An Interview with Architect Aaron Neighbour & Ton Vu, Founders of Atlas Architects
Photography by Tess Kelly and Peter Bennetts
Atlas Architects is a design studio founded by Aaron Neighbour and Ton Vu with the desire to bridge the gap between high-quality design, sustainability, and affordability. Their mission is to deliver well-designed spaces that have a positive influence on the environment and to provide uncompromised architectural support and guidance to the community.
The studio comprises a small, close-knit team with diverse backgrounds in architecture and design who work closely with each other throughout the design and construction process to develop the best solutions for their clients. Based in Footscray, Melbourne, Aaron and Ton set up shop in the inner west as they see this as Melbourne’s future growth zone that gives them the best opportunity to provide well designed affordable housing. They have been operating for over 5 years and specialise in low rise residential design.
What sparked your interest in architecture and interior design?
Aaron: I spent a large majority of my childhood surfing, fishing and camping around coastal Victoria. I’m particularly passionate about environmentally sustainable design and the sympathetic integration of built form within natural landscapes. Undertaking several home-based construction projects has given me a strong insight into modern Australian living, functional planning, and construction typologies. I love the Australian landscape and will continue to advocate for its conservation through our work.
Ton: I’m passionate about architecture spatial sensitivity, strategic planning and uncompromised aesthetics. I grew up in Saigon, Vietnam. Exploring the urban laneways has had a strong influence on my perception of community and the use of open public space. I’m particularly interested in the essential qualities of space and its effect on the human senses.
How did you begin your career as an architect/designer?
Aaron: I wanted to be an architect for as long as I can remember. I think it stems from having a father that was a carpenter and involving me in construction projects from a young age. I also loved art, model making and woodwork so I felt like architecture would be the perfect combination of these interests.
Ton and I met while studying architecture at RMIT, Melbourne in 2009. We both signed up with Architects Without Frontiers to assist with the design of a Disability Day Care Centre in Hoi An, Vietnam. We became good mates and worked well together throughout the study tour. We continued our friendship after university and both worked for Graeme Gunn over a period of 6 years, however never at the same time. Following this, we worked at other large and small scale firms to build experience and become registered architects with the ARBV. One hot summer weekend in 2015 we agreed to help Graeme move his archives from storage to his new home in Lancefield. Little did we know 60 years of archives filled 4 storage containers, with a pyramid of boxes and drawing roles stacked in the centre. Through the labour-intensive struggle of carefully dismantling paper mountain, Ton and I started to joke if we had a business we would never keep archives… like this. Obviously, we keep archives…we scan and recycle! These discussions grew more and more detailed as we brainstormed what else we would do in “our business”. Eventually, reaching the question why don’t we start our own business? In April 2015, we won a few commissions and started Atlas Architects. We accepted that we wouldn’t have weekends for a while as we worked other jobs during the weekdays and work on our business at night and on the weekends.
Ton: When I was 6 years old, I saw my cousin prepare architectural drawings and I told myself that I wanted to be an architect. I always knew that I would love working in the creative field, thinking, designing and solving spatial problems.
How would you best describe your design principles and philosophy?
Aaron: Our design approach involves substantial investigation into the surrounding built context, the site opportunities and its constraints. By studying the local vernacular, we build a relationship with the area which forms the basis of our design. The features of the site including topography, vegetation and daylight access are taken into account along with planning regulations. Together this creates a built form that is contextually appropriate and functionally achievable.
Our projects incorporate key environmental sustainable design principles, as well as the use of recycled materials such as brick and timber. Landscape is considered equally important as the built form and we look to preserve as many natural site features as possible.
Our designs are known for their continuous flow of form, space, and materials. Throughout our designs form follows function. Signature colours used include charcoal, blacks, greys, and whites. Signature materials include vertical cladding such as steel, cement sheet, and timber, and natural palettes such as stone, wood and concrete. We think that the natural tone of the materials has a connection to their original states, it retains a connection between us, the inhabitant, to the earth. Neutral colours set a canvas for the inhabitant to personalise their spaces.
Our clients value our timely, innovative, and collaborative approach and they feel closely involved in all stages of the project. We pride ourselves on the personal, reliable, transparent and professional relationships we build with all of our clients and collaborators.
What do you find the most challenging and most rewarding part of the job?
Ton: The most challenging parts of the job include:
- Communicating a new or adventurous idea to a client. We usually find that providing multiple options and communicating through 3D images, physical models are helpful when fine-tuning our client’s preferences into the design. 3D images and physical models help the client see the design proposal more clearly than 2D drawings, allowing them to give clearer feedback.
- Managing project cost and client’s expectation. We inform the client very early on about the probable cost of the design so the client would have the opportunity to adjust their expectation should the scope of the design need to reduce to fit the construction budget. We strongly advise our client to get a cost plan done by a Quantity Surveyor or involve consultation from a builder after concept design to get an idea of the likely cost of the project. This should not be taken as a construction quote because the design is not fully developed yet, but rather a guide to see if the project will fit within the client’s budget.
- The administration side of a project during permit application and construction stage (dealing with difficult neighbours, resolving unforeseeable issues on site). The communication to the neighbours are very important as they need to be informed of the project aspects that will affect them. A trust relationship between the builder, architect and the neighbours should be established early on so that problems can be solved amicably and not interfere with the progress of the project.
The most rewarding parts of the job include:
- Designing and problem solving, visualising spaces and putting the vision together. It is challenging but invigorating at the same time.
- Seeing the project built and the design intention executed.
- Hearing positive feedback from the client once they have lived in their new home.
- Creating a built fabric that contributes positively to well being and the built environment.
- Sharing our designs on online platforms such as Minimal Select!
What does a typical day as an architect look like for you?
Aaron: I like to start the day at the gym before grabbing a coffee at my favourite Footscray cafe Coe & Coe. Once at the office we sit down with the team and brief them for the upcoming day. I tend to tackle any challenging tasks in the morning while my mind is fresh. I like to book site meetings around midday so I follow up with a delicious lunch in the local area. In the afternoon I turn up the speakers, hit play, and get into production mode, usually on design or documentation. The trip home involves listening to some of my favourite podcasts.
Ton: I usually start the day with yoga and meditation to stay centred and iron out the crooks and cranes in my body before I start my day. This helps me look at design problems with a different perspective sometimes. I would do administrative tasks in the business, meeting with my team and answering any important or urgent emails so I can free up my afternoon and evening to do project work such as sketching, designing, documenting. Sometimes I reverse the order but I find clients, builders or consultants would call in the morning, so it’s better that urgent matters are dealt with early in the day.
What’s been your favourite project so far?
Aaron: My favourite project has been the Brodecky House in Bentleigh due to its success as a suburban infill development. Our client was weighing up her options with the property. She had lived in the home the past 40 years, loved the area but it was time to downsize. Nothing on the market suited her needs or budget. We were engaged to look at her options for developing the site. Rather than taking the easy option of developing two new units, we designed a new townhouse in the rear yard which fulfilled her design brief, while revamping the existing home for resale. Our client loves her new home and feels especially proud that the existing home lives on with a new family.
Ton: My favorite project so far is Dot’s House. It is an extensive extension and renovation to a Victorian terrace. Our client was very lovely and enjoyable to work with. We solved specific problems to provide storage and maximise the efficiency of the block and integrate all of her spatial needs and her cat pet’s needs in the design. Every aspect and details are designed specifically for her and her cat. We administered the construction process and it was a very enjoyable build as well. We had a great builder who was design oriented. The architect, builder and client relationship was really good. Apart from the design, the relationships within the projects are very important to make the experience enjoyable for all parties. I really think that’s how building your dream home should be.
What is a common client misconception?
Aaron: A common misconception is that only high-end projects can afford the services of an architect. We started Atlas Architects with the aim of providing design services to the Victorian community. Over the past 5 years we have delivered several low budget homes that are well designed and satisfy the clients brief. Our office specialises in using affordable materials in interesting ways.
When quoting a project we provide prospective clients a breakdown of the services we offer. While most clients will engage us for full services, others may only look for a feasibility study or concept design, depending on their budget. A feasibility study may be enough to steer the project in the right direction and give the client guidance when it comes to budget, design and council regulations. Don’t hesitate to speak to an architect!
Ton: When selecting builders, the cheapest quote is not always the one to be selected. When we get multiple quotes through a tender process, apart from the price, we evaluate other aspects such as past works, references, registrations, credit check, the way and manner of their communication, the inclusion and exclusion of the quotes, the clarity and the level of details the builders provide, last but not least the impression of the builder (gut feeling). All of these will provide a good picture of the builder’s craftsmanship, reliability and professionalism. If not assessed thoroughly, the cheapest quote may not always be the best, as builder could exclude many elements and later claim for variations during the construction. The clients could find themself paying more at the end of the build. Or the craftsmanship and the build quality are compromised to make up for the low cost.
What are some things you’ve learned throughout the years as an architect?
Aaron: With an ageing population in Australia, it is important that designs consider future proofing to allow residents to age in place. This may be as simple as wider circulation space at doorways, extra noggings in the shower for future grab rails, or having key rooms on the ground floor so stairs are used sparingly. If you are going to build your dream home, it’s important it can be adapted for your future needs.
Always order a Dial Before You Dig report at the start of a project. This report will provide information on underground assets you may not be aware of. By having this information early and adapting the design to suit any constraint, it will save time when applying for a Building Permit.
Obtain a property report from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. This will confirm if the site has any planning overlays, variations to Rescode, or if it is located in a bushfire prone area. Once again, this can save a lot of time when applying for a Building Permit.
Ton: After seeing many projects completed construction I learnt that as architects we have to be extra strict and particular with our ideas and execution through drawings and on site but at the same time not be attached to those ideas. Situations change and we need to be able to adapt the design with rigour. Attention to detail and the ability to foresee potential problems with the design both during construction and the life of the project are important to create built architecture that closely adheres to the conceptual idea.
Building is a very important process in architecture. I couldn’t insist more that selecting a good, reliable, trustworthy and skilled builder is extremely important. We honed our experience to be able to ask the right questions and have a background checking process to curate the right candidate to build our projects.
What advice would you give to young architects and designers?
Aaron: Observe everything. Learn from your environment. Identify why things are done the way they are and rethink how to do the same thing differently. The simplest building elements can be interesting.
Ton: Work hard, be persistent, be interested, be critical and always be inquisitive. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.
The future of Atlas Architects
Ton: We place an emphasis on sustainable design in a holistic sense. Designs that are environmentally conscious, socially accessible and promotes well being. We look forward to applying the principles of passive house gradually to our projects gradually to contribute energy efficient buildings that are accessible to the bigger part of our community.
Favourite architects/designers and studios?
Aaron: Steven Holl, Tadao Ando, Alvaro Siza, Austin Maynard
Ton: Breathe Architecture, Kazuyo Sejima, Vo Trong Nghia
Favourite brand or products?
Ton: Resene, Polytec, Slab Culture, About Space, Interface, Designer Doorware, Linear Standard, Interia
Best places or works you’ve seen or visited?
Leça Swimming Pools, Matosinhos – Álvaro Siza
Robie House, Chicago – Frank Lloyd Wright
Seattle Central Library, Seattle – Office for Metropolitan Architecture
Jewish Museum (Berlin) – Daniel Libeskind
The High Line (New York)- James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf
Favourite ways to get creative juices flowing?
Aaron: I love catching up with other architects and collaborators. I feel like Melbourne has an amazing and very progressive architectural scene. Inspiration can be easily sought by just looking around the city.
Ton: Looking at other architects works for inspiration. Whether in real life so I can observe the details close up or through magazines, Pinterest, and Instagram.
Where to find them
2019 Dulux Colour Awards- Shortlisted
2011 Australian Architecture Prize for Unbuilt Work