Bill McCorkell & David Martin (Backyard Room) interview

Melbourne architect Bill McCorkell talks us through his latest project with builder David Martin: a practical upgrade to the humble backyard that’s sustainable, affordable and very handsome indeed.

Interview by Casey Hutton
June 2013

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i. Bill McCorkell, architect, and David Martin, builder
ii.  Backyard Room, launched in March 2013 at the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show, where it won the sustainability award and the silver award for best garden. Landscaping by Daniel Tyrell.
ArchiBlox project: 35 Paperbark Place
iv. ArchiBlox project: Meanderri Drive

All photographs © Backyard Room/ArchiBlox 2013


You guys are behind ArchiBlox, which designs and builds prefabricated modular homes. How did this partnership come about?

Bill: Dave and I met while working together on a traditional architect/builder building procurement on a house that my previous business had designed in Inverloch, Dave’s home town.  

David: It was one of the first architecturally designed houses on the Esplanade in Inverloch. It was really striking in its simplicity and form. Compared to the predominant housing stock in the area, it was unique. Inverloch screamed out for more product like it.

When I approached Bill about throwing some house plans around that were architecturally designed, sustainable and affordable, he jumped at it. What he came up with was sensational.

Bill: Well, what we came up with was great but, more importantly, what we wanted to offer was a genuine alternative in the housing market.

"One thing led to another and, with sketchpad in hand, we came up with this really cool studio that could be flat packed and installed in the backyard."

Is it unusual to have an architect and a builder working together in this way? How do your personalities work together, and how do you resolve differences?

You don't often come across an architect and a builder working jointly and harmoniously like this. This is why we have such a unique difference and provide a streamlined design and build process – an experience our clients enjoy and trust. 

We respect each other’s roles and positions, and back each other’s judgement calls. Understandably though, we do push for clarification if the solution may not seem right, and on those occasions we are both more than happy to question our judgements and see the other’s point of view.

Since ArchiBlox (ABX), you have gone on to develop prefabricated, architecturally designed Backyard Rooms (BYRs), which look great. What was the inspiration behind this?

The idea for the business came up in the backyard of one of my friend’s terrace houses in Northcote, Melbourne. He had a third kid on the way, worked from home a few days a week, and was looking at adding another room upstairs. We got talking about ABX and how it could be a good fit, but saw limitations in its installation. One thing led to another and, with sketchpad in hand, we came up with this really cool studio that could be flat packed and installed in the backyard.

"You don't often come across an architect and a builder working jointly and harmoniously like this."

Run us through the key features of the Backyard Room.

Our mission at BYR is to design and construct sustainable garden studios that recognise innovation, passive solar principles, energy savings and the environment.

In most cases our garden rooms require no permit and cause minimal disruption, are designed and built in six weeks, and are installed on site in under five days.

The Backyard Room has multiple purposes, from a home office to a teenagers’ retreat – the options are endless. You can also choose from a range of internal fit-outs including a mezzanine, study desk, bookshelves, kitchenette, powder room, bathroom, store, robe and shed.

Backyard Rooms are made mainly from sustainable wood from renewable, certified sources. Our off-site, prefabricated production improves quality control and efficiency, and eliminates waste through recycling. BYRs are designed to maximise energy efficiency with high insulation floors, walls and roofs. You can go even greener with our optional garden roof to create a fantastic low-maintenance green space.

If the BYR is used as a workspace then there is no commute to work, saving a considerable amount of energy – not to mention time, money and stress!

They seem to satisfy a number of needs at once – the basic need for more physical space at home; the psychological need to escape to a more personal space; the need for delineated work or creative space…

Our inspiration came from the idea of helping create smarter spaces out of under-utilised real estate – value is created and lifestyle is enhanced. BYR celebrates what makes us all different… brought together by a common appreciation of good design. We help people get the most out of their much-loved Aussie backyard.

Was this a natural evolution from the larger homes you have been designing with ArchiBlox?

Bill: BYR was established as a separate entity. The consumer takes more responsibility in purchasing the product. They analyse the site and the planning schemes, arrange service connections, choose styles, built form, facades… basically how the room is fitted out. Our sales team and architects have little contact in this, thus reducing our sale input and overall costs on the product.

David: This is a very different experience to ArchiBlox, which is vastly more customised.

Bill: That and product costs, which for BYR average around $30,000 compared to a much higher average cost for ABX.

We are not saying that we throw our clients no help. We have customised templates that lead the client through their experience – how to engage contractors to run services, what prices they are expected to incur, letters of engagement that they can use... By taking our involvement out of the products procurement, we make it more affordable and also give ownership back to the purchaser.

BYR was an obvious move for ABX into the area of activating people’s backyards with affordable solutions.

"I question mass-manufactured homes with generic designs and little consideration for the environment or the way people live. We wanted to offer an alternative solution."

Where are Backyard Rooms available?

The BYRs are available Australia-wide. The beauty is that they can be transported easily, not to mention taken away with you if you happen to move house. 

As an architect, what elements are most important to you in terms of designing spaces?

Internal and external proportions; natural light and its use. 

What do you usually start with when you are designing?

When I sit down to start a design I take into account the aesthetics of the environment and how it suits a space.

What are your design dislikes?

I would question mass-manufactured homes with generic designs and little consideration for the environment or the way people live. We wanted to offer an alternative solution. 

What should people keep in mind when they're building or extending a home?

How spaces are used and furnished, and their relationship both internally and externally.

Who or what inspires you?

Aldo Rossi and his buildings with their monumental proportions. Tadao Ando with his use of light.

Do you have a favourite piece of famous architecture?

Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light. Its simple form and use of natural light is phenomenal. 

What were your interests as a child? Were there hints that you'd become an architect?

I was always a very curious child. I loved making things: Lego, drawings… My father was a landscape architect, which drew me to a fascination in this field.

What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?

When I'm not working I love nothing more than designing someone’s cool new home with a cheeky gin and tonic!

On top of that I do love taking the family on holidays, hiking in the bush, or concentrating on some silly and over-ambitious personal goal. 2013 will see me running my first marathon. I also love just relaxing with my beautiful wife, who is my soul mate and understands me.