While not the sole opportunity, International Women’s Day offers a chance to celebrate women with gusto, bringing women from all fields and their vast achievements firmly to the forefront. As an architect whose practice has evolved with agility since its inception four years ago – and which continues to deliver compelling work amidst a time of rising construction costs and material shortages – New Zealand-born, Sydney-based Adele McNab is forging an encouraging path.
Adele’s artistic aptitude and pragmatic sensibilities led her to a career as an architect. “In architecture you’ve got this beautiful ability to be creative but approach it from a technical aspect – it’s a nice balance,” she muses. “My parents also renovated every house we ever lived in so, seeing how spaces could be transformed sat with me from a very young age.” After studying at Unitec School of Architecture in Auckland and working part time on large commercial projects, Adele attended the Total Immersion Architecture Student Summer School held by Architecture Foundation Australia in Pittwater. The experience was influential and prompted Adele’s permanent move to Sydney, where she worked across high end residential projects for Bruce Staﬀord Architects. “I really enjoyed the personal aspect of working hand-in-hand with the client in a very detailed way,” Adele reflects. “Understanding how the client lives – and being able to design a house for them – was quite a different experience to what I’d done previously. It was a fantastic opportunity.”
A turning point and momentous career move came seven years later, in 2018. “It was with the passing of my father that I decided I needed a change and that it was the right opportunity to start my own practice,” she says, adding that “I had always known that I wanted to do it, but that certainly encouraged me.” A handful of initial projects gave her the opportunity to explore parameters and develop her practice. One such project was Marrickville Warehouse, the home of her studio and her partner’s business – a butcher supplies company. As a space that functions for both a butcher and a designer, it is unquestionably clever and illustrates many of the tenets central to Adele’s work such as practical yet stimulating materiality and a seamless cross pollination of spaces.
Marrickville Warehouse won Adele the 2019 IDEA Award for workplace design and was, in many ways, the springboard for what is a growing portfolio of work. “The industry is so busy at the moment, and we’re fortunate that we’re seeing some really interesting projects come through,” she says. “However, there are some really difficult and confronting conversations we’ve had to have with clients about the cost of construction, which has risen significantly over the past year.” Adele cites material shortages and a deficit of tradespeople as key in this increase and believes educating clients, as well as finding clever design solutions, are the way forward. Not surprisingly, she sees ample opportunity amongst these trials. “When you have boundaries like this it can add an exciting layer to a project,” she says. “It’s not all necessarily prohibitive; it’s about changing your mindset and thinking about cost effective materials like laminates and plywood teamed with smaller notes of more expensive materials such as stone and metals.”
“The industry is so busy at the moment and we’re fortunate that we’re seeing some really interesting projects come through,” Adele says. “However, there are some really difficult and confronting conversations we’ve had to have with clients about the cost of construction, which has risen significantly over the past year.”
This concept is, in fact, inherent to her approach. For Adele, it all comes down to honest, clever architecture; her residential and commercial projects are defined by a mix of luxurious and utilitarian materials and an inherent simplicity realised with ingenuity. Maximising the usage of spaces through softer divides and blurred thresholds alongside cost saving material palettes are the pillars. “The idea of quality spaces which can be flexible has always been at the forefront of our practice, and these recent hurdles in the industry have really solidified that concept,” she explains. “We look to reuse and repurpose materials, expose structural elements such as beams and columns, or use materials in their raw form.” She adds, “if you can work with design and materials in this way, it also gives a sense of transparency and simplicity.”
Desiging her own home in Sydney’s Redfern was an opportunity to explore her process more deeply, and without inhibitions. The project’s construction aligned with the birth of her first child, Riley, and while she says it was “challenging at times”, designing for herself and her family allowed for newfound experimentation and innovation and brought with it the realisation that fulfilling personal projects can feed her practice’s work in a multitude of valuable ways. “When it’s your own project, you can really go all out and be fearless about the design,” Adele reflects. “The experimentation is quite exciting, and the ideas explored can be applied, in a sense, to other projects moving forward.”
Harnessing this fearlessness will invigorate Adele’s practice as she continues to design meaningful spaces and expand her portfolio to focus on community-based projects alongside residential and commercial work. She is inherently driven by the idea that architecture can positively impact individuals and communities and is quietly – yet fervently – fulfilled in her ability to create.