How to Use Storytelling to Connect to Your Clients - Fiona Dunin, FMD Architects (Think Big Ep3)

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

In this episode, I spoke to Australian architect and interior designer Fiona Dunin from FMD Architects about her Melbourne-based practice.

Fiona is an architect who trained initially as an interior designer. She speaks about how this training has helped her and her practice to hone in on the interior details seeing them as just as necessary as the overall design of spaces.

In today's episode, I wanted to know more about how Fiona and her team use storytelling in the design process, as it's something that stood out to me as being important to their work.

We also discuss:

✨ Her background in interior design

✨ How she feels about 3D modelling and the ways she communicates the design to the client

Persuading clients and challenging the brief

✨ Working with consultants

At the end of the episode, I ask Fiona to give her top tips about communication, and I share some expressions you could try when you want to challenge the brief.

If you would like to find out more about Fiona Dunin and her practice, FMD Architects, you'll find images for all the buildings we discussed on the episode page.

FMD Architects

FMD Architects

Recommended episodes:

Episode 1: How to Build Your English Confidence: for Architects and Built Design Professionals

Episode 2: What Does it Mean to Think Like an Architect? How to be more innovative & Creative

✨ Follow me on Instagram:

✨ Connect with me on LinkedIn Tara Cull

Images: FMD Architects

Table of Contents - Take me straight to these sections Vocabulary

Transcript House Images

Expressions Key Vocabulary

battens (timber battens) - small square timber strips

consideration - careful thought

clinker bricks - Clinker bricks are partially vitrified bricks used in the construction of buildings.

CLT - cross-laminated timber (prefabricated)

diplomatic - polite language integrity - the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.

pragmatics - (noun) a way to deal with things sensibly, realistically and practically

pragmatically - to deal with things sensible and practically

phrasal verbs

carry through / carrying through

building up - to do something gradually

brought in - to be added to the project


Quick Find Snippets - Take me straight to these sections


Working with consultants and landscape architects


The most important part of the design process The role of 3D drawings

Challenging the brief

Expressions for challenging the brief

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 0:00

You're listening to think big Episode Three.

Hello Big Thinkers and welcome to Think Big English for architects. I'm your host, Tara Cull, Neurolanguage coach, English teacher, and landscape architect. And I'm bringing all these passions and interests together to help people in the built design profession, who speak English as a second language, to build outstanding communication skills to help them find their voice and to speak up. You can learn more about my coaching programmes at What is the purpose of this podcast? The purpose of the podcast is to share stories from architects and about architecture, and its various disciplines. The podcast is for everyone. But it's also a listening resource for English learners, from the discipline of architecture to improve listening comprehension, and critical thinking skills, and the expression of ideas in the architecture profession. So each episode comes with a transcript on the episode page, and you'll find a link in the show notes as well as key vocabulary. At the end of each episode, I also break down some of the key vocabulary that you might use in different situations that come up in each of the episodes. Today, I wanted to share with you an interview that I had recently with Fiona Dunin, from FMD architects Australia. So Fiona is the founder of FMD architects. And she's an architect who originally trained as an interior designer. And she now speaks about how this training has helped her and the work of her practice to hone in on the interior details, seeing them as just as important as the overall design of spaces. You can find out more about her work at And I will include all the links to all the house projects that we talked about in today's show, in the show notes and in the blog post for the episode. In today's episode, I really wanted to know more about how Fiona and her team use storytelling in the design process, as it's something that stood out to me as being important in her work. And you can really see this when you visit their website, it's the very first thing that you see on their web page. In the interview, we also discuss her background in interior design and how this influences her work. We talk about how she feels about 3d modelling and sketching, and the ways that she communicates the design to the client. We talk about persuading clients about challenging the brief, working with consultants. And she also gives her top tips for young architects about what's important when it comes to communication and working with clients and consultants. What do I want you to look out for today? Well, Fiona, and I use a lot of vocabulary to discuss ideas and how to defend your ideas. So keep an eye out for how she does this. You'll also find a list of the key vocabulary and explanations on the episode page. And at the very end of the episode, if you stick around until the end, I'm going to explain some vocabulary that you might use if you want to challenge someone's ideas. So let's get into the interview and see what Fiona has to say.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 4:18

Hi, Fiona, thanks for joining me today. I'm very excited to have you chat to me about your practice and some of the things that you do in your practice. So just before we get started, if in case people don't know much about FMD architects or you could you explain a little bit about who you are, where you are and how people can find you.

Fiona Dunin 4:40

Yeah, thanks for having me. We're an architectural interior design practice based in Melbourne. I started the practice 15 years ago, after working for fairly high end residential commercial practice, where I sort of lead the interiors in that practice and It's funny. So when I started my own practice, people didn't really know I was an architect. They thought I was an interior designer, but I've actually both so qualified as both. So that's why I set up myself as FMD Architects. Now, now people don't really know I'm an interior designer really okay. But they can see it in the work that we do is pretty detailed and pretty obsessive with the interiors. And I suppose what we do is, most of our work is really small boutique, residential, and small commercial work. And it's all about carrying through the sort of architectural concepts through to the finest detail is how I would describe what we do.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglishr 5:44

Yeah. And I mean, that's something that really strikes me with your work is that there is so much detail in the interiors, there's a lot of consideration for the way light comes into the house, the way the materials are used in detail, then I think that's something that's really, really appeals to me. And is that is that something that really comes through a lot in your practice with your project?

Fiona Dunin 6:07

Yeah, definitely. So the way we work is, is fairly pragmatic, but at the beginning, so it is very much through plan and just getting the spaces right. And I think that's the interior designer, me as well as like making sure the spaces are the right size and the right sort of position. And the architect to me is getting the orientation, right and thinking about where the winds coming from, where the lights coming from. So we kind of work just in plan first and get all of that right. And then something the clients can understand is a plan as well. So thinking about communicating and building up the clients understanding of architectural language, so everyone can generally work out a plan some can't, and then we move into more complex elevations, three dimensional things, things like that as well. So back to that, though, is when we then move into three dimensions, that's where we really start to see what the light does. And that actually, is the drive up for a lot about forms and materials is how the light is actually penetrating space at different times of the year. So yeah, it's fairly sort of highly engineered.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 7:15

Yeah. And do you feel like, you're because you studied interior design first? And then did architecture? Do you feel like there's a big difference between the way that you practice compared to somebody who is who's just done architecture?

Fiona Dunin 7:30

Yeah. It depends on the person. So it depends, like, I've worked for a few different architects and some really separated architecture and interiors. And I'm sort of like it to the point where the interior designers were in a different room, you know, which to me, I found very bizarre. And whereas me, if there is, you know, other practices I've worked for, you know, the architects are just as obsessive over drawer detail, as you know, the overall sort of elevation. So I think it depends on the person. And you see that in, you know, some of the great architects, you sort of look at, you know, they do obsess over those fine details. So, I think everyone could do it, but it's just whether they consider interior design of value.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglishr 8:18

I think it's it's important to consider the work of other consultants as well. And, and I think when you come from a different background, and you're working with another, it helps to be more open,

Fiona Dunin 8:31

I guess. Yeah. And just saying with the landscape I mean your're a landscape architect and ways you're bringing the landscape architects pretty early in on the piece, so. (Great) you know, because often, they're brought in at the end, and then the client can't afford to use them. And then yeah, it's done. Yeah. If you bring them in, in the early stages, and you see that in our work, the garden is very integrated in the design, then it's, it's it's just as important, the landscape is as important as the architecture as the interior is. They're all just all committed to each other.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 9:04

Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And that's something that when I've worked with architects in the past, they've always, I've always said, try and get us in early on, because, for example, if you have an internal courtyard, or you have something where we could be working on that internal courtyard before you have lock up stage, for example, yes, that's such an important aspect. And, and sometimes it can cost three times as much because you're having to, hand bring in materials or things like that. So yeah, yeah, I think it's really essential to get all of the consultants in on. So that's something that I think is really important. One thing that I read on your website, which I love, and I think maybe this kind of it tells the story of your practice and how you work it says we are storytellers, our architecture tells the stories of the place on which it resides and the stories of the people who occupy the place, both past and present. Our design response oscillates between the pragmatic and the poetic, I absolutely love that quote, I think it's a great landing page, actually, Oh, do you know bit about where that comes from and why you've used it

Fiona Dunin 10:12

we actually just updated that very recently, because I've been searching for ages. For the right thing to say, rather than the boring we are architects specialising in architecture interiors, it's like, it was just something that has just been sort of building up over time and starting to look at the folio now. And there are very strong stories between in every project. And it's something that we're sort of building up and we build up, the stories have started to build up the stories, as collages as well. So rather than a written story, it's a visual story. And it's something that it's getting stronger and stronger and our work that we're able to kind of do this analysis of the place of the people of the history and build up this, and then that starts informing the latest stages. So we still do that pragmatic sort of planning approach, and understanding the site and the lighting, and the winds and all of that. But then it's all these other things that we observed one way or these conversations we have with a client that then start coming in sort of really during design development, as we're building up a three dimensional form and the materials that start enriching and enlivening the building. So by the end, and then it actually keeps evolving. So I could pretty dynamic I suppose that sound, the client may still say something during construction. We are that's a great, let's, let's change this do this. And it changes. So we're not saying like, once we've documented my building, that's it. We don't change things. There is the opportunity. We don't always do it. Sometimes something comes along, you go Oh, that's a fantastic idea. If it enriches the story, then. Yeah. So it's making sure that you're still sort of nimble and able to see where there's still design opportunities, even at the later stages of the design process.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 12:06

Yeah, I think flexibility is so important. Yeah. Could you give us an example of where story comes through in a project?

Fiona Dunin 12:12

Yeah. A classic is the bustle house, which I don't know whether you've got images of that, that you can look at on the website, or

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish

I'll put them up and I'll put a link to it into the right.

Fiona Dunin 12:26

In the Bustle house, we it actually said that was a great story. So the house was is this beautiful Victorian terrace house sitting on a hill. And it looks like this haunted house on the hill, it's quite dilapidated. The garden was all overrun. And we've got this great client, this really super strong lady. And she bought it off this family who'd had it in the family since it was built. So I was in a one family for, you know, 150 years before my client bought it. And so the lady who lived in it for 70/80 years, the original owner was pretty much right most the time and my client was a single mother when she bought the house. So we talked about the two ladies and she talked about the house as the old lady. And she goes out with the old lady doesn't like something stick, the light starts with rain, and they have to move that piece of furniture out. And then she's happy again. Cookie. But so then we started looking at Victorian ladies and how they were portrayed in portraits. And they're always portrayed in side profile. And their bustle was their form of expression. So a Victorian terraced house is always embellished on the front elevation, not the side, the sides neglected. So we said, well, actually, we're on a corner site besides actually really important that this is how we can express the two women that have owned this house. So you have the original house, and then the new bustle and train that we have built as a new extension on the back, which was our client. And then allowing the materials that were chosen, were ones that would age and whether so that we didn't we didn't sort of Polish or paint the original house, we left it quite beautifully weathered. And then the new materials were designed to weather over time so that the two could weather together and decay. And then that brought in stories about, you know, women ageing gracefully and not not using Botox and all that sort of stuff. So there's all these layers of stories that would go out.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 14:25

Yeah, so that's giving me goosebumps.

Fiona Dunin 14:27

Yeah, it's really good fun. And you can see it in the side profile. And there's a beautiful train that we've built. So timber was our fabric, and we built this big curvy fence. And this was planted on the inside and outside again, the landscaping was really important that and now people come and you get great city views from the site. So she really wanted to engage with the local community and people will pass and see into her backyard through the sort of open batton fence and plantings on the outside. And so she has this constant dialogue with people walking up and down the street and people now come and sit on her fence, which you can sit on because it's sort of half of it is garden and come and have drinks and watch the sunset from her house. Yeah, so that's a classic story. Yeah. But you'll see most of the projects on the website have quite strong stories behind them.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 15:19

Yeah, there's a there's a few that I've been looking at one Ripple house is beautiful. Yeah, we designed I love that house. And yeah, lots of really nice adjectives to describe that house. I think it's great. Yeah, and coupe was

Fiona Dunin 15:31

Yeah, and Coopworth is another one that's worth a look that's got a really strong story about the island it's on a very remote island. So let's look at the history of the island and also the history of the site. And then our clients and their, you know, their position on the site, and so on, as well as all intertwined in the, in the design.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 15:49

I think story is such an important thing too, because it makes the makes the design lasts so much longer. And that experience and I actually worked on a project that it was the most amazing project I worked on because of the story behind it. And it's the one that I remember the most, I worked with a woman who she had her garden de