A new advocacy player

ArchiTeam; Architecture; Logo; Graphic design; Melbourne; Australia
This article is co-published with ArchiTeam.

In July last year, ArchiTeam launched a working group tasked to find ways it might “educate the public about the value of architects through marketing and public outreach”. This endeavour proposes to engage in both marketing and advocacy activities, a canny mix of pragmatism and altruism that I believe has the power to simultaneously promote our profession and protect the built environment.

But before I elaborate, it’s worthwhile asking the question, why?

There are at least a dozen different organisations competing for a slice of the Melbourne architectural advocacy pie, and ArchiTeam is far from the largest, best funded, most widely known or most experienced in the sector. These are pretty compelling reasons not to get involved with the often poor rewards of architectural advocacy. However, they hardly paint a full picture of the importance of this work, nor the role ArchiTeam might have to play.

Pub; Demolition; Rubble; Raman Shaqiri; Stefce Kutlesovski; Developer
The Corkman Pub, illegally demolished by developers Raman Shaqiri and Stefce Kutlesovski.

Why get involved?

As I have discussed previously (herehere and here), the built environment has too many enemies reaping profits from it at any cost for the architecture profession not to have a go at stemming the tide. Increasing housing unaffordability, ever-present developer greed, the emerging effects of climate change, and a conspicuous lack of planning leadership from government are all hacking away at the future legacy of contemporary architectural production.

Confronting these challenges can seem a mountainous task, but as Gregg Pasquarelli has poignantly described, the architecture profession is guardian of the built environment. Our often lonely role in pursuing quality over quantity demands that we enter the fray whenever and however possible.

This means it’s not enough to just produce the built environment, we need to proactively defend it as well. Lawyers have successfully achieved this within the legal system by exploiting case law, an area they know best. Doctors have done it too, setting up referral systems between general practitioners and specialists that support the entire profession. Architects must do the same.

And indeed, there’s no time like the present. In Melbourne, Daniel Andrews is proving to be far more open to engagement than his predecessor, who infamously met with the Australian Institute of Architects only once during his tenure. In Sydney, the proposal to demolish the Sirius Apartments has met with considerable and coordinated public resistance. And in both cities, festival calendars are overflowing with architecture and design events attended by audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Now might also be the best time to address a rarely voiced truth: it’s not just the built environment that needs help, the architectural profession could do with a hand also. We are losing the fight for Darwinian supremacy, with any number of rival professions beating us at our own game. Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? Of course not.[1] Architects meanwhile must fend off competition from every project manager, building designer, draftsperson and real estate agent thinking they can do it better. If we don’t start protecting our territory with the necessary ferocity, we will soon find ourselves filling a curious yet extinct ecological niche.

So it isn’t really a question of why ArchiTeam should compete for a slice of the advocacy pie, but how.

Advocacy; Logos; Graphic design; Nightingale Housing; Parlour; Pecha Kucha; Open House Melbourne; Robin Boyd Foundation

How to get involved?

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of successful advocacy already at work in Melbourne. They operate at different scales and with different forms of agency, but all share the common goal of promoting architecture and architects. Some have been in action for many years, laying the groundwork for an increasingly design-aware public.

It’s important to distinguish here between public advocacy and government lobbying. The latter is a more procedural endeavour, with all manner of special interest groups clamouring for the same rarefied airspace. There are lots of special interests, but not so many politicians, so lobbying needs to be focussed and internally consistent. As our peak professional body, the Australian Institute of Architects has already assumed this role of government liaison, and should be supported in presenting a unified position to Canberra and Spring Street.

Public advocacy is in many ways the opposite of government lobbying. It is grassroots not topdown, generalised not specialised, conversational not dogmatic, and has room for diversity. The millions of individuals that comprise the general public all have their own interests and passions, and are constantly forming and reforming into tribes searching for chiefs. Want to knit some scarves for trees? There’s a society for that. Can’t get enough parmigiano reggiano? There’s a collective for that too.

So there’s room within the public advocacy domain for ArchiTeam to find its own voice, and its own tribe. To my mind, the organisations that have already carved their own successful niches and are undertaking the best public advocacy work in Melbourne right now are:

  • Melbourne Open House attracts hundreds of thousands of participants each year to its behind-the-scenes tour of the city. It captures the voyeur in everyone, inspiring intense curiosity in buildings and architecture.
  • The Robin Boyd Foundation has allowed a somewhat smaller but perhaps even more passionate audience to discover many of Melbourne’s best private houses. The Spring open day of residential award winners in particular gives a glimpse into the amazing things made possible by working with an architect.
  • Pecha Kucha is a global network of public presentations with architecture at its heart. It’s short, sharp and unpredictable, the diversity of speakers ensuring an equally diverse audience.
  • Nightingale Housing is an alternative housing development model that aims to disrupt the profit-incentivised status quo. Primarily an organisation that builds apartment buildings, it has dramatically altered the conversation around affordable housing within the profession and beyond.
  • Parlour has demonstrated that it is possible to affect positive systemic reform where business as usual is both entrenched and harmful. It has successfully injected gender equity into the centre of design, practice and leadership decision-making.

It’s also worthwhile mentioning the excellent Save Our Sirius campaign in Sydney, which is fighting to retain the brutalist Sirius building on the Sydney Rocks. Tracing its lineage to the Green Bans of the 1970s, this is an incredible example of smart advocacy that utilises a rich mixture of crowdfunding, legal action and public events to further its cause.

These and other examples can act as touchstones by which ArchiTeam shapes its own approach to public outreach. They catalogue the forms of agency already covered, or even saturated, and reveal the mechanisms by which other organisations are getting it right.

Game of Thrones; Small; Dwarf; Powerful

Small but powerful

So how does ArchiTeam fit into this heady cocktail?

Well, first and foremost it is unique in being a Melbourne-centric member organisation for small practice architecture. 80% of its 500 or so member practices are concentrated in Melbourne and rural Victoria, and almost all have fewer than five staff. This is in contrast to the AIA for instance, whose 11,000 + members are spread across every State and Territory, and work within every size and type of architecture practice.

Second, ArchiTeam members are pragmatists, and already positioned at the coalface of public advocacy. Fooi-Ling Khoo, a sole practitioner and director of ArchiTeam, observed to me that “we’re typically the first architects people work with, or even meet, and are often the ones who convince them they need an architect at all.” Crucial advocacy work is done on this one-on-one level, through an extensive collection of invisible and laborious interactions.

In the context of public advocacy work, small and pragmatic may in fact be better. The AIA was noticeably absent from the powerful anti-tollway sentiment that grew up around the Napthine Government’s doomed East-West Link. It was perhaps prevented from taking a strong stance by having to wrangle with the political implications of large practice members who were involved in the project.[2] The much smaller Australian Institute of Landscape Architects faced the same conflict-of-interest dilemma, but felt no qualms in taking a position and advocating loudly for it.

While larger organisations must somehow grapple with the conflicting and regularly mutually exclusive demands of a diverse membership, ArchiTeam is largely homogenous. It represents predominantly small studios, most of whom work on residential projects. These qualities make ArchiTeam more focussed, more nimble, less stymied by governance red tape, and better able to jump on an advocacy opportunity when presented.

Being small should allow ArchiTeam to concentrate on initiatives that resonate across its membership, to craft a singular voice on issues of interest to the general public, and to react rapidly when opportunities erupt from nowhere and evolve quickly. In time, this will allow ArchiTeam to become a public authority on small practice architecture, and contribute meaningfully on issues where small practice has a qualified opinion. This is an important ambition, and one that honours the member interest that sparked ArchiTeam’s decision to engage in advocacy work in the first place.

As a member of ArchiTeam’s advocacy working group, I’m excited to see where the energy of the membership will lead. The working group has now met a number of times over the second half of last year. These preliminary sessions were aimed at working out the why, the how and the what of advocacy, and have arrived at some inspiring conclusions.

I’ll cover my experience of this process in a subsequent post, but will leave you for now with this pertinent observation from Noam Chomsky:

“If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to a better world.”


Footnotes:

  1. Conveyancers perform a similar role to lawyers on simple property transactions, but there is no confusing them for the real McCoy.
  2. The AIA did release a position paper on the proposal, but avoided wading into the political battle. It instead focussed only on the proposal’s design qualities.

Image sources:

  1. ArchiTeam logo, sourced from ArchiTeam.
  2. Corkman Pub, sourced from Consulado España Melbourne.
  3. Advocacy logos, sourced from Nightingale Housing, Parlour, Pecha Kucha, Open House Melbourne and the Robin Boyd Foundation.
  4. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister, sourced from HBO.

Learning from lawyers

denny crane

I recently had the intriguing experience of requiring the services of a lawyer. I say intriguing not because of the legal matter (which was a bit of basic conveyancing) but because my firsthand experience confirmed the commonly held view that lawyers speak a different language from the rest of us.

My lawyer not only crafted the documents I needed in advanced legalese, she structured them in an impressively unsystematic way. Cross references abounded: this general condition would refer to that specific condition would refer to this schedule would refer to that accompanying document. I felt like Alice, trapped in a rabbit hole with no escape.[1]

Is there a lesson in this?

A lawyer’s job is to navigate the tricky waters of the law on behalf of her client. She uses her knowledge and experience to represent his best interests at all times. But a lawyer is also a service provider, and as such must manage her relationship with her client, providing clear communication and defining the scope of her involvement. These technical and management obligations coexist as they do for any professional.

While I suppose my legal interests were well protected, I was not well serviced. Thanks to her use of jargon and an impenetrable document structure, my lawyer did not empower me to contribute to the legal process. I never even felt like I had a handle on my own documents. I wondered how, despite these shortcomings, the legal profession (or at least my limited experience of it) can occupy such an unshakeable position of authority?

Hot on the heels of this question was a stint of self-reflection. In contrast to my legal experience, I like to think the architecture profession by and large addresses the minimum requirements of client service as a matter of course. And one of our core skills is the ability to resolve complex briefing requirements into simple solutions. Yet our authority is under constant siege.

armour

Is there a correlation here?

I suspect the answer is yes, and it starts with the issue of complexity and simplicity. I think my lawyer was not unable but unwilling to distill my complex brief into a simple document.

In the hands of my lawyer, words, sentences and paragraphs all grew longer and more convoluted. She wielded opacity like a tactical nuke, and not by accident. You see, my humble legal document was in fact performing two jobs: first was the job I was paying for, which was to protect my interests. Second was its hidden job, unspoken but powerfully implied, which was to protect the entire legal profession.

For lawyers, legal jargon is in fact a highly effective armour. As it’s a language that only they speak, they have rendered themselves guardians of the legal process. And since it’s a language they collectively, systematically and continuously use, they have created a positive, self-generating cycle. Each time one lawyer writes a sentence as long as a paragraph, another lawyer must step in to interpret it. Every single action perpetuates more need for legal services, not less.

And the true stroke of genius? The legal profession insists all this is in the interests of its clients. It has created such strong demand for its services, the buying public is willing, even begging to pay it for them.

But wait, there’s more. You might not believe it, but this is not the only way lawyers protect themselves. Here’s a brief list of some of the other ways they do it:

  • A barrister cannot be sued for more than two million dollars.
  • Documents used in litigation cannot breach copyright.
  • Barristers cannot be sued for defamation for anything they say in court.
  • And best of all, a barrister is immune from litigation in court. That is to say, a lawyer’s client can not sue her for negligence while she is representing him in the courtroom, even if she were to start swearing at the judge in Klingon and arguing for the other side.

untangling

Architects, by nature, are not so cunning.

On every one of our projects, we balance and clarify complex design briefs. I often tell our clients that this is one of the most important services we offer, and think proudly of it as akin to the untangling of a giant knot of ropes. Randy Deutsch even suggests that  the “problem-solving power of integrative thinking” is one of the architecture profession’s most formidable skills.[2]

But by making clarity in the built environment our business, we open ourselves up to competition. I’m not suggesting we change who we are, but we do need to do more to help ourselves.

Have you ever heard of a cheaper version of a lawyer? There are conveyancers and legal assistants, but there is no confusing them with the real McCoy. In architecture meanwhile, we have any number of competitors: draftspeople, project managers, design and build companies, building designers, even volume builders. We may not think they’re playing in our league, but the buying public can’t tell the difference. To our own detriment, we have never attempted to mark and then defend our territory.

What can we learn from the lawyers?

The legal profession is in a unique position to affect the legal landscape in which it practices. Many of the aforementioned protections were initiated via case law, that is a judge has decided in favour of a lawyer during a trial. Since around 90 – 95% of judges are promoted from the bar, this means the profession benefits from protection bestowed by itself.

We may not have such an enviable reach, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have other options available to us. We are, after all, the preeminent experts on the built environment. What do we know or do that we can use to help ourselves?

  • Legislating minimum design standards to match New South Wales’ SEPP 65 would be a great place to start. Holding onto the requirement that multi-residential projects be designed by an architect is essential.
  • Advertising propaganda is not the ethical dilemma it once was. Though atrociously misguided, the recent Ask an Architect billboard campaign was pithy and well-executed. This should be expanded and redirected to support the architecture profession as a whole.
  • As I’ve discussed previously, we need to thrust ourselves into the centre of any public discussion of the built environment. We should be the experts called upon by Jon Faine, Tony Jones and every other journalist in Australia broadcasting a piece on any subject from housing affordability to environmental sustainability, real estate or urban planning.
  • The Office of the Victorian Government Architect needs to be reinforced and immunised from the vagaries of the political cycle. It also needs to be funded and given great big pointy teeth, so that its design review panel can make a meaningful and widespread difference. A levy on new developments would be an easy and transparent way to achieve this.
  • We need to become less queasy about popular media. The Block and The House that 100k Built may be antithetical to good architecture, but we’re better off embracing than ignoring them. I’d wager good money that they’re watched by a large chunk of the 95% of new house builders who don’t use an architect.
  • We need to consider producing our own popular media. I don’t mean edgy documentaries, I mean good reality television or popular dramas that air in prime time on Channel 7. MasterChef doesn’t diminish the cult of chef celebrities, it enhances them; Boston Legal and Suits idolise the legal profession; why not architects?

I have heard it said that architects are the guardians of the built environment. I like this sentiment very much, but we need to consolidate this philosophy. Our dwindling influence on the building industry is evidence that good design, even great design, is not enough. We must urgently use every weapon at our disposal – political, regulatory, marketing – to ensure our place at the table is secure.


Footnotes:

  1. Some years ago, friends of mine sold their company to a US-based multinational. American legal jargon in fact puts its Australian equivalent to shame. What should have been a 40 page contract of sale grew until it filled an entire lever arch folder (plus appendices). One particularly important clause comprised a single sentence that ran unpunctuated for an entire A4 page.
  2. Randy Deutsch; How We Can Make Collaboration Work: How Architects Can Decentralise Rather than Be Marginalised; in Design Intelligence; January / February 2014. An excerpt can be viewed here.

Image sources:

  1. Denny Crane. Photo sourced from The Incredible Tide.
  2. Maximilian Armour. Photo sourced from Wikipedia Commons.
  3. Untangling by Jeff Wall, 1994. Photo sourced from the National Gallery of Victoria.

Town planning

When we take potential clients through the time programme of the architectural process, we are often asked why it takes so long. As we noted in our recent article, The iron triangle, every project we undertake has “unique conditions that demand prototypical responses, the production of which cannot be achieved quickly. Making architecture is like investing all the research and development that goes into designing a new car, but then building it only once.”

This is the broad answer. More specifically, and to assist you in fleshing out your expectations of the architectural process, what follows is a description of the 3rd of the seven key stages we undertake for each of our projects.[1] An archive of all seven stages can be accessed here.

3. Town planning

town planning

In this project stage, we meet with a representative from the town planning department at your local Council for a pre-application meeting. This helps uncover any potential thorny issues in our proposal prior to submission of our application.

Once we’re satisfied that our design is as compliant as we can make it (or not, if you are masochistically interested in pushing the planning envelope), we convert our sketch design drawings into a package ready for submission. This involves tweaking the whole set to alter their main purpose from communicating our design to you, to demonstrating compliance with town planning regulations. We produce additional drawings like a site analysis, design response and shadow diagrams, and prepare a town planning report that assesses our design against the relevant zoning and overlay requirements.

Once we submit, we wait. Council will assign our application to a town planner, who will review it and request additional information if necessary. She will then arrange an advertising period where neighbours are able to review the proposal, will consider any objections received and prepare her report. Depending on the number of objections, either the planning coordinator or a full sitting of Council will consider the report and decide the project’s fate.

This is a highly variable stage of the project. Simple applications can fly through Council in a matter of weeks, while those that receive significant objections can get bogged down in months of bureaucracy. The worst case scenario is that the project will wind up at VCAT, which can take the better part of a year and cost many thousands of dollars in legal and consulting fees. Fortunately, most single houses do not go down this path. These will receive planning approval within the maximum 3 month period allotted to Council to assess applications.

Stage duration = 3 – 12 months
Architect’s time = 40 – 60 hours (excluding VCAT hearings)
Specialist consultants = Town planning consultant and lawyer (for VCAT hearings only)
Documentation = Town planning drawing set and report
Scale of drawings = 1:100
Quantity = 12x A3 drawings + 10x A4 report pages

farmer house town planning


Footnotes:

  1. Disclaimer: time allowances are estimates only and will vary depending on project size and complexity.

Image credit:

  1. Town planning. Author’s own image.
  2. Farmer House town planning. Author’s own image, see here for further details.

Support team

This is the 8th instalment in a series of 10 articles where we attempt to categorise chronologically and thematically the list of things you will need to start your architecture practice, and furnish it with the glimpses of insight we’ve accrued during the first three years of our architecture practice, Mihaly Slocombe.

8. Support team

team

When: Progressively
Importance: High
Cost: Moderate
Difficulty: High

A big part of your success as an architect stems from the people with whom you surround yourself. This goes for your accountant and lawyer as much as it does your consultants and builders. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to achieving harmony within your professional relationships: your only reliable path is years of trial and error.

Your accountant and lawyer will help you set up your company if that’s how you choose to establish your practice. Then accompanied by your banker and insurance broker, they will provide ongoing support for your tax returns, business activity statements (BASs), salaries, contracts, insurances and banking needs. We do our own banking and 3 of the 4 BASs each year. We have our accountant do the June BAS, along with our tax returns, to make sure everything adds up at the end of each financial year.

Having the right accountant is important: avoid those who think of themselves as a facsimile of the taxman as much as those who are happy to cheat him. Your accountant should be able to help you realise as many tax efficiencies as you can within the reasonable confines of the law:

  • If you are doing very well financially, and earning within the highest (45c in the dollar) or second highest (37c in the dollar) personal income tax brackets, having a company structure might allow you to keep money in the company at a lower (30c in the dollar) tax rate.
  • Even if you are not doing so well, you can still benefit from tax deductions and GST input credits. You will need to keep all your receipts of course, and possibly a logbook for some activities like transport and travel, but there is no reason why you can’t claim the GST back on all of your business expenses, as well as deduct: architecture books, stationary, printing costs, lectures, conferences, office equipment, travel to and from building sites, and architectural pilgrimages overseas. Architects may not get paid much, but loving what we do means plenty of potential tax deductions.

When it comes to specialist consultants, there are as many as you can possibly want: structural engineer, quantity surveyor, land surveyor, environmental consultant, landscape architect, traffic engineer, geotechnical consultant, mechanical engineer, fire engineer, heritage consultant, disability access consultant, town planning consultant… Just to name a few. You will generally need to seek quotes from multiple consultants for each project to satisfy your clients that their fees are fair, but it is worthwhile pushing for those who do good work, understand your needs and work well with you.

It is good to maintain contact with at least a couple of each type of specialist consultant. Some projects will be more suited to particular consultants and there is always the possibility that a consultant might be too busy to take on a new project.

One realisation that has dawned on us over recent years is that putting up with inferior work from your consultants, or trying to reduce their fees for your clients by reducing their scope, only means that you spend more time covering the holes, time for which you are unlikely to be paid. The fairest outcome for everyone involved is to do your job as an architect as diligently and thoroughly as possible, and expect the same from your consultants.

Builders should be carefully selected and nurtured as with all of the aforementioned individuals, but doubly so. To put it in the clearest possible terms: the wrong builder will ruin your life. He will transform what should be the most enjoyable phase of any project into the most upsetting. You will be stressed, overworked and unhappy; you will dread visiting site, the place where your dream of many years is taking physical shape; and worst of all, you will very likely end up with a building that falls well short of your expectations. We have had one such experience, about which we may one day write a lengthy article, and we will never work with the builder in question ever again.

Finally, learn to speak the language of everyone in your support team. This is most relevant for your project work. Architecture is a complex animal, with many stakeholders possessing many priorities. Learn to speak client, planner, engineer and builder and you will go a long way to helping those around you buy into you project and, in so doing, help you make it better.