Good research is essential

good research is essential

This is the 2nd of twenty-six lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson a day until they’re done.

2. Good research is essential

At the beginning of your project, you are eager to begin designing. Some of you might sketch in the obligatory solar paths and circulation routes over your site plan, but then you impatiently dive head first into design. Some of you might even read up on the latest architectural theories floating around the internet, but you too are impatient to get started on the good stuff.

But design is fundamentally about problem solving. How can you hope to design an appropriate solution if you don’t know everything there is to know about the problem?

If good design is a house, then good research is its footings.

Good research is much more than site analysis. It means researching the best examples of your typology from around the world, together with its history and its proponents. It means understanding the theoretical, political, cultural and social context of your project. It means reading books, journals and newspapers (and not just the internet). It means testing ideas over and over again, via esquisse model or diagram. It means visiting your site many times, getting a feel for it and speaking with the local community. It means getting away from your computer for a bit, and out into the world to see what’s there.

Most importantly, good research is about questions not answers. Start the process with hypotheses, not theories. A theory will give you the answer you’re looking for, but you’ll have no way of knowing whether it’s the right one. A hypothesis leaves room for the research to drive you, to produce objective and ultimately useful answers.

Richard Leplastrier, one of Australia’s great master architects, is famous for camping on his sites for weeks before he starts on design. His tent is essentially a drafting table with a roof, allowing him to sketch within its shelter while he watches the weather, feels the wind and immerses himself in the environment. He sketches what he sees, and what he can’t see: the invisible forces that shape the land. By the time he packs up to go home, the place is in his bones.

Image source

  1. Good research is essential, author’s own image.
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Be open to the unexpected

be open to the unexpected

This is the 1st of twenty-six lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson a day until they’re done.

1. Be open to the unexpected

Getting started on a design project is an intoxicating experience. You are excited and restless, both inspired and daunted by the blank pages waiting for you. You have heard from an array of studio leaders and chosen your preferred topic based on your interests and expertise. Ideas are already beginning to fill your head.

Whether you realise it or not, your design project has already begun. It began before you received your project brief, even before the start of semester. You are a designer, so you see the world as a canvass upon which to paint your architecture. This is a blessing, the source of any architect’s vision, but it is also a curse, binding you to an idea before you even know how it will be used.

Frank Lloyd Wright observed that it takes a good architect to formulate a strong idea, but a great architect to know when to throw it away.

Throwing away an idea is hard work, it requires courage. But it is crucial to resist the ideas that form too early, they will shape your project in ways you can’t control. Throw away preconceptions, agendas, fixed positions, or any picture whatsoever you have of the end game. Hold onto your openness as long as you can, and be prepared to let your project surprise you.

As a student, I had a great weakness for early ideas. I would sketch bits of building on the very first day of semester, and spend the following twelve weeks defending them. This is fine if you want to finish where you started, but it undermines the whole point of spending a semester developing a project. I see this happen regularly with my students, clinging to an idea for fear of falling backwards, even when they know it is crumbling around them.

What I realise now is that the first sheet of yellow trace you fill has almost no value. I say almost because it does have one important purpose: to lead you to the next sheet, and to the next and so on.

Image source

  1. Be open to the unexpected, author’s own image.
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Lessons for design students

lessons for design students

Dear design students,

Let me share with you an important piece of hard truth: most of you will not produce a great design project this semester.

While I hope that you will all begin with aspirations of greatness, I know that many of you will stumble somewhere along the way. In the past four years of teaching a masters level design studio at the University of Melbourne, I have witnessed this with my own eyes: students who never quite get it from day one; and students whose work shows early promise only to unravel down the track.

A great project is a marathon not a sprint. It relies on getting a very long list of things very right.

I say this with the understanding that I did not always get this list right. Looking back on my student years, I am surprised I managed to get good marks at all. I swam blind through the design process, only fractionally more self-aware than a tree, and committed most of the sins I now know to be essential ingredients in the recipe for failure.

With the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students, I have gathered a few insights about what it takes to produce a great project. For ease of navigation, I’ve split these 26 lessons (okay more than a few) across the stages of the semester:

  1. Getting started
  2. Refining ideas
  3. Design
  4. Design production
  5. Presentation
  6. The finish line

Some of the ideas address big picture issues, others the minutiae. My focus will be on architecture, but most of what you will read is equally relevant for all creative disciplines. Starting tomorrow, I will publish one lesson a day. The series will also be archived under the tag, lessons for design students.

Image source

  1. Lessons for design students, author’s own image.
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A better AIA

adam smith

Last month, I wrote an article asking why I’m a member of the Australian Institute of Architects. I acknowledged that the principle reasons are altruistic: the AIA allows me to participate in my profession; it forges a strong profession; and it articulates ambition for our collective future. I also acknowledged that while there is of course a measure of self-interest to my altruism – what’s good for the profession is good for me – membership does not adequately service self-interest of the more pragmatic kind.

Alarmingly, my analysis revealed that only 45% of architects are members of the AIA. This compares poorly to counterparts in law (65%) and dentistry (87%).[1] Equally alarming is the bottom line of the AIA’s 2015 annual report, which declares a staggering loss of $3.6m.[2] I am certain these statistics are related (just matching the membership saturation of the Law Institute would net a further $2.3m), and together they reveal an organisation deep crisis.

I concluded:

If the AIA is to achieve its own self-declared mission, then it has to engage with the disenfranchised. It needs to address self-interest first and foremost, and ensure its value proposition is soLaw Ialluring that every architect sees no choice but to join.

I ended my article there, but I had always intended to follow it up with this one, which will lay out seven ideas targeted at self-interest that the AIA might pursue to re-engage non members and thereby improve itself. But let me begin with Adam Smith, the father of economic theory, who observed:

Individual ambition serves the common good.

This observation is the fundamental theory that underpins the free market economy, but it also happens to be a more eloquent way of phrasing the whole argument of my first article. If the AIA is to thrive, to represent the profession as a whole, it needs to first address the needs of the individual. How can it do this?


1. Systemic reform

As our peak professional body, the AIA represents lots of different kinds of architects. Everything from architects like me – a principal of a small, inner-Melbourne practice – to architects working in large organisations, or in the outer suburbs of Perth, or on multi-billion dollar hospital projects.

One of the core mandates of the AIA is that it deliver services that match its members’ needs. But can the AIA be all things to all people? My needs are undoubtedly different from those of an employee working in a large, commercial office, and different again from a sole practitioner with forty years experience behind her. The AIA currently addresses these competing needs by simply adding more services, but this strategy has the inevitable consequence of stretching resources thin.

Sometimes the competing needs of its members pushes the AIA into positions of conflict. This occurs most visibly when the AIA remains mute on important issues that many members oppose because other members stand to gain from them. It would do well in this regard to look towards the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, who maintained a prominently critical voice on the shortcomings of the East West Link despite a number of its members being engaged on the project. It is also worth noting that during this advocacy work, and likely because of it, AILA received a 100% membership increase.

The AIA needs to ask some hard questions of itself: should it be a lobbying group? Should it write position papers? Should it represent the profession publicly? Should it be a service provider to its membership? Should it publish news boards? Should it deliver continuing professional development? Should it have an awards programme?

I don’t presume to know the answers to these questions, but I do believe the AIA needs to undertake systemic reform in order to remain relevant (or gain new relevance) in the 21st Century. To do this, the AIA will need to audit its services in order to understand the things it does and doesn’t do well. It will need to pull itself apart then rebuild from scratch, playing to its strengths and shedding its weaknesses.

sigmund freud

2. Listen to the profession

The AIA currently undertakes an annual member survey that seeks feedback on a wide range of issues. In Melbourne, a recently implemented forum for Victorian members provides another valuable mechanism for discussion. It would make a big difference to the usefulness of these devices to extend them, or equivalent forms of communication, to non-members.

Understanding what the current membership wants will always remain important, but expanding the discussion would provide priceless insight into how the AIA can better respond to the needs of the disengaged. Fundamentally, this process should be about increasing membership, but it may even suggest a few crowdsourced answers to the tough questions of reform.


3. Get in at the ground floor

The marketing world devotes a great deal of time to exploring customer acquisition theories, and has discovered that one of the best times to do so is at a major life transition.[3] Moving out of home and getting married are examples of such transitions. So is graduating from university. This means the 2,000 or so students studying architecture across Australia must be a priority.

At guest architecture practice lectures I gave this semester at both Melbourne University and RMIT, I asked for a show of hands of SONA members (the student arm of the AIA). The result was, frankly, unnerving. By my rough count, only 15% of students raised their hands. This is for a membership category that costs only $85, just $3 more than the subscription to Architecture Australia that comes with it. And despite the AIA recently making membership free to all first year architecture students across Australia.

I have two ideas that might help:

First, stop offering free membership to first years and start offering it to final years. Having taught both over the past few years, I can attest how little certainty the former have about their future. Students about to head into the workforce are a different breed though, they’re eager to learn about the profession and ready to connect to it. The trick then is to provide sufficient value to the soon-to-be-graduates that they maintain their memberships after their studies.

So second, deliver the aforementioned value to students by giving them what they need most: job opportunities. Not portfolio advice or interview skills or mentoring, but jobs. The AIA is uniquely placed to act as a bridge between education and practice, a position that could be exploited to establish a careers expo in all 16 architecture schools around Australia, every year. This may not be the only way to connect students with potential employers, but I can attest that it was the only one of the many events I ran in my time as SONA representative for Melbourne University to survive beyond my tenure.


4. Give us what we need most

The AIA already provides a wide range of services addressing architects’ daily needs: news bulletins, Acumen, the senior counsellor service, Australian Standards, the Environment Design Guide, its legal advisory service, BIM seminars etc. I think many of these services are very useful, and use them frequently, but many architects are happier to remain in the silo of their office than turn to the AIA for assistance.

I suspect the problem here is that the AIA is in competition with a very large number of other sources of information, many of which are free. There’s the internet for a start, which is by now such an indispensable tool for business that I stop work whenever ours goes down. There are peers and more senior colleagues. There are Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the social media empire. And there are the vast array of allied professionals with advice to give or sell: engineers, planners, building surveyors, accountants, lawyers, business coaches, life coaches… the list goes on.

The AIA membership fee (which I’m not for a moment suggesting be scrapped) is what’s known as a barrier to entry. It has the unintended side effect of making all these other, cheaper tools more attractive. But what do all architects need, whether they’re employers or employed, young or experienced, in small practice or large? What do we all need that Twitter and our work colleagues can’t give us?


The AIA is very cautious about recommending any of its members for anything at all, for fear of claims of favouritism. I understand this conflict, but I don’t see it as a deal breaker. The AIA could be a recruitment agency, using its vast understanding of private practice to connect employers with the right employees. Or like New York City’s 8/20 contracts, it could be a project facilitator, developing rotating lists of architects pre-approved for certain types of work, then driving commissions through connections in government and the private sector. For both enterprises, the AIA could take a courageous role in encouraging excellence in the profession, demanding a strict code of conduct to qualify for participation.

The AIA could also use its position as a representative body of 12,000 workers to leverage discounted essential goods and services. It could be like a giant, national buyers collective.

This isn’t as weird as it sounds. Greens List and the Victorian Bar, organisations that respectively represent around 200 and 2,000 Victorian barristers, already do this for their members. Between them, they provide access to perks as varied as in-house debt collectors, discounted life insurance policies, business coaching, flu vaccinations, common email domains and the occasional bit of merchandise like good quality umbrellas. The Australian Medical Association goes a step further, offering discounted credit cards, cars, hire cars, flights and home loans.

What about discounted rates on share cars or Uber membership? Discounted computers and software. Discounted printing. Discounted 3D printing. Trade discounts on appliances for our own homes. Access to private banking. Scale rulers, tape measures, hardhats and steel capped boots. Eye tests. Photography drones. And of course umbrellas.

20150602 classroom

5. Enforce learning for life

The architects registration boards of New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland already require registered architects to meet minimum annual continuing professional development targets. It is also compulsory for AIA members in the A+ practice category to complete CPD, but unfortunately there is currently no mechanism in place to police it.

Though it has not been documented by any of the above states, I imagine the introduction of compulsory CPD nationwide will increase the demand for CPD events.[4][5] What is more certain is that increased demand will subsequently lead to an increased supply. More architects attending CPD will make feasible more regular CPD events, spread across more locations, with greater diversity of content.

Compulsory CPD is good for three reasons:

  1. In and of itself, CPD is a necessary tool to improve the profession: it increases knowledge and skills, and it generates a shared drive towards betterment.
  2. Tim Horton, registrar of the NSW registration board, points out that CPD is one of the few measurable differentiators of architects from other building designers.[6] This quality should be flaunted not concealed.
  3. AIA membership will benefit. As the country’s leading provider of CPD events for architects, with an established system of providing discounts for members, the AIA would be in an excellent position to convert increased demand into increased membership.

count von count

6. Count things

Past mayor of New York City and my third favourite billionaire businessman, Michael Bloomberg, said, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” Data is hard evidence, it can be analysed, distributed and addressed. It can provide reasons for doing certain things and not doing others. Really, data is science, and many other industries already rely on it to function.

Unfortunately, the architecture profession is not good at using data to support itself. Evidence-based design is at best a fledgling field with patchy implementation and, in my experience, poor sharing of resources.[7] We are even worse at gathering useful data about ourselves. Victorian Legal Services, the lawyers’ equivalent of the Architects Registration Board of Victoria, is a worthy role model that maintains a solid database of professional statistics on its website.

As the peak professional network for architects in Australia, the AIA could circulate the data that we collectively produce, and even generate some of its own. I think there are two broad subjects that need counting (note: this infers the generation of hard not soft evidence i.e. numbers, percentages, rates, measures):

  1. How does design make people’s lives better? If we can prove that better insulation will save $X per year in heating bills, or more ergonomic desk chairs will increase worker productivity by X% per year, or plantation timber framing for a house will save X Indonesian rainforest trees, we can achieve better design outcomes. I am sure that a lot of this sort of information already exists somewhere, but it’s not accessible. Most useful would be a database of design-related scientific studies. The database would contain the papers written for these studies, and also enable the extraction of key pieces of knowledge without requiring every architect to sift through every word of research.[8] The intention here is to replace the current arrangement of every woman for herself, with one where we each learn from and teach one another.
  2. What is the output of the architecture profession? How many architects are there? Where do we work? Where are our projects built? How big are they? How much do they cost? What types of buildings are they? By how much does our input increase resale value? If we can quantify answers to these questions, we will be in a much better position to establish our worth, advocate for good design and improve the reputation of the profession. Collected continuously over time, this census-like information will allow us to track and respond to emerging changes in the profession.


7. Take a stance on workplace equity

Finally, before my list gets so exhaustive it become exhausting, the AIA needs to gets its hands dirty in the push towards greater workplace equity. The scope here is limitless, though currently contentious issues surrounding long working hours, work / life balance, gender equity and unpaid staff are fertile grounds for intervention.

The AIA is already making some headway in this regard, having at the end of 2013 established the National Committee for Gender Equity, and very recently become the major sponsor of the indomitable Parlour. But I would like to see it do more than discuss and indirectly facilitate workplace equity, I would like to see it get aggressively involved. The Royal Institute of British Architects has already done this on the issue of unpaid staff, warning in 2012 that “practices which take on unpaid interns will be stripped of their accreditation.”[9]

I am sure the AIA is wary of excommunicating paying members. However, it will win more friends than it loses by demonstrating a zealous commitment to its own code of professional conduct, which states that “architects who are AIA members uphold the values of ethical behaviour, equality of opportunity and social justice.”[10]

There are a number of ways this could be achieved, from the disbarring of members who contravene fundamental requirements of workplace law (particularly in relation to unpaid staff and the culture of long working hours); to the rewarding of practices with an equitable gender mix with reduced membership fees; to the expansion of the awards programme to include excellence in social justice, workplace equity and service delivery.

Many of these issues are close to the hearts of architects. I am sure we all know what it is to pull an all-nighter at university or have dealt with the snarling egotism of an ungrateful boss. By backing up its policy commitment to equity with action, the AIA would encourage the profession to do the same, and might just inspire a few jaded architects to return to the fold.

nuclear explosion

What now?

I am a proud member of the AIA. While I think there is much about it that can be improved, I believe fervently in its continuing existence and the values it promotes. The architecture profession has enough problems without the disappearance of our peak professional body. But the AIA is in a state of crisis. Membership is devastatingly low and its financial position is tenuous.

To save itself, the AIA needs to re-engage the architecture profession. An extra 4,000 members nationwide will fill last year’s financial hole, but business as usual will not get us there. We need to rethink what the AIA is and what it does, and look to other organisations doing  better than we are for inspiration.

My seven ideas to re-engage the profession all boil down to improving the value proposition offered by the AIA. The services already provided are in many cases very good, but they rely on an audience that already wants to be serviced. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the key to achieving the altruistic aims of the AIA lies in attracting the architects who aren’t interested in altruism.

There are currently too many architects who couldn’t care less. The AIA needs to drastically rethink how it engages them.



  1. Information sourced via conversations with representatives of the Law Institute of Victoria, Legal Services Board and Australian Dental Association. Conversations conducted 1st and 2nd June 2015.
  2. Australian Institute of Architects; 2014 Annual Report; accessed June 2015
  3. See: Andrea Learned; Leveraging Consumer Life Transitions for Sustainability; Sustainable Business Forum; March 2012 and Marketing Charts; Profiling People in Transition and the Marketing Opportunities They Present; October 2013.
  4. Having spoken with the registration boards in New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland, where compulsory CPD was introduced in 2004, 2004 and 2010 respectively, it appears no one tracked the uptake of CPD following regulatory enforcement. There was some indication however that the attendance and recording of CPD events are two different things, with architects generally good at the former but poor at the latter.
  5. The AIA is not actually empowered to make CPD compulsory, it is the responsibility of the various State and Territory registration boards. The most the AIA can proactively achieve is the successful lobbying of the boards. I note that the Victorian Chapter of the AIA has recently hinted at some hard-won success along this avenue, so I hope we’ll see some changes here soon.
  6. Email correspondence with Tim Horton, NSW Architects Registration Board registrar, 1st June 2015.
  7. The one important exception to this observation is Parlour, the only Australian, publicly accessible platform for sharing data about the profession. Its ongoing successes in improving gender equity are proof that data is an invaluable tool for facilitating change.
  8. Google has already started adding this sort of functionality to its search engine. It can tell you directly how tall the Eiffel Tower is without you having to read the statistics page on the Eiffel Tower homepage.
  9. Mark Wilding; Pay interns or lose accreditation, RIBA tells architects; BD Online; June 2012.
  10. Australian Institute of Architects; Code of Professional Conduct; January 2006.

Image sources

  1. Adam Smith, image copyright Getty Images. Sourced from The Guardian.
  2. Revolution, author unknown. Sourced from Playbuzz.
  3. Sigmund Freud, image copyright Getty Images. Sourced from The Huffington Post.
  4. Elevators, image copyright Shutterstock. Sourced from All-types Elevators.
  5. 99 Cent II Diptychon by Andreas Gursky, 2001. Sourced from Artblart.
  6. Classroom, author unknown. Sourced from Larry Cuban.
  7. Count von Count, image copyright Sesame Street. Sourced from Sengkok.
  8. Workplace equity, author’s own image.
  9. Mushroom cloud, author unknown. Sourced from Imgkid.
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Reflecting on Risk 2015

tribe studio

What was it?

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual architecture conference, held two weeks ago in Melbourne. Creatively directed by Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, it explored the changing role of risk in architecture. The directors framed the discussion by observing that “No one wants to be a safe architect. Safety assumes the conventional and the predictable. Who wants that? Unless of course you want to stay in business… This conference will explore the troubled nexus between the architectural necessity of risk-taking and a building environment predicated on the minimisation of risk.”[1]

This was the third conference in three years that I’ve attended, continuity that has allowed me to start detecting both trends and innovations across their formats.[2] Gone were the subthemes that distinguished the speakers for Making 2014, replaced by a more filigreed thematic engagement. Gone also was the regional specificity of Making, the list this year having more in common with the internationalism of Material 2013. And in contrast to both was an invigorating series of panel discussions, with concurrent sessions providing respite between the more serious keynote addresses.

Though Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie eschewed the limelight somewhat, their curatorial hand in both speaker selection and discussion topics was firmly evident. Their combined experience across large practice, education, media and procurement flowed cleanly into a conference that looked pleasingly beyond the usual parochialism of the architecture profession.

Educators, journalists and emerging practitioners shared as much of the stage as established architects. And in a worthwhile first, the Planning and Architecture panel discussion was a collaboration with the Planning Institute of Australia’s Planning Congress 2015. Delivered to a packed house of both architects and planners, in many ways this session epitomised the broad agenda of the conference, positioning the practice of architecture within its larger, more ambitious and multi-disciplinary context.

With the concurrent panel discussions expanding the usual eight sessions to fourteen, the list of speakers this year was necessarily long:

Keynote speakers
Gregg Pasquarelli, SHoP Architects, United States of America
Carline Bos, UN Studio, the Netherlands
Deborah Saunt, DSDHA, United Kingdom
David Gianotten, OMA, the Netherlands
Amanda Levete, AL_A, United Kingdom
Jeremy Till, Central Saint Martins, United Kingdom
Cynthia Davidson, Anyone Corporation, United States of America
Kasper Jensen, 3XN / GXN, Denmark

Local practitioners
Suzannah Waldron, Searle x Waldron, Melbourne
John Choi, CHROFI, Sydney
Camilla Block, Durbach Block Jaggers, Sydney
Paul Morgan, Paul Morgan Architects, Melbourne
Finn Pedersen, Iredale Pedersen Hook, Perth
Kristen Green, Kristin Green Architecture, Melbourne
Ben Hewett, NSW Government Architect, Sydney
Jeremy McLeod, Breathe Architecture, Melbourne
Juliet Moore, Edwards Moore, Melbourne
Charles Wright, Charles Wright Architects, Cairns
Thomas Bailey, Room 11, Hobart
Hanna Tribe, Tribe Studio, Sydney

John Daley, Grattan Institute, Australia
Mitchel Silver, New York City Parks Commissioner, United States of America
Cheong Koon Hean, Housing and Development Board, Singapore
Manfred Grohmann, Bollinger Grohman, Germany
Ian McDougall, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, Australia
Vivian Mitsogianni, RMIT, Australia
Anthony Burke, UTS, Australia

searle x waldron

What did I think?

While Material and Making were inspiring and engaging conferences, it must be said that the timelessness of their subjects dulled their urgency.[3] Risk suffered no such problems. Firmly rooted in what is surely the biggest challenge facing contemporary architecture practice, the dangers and rewards of risk-taking are at the very heart of the crisis that beleaguers our profession.

As Till noted in his address, “it used to be that the entire architectural project was a zone of invention and risk, but this has now been narrowed down to the slimmest of opportunities.” We were once a profession of risk-takers, driving the development of new building typologies, technologies and structural systems. In the golden age of the early 20th Century, architects were rewarded with the power to shape entire cities. But recent decades have witnessed the rise of the project manager and the novated contract, of suburban sprawl and foreign wealth. Our influence has been eroded to the point of superfluousness. It could be argued that we have never before been so close to the brink of our own demise.

Thankfully, amidst the debris there are glimmers of hope, embryonic opportunities opening up to new generations of savvy risk-takers. In New York, Pasquarelli is forging joint venture alliances with developers and fabricators, investing sweat equity in return for a stake of the profits. In London, Saunt is “placing herself in the path of luck,” leveraging a string of boutique projects into a startling array of significant commissions. And in Copenhagen, Jensen is pursuing non-traditional commissions for non-financial reward.

The Australian engagement with risk-taking is less dramatic but equally well articulated. In Melbourne, Waldron is tackling the often criticised competitions pathway to win new projects, “worthwhile wagers” that have nourished her emerging practice. In Hobart, Bailey is shaking off the conservative need for “architecture to be all things for all people,” creating a string of remarkable, almost sculptural projects. And in Sydney, Tribe is designing “house portraits” that test the poorly understood relationship between architecture as luxury and commodity.

So we are at a crossroads, or to reach for a more suitable metaphor, in the depths of a valley. If recent decades have unravelled the visionary agenda of the modernist era, then the opening years of the 21st Century are suggesting they might ravel it back up again. Risk positioned itself right at the nadir of this transition, capitalising on both the precariousness of the profession’s position, as well as our new enthusiasm for risk-taking.


What were the highlights?

Even before the first speakers took to the stage, we were treated with a rare, and I must say, profoundly encouraging opening statement from new Victorian planning minister, Richard Wynne. As he announced the return of the OVGA into the Department of Premier and Cabinet, I couldn’t help but feel a thrill of excitement run through me. For those of you who weren’t there, you’ll just have to imagine it: a politician announcing a new government initiative, not to an audience of farmers or miners or teachers, but to a room full of architects! There couldn’t have been a better or more contextually appropriate beginning to the conference.

Across the two days that followed, it became clear that although risk most commonly conjures images of leaking roofs and insurance claims, there are many (much more interesting) ways to define, engage with and respond to risk in architecture. Particularly prevalent was the attempt to define different loci for risk:

  • New business development
  • Extending the boundaries of traditional practice
  • Experimental projects

By exploring new avenues for where risks can be taken, the speakers foreshadowed Till’s recommendation at the conclusion of his presentation, to “radically engage with risk… and redescribe what practice can be.” They may have each pursued different strategies in their engagement, but they all possessed a shared dissatisfaction with the status quo. It was this restlessness that separated the most riveting speakers from the least, and, I think, underpinned the true value to be taken from the conference.

The panel discussions I attended, Planning and Architecture on the Friday and Pedagogy on the Saturday, were lively debates that looked beyond architecture practice to bigger and essential questions of urban planning and education. But for fear of bloating this already lengthy article, I won’t address either discussion here. I did however have the highly rewarding opportunity to interview John Daley, chair of the Planning and Architecture panel and CEO of the Grattan Institute, after the conference, and will reproduce the interview in weeks to come.

New business development

In his presentation, Gianotten undertook a commendably open dissection of the history of OMA. The majority of his slides weren’t glossy pictures, but charts: charts that analysed the relationship between risk and profit on construction projects; charts that looked at the annual growth in OMA‘s insurance premiums; charts that revealed the startlingly small number of their commissions that result in built projects; and charts that plotted the past and future development of the OMA business model.

One remark struck me in particular. While working through all the material that would combine to become S,M,L,XL, a weighty tomb that should (and probably does) sit on every architect’s shelf, OMA almost went bankrupt. They had committed so many resources to it that anything other than resounding success would have ruined them. It was an enormously risky leap, but one that allowed them to relaunch their office into the global powerhouse it is today.

Waldron presented a similar appetite for taking calculated risks, discussing the procurement process for the Ballarat Art Annexe. She understood that Searle x Waldron lacked the experience of their more established competitors, so went well beyond the requirements of the brief to craft a particular story for the project. She reflected, “what if the client didn’t like our idea? But actually, it allowed the client to buy into our idea right from the start.” It was a gamble that paid off: the idea reflected the client’s own ambitions for the project, they won the commission, and their entire practice was launched into existence.

Extending the boundaries of traditional practice

I have written before about the work of Pasquarelli’s studio, SHoP Architects (here and here among others). Once again I was impressed by the creativity with which they manipulate the architectural process. From embracing 3D documentation technologies long before they were popularised; to extending their involvement beyond architecture to fabrication, construction and finance; to developing new technologies and software that reshape the limits of practice.

Most importantly, Pasquarelli explained how all of SHoP‘s initiatives are grounded by an absolutely fundamental insight, that “design should be seen as a profit centre, not a cost centre.” In other words, design has an extraordinary capacity to deliver more than the low risk, conventionally designed strategies employed by much of the construction industry, and architects are uniquely equipped to both define and deliver this value.

One recent project was captivating, as much for the skills it required of SHoP as the ideas it embodied. Envelope is a web application that distills the contents of New York’s hefty 1,000 page planning code into an interactive plug and play questionnaire: enter the details of your site and the software spits out its maximum building envelope. The data can then be downloaded in a digital model or spreadsheet format, reducing a process “that normally takes many, many hours to one that takes under 60 seconds.”

Experimental projects

The first session on the second day was a pre-recorded video by the absent Levete. At first skeptical (isn’t the whole joy of conferences to actually have the speakers in the room?), I was swiftly won over by the effort she had put into its production. What followed was a densely packed tour of the Future Systems cum AL_A opus, each project its own thesis on materials, construction and structure. Thankfully, Levete managed to avoid the pitfalls of a portfolio presentation, constantly weaving the conference issues into her discussion.

Each project seemed more outrageous than the last: from the Spencer Dock Bridge, whose fluid concrete form was achieved using CNC routed polystyrene formwork, to the Lord’s Media Centre, built by yacht builders and the first semi-monocoque building in the world, to the Victoria and Albert Museum renovation, which pushed the technical capacity of ceramics to their limits. The languid Levete was the embodiment of the starchitect: no country was too remote, no brief too challenging, no law of physics too immutable.

Choi’s commentary on CHROFI‘s Lune de Sang offered an interesting counterpart to Levete’s superhuman projects. He observed that, “architecture is the opposite of mass production, where you design it, break it, and design it again. Architecture needs to be perfect first time, built by people who have never built it before, and meet everyone’s expectations.” It was an important reminder that all architecture, no matter the scale of its ambition, is at its heart experimental. Lune de Sang is a stunning project, but it wasn’t built by yacht builders, nor did it retrofit an entire ceramics factory for its production. It nevertheless demonstrated the same, and indeed more accessible, commitment to experimentation.

room 11

What did I learn?

Returning to work on the Monday following Risk was an inevitable anticlimax. The very reasons I love attending the conference each year – to take a break, remind myself of the big picture, be inspired – made it hard to return to the daily grind of practice. This got me thinking. I’m regularly inspired by the conferences, lectures and seminars I attend, but what am I to do with this inspiration? How do I translate new knowledge into productive outcomes?

More so than either of the previous conferences I’ve attended, Risk left me with a number of valuable and, most importantly, actionable lessons:

  • To stay healthy, the architecture profession needs to take the occasional irretrievable leap, an all or nothing risk where both dangers and rewards are high. As a finance friend advised me recently, businesses need to constantly reinvent themselves to remain competitive. If the deaths of MySpace, Kodak, Nokia, Lonely Planet and countless other seemingly unshakeable juggernauts can teach us anything, it’s that businesses (and make no mistake, architects, the AIA and the profession at large are all businesses) are like sharks: we must keep moving or we drown.
  • Architects need to become more courageous in testing the boundaries of our daily existence. There are any number of ways we can do this: we can offer a broader service to our clients; we can become builders, or fabricators or suppliers; we can get involved with politics. The good news is that it isn’t as hard as it sounds: SHoP have already shown us the way. You see, the best thing about their various initiatives are their scaleability: not how easily the scale up, but how easily they scale down. My small practice is hardly in a position to enter into sweat equity arrangements on multi-residential towers, but we can embrace new technologies, digital fabrication and smart materials thinking on even the most humble of residential projects.
  • And finally, true reform in the architecture profession needs to start with our educational institutions. It was once the tradition for practicing architects to remain heavily involved with teaching throughout their lives. This is sadly on the decline, yet the relationship between education and practice is as important as ever. Practitioners bring great wealth to our schools, which in turn have the freedom to experiment and assume much needed positions of leadership.

The conference successfully captured the current zeitgeist of the profession, both the shortcomings that have lead to our diminished state and the opportunities that a greater appetite for risk can bring. Bates, Lyon and Mackenzie are to be applauded for tackling this herculean subject, a task that also happened to include a substantial evolution of the traditional AIA conference model.

The bigger Australian picture is changing, with an array of important regulatory reforms shifting the landscape of architecture practice. Among others, a recently implemented Competitive Design Policy in Sydney exchanges greater floor area for a quantifiable investment in design excellence, while in Melbourne, successful lobbying has resulted in a new State government promising positive changes to apartment design.

We need to take the lessons of Risk 2015 to heart, and collectively seize this moment of opportunity by the scruff of its neck.


  1. Donald Bates, Hamish Lyon and Andrew Mackenzie, creative directors; Overview; Risk 2015 National Architecture Conference; accessed 17th May 2015
  2. A full list of reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  3. The exception being the making impact subtheme last year, which critically analysed the opportunities of architecture beyond traditional practice.

Image sources:

  1. Schmukler House by Tribe Studio, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  2. Art Annexe by Searle x Waldron, photograph by John Gollings.
  3. Lune de Sang Shed 1 by CHROFI, photograph by Brett Boardman.
  4. GASP Stage 2 by Room 11, photograph by Ben Hosking.
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Why I’m a member of the AIA


41X by Lyons. Photography by John Gollings

Last week, the Victorian chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects hosted its second annual members forum. Chapter Councillors Amy Muir and Stuart Harrison chaired a panel that fielded questions “on the role and direction of the profession, with a focus on media and engagement”.[1]

The event was free and intended for members’ ears only, a deliberate opportunity to discuss issues that we, as a profession and as members of the AIA, may not necessarily want aired publicly. This article will not breach that trust, but focus instead on one of my own questions submitted for discussion:

Why should I be a member of the Australian Institute of Architects?

Harrison eloquently reframed this question when he introduced it, suggesting it seeks to understand how a member might describe to a non-member the value proposition offered by the AIA. This is an important interpretation, is indeed something I and colleagues have grappled with on many occasions. But I would go a step further and argue that its answer is essential to justifying the very existence of the AIA, is closely linked to the underlying and even more fundamental question:

What is the Australian Institute of Architects?

These are simple questions, they share barely a handful of words between them, but they don’t offer simple answers. This is a problem. Being able to clearly and simply articulate what the AIA is, and why architects, graduates and students should be members, is the first step towards achieving a strong and meaningful organisation. A number of the panellists attempted to distill why they see value in AIA membership:

We need to band together as a profession.
Rodney Eggleston

The AIA is changing, it’s no longer a stuffy old-boys club.
Monique Woodward

The AIA is good at articulating ambition for the profession.
Rob McGuaran

The AIA allows me to participate in my profession.
Nigel Bertram

Speaking after the forum with colleagues, current Victorian Chapter President, Peter Malatt, offered his own contribution:

The AIA gives the profession a strong, unified voice.
Peter Malatt

These are inspiring answers. In particular, McGuaran, Bertram and Malatt’s comments describe an altruistic institution, one that both leads and supports the architecture profession, encourages us to be the best we can be. And they infer a strong professional unity, a preparedness to be generous with our time and learning. But they are unfortunately answers that preach to the choir. I am drawn to the vision outlined by the panellists in part because their comments articulate thoughts already loosely formed in my own mind. I am already a member of the AIA, already want it to be strong.

Does the rest of the profession agree with me?

Like a political party, a professional body is only as strong as the saturation of its membership. Anecdotally, the AIA has in the past attracted membership from 75% of registered architects. Finding out whether this is still the case is, disturbingly, easier said than done. No one really collects the numbers. The architects’ registration boards in each state and territory keep a record of how many registered architects there are, but there is some overlap that introduces an unknown margin of error.[2] The AIA compounds this murkiness by not offering a membership category that strictly aligns with this segment of the population.[3]

Nevertheless, by speaking with all eight boards across the country, as well as the Victorian Chapter of the AIA, here’s what I was able to discover:

registered architects

Number of registered architects across Australia

AIA members

Number of registered architects across Australia who are AIA members

The bottom line is that only 45% of registered architects are members of the AIA. It is abundantly clear that a very large chunk of the architecture profession isn’t convinced by the AIA’s value proposition. For around 7,000 registered architects across Australia, my question, Why should I be a member of the AIA? has no satisfying answer.

This is a deeply shocking situation. Financially, I am sure such poor saturation is hurting the AIA’s annual revenue.[4] It also means that when the AIA speaks with its “strong, unified voice”, it cannot even say it does so on behalf of the majority of Australian architects.

So why aren’t more architects members?

I am sure the AIA has undertaken significant investigations to answer this question, indeed it has come up in discussion at numerous recent AIA events I have attended. But so far, nothing I’ve heard has been convincing, or has been convincing but for some unknown reason isn’t working.[5]

I think the problem has arisen in part because the AIA is not successful at communicating with the profession. I consider myself a conscientious reader of the various media content the AIA distributes, yet I miss important things all the time. But to blame the disenfranchisement of the profession on poor communication is to scramble for an expedient scapegoat. The problem is systemic and, to return to my original questions at the members forum, has a lot to do with what the AIA is. I’m hardly in a position to say what the AIA should and shouldn’t be, but as I went to bed last night, chewing the content of this article over in my mind, I realised something important that might shed some light.

The analogy of the toy library

hiroshi fuji

Toys Paradise, installation by Hiroshi Fuji, 2010

Our local toy library is a not-for-profit, community-owned resource for toys. For an annual membership fee of $80, toys from the library’s collection are available to borrow for two weeks at a time at no extra cost. The value proposition here is clear: we have access to a large selection of toys; are able to keep our children entertained by regularly exchanging the toys we take home; and never clutter up the corners of our house. All for considerably less than it would cost us to actually purchase the toys.

The toy library provides other, more altruistic values too: by borrowing instead of purchasing, we reduce the environmental impact of our growing children; and by participating in the toy library, we contribute to the critical mass of families required to make it feasible and in turn available for families less fortunate than us.

So the value proposition of our local toy library succeeds for both selfish and altruistic interests. Would we still pay our $80 membership if it were only accessible to disadvantaged families? Possibly, but then it would be a charity, not an important part of our daily lives. The toy library would no longer help us, we would be helping others. This is not to give the impression that self-interest is somehow the villain in this equation, quite the opposite. Self-interest has the power to take a truly worthwhile cause and make it accessible and relevant. The best, most meaningful organisations capture both values, allow each to reinforce the other.

Does the AIA capture both self-interest and altruism?

The AIA would say yes, it does. It would point to its plethora of pragmatic services that include Acumen, the senior counsellor service, access to Australian Standards, the Environment Design Guide, its legal advisory service and marketing opportunities through awards programmes. And it would remind us that its self-proclaimed and truly worthwhile mission is to “make the world a better place through architecture.”[6]

But by my reckoning, it doesn’t. Many of the above mentioned services are non-essential, that is, not really needed for the daily business of being an architect. Many aren’t even included in the standard membership available to registered architects.[7] And based on discussions with colleagues who work in large practices that do enjoy access, they either don’t know about or don’t use them. Really, we need look no further than the brutal but honest numbers: if architects thought the AIA could help them in their daily lives, more would be members.

I am a member because McGuaran, Bertram and Malatt put into words what I was already thinking. I am passionate about architecture and the built environment. I believe in the value of participating in our profession, of giving it a strong voice. I attend countless AIA-sponsored conferences, lectures, seminars and forums, and then I write about them. I follow the AIA on Twitter and eagerly read through my email alerts each week. The AIA is the architecture profession’s peak body and, I believe, should have the support of all architects.

But I am not all architects. In particular, I am not my 7,000 colleagues who aren’t members. I speculate heavily here, but perhaps many of them think of architecture like any other job. They work from 9 until 5 and then go home to invest their energy into their families and hobbies. Perhaps some can’t afford it, or think they can’t. Perhaps others don’t like the AIA, so choose not to join in protest.

If the AIA is to achieve its own self-declared mission, to be relevant, meaningful, important, essential and influential, then it has to engage with the disenfranchised, disinterested and apathetic. It needs to address self-interest first and foremost, needs to ensure its value proposition is so alluring that every architect sees no choice but to join.

In the short term, the AIA will benefit from bolstered membership revenue. In the medium term, the profession will benefit from a stronger peak body that offers better and more tailored services. And in the long term, with more practitioners exposed to the daily value offered by the AIA, the built environment will benefit from the realisation of the AIA’s core, truly altruistic goals.


  1. Australian Institute of Architects; 2015 Victorian Chapter Members’ Forum event description; accessed 9th May 2015.
  2. For example, in Queensland there are 2,720 registered architects. A further 374 registered architects reside outside Queensland (hence possess dual registration). An unknown proportion of these are registered in multiple or even all states and territories.
  3. To quote Michael Bloomberg, “In God we trust, everyone else bring data.” Knowing how many student, graduate and registered architects there are across Australia, and how many are members of the AIA, is an essential and historically absent piece of data. My research for this article has been very shallow, relying on Victorian AIA statistics to extrapolate the other states and territories. If you would like to fund a more in-depth study, please get in touch.
  4. Based on current membership fees of $916 per person, the 55% of registered architects who aren’t members cost the AIA around $6,500,000 a year in lost fees. This number does not take into account other membership categories e.g. students, graduates and academics.
  5. For instance, one of the most poorly represented groups within the AIA are architecture students. This is despite student membership costing a measly $85 per year, just $3 more than the subscription to Architecture Australia that comes with membership. And despite the AIA recently making membership free to all first year architecture students across Australia.
  6. Australian Institute of Architects; Mission statement in Mission, Vision, Values; accessed 11th May 2015
  7. Some are included within the recently established A+ member category, which is slightly more expensive for sole-practitioners but cheaper for larger practices. Others, like awards and CPD events, are available on a user-pays basis.

Image sources

  1. 41X, sourced from Knowledge to Scale. Modified from the original, copyright belongs to John Gollings.
  2. Number of registered architects, author’s own image.
  3. Number of AIA members, author’s own image.
  4. Toys Paradise, sourced from Moriyu Gallery. Installation by Hiroshi Fuji at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, 2010.
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A soft deadline

Most of the time, the construction of an architect-designed project proceeds according to plan. Construction unfolds on time. The construction documentation is clear and free of ambiguity. The trades perform their work skilfully and conscientiously. There are few surprises, be they physical or financial. The builder, owner and architect maintain a positive working relationship.

Sometimes though, construction does not proceed according to plan. Through negligence, disagreement or accident, a project is derailed. The derailment might last a moment in time, soon forgotten, or it might endure the entire project, poisoning both the process and relationships.

We have experienced and survived a number of derailments. They are stressful, sometimes expensive and always fractious. They test the good intentions of everyone involved.

What follows is the last of eight disaster lessons from site. We ask what went wrong and review what we’ve changed in our practices to prevent it from happening again. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

8. A soft deadline

soft deadline

What happened

The project was built within a cost-plus framework, with a deliberate attempt to create a close working relationship between builder, client and architect. The builder’s and trade costs were open to scrutiny, both prior to and during construction.

Particular consideration was given to time. Given the rural location of the project, the builder anticipated he would spread out and concentrate his site days so as to avoid long trips for half days of work. Working days would not necessarily be packed tightly together, though no firm agreement was made for the overall duration of the project.

What happened next

As computer programmer Tom Cargill said in the 1980s, “The first 90% of the work accounts for 90% of the time. The remaining 10% accounts for the other 90% of the time.”[1]

The builder fell into this trap in a big way, with the second half of construction taking more than twice as long as the first half. This was not just a consequence of inactivity: the number of weeks of active work also stretched beyond expectations. It became clear that the builder had underestimated both how many hours it would take him to build the project, and how quickly he could attend to those hours.

Why we think it happened

For a builder, pouring concrete, erecting timber frames, laying roof sheeting and installing cladding are easy. Not technically easy, but easy to coordinate and manage. They require lots of consecutive hours, meaning staff can be lined up and let loose for days on end.

By contrast, hanging doors, installing flashing, laying tiles, and fitting off lights are hard. They are the opposite of the big trades that begin a project: they are fiddly and bitsy, needing a few hours here and a few hours there. They are also far less lucrative, demand the skills of specialist trades, and offer much less room for error.

For our builder, who was trying to line up whole days of work in his schedule, such days became increasingly difficult to find as the project neared completion. So the time between them stretched out, whole weeks passing between visits.

The lesson we learnt

The beginning of any project is smooth sailing compared to the end. Everyone loves a beginning: spirits are high, progress is rapid and the early trades look great as the entire building rises up out of the ground. Finishing is hard. Technically and psychologically, getting from 90 to 100% requires discipline and commitment.

The standard building contracts used by architects, the ABIC suite, includes both transparency for the time taken on a project, as well as disincentives for late delivery.[2] These help to counteract the psychological hurdles that are thrown up at the end of a project.

Cost plus contracts by their very nature are much looser. Since they are primarily used when the full scope is unknown at time of commencement, how can a deadline possibly be enforced? The lesson we learnt was never to undertake a project without a thorough and realistic analysis of the time it will take, incentives for delivery on time and penalties for delivery late.[3]


  1. Tom Cargill quoted in Jon Bentley; Programming Pearls; Communications of the ACM; volume 28, issue 9; 1985. Cargill’s ninety-ninety rule is a riff on the Pareto principle, also known as the eighty-twenty rule i.e. that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
  2. Jointly published by the Australian Institute of Architects and Master Builders Australia.
  3. I use the term penalty loosely here. Contract law cannot enforce penalties, only the courts can do this. Liquidated damages instead require the builder to cover any costs the client will reasonably incur e.g. rent, storage costs and architectural fees.

Image source

  1. A soft deadline, author’s own image.
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