The first project that Michelle Orszaczky and Rebekah Clayton worked on and completed as Clayton Orszaczky – Barn House – won the Contemporary Design Award at the 2016 Waverley Design and Heritage Awards. And since founding the studio in 2015, the pair has worked from their respective homes.
Not only has it clearly been anything but a challenge to overcome, but it’s allowed them to offer their clients a level of flexibility that according to Rebekah is plays a major part in their unique point of difference.
So while the way they work hasn’t changed in the tumultuous past few weeks, the environment in which they do so has. Habitus spoke to Rebekah and Michelle about what it’s like working in amongst kids and partners, and navigating sensitive topics with clients over the web.
Habitus: You both already work from home, and it’s just the two of you at Clayton Orszaczy, is that correct?
Rebekah: Yes, separately though, we each work from our own homes.
What does that pre-existing set up look like and how does it work?
Michelle: At times we work individually on projects and at times we consult each other for projects. We have an electronic server we upload to and are able to see each other’s files almost immediately. That’s how we have always worked and it works pretty well.
R: All of our office filing systems and admin are on dropbox, we’re constantly uploading all the time, so at any moment Michelle could call me and say could you open that file on one of my jobs and I can open it and see what she is seeing on my screen. I guess the good part about what’s happened recently is that is hasn’t adjusted technically the way we work or how our business runs. The big changes really are to our family life.
That’s a really interesting point, I imagine now you would have more people at home during the day. What has that transition been like?
M: That’s been different for both of us because we’re at different stages of our lives. My husband works in airlines so you can imagine our life over the last few weeks has been fairly stressful. There has been a lot of conference calls and decision making around the impact of covid 19 on an airline. I’ve never been a music listener while I’ve worked but I’ve become one. I went out and got myself headphones and have tried to create a bubble to focus.
I have teenage children who are trying to home school, including one who is doing the HSC. Yesterday I interrupted my work to help my daughter, who is doing art, and needed some guidance on a painting. I spent a portion of my day out on the porch with her, when I had my own deadline. The number of interruptions during the day for me has been the biggest impact.
R: As Michelle said we’re at different stages, I have a one year old and a three year old so when they’re home I basically can’t work unless my partner isn’t working. His job is a bit more team focused with shorter, sharper deadlines, in some ways he gets priority over being at his desk.
We work with longer deadlines – some of our packages of work take three or four months to complete – so if I’m not at my desk for a couple of hours no one is really impacted. Usually we have two days a week where the kids are with grandparents and two days a week where the kids are at day care, so I can almost have a full work week. It’s drastically reduced the amount of time I can work.
Those four hours that you’re away from your desk that no one notices, does that then mean that you make that up later into the night or early morning when kids are sleeping? Are those hours compounding?
R: Not yet, but I’ve got rid of my weekends. We’re not socialising, going to parks, doing all the things that we normally do, so I’m starting to work more on the weekends while my husband is around to look after the kids. I’ve dropped to three days a week; we’re going to still send the kids to day care so I’ll work those two days plus a weekend day.
The other thing is that when you’re at all home all day every day there’s just mess everywhere. For me I need that zen, muddy desk muddy mind, if my house isn’t tidy I really struggle to focus. Having a serene work environment, I’ve realised, is so critical to my ability to concentrate. Once the kids are in bed we clean, we get ready for the next day of chaos!
And we live in a terrace house in Erskinville in the city. We do so much with our kids outside of the house so at the moment being confined to a terrace house with a small backyard is really tricky.
M: whereas we’re the opposite, we’re in 1000 square-metres with access to the bush and water. I spent three hours Sunday afternoon just working in the garden and it was quite a relief to get out of the house.
It’s interesting; a recent article on IndesignLive is about how a lot of modern residences aren’t really designed for occupants to spend a lot of time at home. So much of our lifestyle is spent at work, socialising, eating out, in nature that prior to now that would have really easily gone unnoticed.
M: That’s very true, when you consider the rise in the number of apartments within closer proximity to things a city can offer. Also though, in the past there has been poor attention to environment in a lot of housing: houses were built with little consideration to natural light and connection to the outside.
In contrast, well designed houses allow you to have that connection, space, light, and freedom of mind that Rebekah was talking about.
It’s been a week or so of having people around at home with you, Rebekah you mentioned you’re veering more towards working on the weekends, Michelle is there anything you’ve considering changing in your routine?
M: I’ve got my headphones, I’m not really changing my routine because my family are older. We just need to carve out our own space a little better within the house.
The biggest impact for me is the fact that some councils have cancelled planning meetings, until they work out how to proceed safely. We had a project to be considered at council on Wednesday, with a recommendation for approval. The council meeting was postponed so we haven’t received that milestone allowing us to progress with the project, so it leaves us a bit in limbo.
Normally we wouldn’t progress a project onto the next stage until we had the certainty of approval. But this client has decided (because we had recommendation for approval) to proceed in any case.
There are certain flexibilities that we have to take and build into our process in order to keep work flowing smoothly when normal processes are not taking place.
R: We’ve got another project that’s about to move into construction and I’ve actually built a mechanism into that contract which is that we will grant an extension of time without cost for any situation that stalls the project related to Covid 19 : if they can’t get the materials or the labour they need, for example. The client doesn’t need to pay for the builder’s time per day but also the builder gets an extension of time so it’s win-win.
M: The biggest worry for us is if the government moves to shut down non-essential businesses, for example, the construction industry. It’s a moving beast and seems to be changing every day.
How are you keeping in touch with clients and suppliers, and contractors like builders and carpenters? Has that changed yet?
R: Michelle and I are very mobile. Because we don’t have an office people don’t come to us we always go to them. We can offer that level of flexibility, which I think people really appreciate, especially if they’re trying to fit in a meeting around their own workday. Until about a week and a half ago I was still meeting builders and on site and at a safe distance.
We had a cost report come back the other day and it was quite high, so we needed to have a critical meeting with the client to sit down and nut through the design and work out where we could pull back. We used Google Meet to do that meeting with the builder, Michelle and I and the client. And look it worked well. Admittedly, face-to-face I could have got a better gauge on their feelings, but you know we had the meeting and the decisions were made.
M: You do realise in that scenario how often you rely on your butter paper and pencil in a meeting, because quite often you’d spread out your paper and start sketching over the top of a drawing to take things in a new direction to solve an issue. That’s just not possible when you’re on a screen.
What about things like products, materials and finishes? It might be early days yet but how do you think you’ll specify things like that?
R: A lot of companies are really good at sending samples. I’ve got six or seven boxes of hardware, timber, and tiles that are my go-to materials in some ways. And I’ll order samples if I’m picking something new for a project. Our suppliers are really good about sending out product, and the online resources are so good. If you were talking 10 or 15 years ago it would have been a disaster, we had a whole product library at PopovBass it had an index system, almost the Dewey Decimal System!
I don’t feel like we’re majorly impacted because the suppliers are fantastic at sending out samples when you need them.
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Portrait by Leila Jeffries