The challenges of geography

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography

There are many residential architecture studios in Melbourne whose portfolios are concentrated within specific geographical regions: the south-eastern suburbs, the inner-north, bayside, the Mornington Peninsula, Ballarat. I live in Carlton North and seem to see Robert Simeoni signs on front fences everywhere. Zen Architects does a lot of work in and around Northcote. Jolson Architects has nailed the Toorak market.

I don’t believe there’s any data quantifying the prevalence of this phenomenon, but common sense would suggest it’s widespread.

Architecture is a physical act: it leaves a mark on the built environment that acts as a type of calling card for future clients. Locals walk past a construction site, come across an ad in the local paper, or see the architect’s studio on a Google Maps search, and are pulled into the architect’s orbit. Each project develops its own powerful gravitational field that inevitably leads to more local enquiries than those from further away. The enquiries become projects, they produce new gravitational fields, and so on.

This chain reaction is useful for an architect, it’s a reliable pipeline of familiar projects that help establish a strong local presence and consistent portfolio. But what happens when the snowball never gets started in the first place?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; Data

A geographically dispersed practice

For reasons unknown to me, both the enquiries and commissions of Mihaly Slocombe are and have always been widely dispersed across Melbourne and rural Victoria.

Our studio is located in Brunswick East, and while we have a growing number of projects scattered across the inner-north, we are also working on or have completed projects in Albert Park, Ashburton, Bentleigh, Brighton, Broadmeadows, Camberwell, Caulfield, Collingwood, Doncaster, Eaglemont, Frankston, Hawthorn, Heidelberg, Ivanhoe, Keilor, Kensington, Kew, Malvern, Melbourne CBD, Moonee Ponds, Richmond and Rosanna.

Our version of local therefore is a sprawling 300 or so square kilometres, and that’s just our work in and around Melbourne.

Each blue dot on the map above represents one of our current or past projects. They tell an interesting story in and of themselves, most importantly this surprising insight:

  • Excluding two projects in Frankston, all of our urban commissions have been less than 20km from the city.

But what about enquiries that never get off the ground? And how do they relate to the ones that do? What else might a thorough mapping of all 160 of the enquiries we’ve received to date reveal?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Mapping our enquiries

We divide project enquiries into four categories: projects are commissions we win, with signed fee proposals; declined are fee proposals that are declined by the client; aborted are enquiries that never get so far as a fee proposal; and rejected are enquiries that are declined by us.

Overlaying the map for each category reveals a number of interesting things:

  • The pattern of our enquiries is reflected in the pattern of our commissions. In other words, there is no bias towards a certain part of Melbourne whose enquiries generate a disproportionately high or low number of commissions.
  • Of the four project categories, aborted has the highest density outside the 10km and 20km rings.
  • Excluding one project in Keilor, all of our urban enquiries (and commissions) have been from the northern, eastern and southern suburbs.
  • Our rural enquiries have been dispersed across much of Victoria, but our rural commissions have been mostly concentrated on the two peninsulas, Mornington and Bellarine.

These observations corroborate what was previously a set of educated intuitions about the pattern of our enquiries. They provide specificity too – We previously had no idea that the 20km ring is so important, nor that the western suburbs are so underrepresented amongst our enquiries. Most actionably, they have given us firm metrics to assess the likelihood of a project proceeding based on geography and other factors, and have helped us flesh out what we now call the three hurdles.

The hurdles are simple really: when a potential client first makes contact, we aim to discover as much as we can about her and her project. In particular, we want to know three things:

  • Where is the project located?
  • What is the broad scope of the project and what is the budget?
  • What are the client’s design ambitions?

The answers to these questions help us be pragmatic about our enquiries. We know statistically that enquiries outside the 20km ring are almost always non-starters. We also happen to know that projects with lower budgets are expensive for us to take on (more on this in a future blog post). And we know that clients who have strong preconceptions about their design outcome aren’t well suited to our openly creative design process.

If the client stumbles on two of the three hurdles, we can be confident that the project is likely to end up a yellow dot. Asking the hard questions early, and knowing the geographic shape of our portfolio, help us spend less time on projects that don’t lead anywhere, and more time on projects that do.

Victoria; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Challenges and opportunities

Our dispersed portfolio has meant a few challenges for our growing practice, some of which are only just becoming apparent as we hit our seventh year in business:

  • We are less visible. Our fragmented street presence across Melbourne means we are much less likely to make serendipitous connections with passersby.
  • Our portfolio is less coherent. If all of our projects were renovations to terrace houses in the inner-north, clients with that sort of project would be able to easily understand what we do. For us, a new house on a vineyard, a small sleeping pavilion and a renovation to a 1977 Kevin Borland house are too unrelated to paint a comprehensive picture of who we are and what we do.
  • Our growth curve is slower. The key quality of a localised portfolio is that it generates momentum. For us, we are only just beginning to return to suburbs where we’ve worked previously. In the meantime, all of those missed enquiries in far flung places were commissions that a localised practice might have won.

It’s not all bad news though, far from it. A dispersed portfolio has a number of benefits that I think will begin to matter more and more the longer we’re in business:

  • We have broad expertise. Having worked across many parts of Melbourne, we have developed an appreciation of unique topographies, prevailing weather patterns, demographics, histories, building stock, culture, and local council requirements. This makes us better placed to keep working across Melbourne, including into new suburbs.
  • We are hard to pigeonhole. Our well-rounded experience resists the pigeonholing that goes hand-in-hand with a localised portfolio. Our portfolio is full of unusual projects, and is only becoming more so. I expect this will open future doors for us that would be shut to a more homogenous practice, including assisting us to diversify into new project typologies.
  • We don’t get bored. Perhaps most importantly, the diversity in the locations and clients of our projects make our work more intellectually stimulating, and ultimately more enjoyable.
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Evening
Hill House, 2006
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Renovation; Kevin Borland; Evening
Chamfer House, 2015

Reflection

Understanding why our practice has evolved this way is difficult. Architecture is largely opportunistic. Clients approach us, not the other way around, so we work on whatever the world brings us. This leads to all sorts of unpredictable connections with potential clients.

Let me illustrate:

Our Hill House project led to the commission for Chamfer House despite the former finishing five years before the latter starting, the two sites being located 30km apart, and the two clients never having met. How can they possibly be linked? Well, in 2006 Hill House was completed, then in 2008 longlisted for the WAN House of the Year award. The longlisted entries were exhibited online. A television scout for Canadian television programme, World’s Greenest Homes, discovered the project and got in contact. In 2009, the house was filmed and the show aired in Australia on the ABC. Then in 2011, the show aired again on repeat, and our soon-to-be Chamfer House clients saw Hill House, liked it, and tracked us down.

The important thing to acknowledge here is that we had zero control over all of these steps. What’s more, I’m sure many of our projects would reveal similar stories if probed.

Twenty one years ago, Nicholas Negroponte predicted that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.”[1]

Negroponte’s argument centred around the death of cities, which of course has proven not to be true. But there is nevertheless a profound realisation in his prediction. Our cities may be thriving more now than ever before, but they’re not what they used to be. As Carlo Ratti has observed, “the digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.”[2]

The layering of the digital world over the physical has, for us, allowed us to make connections in new and geographically diverse ways. I can’t explain the spread of our early projects, but more recently our strong digital presence on Houzz has untethered us somewhat from the limitations of geography. Reviewing our last five projects won from online enquiries proves this point:

  • Ivanhoe East – AIA find an architect service
  • Princes Hill – Google
  • Northcote – Houzz
  • Kew – Houzz
  • Murrindindi – Houzz

In past generations, it was perhaps more difficult for an architect to develop a portfolio without relying on local personal networks and word of mouth. The Internet has by no means replaced these pathways to new projects, but they have certainly increased the chance of chance encounters. Now there are two worlds to navigate, the physical and digital, and in each there are opportunities for an architecture practice willing to master them.


Footnotes:

  1. Nicholas Negroponte; Being Digital; Hodder and Stoughton; 1996
  2. Carlo Ratti; Digital Cities: ‘Sense-able’ urban designWired; 2nd October 2009

Images sources:

  1. Map of Melbourne, author’s own image
  2. Melbourne data: project category, author’s own image
  3. Melbourne data: all categories, author’s own image
  4. Victoria project data: all categories, author’s own image
  5. Hill House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Emma Cross
  6. Chamfer House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Andrew Latreille

Explaining the architectural fee

Architecture; Architecture fee types; Fees; Money; Gold

According to the standard client and architect agreement published by the Australian Institute of Architects, there are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client:

  • Percentage fee
  • Lump sum fee
  • Hourly rates[1]

There’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices, inspired by the lean startup strategy and the practice of web-based design platforms like Elto:

  • Incremental tasks

The percentage fee is the most common method used by architects, however it’s rare in other professions. Potential clients are often unfamiliar with it, and almost guaranteed to ask for an explanation of its logic. Some also question its implied conflict of interest, where the architect is incentivised to inflate the client’s budget to in turn inflate her own fee.

Despite these hurdles, the percentage fee is my preferred method and the one we generally use at Mihaly Slocombe. This preference can be traced back to our university studies, where various architecture practice lecturers recommended its fairness and transparency. They dismissed the conflict of interest issue, pointing out that most service providers face the same challenge, be they dentists or lawyers or mechanics. Many years ago, the Australian Institute of Architects also published a percentage fee scale, further cementing it as the architect’s fee method of choice.[2]

When we started our practice, the percentage fee was in essence the default method, and it has continued that way since. My interest in exploring this subject now stems from an issue that I believe is only just entering mainstream discourse. An architect is a service provider, not a builder, yet her profitability is tied to the buildings she instructs others to make. Shouldn’t her fees be instead tied to the work she does?

The percentage fee is predicated on the idea of a direct correlation between the cost of a building and the amount of work it requires to design and document. But the very nature of the construction market assigns inconsistent costs to buildings. Factors well outside the architect’s control – things like a builder’s need for work, or how thoroughly he understands her documents – can influence how much it costs to build. These factors don’t affect the amount of work required of the architect, but they do affect her profitability. The quantity surveyor I use across all of our projects, Geoffrey Moyle, has reflected on more than one occasion that this arrangement is madness.

The issue runs even deeper however. As I discussed in my review of the recent Australian Institute of Architects national conference, the future of the architecture profession is unclear. Thomas Fisher suggested in his keynote address that the scope of an architect’s services is becoming increasingly untethered from the built environment. Is the administrative structure that surrounds and facilitates the percentage fee method not then hindering architects to exploit this transition? Is there a better way to link an architect’s remuneration to the broader value of her services?

I’m intrigued therefore to assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. Notwithstanding my general use of percentage fees, I’m not convinced of its universal suitability. Certainly, I don’t believe there’s a single correct solution for all architects. Some methods will suit particular architects / clients / projects better than others.

Continuing on Monday next week, this series of five articles will aim to provide clarity on each fee method. I will analyse them from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.

An archive of the series can be accessed here.

This article has been published in conjunction with ArchiTeam.


Footnotes:

  1. A copy of the client and architect agreement can be downloaded here. Membership with the Australian Institute of Architects is required to access this page.
  2. The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 prohibits mandatory fee scales. Source: The legal status of fee scales; Acumen; Australian Institute of Architects; last edited January 2012. There has long been talk of the fee scale re-entering general circulation, though there’s been no definitive action as far as I’m aware. The original is still persona-non-gratis, but I may know a guy who knows a guy who might have a copy. Send me an email and I can possibly put you in contact, for historic interest only of course.

Image source:

  1. Architectural fee types, author’s own image.

How Soon Is Now?

Adelaide; Aerial; City; River

The Australian Institute of Architects‘ annual national conference, How Soon Is Now?,  was held last month in Adelaide. Creatively directed by Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, it explored the “agency of architecture to make real changes in the world.”[1] The directors identified the expansive conversation of last year’s conference, Risk, as a precursor, and proposed to “empower architects to actively participate in the massive transformations occurring to our cities, societies and the sustainability of our planet.”[2]

Around 1,100 delegates attended this year, almost all of whom arrived from interstate. The usual crowd of familiar Melbourne faces made the city feel like home, with the Pink Moon Saloon by Sans-Arc Studio (of recent Architecture Australia fame) frequented well into each night. I was also fortunate to meet some of the local contingent, and be taken out for drinks and late night yum cha. It was an energising reintroduction to a city I haven’t visited for years, and like the Making conference in 2014, a reminder that good Australian architecture, food and culture extend well beyond the parochial borders of Melbourne and Sydney.

How Soon Is Now? developed many patterns of its recent predecessors.[3] Once again, there was a clear delineation between Australian and international speakers, with the former confined predominantly to roles of commentary or criticism. Indeed, none of the keynote speakers were both Australian and working in Australia.[4] And true to Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett’s focus on agency, a sizeable number of speakers weren’t architects at all, but allied professionals engaging with the built environment through non-traditional models.

28th Street Apartments; Adaptive reuse; Mixed use; Los Angeles
28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg, Los Angeles

In focussing on agency and change, How Soon Is Now? paid real tribute to the themes of risk and reward covered last year. There are similarities with Alejandro Aravena’s Venice Biennale too, which has just kicked off and runs until November. All three events demonstrate a keen interest in the social, political and economic contexts of architectural practice.[5]

Hewett neatly summarised the directors’ very broad agenda in their opening address, promising that the conference would ask “how architecture is dealing with tomorrow’s problems today.” The two days that followed revealed a diverse interpretation of what these problems might be. Climate change, population growth, overcrowding, refugees, transport, gender inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor all put in appearances.

To curate this diversity, the conference was split into two days of distinctly different ambitions. Day 1 examined what’s happening now, while Day 2 speculated on what happens next: the present then the future; evidence then strategy. The conference title, derived from The Smiths’ powerful 1985 rock ballad, shed further light on the directors’ intentions. It imbued the discussion with a sense of urgency, even panic.

When you say it’s gonna happen now
Well, when exactly do you mean?
See I’ve already waited too long
And all my hope is gone[6]

How soon is now? Never soon enough.

Safari Roof House; Kevin Low; Small Projects; Malaysia; Courtyard
Safari Roof House by Kevin Low, Kuala Lumpur

The prevalence of non-architect speakers, together with panel discussions at regular intervals, had what I imagine was an intended side-effect: the glossy image was firmly sidelined in favour of critical conversation. Indeed, barely a handful of actual buildings were presented across both daysThis focus away from built form was not received universally well by the delegates, one of whom bailed on the conference entirely and spent Day 2 touring a local wine region instead. The more I reflect on the experience however, the more I realise that Bruhn, Spurr and Hewett crafted a remarkably well choreographed event of two acts. Evidence and strategy; present and future; context and closure. Too many pretty pictures would have distracted from the central themes, and neither day made sense without the other.

Day 1 – Evidence
Keynote speakers
Nasrine Seraji, France
Vicente Guallart, Spain
Sadie Morgan, England
Jeffrey Schumaker, United States of America
Julie Eizenberg, United States of America
Amica Dall, England
David Sanderson, New South Wales
Panellists
John Wardle, Victoria
Greg Mackie, South Australia
Andrew Beer, South Australia
Sharon Mackay, South Australia
Abbie Galvin, New South Wales
Gabrielle Kelly, South Australia
Nick Tridente, South Australia
Maree Grenfell, Victoria
Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, Queensland
Charles Rice, New South Wales

Day 2 – Strategy
Keynote speakers
Astrid Klein, Japan
Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo, Australia
Kevin Low, Malaysia
Thomas Fisher, United States of America
Panellists
Angelique Edmonds, South Australia
Ken Maher, South Australia
Tim Williams, New South Wales
Matt Davis, South Australia
Karl Winda Telfer, South Australia
Timothy Hill, Queensland
Kerstin Thompson, Victoria

To further explore the above, the conference program can be downloaded here.

Adventure playground; London; Playground
Glamis Adventure Playground, London

Day 1 – Evidence

As an exercise in context, Day 1 cast an unexpectedly depressing light on the shortsighted decision-making that plagues Australia. Guallart, Morgan and Shumaker were particularly brutal. Each shared insight into exemplar major infrastructure projects happening elsewhere, unhappy reminders of the positive outcomes achievable when city planning is divorced from politics.

The UK is investing in a high speed rail link that will eventually connect its entire southern half, and has placed Morgan in a central role to ensure that good design is at the heart of its implementation. She observed that the massive size of the project and the billions of pounds that will be spent on it don’t obviate the need for good design. Big things still need to bring small moments of joy to the everyday. Barcelona meanwhile is currently demolishing an elevated highway that runs through the centre of the city, one built only 25 years ago. Despite this emerging as a trend amongst some cities eager to undo the damage done by the car-obsessed 20th Century, to even suggest such a thing here is unimaginable.

These examples of foreign ingenuity were simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. It’s all Melbourne can do to get a new metro built, whether or not its design is any good is barely part of the conversation.

Every theme that emerged seemed only to hold up an unflattering light to its local counterpart. Eizenberg presented a glimpse into her studio’s extensive portfolio of social housing projects, anchoring her discussion in broader ideals of social benefit and civic duty, “We’re not saints, we’re just income blind. It doesn’t matter how much money someone has, we believe they still deserve a house.” In Los Angeles, only 20% of the housing stock can be afforded by people on the median wage. I imagine a similar statistic would hold for Melbourne and Sydney, where housing is treated as a commodity not essential infrastructure.

From the panel discussion I attended after lunch, Culture and Development, I was interested to hear Beer discuss the idea of disintermediation, or the erasure of the middle-man. It’s a role already under substantial threat in many markets, will architecture be next? He asked casually who will become the Amazon of architecture, as though this manifestation lies somewhere in the future, though alarmingly I suggest it’s already happening.

Across Day 1, the speakers championed architecture beyond or even without form, a fundamental idea that to me was at the very centre of the entire conference. Morgan discussed the politics of good design outcomes; Eizenberg proposed that design should begin from social function; Dall peeled back the skin of form entirely; and Sanderson urged architects to think beyond the naïve form-making that dominates most disaster relief housing.

There was great value in much of this content, though it was hard to find hopefulness in it. Dall and her fellow Assemble Studios director, Giles Smith, in some ways encapsulated this despair with their highly critical assessment of the carefully designed Granary Square in London, and contrasting enthusiasm for the evolved or undesigned chaos of Glamis Adventure Playground. I couldn’t help but feel that architects are no longer in a position to be champions of the built environment, doomed instead to faff about at the edges while the real business of our cities gets done elsewhere.

I trudged out of the conference centre feeling pretty glum.

OE House; Fake Industries Architectural Agonism; Aixopluc; Spain
OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc, Tarragona

Day 2 – Strategy

Mercifully, the morning session of Day 2 was a refreshing antidote. Klein opened with a burst of cheerful pragmatism, calling her lecture “More than architecture” and discussing opportunities for value creation in what were otherwise pretty unremarkable commissions.[7] Grau and Pesudo followed with a handful of relentlessly conceptual projects, including some insightful discussion of their shortlisted Helsinki Guggenheim competition entry. I was particularly taken by Pesudo’s characterisation of the Finnish sauna as one of the most sophisticated civic institutions of our era: a group of naked, sweating strangers beat each other with branches in the dark, and reach consensus on the sauna’s ideal ambient temperature.[8]

Low closed out the morning session with a repeat of his superb Australian lecture tour in 2013, an act of laziness that at first made me question his inclusion in the conference program. Surrounded on all sides by architects with eyes firmly focussed on the future, Low’s work is sublime but anachronistic. He spoke of the sacred and the profane, of embracing imperfect construction, of subtlety, nuance and richness in the built form. He is the embodiment of the 20th Century architect, the sole-practitioner, the master craftsman. I felt he would have been perfectly at home amongst the speakers at Making, but what on earth was he doing at How Soon is Now?

Three important things, as I discovered.

First, he was the typist sitting in a room full of computer scientists. At times grumpy, he pushed and prodded and complained. It was fun to watch his panel discussion, Advocating Futures, and I’m pretty sure he deliberately provoked Pesudo with a scathing critique of the value of contemporary architecture. He was an important addition to the discussion, not so his nostalgic position might triumph, but to provide a critical lens through which to examine the alternatives.

Second, he offered the most sensible target for architectural advocacy I’ve ever encountered. In a brief respite during the Advocating Futures panel, where Hewett facilitated Twitter questions from the audience, I asked the panellists how and where they thought advocacy should be directed. Low said simply, “Education”. In a world changing under our feet, with scarce resources to impact public opinion, and architects regressing in our capacity to contribute to the city, how better to prepare for the future? By teaching architecture students how to be something other (and more) than an architect. The right word in the ears of the thousands of architecture students who graduate each year might yield our profession’s Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Elon Musk.

And third, Low’s entire lecture revolved around the opposition of form versus content. He argued that the best architecture derives from content, from narrative, and eschews the glossiness of perfect form. It was a familiar position that resonated with much of the discussion on Day 1, but took the important step of explaining why the profession’s obsession with starchitecture, formalism and the consumption of the glossy image are impoverishing the built environment.

I interpreted the narrative-driven craft of Low’s work as a metaphor for the need to develop a similarly narrative-driven commitment to the entire profession’s output. We need to reign in our adulation of the newest chunk of self-indulgent formalism and establish new territory as essential agents in the development of cities, economies and culture.

The two panels I attended on Day 2, Transforming Populations and Advocating Futures, further explored these themes. In particular, Guallart lamented that “Architecture is suffering because it has more to do with fashion than with building the city. The Bilbao model hurts the built environment – governments now think that they just need to deliver an icon, no further discussion needed.” From many angles and in many discussions, both days criticised the shallowness of form and praised the delivery of content.

Leaf Chapel; Klein Dytham; Japan; Weddings
Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham, Tokyo

Agency and the future

During afternoon tea on Day 2, energised by the Advocating Futures panel, a few colleagues and I enjoyed a vigorous discussion on the subject of the future. We spoke about the traditional role of the architect, and pushing beyond its boundaries. Rory Hyde’s excellent book on the subject, Future Practice, got a mention. We discussed computer coding, and its role in the frontier of new economies, in disrupting seemingly unshakeable markets from books to taxis to holidays. We touched on the sophisticated problem solving performed by architects and its relevance in activities beyond the making of buildings. And we discussed education – if the scope of the traditional architect is diminishing, and there are as yet unformulated roles ripe for our involvement, how should the universities prepare graduates today for the opportunities of tomorrow?

It was an exciting conversation, feverish even. It gathered together all the many threads covered in the preceding two days and narrowed my focus to a single question: what is the architect of tomorrow?

A moment later, I was sitting down for the final keynote of the conference. Thomas Fisher took to the stage, and in a truly cosmic reflection of our casual conversation, set out to answer this very question. “There are a lot of opportunities for architects to continue to design buildings. But there are many, many more non-physical systems that would benefit from an architect’s design attention. We could all have more work than we could ever address in our lifetimes.”

He argued strongly for an expansion of the role of the architect, speculating we could become, “Public intellectuals, provocateurs, visualisers, unsolicited strategic thinkers, generalists, holistic thinkers, strategists, pragmatic futurists.” As part of the making of buildings, we might proactively shift our services to the savings side of the spreadsheet, servicing “the economic structures that surround and facilitate architecture.” And beyond buildings, we might engage with the sharing economy, actively designing for initiatives like AirBnB that make more intensive use of a city’s scarce spatial resources.

It was a much-needed conclusion to a conference that had just spent two days ripping apart the value of architectural activity.

Adelaide Convention Centre; How Soon Is Now?; Australian Institute of Architects; Conference

So despite the rocky start to How Soon Is Now?, I’m glad I hung around for the punchline. I enjoy attending the conference each year for a number of reasons. It’s an opportunity to take a step away from the minutiae of life as a practicing architect. I catch up with people I don’t see all that often and chat avidly about architecture with them. I learn some things, and get inspired to do some others. Low’s contribution to the conference might have crystallised the parameters of the debate on form versus content, but it was Fisher who made the most interesting suggestions on how to act on this acknowledgement.

Heading home after any good architecture event, I struggle with the concept of inspiration. What do I do with the things I learn? How can I internalise and act on them, make use of the event beyond the silo of its own neat calendar slot in my life?

Last year, Risk compelled me to take on more risks in my business. After five years of running Mihaly Slocombe from our spare bedroom, we finally moved into a proper office that now doubles as a profit-making coworking environment. Well, almost profit-making, it’s early days yet. Still, the key ingredient was to exploit our skills as architects in crafting a working environment for others, a small yet successful instance of speculative agency.

How Soon Is Now? has left me with a similar itch.

I find myself eager to seek opportunities outside the traditional model of architecture practice. What can I do that will buffer our studio against the storm that’s approaching? How can we use our carefully honed skills in creative thinking, systems design and problem solving to benefit the world beyond our small collection of private clients?

We stand at an important moment in time, with the threat of great change in our profession, the built environment and even the planet looming in front of us. How Soon Is Now? captured this moment perfectly, imparting both desperation and hope.

In particular, the agency of architects is under threat. Our traditional model of practice is tied strongly to the old way of doing things, and continues to steadily diminish in its scope and opportunity. Global markets, the sharing economy, the internet of things, disintermediation are all poison pills for the profession, yet most of us continue to blithely practice in the way we always have. If the current generation of architects continues on our current path, will there even be a profession for the next?


Footnotes:

  1. Cameron Bruhn, Sam Spurr and Ben Hewett, creative directors; How Soon Is Now? overview; accessed May 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. A full list of my reviews and interviews from past conferences can be accessed here.
  4. Julie Eizenberg was born in Australia but practices in Los Angeles, David Sanderson from the University of New South Wales works in Australia but is American, and Urtzi Grau and Cristina Goberna Pesudo work in Australia but are Spanish.
  5. For some insightful reflections on the Biennale, see Jeremy Till; The architecture of good intentions; transcript of a talk given in Venice; May 2016.
  6. Steven Morissey; How Soon Is Now?; From the album Meat is Murder by The Smiths; 1985.
  7. I almost wrote value adding but couldn’t bring myself to use a phrase that has been so utterly disembowelled and shamelessly co-opted into developer double-speak.
  8. This in fact underpinned Grau and Pesudo’s Guggenheim proposal, a museum of atmospheres and interiors. Note that this project was completed in collaboration with Jorge López Conde, Carmen Blanco and Álvaro Carrillo.

Image sources:

  1. Adelaide by Andy Steven; image sourced from Skyscraper City.
  2. 28th Street Apartments by Koning Eizenberg; image sourced from Detail.
  3. Safari Roof House by Kevin Low of Small Projects; image sourced from Small Projects.
  4. Glamis Playground; image sourced from Play by Nature.
  5. OE House by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism and Aixopluc; image sourced from Dezeen.
  6. Leaf Chapel by Klein Dytham; image sourced from Klein Dytham.
  7. Adelaide Convention Centre theatre; author’s own image.

Reform at the AIA

Dilbert; Change

In recent months, members of the Australian Institute of Architects have received a stream of emails addressing substantial changes underway within the organisation. The changes target the very heart of the Institute and systematically rethink the way it functions.

This is a subject I’ve discussed previously (see Why I’m a member of the AIA and A better AIA), so have followed the proposed changes with keen interest. For those of you who’ve missed the detail arriving in your inboxes, here’s a brief summary:

  • Long serving CEO of the Institute, David Parken, has announced his retirement.[1] His successor has also been appointed. Jennifer Cunich, previously of the Property Council of Australia, begins in the role next month.[2]
  • Architext has been closed and the Newcastle and NSW Country Division of the AIA has been reabsorbed into the NSW Chapter in Sydney.[3]
  • A governance review by authority and governance advocate, Henry Bosch AO, has resulted in a proposal to replace the Executive Committee with a Board of Directors.[4]

These are some big changes. To offer a sporting analogy, we have a new coach, a couple of expensive yet underperforming players have been scrapped, and – should the new Board be implemented – we’ll have a whole new way of making decisions about our footy team.

I think there are a few important questions that need to be asked: why is reform necessary? Are the proposed reforms the right reforms? And what happens next? For some of my more skeptical readers, you might even suggest that there’s a more fundamental question to be asked first: why is the AIA itself necessary?

Dilbert; Change

Why is the AIA necessary?

I tackled this question in detail in Why I’m a member of the AIA, but let me repackage my thoughts in an easy 4-step answer:

  1. Within the big building industry ocean, architects are the smallest of fish. Real estate agents, bankers, developers, planners, lawyers, engineers, project managers and builders all have far greater influence on the strategic planning of our cities than we do.
  2. The same goes for both political and public opinion. In the context of Australian life and culture, we are chronically undervalued.
  3. This context in fact forms part of a broader downwards slide. We are an historically important and influential profession rapidly losing ground to competing occupations.
  4. Halting or even reversing this slide is not something individual architects can do on their own. We need a peak professional body like the Australian Institute of Architects to transform our many tiny voices into a single, unified and much more powerful soapbox.

That is to say, we’re up shit creek and the AIA is our paddle.

Now, there are many organisations advocating on behalf of the architecture profession in Australia. There are the AAA, the ACA, Parlour, the Robin Boyd FoundationArchiTeam and many others. All are membership organisations seeking to further the AIA’s own purpose, that is “to improve our built environment by promoting quality, responsible, sustainable design.”[5]. All do good work, but none boast the history nor member saturation of the AIA. They’re the small forward crumbers to the AIA tall timber.

The AIA is necessary now more than ever. The architecture profession is already in a state of crisis, can you imagine how much worse off we’d be without our biggest collective organisation?

Dilbert; Change

Why is reform necessary?

The Institute has experienced successive years of alarming financial difficulty. Annual reports from 2012 to 2015 show negative cashflow from operations to the tune of $18,000,000.[6] While the majority of these losses are offset each year from other activities, over this same period the Institute saw real losses of around $3,000,000.[7]

In both the 2014 and 2015 annual reports, the independent auditor concluded her analysis by stating that the losses incurred “indicate the existence of a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt about the ability of the company and the consolidated entity to continue as going concerns.”[8]

As a member, it is deeply unnerving for me to discover that the day to day activities of the Institute have been so financially unsustainable over such a long period. The auditor’s words really strike home: business as usual at the AIA may very possibly lead to bankruptcy.

Put simply, reform is an inevitable and essential ingredient in keeping the AIA afloat.

Dilbert; Change

Are the reforms the right reforms?

Jon Clements, National President of the AIA, has been instrumental in orchestrating reform at the Institute. I’ve spoken informally with him on this question, and have been left with the lasting impression that national leadership is acutely aware of the crisis currently faced by the AIA, and is doing everything in its power to overcome it.

The closure of Architext and the Newcastle division are the most easily identifiable changes, but they’re not the most important. I suspect they’re merely the low hanging fruit that give weight to the new mantra of “a more focused strategic plan embracing three core pillars – membership, advocacy and education.”[9] The theory being that the AIA will progressively shed activities that fall outside these areas of operation, thus spreading their resources over a smaller area.

Much more important is the governance review undertaken by Henry Bosch. To understand what is being proposed, I suggested you head to the governance page of the Institute’s website, which summarises the changes and includes this neat infographic:

Australian Institute of Architects; National Council; Executive Committee; Board of Directors

Bosch’s review identified that the existing AIA leadership structure (on the left) is unwieldy, and impedes good governance practices. Currently, the National Council meets only three times a year. In these meetings, Councillors are expected to address and decide upon issues spanning policy, strategy, business and finance – an enormous agenda to slog through in just two days. The National Executive meets more regularly, but isn’t empowered to approve expenditure, meaning all decisions need to head back to the the next Council meeting for approval.

This governance pathway is tortuous, obstructs good information flow and regularly leaves local Chapters in the lurch while they wait for new initiatives to be approved.

Bosch advised that effective governance requires a smaller, more focussed board derived from National Council with independent directors to add specific expertise in areas like the law, accounting and marketing. Thus the AIA’s proposal (on the right) is to establish a Board of Directors that addresses business and finance, leaving National Council to focus on policy and strategy. Council will still meet only three times a year, but the Board will meet as often as every month. This division of duties learns from corporate structures to create a much more nimble and responsive leadership arrangement.

It’s important to recognise that this change in leadership structure will not automatically fix the AIA’s current financial crisis, nor is it intended to. Instead, it acknowledges that crises only occur when leadership is not successful in its role. Asking sixteen volunteer Councillors to meet once every four months, cover an enormous quantity of material each time, and then make effective decisions across many areas of AIA operations might work okay when it’s plain sailing, but is horribly ineffective when the seas get rocky.

A more nimble leadership will be better empowered to begin the process of rebuilding. Really, it is just the first in a series of important steps towards reform. With a new structure in place, the strategic plan for the AIA can also be updated, which in turn can flow via the new core pillars (membership, advocacy and education) into day-to-day activities. I’m not convinced the pillars actually exclude anything the Institute is doing now, but am happy for the reform process to play itself out. Ultimately, I’d like to see more aggressive tightening over the next couple of years, driven by a new strategic plan and a systematic appraisal of the cultural and financial benefits of all existing activities.

As I’ve stated before, I also think the AIA needs to focus on increasing its member saturation within the profession. Like any governing body, cutting expenditure is only one half of the equation, the other is to increase revenue. With only 45% of registered architects opting in as AIA members, there’s a huge pool of untapped financial support waiting to be leveraged from the other 55% of the community.[10]

Dilbert; Change

What happens next?

The governance review has already evolved beyond Bosch’s initial proposal. Feedback was sought from members last month, importantly resulting in a gender equity commitment from the AIA to mandate a minimum of three women and three men on the Board of eight directors.[11] As the leadership structure is established by the AIA constitution, a lengthy draft of the required amendments has also been produced and circulated.

The next step is to commit to the leadership reform.

This will happen on Friday the 13th of May in Melbourne, at the Institute’s 87th Annual General Meeting. As a vote on a change to the constitution requires a minimum of 75% of the vote to pass, there is currently a push across the country to contact members for their support. In Victoria, this happened via a special email from Victorian Chapter President, Vanessa Bird.

I strongly echo this push.

It goes without saying that the AIA needs to stay afloat financially if it’s to continue it’s work. The scary evidence revealed in recent annual reports proves in no uncertain terms that business as usual is unlikely to ensure this. Major reform will give the AIA a better chance of stemming the losses of recent years, and enable leadership to improve the Institute’s role as peak body for the architecture profession. Most significantly, I believe that the survival of our profession is inextricably tied to the survival of our peak body. If it sinks, so do we.

Please consider this article an entreaty to either vote for leadership reform in person at the AGM next month, or if you can’t attend, to support Item 6 of the AGM proxy form.


Footnotes:

  1. David Parken; media releaseFrom the CEO; December 2015.
  2. Media release, A new era as Australian Institute of Architects welcomes new CEO; April 2016.
  3. Greg Ridder, Interim CEO; CEO’s report; Australian Institute of Architects annual report 2015; page 6.
  4. Ibid. See Jon Clements, National President; National President’s report; page 4.
  5. About the Institute; Australian Institute of Architects website, About Us page; accessed April 2015.
  6. See net cash inflow (outflow) from operating activities line items quoted in finance summary sections of Australian Institute of Architects annual reports 2012 (page 8), 2013 (page 10), 2014 (page 11) and 2015 (page 11). The annual reports are accessible to the general public and available for download here.
  7. Ibid. See net increase (decrease) in cash and cash equivalents line items.
  8. Alexandra Spark; Independent auditor’s report to the members of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects; 2014 and 2015 AIA annual reports; page 41 and page 44 respectively.
  9. Jon Clements, National President; National President’s report; Australian Institute of Architects annual report 2015; page 4.
  10. Warwick Mihaly; Why I’m a member of the AIA; Panfilocastaldi; May 2015.
  11. Gender equity; Australian Institute of Architects website, Governance page; accessed April 2015.

Images:

  1. Dilbert comic strip, A successful transformation… Published 11th July 2010. This and subsequent Dilbert comics copyright Scott Adams.
  2. Dilbert comic strip, Don’t be afraid… Published 30th September 2010.
  3. Dilbert comic strip, You must learn… Published 13th December 2015.
  4. Dilbert comic strip, We must change… Published 13th December 1996.
  5. Proposed governance changes, copyright Australian Institute of Architects.
  6. Dilbert comic strip, If we are… Published 3rd August 1996.

The triangle offensive

the triangle offensive

This is the 6th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

6. The triangle offensive

At the Australian Institute of Architects national conference this year, keynote speaker Gregg Pasquarelli suggested a powerful test of any idea:

A good idea must work in diagram, drawing and model. If it fails in even one of these, throw it out and start again.

This is actually two lessons in one.

First, it is a lesson about ideas. You’ll have many ideas during the creation of your project this semester, but how to know whether they’re any good? Testing them in these different modes of documentation is a good way to start. You will need to be disciplined to do so thoroughly, but diagramming then drawing then modelling will give an idea both robustness and clarity. It will help you both develop it and distill it.

Second, it is a lesson about the tools of the architect’s trade. We are a visual profession, our common language is one we produce with our hands.

This truth is as relevant in practice as it is at university. Every single meeting I ever have takes place with a set of drawings on the table and pens in everyone’s hands. It doesn’t matter if I’m meeting with another architect, an engineer, a builder or a client. I might be marking up a floor plan, sketching a structural layout, nutting out a construction detail or presenting a sketch design model. For all of these tasks, I rely on visual media. In all of them, I speak with pictures not words.


Image source

  1. The triangle offensive, author’s own image.

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?

revolution

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.

elevators

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.

supermarket

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?

Money.

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.

equity

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.

 


Footnotes

  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.

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

Panellists
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.

chrofi

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 they 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.


Footnotes:

  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.