Tim Horton. Photo: Ben Searcy

20 October 2011 – Quiet achiever Adelaide is up to its ears in strategic integrated design that could change the shape of the built environment nationally.

Adelaide may seem an unlikely centre for an urban planning revolution. It is a city that has a reputation as being refined but perhaps a little staid. But Adelaide is after all Australia’s first planned city and, at a time when pressure on our cities is mounting, Adelaide is leading the charge for design that is integrated into the planning process and promoting innovative technologies that will lead to new ways of financing development.

Tim Horton, Commissioner of the recently created Integrated Design Commission SA, is driving this design charge. He spoke to The Fifth Estate about what he and his team hope to achieve, not just for Adelaide but for the future of urban planning.

“We’ve really only had a full team for nine months,” says Horton. “It’s a young and energetic team that understands just how important it is that design be placed at the centre of decision making once again. And that we make this ambitious commission a success. We exist in the interplay between design and governance; melding the worlds of politics and finance, design and planning, construction and development, environment and sustainability with research, practice and education.”

It all began with a report by Professor Laura Lee, who was appointed Thinker in Residence for Adelaide in 2009. An international leading voice for integrated design education, practice and research in architecture, Lee is Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA. Her report on Adelaide focused on creating an integrated approach to design, planning and development to build a more vibrant and liveable Adelaide.

One of Lee’s recommendations was the creation of an Integrated Design Commission.

“Bringing in a thinker in residence like Laura Lee was a rarity in Australia – we were importing global thinking,” says Horton.

The result is an independent body that sits between Premier and Cabinet. It has a unique leadership model, says Horton, comprising three inter-dependent roles. These include Commissioner Tim Horton, Government Architect Ben Hewett and director Trixie Smith.

Horton, as commissioner, is independent of government, advising the premier and the cabinet, and focused on advocating the principles of integrated design. Ben Hewett’s role is to both lead the commission in an administrative sense and in modelling the practice of integrated design through collaboration with agencies across government and as a resource to the private sector. And as director, Trixie Smith’s role is to lead with integrated design processes.

“We are about good design and visionary planning. We exist to advocate the value of design. By maximising design in the urban planning process we can deliver cities that focus on quality of life. We work vertically with government as well as horizontally across government departments and then outwards to industry.

“It is critical to not only embed design into the planning process but to carry it through to development. This can only happen if design is applied upfront rather than at the last minute,” says Horton.

Professor Laura Lee

To provide a conceptual framework for the commission nine of Professor Lee’s recommendations have been translated into five founding principles. These include:

  • Design in all stages –  recognising the impact design can have when considered upfront, not last minute
  • Collaborative culture – acknowledging that exemplary outcomes emerge from the successful collaboration across sectors.
  • Environmental leadership ­ building on the essential strengths of a state with solid credentials in clean energy, advanced manufacturing, water, and exceptional environmental science
  • Evidence through research – promoting relevant research to enable evidence-based policy advice across design, planning and development
  • Inform, engage, educate – advocating the role of design as an essential tool for successful engagement of communities in negotiating change

Lower risk can mean lower finance costs
The creation of the Integrated Design Commission comes at a critical point in history, says Horton. As populations continue to grow and pressure on both natural and urban environments accelerate, the design of cities has never been more important.

“The Australian Treasury has predicted Australia’s population will reach around 36 million by 2050,” Horton says. “At the same time, a review of the domestic housing market has identified a lack of innovation, putting at risk our capacity to accommodate our population.

We cannot build fast enough, green enough or affordably enough for new entrants in to the market.”

Horton also questions the ability of the future tax base to sufficiently provide for public financing of infrastructure ­– roads, rail and aviation, ports and utilities, parks, squares, streets and buildings.

“There is a need for a new model for financing that is sustainable, supports quality, and is both innovative and enduring.”

Institutional investors, he says, are often unaware of project risks inherent in the delivery models, but also of the “capacity for emerging technologies and practices to significantly reduce this risk.”

Increasingly, says Horton, government and non-government sectors are seeking new ways to attract finance for the reform our cities need. Financing is becoming difficult to obtain. It is also at higher cost and with higher levels of pre-sale commitment on residential property.

The delivery model can change and the public sector can lead
The cost of finance will increasingly reflect the true risk profile of the project, in both the contractual and construction practices applied by the project team and the cost of carbon. More than this, governments must increasingly recognise the role for public sector procurement in leading change.

In traditional development practice, says Horton, members of the development team –  architect, engineer, planner and others –  pass on limited information between stages. This restricts the quality and scope of knowledge to the owner.

In emerging practice, on the other hand team members work closely and the design is prepared in conjunction with cost planning, construction and financing expertise.

“Potential specialist trade contractors may be engaged for advice and test assumptions throughout the design phase,” Horton says.

“Risks are identified from across the team specialisation and mitigated or removed. Statutory approvals are obtained using the same model used to confirm material quantities from suppliers, including prototyping the construction program.

“This same model is used throughout construction and handed to the owner at the completion of the project; embedded with design, construction and maintenance/warranty data.”

Stages are sequential, exclusive and highly dependent on the outcome of the previous phase. This sort of model will reduce the risk for investors and bring down the cost of construction.

Lessons from the manufacturers
“There is a tiresome discussion that we hear a lot, about the high cost of infrastructure and cost of financing medium density development. We need to change our models so that there is a cross over from manufacturing into the built environment,” Horton says.

Currently the well managed risk of the emerging model has not flowed through to risk assessment and financing models. But this would come as “good design, better planning and innovative development all play a role to reduce risk.”

Little Hero apartments, Melbourne

New pre-fab models to reduce risk
Horton pointed to emerging technologies and building methods such as those used by building firms such as Unitised Building and Tektum, which employ pre-fabrication modular methods to cut down on construction time and risk.

These emerging practices in design and construction are changing the way we finance them, Horton says.

“Firms like Unitised Building and Tektum show that contemporary manufacturing practice can dramatically re-set our assumptions on time, cost and quality in the built environment. Construction materials such as cross laminated timber promote carbon efficient practice and are suited to pre-fabrication, with only basic skills required.

“New practice can reduce risk by providing greater certainty in process and outcome of the complex supply chain involved in delivering our cities,” Horton says.

Tektum, founded by architect Nicolas Perren in 2010, creates flat-pack houses that it delivers anywhere in Australia ready-made.

Unitised Building uses patented technology devised by architect-developer Nonda Katsilidis and co-owned by Victorian construction company Hickory Developments.

This allows offsite construction of highrise apartments in fitted out modules that are then stacked and connected on site. UB recently built the Little Hero development https://www.unitisedbuilding.com.au/ in record time – 63 apartments were completed on a constrained site near Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall in just 20 days.

Each apartment in the Little Hero development, says Horton, was constructed in around 18 days in safe, protected workshop conditions. Completed apartments were inspected by owners off site and then each apartment was installed in just 1.5 hours.

Owners were first to re-enter the apartment. Approximately nine months of disruptive site works was avoided.

“We need to build faster, more sustainably and affordably,” Horton says. “Nonda is doing this. An average builder takes six to eight weeks per floor. Nonda by comparison took one and a half days per floor. This sort of construction is saving millions of dollars in holding costs alone,” says Horton.

Horton says a US study showed that non-farm sectors had increased productivity by 80 per cent since 1960, while in the construction sector it had decreased by 20 per cent.

“The construction sector needs to shift to pro-active promoters of new technologies. But we must curate these outcomes. We have projects being delayed because of a shortage of skills set but we shouldn’t be investing in outdated skills – we should move to smarter construction.

“The theory is the market will find its own level but this is not happening fast enough and government must lead. If government doesn’t intervene we will just keep expanding on the fringes.”

Intervention has to come through the Council of Australian Governments reform, Horton says.

New models of finance, new models of ownership and tenure
It follows that new models of financing and procurement might also demand new models of ownership and tenure.

Horton points to the research of Jago Dodson and Neil Sipe, leading urban development researchers and academics at Griffith University and their report Unsettling Suburbia: The New Landscape of Oil and Mortgage Vulnerability in Australian Cities

Dodson and Sipe have identified that “a longer term solution to the suburban oil and mortgage vulnerability challenge must reconsider the tenure structure of Australian cities and seek a wider set of stable and secure housing choices for suburban households”.

Horton says: “It’s fitting that the state that first designed the dominant property ownership model in Australia – the Torrens title – should also explore new models of tenure. That’s one reason that we’re interested in South Australia leading on re-thinking these complex issues…by design.”

Design of the future must be a tool for creating social cohesion, he says.

“Designers do not talk well to government and the public – we are too internal looking and have walked away from public policy discourse. This is largely because risk managers have recommended each profession should only deal in their core skill set. This has to change. We need architects as citizens again – people like Rob Adams, Ken Maher and Richard Weller who refuse to be defined by a profession.”

Integrated Design Commission has a number of initiatives under way. Here is a sample:

  • 5000+: a city beyond the postcode www.5000plus.net.au 5000+ will deliver an urban design vision across eight inner metro council areas, backed by state and federal government. It aims to deliver a new model for how others can do this, based on Adelaide’s experience. The project is intended as a national pilot for how Australian cities of the future might think ahead, optimise chance and dictate, not react to circumstance – “design for choice not chance”.
  • Zero Carbon Challenge https://integrateddesign.sa.gov.au/blog/2011/06/147/ The Commission is initiating a design-led collaboration with the construction sector to deliver the first carbon zero house at Lochiel Park in 2012 (in conjunction with the Land Management Corporation).
  • Reconnecting Adelaide to its river https://www.infrastructure.sa.gov.au/major_projects/adelaide_riverbank_precinct This project involves initiating a masterplan for Adelaide’s riverbank that will mediate new opportunities for public space alongside a $1bn upgrade to the Adelaide Oval and Convention Centre. The project will also explore the right pipeline of projects in the precinct. The commission is advising on process and chairing the Design Review Panel through Government Architect Ben Hewett.
  • Torrens Corridor, from Source to Sea – Review of Adelaide’s unique Torrens corridor – site of Australia’s first Linear Park – to provide a vision for the next 30 years (in conjunction with original design practice, HASSELL, local Kaurna aboriginal representatives and the Department of Environment & Natural Resources)
  • Design Sector Analysis – Analysis of the design sector in South Australia to understand trends in the sector over time and benchmark these against national trends identified by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Economic Development)
  • Design Review of public & private projects – Establishment of a formal process of multi disciplinary design review to shepherd projects through the first few vital months of design; to assist early to avoid intervening later on when attitudes are fixed and the stakes are higher. Over $3 billion of public and private projects have already received formal advice from the commission. The commission is creating a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral panel of 24 members. Formal reviews are expected to go live from early November.
  • Collaboration with international Design bodies – The Commission is establishing a stronger network with like-minded design agencies around the world including: UK Design Council/CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), Design Singapore and Finland’s SITRA.
  • SA Annual Design Atlas – The Commission plans to publish South Australia’s first Annual Design Atlas in 2011/2021 showcasing design capability across product and industrial design, architecture, landscape architecture and urban design.