Since their small start in 1988, McBride Charles Ryan has earned their stripes despite fierce industry competition. Established just prior to the economic recession, the practice upheld their business in its early stage through self-initiated projects, which has proven to be a clearly beneficial strategy after 30 years of continuous growth and success. “We were walking the streets looking for work because we didn’t have the internet that we have now,” says Director Debbie Ryan. “We did a three-unit development in Port Melbourne, which we convinced my brother and his friend to be part of. We had some other small projects around the same time but, with that project, one of the people that we were working with was a roofer and a plumber; they did the zinc façade on the building and they said, ‘Can we put it on our calendar?’ We said sure, and they got a huge job at Federation Square. Their calendar actually really helped us a lot. It’s ridiculous to think that such a small thing can, but it helped us to some extent in terms of awareness of what we were doing.
From that project, the economy picked up a bit. We got a few projects, and then we did a much bigger 10-unit development with a bunch of friends again; that really helped us in terms of giving us some capital, and investing in our business. We then got medium-sized projects which were schools, government and private work. Daniel Grollo from Grocon had also seen our work and shortlisted us for a project in the city, which was part of the QV site. He said he wanted to go and visit three of our projects, so we took him out one day and he said, ‘I’m interested in you putting in for QV, but you haven’t had a lot of experience in towers. It’s up to you which project you’d like to do – put in for it.’ We had to compete at that time, so we put in for the smallest project on the site because we thought we would have a better chance. We did get that job – the QVII apartment tower opposite the state library – and that was quite a big leap for us. We’d gone from a self-initiated 10-unit development, to various other medium-sized projects, and then that 12-storey tower.”
Their work on the QVII tower drew further attention to McBride Charles Ryan, as it became a highly successful and widely recognised project; they were later selected to work on The Quays – a Docklands apartment featuring over 600 apartments – along with 250 student housing units for Monash University, and the billion-dollar Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre with STHDI. To date, the practice has at least an 80 percent strike rate with nearly all of their projects earning well-deserved industry awards. “We really dedicate ourselves to the projects once we get them,” says Ryan. “Basically, how I would say it is, we’ve had to earn our stripes. We’ve started from small projects and we didn’t accept rejection. We worked out a way that we could operate in what was a really tight commercial environment.”
Environmentally sustainable design has always been a key point of interest for McBride Charles Ryan; they try to emphasise its importance throughout every project, carefully selecting necessary materials to reflect the highest efficiency rating possible. “People don’t always have the appetite for it, or the costs of some things that we want to do; but, we’ll always do passive things,” says Ryan. “For example, we won a competition for Monash University for the Law and Economics building. We had a labyrinth which proposed to reuse all of the demolition building materials in its placement, stabilising the temperature of the whole building. We work with ESD engineers, and we come up with some pretty interesting proposals; they’re not always adopted, but we always look at the best passive principles we can and we use those. We did actually get a five-star Green Star on the Monash residential units that we’ve just finished. They’re not incredibly sophisticated systems, but they are good, sound principles, which I think is important to have.
These days, we nearly always have tanks, we nearly always have solar panels, and we use glass that has the best ratings. Personally, I think being aware of your orientation, thermal mass, and things like that are the basis that you work from, but then we do employ other things as well wherever we can. We’re really interested in new things that are coming out, like the potential of battery storage. There’s a lot of work being done in that area, and we’re certainly interested. When we did our 10-unit development, we were not allowed to have tanks, and that was only 16 years ago; I find that hard to believe. But, South East Water wouldn’t allow us to have tanks, whereas now it’s just sort of considered something that you don’t think about. You have tanks under the ground, they don’t have to be seen – and they’re generally not – but they’re there; they can be used for flushing the toilets, watering the garden, and all sorts of other things. So, I think that we’ve come a long way in 16 years.”
Ryan and her associates strongly believe in “the power of architecture to signify meaning and values within a society,” aiming to demonstrate these values not only for project clients, but for staff and suppliers as well. “We like to enrich our urban environment and provide something for the community – not only just for clients, but for the users, visitors and passers-by,” she says. “We have a very democratic office. We do have a hierarchy, and we have teams and team leaders; but, on the other hand, everyone has their say about all the projects. We do actually have reviews where other people can criticise and that sort of thing, so criticism is welcome and everyone’s encouraged to have their own ideas about things. We’re always trying to find the best solution for any given problem; that’s how we deal with things, and being generous with each other in terms of learning skills is encouraged.
We have developed some long-standing relationships with suppliers whose products perform consistently – that’s the bottom line. There have been a few projects that have performed really well, and we’ve developed really strong relationships with our suppliers through those projects; but, we’re always looking for new products as well. We are not burying our head in the sand. We’re always very interested in speaking to reps, and we have a system within our office of how that information is dispersed. In terms of clients, we have long-standing relationships with many of our clients. For example, we’ve been doing work for Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School for at least eight years, we’ve done four projects for them, and we’re just working on another one. Likewise, we’ve done several projects for MAB now. I think that, just through performance, we’ve delivered good projects that have been successful for people, and they’ve given us return work. I think developing a good relationship with your client, trying to listen to them, and giving them what they need and want is really important.”
While competition has kept business alive for the practice, Ryan believes that it may have a negative effect on the future of the industry. “Low fees within the industry and competitions are the major challenges for architectural practices at the moment,” she says. “We have to compete for much of the work now – in limited competitions – and I think this has the potential of destroying the industry. If you have four people compete, three people don’t get the job, and yet they’ve invested huge amounts of time, effort, and resources into that competition. So, I think that there’s some major challenges around that area because, if you don’t get a reasonable strike rating, you can lose a lot of money.”
A founding member of the practice, Ryan helped build McBride Charles Ryan from the ground up, watching it grow from small to medium to large-sized projects over the last three decades. Over the years, her most personal milestone was receiving the World Architecture Festival’s Best House Award in 2009. “We certainly weren’t handed the practice from a previous generation or anything like that,” she says. “We’ve had to develop the practice from scratch. Personally, one of the things that I hold very dearly is winning the World Architecture Festival Award for the Klein Bottle House. I had to go to Barcelona to present that project. At that time, it was a room full of blokes, and it was a pretty tough thing to do; but, I actually won a World Architecture Festival Award for that.”