brick barn that’s had a lot of attention. So I started with that project and you don’t really know what you’re going to do. Do you just kind of take the leap?

 

I say to people when they’re like, oh, how did you start your business? I say, eventually the itch, the discomfort not doing something is greater than the discomfort or the risk of taking that leap. And so we, when I started, I was open to looking at anything because I had few years working with a large commercial practice.

 

I was really interested in keeping that as in our portfolio. Over time, we have niched that more and more. So, we’re quite specific about the types of commercial interior fit outs we do. And then the residential, which would be 85, 90% of our work.

Jessica Reynolds:

Has that been a business decision or been more of a passion decision?

Rebecca Caldwell:

It’s been a, I think commercial interiors is quite a different process, and it uses a different pallet of materials. So I think if you’re not geared up to do it a lot financially, it probably doesn’t stack up. So I guess it’s finding those complimentary spaces and types of projects.

 

So something like, say the garden room restaurant in Roma Street, Parklands, you know, you are working specifically for the owner who’s also going to be the operator. So there’s a very similar relationship there to how we are with a homeowner and really getting to know them.

Jessica Reynolds:

Very, very emotional attachment.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yep. Really invested in them, who they are, what they’re trying to create. So there’s kind of their friends in that sense. In terms of the type of work.

Jessica Reynolds:

Does that play better in your day-to-day working with those types of people in those projects? Do you find that more fulfilling than say maybe working in the large practice? I know it’s probably been a little while now.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yeah, no, I think creating Maytree Studios was largely about carving out a space for myself to be happy in my work. Architecture can be really demanding and there’s a poor history in architecture of working long hours over time unpaid. And there’s kind of an expectation that people do that. And I think that that’s changing.

 

But I was 30 and already fairly burnt out from the industry. So, I think starting Maytree was a bit of a last-ditch effort to see if I could create a space that I felt comfortable and happy and safe. And could kind of pursue my own design thinking and my own line of inquiry without answering to a time sheet, which is a pretty spoiled way to start a business. It was a hobby for a few, I’d say it’s a hobby for a couple of years more than it was a business.

Jessica Reynolds:

Oh, definitely. I think that’s most businesses. That was definitely Urban Planners, Queensland. I almost say the first two years was a gap year. I worked part-time, I loved it. I got to do a lot of cool things like scuba diving and sailing. But yeah. Was it a business? Looking back on it now, probably not.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yeah, that’s right. I think I lived on $500 a week fora while.

Jessica Reynolds:

Same, but we can do it and it worked. And obviously as a last ditch attempt, it has paid off. And now you’ve got this great team at Maytree. Can you tell me a little bit about building that team and your experience in having people work for you? And then where you’re at now? Because you run a bit of a different business model where you have pro ownership with your employees?

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yeah, we do. And that’s something I’ve always been really passionate about. So Maytree is specifically not called Rebecca Caldwell, it’s called Caldwell. If you want to call me that. If your Jessica Reynolds. And it’s really specifically about creating a, I guess an embracing overarching space wherein other creatives can be fulfilled and find their own space in their own voice as well.

 

So I have really always loved having a team of people and I’ve always felt my team will tell you very uncomfortable with the term boss. So they like to use that a lot just to make me feel uncomfortable. I enjoy collaborating and I am more of a team person. So yeah, I’ve loved that. I found the first few years working by myself really isolating, you know, it’s great.

 

And one of my team, so Andy is another architect, and him and I went to uni together. Kate has just registered as an architect. Yeah, congrats. Kate. And Alicia is an interior designer, so they have been with me, Kate and Alicia have had a little hiatus away when I downsized while I was having little kids for a little bit.

Jessica Reynolds:

Having little kids. Were they specifically little or they’re still little? You had babies.

Rebecca Caldwell:

They’re still little, but I did slow things down for a couple of years there and then they’ve come back. So I think they’ve been with me for sort of over five years, and I just don’t think retaining staff, really great staff is that difficult if you just, you know, if you look at what people want to get out of their work.

 

You know, money certainly being rewarded financially is really important, but all the research shows that it gets to a point and that’s no longer going to reward people. Autonomy, a sense of ownership and the ability to kind of in inform how they work and that is really important to people’s health, wellbeing, and engagement. And so that’s what I’ve always tried to create.

Jessica Reynolds:

That must be such a compliment when people do come back though. Yeah. You should definitely have a big head about that. I think that’s very impressive. Because whilst I think the basics are there, you know, you are just taking what, and I like to think about this too, is what do I appreciate in the jobs I’ve had or why did I start my own business? And how can we give that to future employees and give them more of that, you know, sense of loving what they do and not just having to be chained to a desk.

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Rebecca Caldwell:

Well, you talk to people who start their own business and that’s why, right? They’ve started a business to have autonomy and to have freedom and that kind of thing. So why would you then create a business that removes other people from having those same opportunities?

 

I mean, eventually your staff, if you work an architect, eventually your staff will move on to another architect or they’ll go, if they’re talented, they’ll go and start their own thing. So why?

Jessica Reynolds:

For about $500 a week. Yeah. Suckers.

Rebecca Caldwell:

So why not find a way to create, like why can they not find their future within your business, I guess is the goal that I’ve been trying to, or the question I’ve been trying to answer.

Jessica Reynolds:

And so that’s how you’ve come across with this ownership Model?

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yes. So it’s a shareholder arrangement. Okay. So I gifted each of the staff their first buy-in percentage. And so now they can continue to buy in to the extent that they want to, but that also means that, you know, we already were working in a pretty non-hierarchical way.

 

You know, very engaged and making decisions as a group. But I have seen even since that, you know, and they each have two and a half percent at the moment, so it’s just the foot in the door. But I’ve even seen from all of them an increase in their engagement and interest in how things are running.

 

And it’s, I’ve enjoyed the accountability that it’s put back to me. So we’ve put in a whole bunch of reporting KPIs that we have across, you know, marketing, sales, financial KPIs and things like that that are reported back to everybody.

 

So everyone’s really on board with this thing that we’re trying to create because the more sustainable and profitable the business is, then the more we have the opportunity to do some of the other side projects And things that we would really love to do as a team.

Jessica Reynolds:

Definitely I think it’s also a great opportunity to learn something other than architecture.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. Like no, you don’t graduate from architecture learning how to run a business.

Jessica Reynolds:

Shocking though, considering it seems to be what a lot of people do. So Tia has given me a few questions here, so I’m going to read some of them to you because I know that you are a note taker and you definitely would’ve prepared. So you’ve got your company holds the fact that you are humans first and architects second. What does that mean?

Rebecca Caldwell:

So, and given my note taking, I was all prepared for your first question, which was gonna be about where I came from. So I might even just quickly reference that it is New Zealand. So if we talk about big dicks, I apologize, for any offense.

Jessica Reynolds:

I am extremely offended right now and I think I’m gonna end this interview.

Rebecca Caldwell:

But I think in New Zealand and my particular upbringing, I was raised with a strong sense of social justice. And I think some aspects of Australia that’s getting there. But I think New Zealand kind of is a bit ahead of Australia in, in the sense of people having a strong sense of their obligations to community.

 

And so I think that, and probably from my family as well, that was a big part of my upbringing. So architecture and social justice can kind of be a bit disconnected from one another. And it’s something I’ve always felt uncomfortable about.

 

You know, if architecture is just the domain of the 2% of Australians that are in the wealth bracket that can afford to engage with an architect, and build a beautiful custom home. That’s uncomfortable for me. So right from the very start, I had this notion that I wanted to create a business in architecture that made architecture accessible and approachable and more transparent.

 

I failed miserably at that for a few years just by trying to make architecture cheaper. So I think I always joke that I built people’s dream homes at my own cost for a while. So that model is not something we do anymore. But coming back to your question, what’s humans’ first, and architect second?

 

That’s probably the first thing is finding a way to make the people at the center of our business the most. That’s our bottom line, is people. So whether that’s our clients and that means kind of holding their budget really carefully and respectfully, and take their outcomes and their aspirations on as our own rather than coming to a project with our own preconceived notion of how it should go.

 

So there’s that component. The second is that our team, so again coming back to that, creating a nurturing work environment and a great work culture. And I think from that, creating that positive work culture, you know, if my people are first above profit and everything else.

 

Then that creates a space that our clients feel really comfortable. You know, they’re then part of that really happy environment, the clients feel comfortable. And the next ring outside of that is our builders, our collaborators, our photographers, our videographers, our furniture makers, any of those people that are also interacting with the business.

 

There’s this kind of positive flow and effect that is about keeping people first. And I think that comes down to lots of things. Like there are times where our clients want something really specific. And we put all the pros and cons in front of them as their expert, as their architect about what we think should happen.

 

And they decide to know they want go down this other avenue. That’s a moment where we have to say, well you know what we say that they matter more than our own ego as architects. So we’re gonna make what they want happen, and we’ll find a way to make that as beautiful and integrated into the project as possible. But it does really come up right through our design process. It comes up through our culture and, yeah.

Jessica Reynolds:

But do you still have those feelings when you do projects and they’re not exactly what you want? Where you think, oh my goodness, are people gonna think that I designed this?

Rebecca Caldwell:

No we don’t. No.

Jessica Reynolds:

Sounds like you choose your clients pretty carefully these days.

Rebecca Caldwell:

We do choose our clients really carefully. I think we attract a particular type of client. I like to drop a F bomb in our first meeting and if they, that’s like the litmus test. If they can’t take that then they’re not for us. But I mean, and our clients range from, we are doing this really lovely little extension for some retirees that are moving to the beach. And you know, that would be 400,000.

 

We’ve got a little $200,000 extension for a single woman in her thirties and this is her home forever. She never plans to move. And yeah, it’s brave and some, you know, and a $2 million massive renovation for people that think, well, we’ll be here for 10 years, but we’re not sure after that. So our clients really do range, the project types do range. And they range in considerably in value. But I think that is the challenge of design.

 

Like for me, it’s not about coming to every, and maybe in 10 years we’ll look back and we’ll see that there was this kind of thread of aesthetic or something. But right now we sort of say, say we respond to every project uniquely. And so, if someone’s gonna throw a curve ball at us, like they want a bright yellow kitchen splash back or something, we will find a way to make that beautiful.

 

You know, that’s the challenge of design. So that’s the fun stuff, and I think we always say there’s that great push and pull between the architect and the client. It’s such an intimate relationship. I think that’s the reason why we are so cautious about the clients we do take on.

 

Because we want to work with people that we are really excited to have a design meeting with that morning. Because that creates a really great energy. They are with us for six months, nine months, 12.

Jessica Reynolds:

It’s a pretty long-term relationship.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Yep. And I know where they fold their washing, you know, by the end of it. That it’s a really close relationship. So enjoying that is really important.

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Jessica Reynolds:

Do you get many couple arguments in front of you?

Rebecca Caldwell:

Ah, so many.

Jessica Reynolds:

I’ve heard so many horror stories.

Rebecca Caldwell:

We don’t get too many. I always like to joke that, you know, if you’re not sure about your marriage, do a renovation that’ll clarify things pretty quickly. We joke that we are also marriage counselors as well. We do this thing right at the start of our project that we call our workshop. And it’s about, it’s kind of a getting to know you. It’s actually wine and design. So all of our clients kick off with an evening session with us.

Jessica Reynolds:

Is the wine enforced?

Rebecca Caldwell:

It’s not enforced. But it’s encouraged, you know, again, another way to kind of vet the kind of people we suit, but we get all of the clients’ imagery. They’re aspirational imagery of everything they love up on a board. We uncover and unpick the words of what they love and we create a framework for the project.

 

And that’s a sort of, there’s a sort of 12 key things that we think are in every project and we work with that client to rank that because clients come to you and they say, oh my budget’s half a million and that’s fine. And then there’s all these other things they also want.

 

So finding out that where that budget sits in relation to those other things that have to go into a project. You know, how high quality other finishes, how sustainable do you want this project to be? How adaptable do you want to be for the future? Those things, our intention with clients’ budgets straight away.

 

So finding where that budget sits, is it the most important thing to you or is it the third thing down the ladder? And that’s with couples is a really great opportunity for clients to hash things out between them a little bit as well. And everyone then gets on board.

Jessica Reynolds:

Oh it’s so exciting. Like, I love processes and planning and organization and before you even start and also getting to know each other. I think it’s such a great idea. And your workshops have been quite popular, haven’t they?

Rebecca Caldwell:

They are. And it’s probably a good time to talk about the way that we offer a tiered service arrangement. So again, the thing I was touching on before humans first architect second. And the fact that that high-end architecture is intention with, I think I heard you talk with a great interview with Karen Gate about this. About whether architecture should stay aspirational or if it should aspirational or if it should be for everybody. I don’t know if it can be for everybody, but I do.

Jessica Reynolds:

Probably shouldn’t be for everybody.

Rebecca Caldwell:

I do want to broaden the amount of people that I think access it, right? So rather than cut, like we try to do cheap services now what we do is we have a range from the first workshop. Which is what we just talked about there. And at the end of that, clients get back diagrams and our return brief that puts their project and who they are into words.

 

And that’s the first lead into the other services. Or they can walk away with that with a great brief for a building designer or a drafts person or a builder, you know, at least it gets them started. The next level in is called the Explorer and that is the workshop plus one round of concept design.

 

And again, some people, we have three types of people that use that. One type of people are young and can’t afford really an architectural service. They’ve got no equity in their house, they’ve just bought it. But they do want to know whether they should demolish that crap carport and plant a garden here and what they could do in five or 10 years.

 

So the explorer sets them up with a master plan, a bigger a big picture thinking that lets them kind of do some mini projects over the next five, 10 years while they build up some equity in their home. And so that’s one type of people. The other people use it as a lead in to working with us.

 

Some people come to us with no clear, they know they want to spend again some magic number four, 500,000 on their renovation, but they don’t exactly know what. So because we can’t scope it, we can’t really quote it. So we do the explorer as the lead in to going, okay, that’s kind of your project.

 

Or there’s $800,000 worth of stuff here, but here’s your $400,000 project that you can do. And then lastly is people using that service. But then we take, they take those plans and they develop them further with a building designer.

 

So it’s a little bit of letting go, which is not natural to architects, you know? And it wouldn’t suit every architectural business model at all. So architects typically want to be involved from the minute you start sketching to, I mean God, we’d love to be involved from before you buy the block of land or the house to be honest.

 

And to handing over the key and designing everything in between. So it’s a little bit counter to that culture and it’s about letting go to find ways, avenues for people to use an architect who would’ve been priced out of that before. And for that workshop explorer, you know, if they go on to work with somebody else to develop that they might not get everything perfect.

 

But the things that they will get much better than they would have is natural light and ventilation, aspect, views, privacy, connection, something quirky or interesting that’s about them that’s embedded in the project. And that’s what we are kind of hoping to achieve.

Jessica Reynolds:

No, it’s great. I think it’s also good for the architecture community because you’re leaving people who maybe couldn’t normally afford it with a good experience about architects, because that’s one thing I have found is because architects do love to take those projects and take control. Not everybody wants to be controlled. And then, you know, lots of the architects I work with are lovely, but you always hear those stories from builders or owners who go, ah, I would never use an architect again.

Rebecca Caldwell:

I know. And I hate that because I think it’s a very small group that have that experience. I think most people, but they’re pretty noisy. I reckon architects add significant value to every project because of just the unique thinking and the improved outcomes that just last, that aren’t trends. You know, they’re classic and you still love them. You love those spaces in 20 years still, so it’s totally worth it. But not everyone can afford that.

Jessica Reynolds:

Ah, definitely. And I think you’re doing an amazing job. You’ve obviously, as we all do, have some wins and fails in business, but you have really created a company now, which I think idealizes a different way of a business model involving your employees. In the ownership of the company you’ve obviously been able to articulate clearly who your clients are, being able to open up architecture to so many more people than normally would have no access or be too scared to even approach an architect. But I’ve got one last question for you. If you could design and construct one building in your lifetime, no budget or constraints, what would that building be?

Rebecca Caldwell:

It would be a renovation. It would be a, I would really love to do a mixed use commercial and residential building that is about creating space for artisans, craftspeople, creative business in the shops and creating a bit of an incubator there. And then, you know, smart, intelligent, great residential living above. I think that would just be so fun.

Jessica Reynolds:

So little community hub.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Create a little community hub. I think that would be just, that would be my dream. Yeah.

Jessica Reynolds:

Alright. I think that’s lovely. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Beck. It’s been such a pleasure.

Rebecca Caldwell:

Thanks.

Jessica Reynolds:

Thanks for joining me on today’s episode of Creating Australia. Don’t forget to subscribe and join us on our socials to keep updated on our latest content. On Creating Australia, I love talking about everything to do with people, property, and development. So if you have something you’d like me to explore, let me know by searching Creating Australia on Instagram, or searching Jessica Reynolds on LinkedIn.