NAIDOC week: It’s clearly early days in the conversation between First Nations Peoples and the property industry, but the ball seems to be finally rolling.
According to Indigenous architect Jefa Greenaway, “The built and natural environment is most viscerally connected to Country.” This means that engaging with Indigenous thinking and creating strong relationships with First Nations communities is vital to the success of development projects.
Greenaway – who’s fast becoming a leading voice for Indigenous thinking – was on Wednesday speaking at a breakfast to celebrate NAIDOC week organised by construction company SHAPE and the Green Building Council of Australia, held at SHAPE’s office on Gadigal land in Sydney.
In Melbourne where he’s based, Greenaway is involved in Indigenizing the design degree at the University of Melbourne to embed Indigenous perspectives in design education as part of the normative experience from the beginning.
In other signs of movement in this area, the Architects Accreditation Council has now mandated a cultural dimension to be embedded as part of the registration process to become an architect, and the Institute of Architects now has a Cultural Reference Panel and Working Group. The Planning Institute of Australia has endorsed the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects have a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).
The breakfast event was hosted by Peter Marix-Evans, chief executive officer of SHAPE with panellists including Greenaway, director of Greenaway Architects and Qantas 100 Inspiring Australians; Susan Moylan-Coombs, director of Vivid Indigenous Services and founding director of The Gaimaragal Group; and Elham Monavari, GBCA senior manager of operations transformation and winner of the NAWIC Contribution to Sustainability Award 2021.
GBCA was at the event to share progress made through Indigenous design inclusion in Green Star, while Greenaway spoke about the important work he has been doing on the Indigenous Design Charter, which he co-authored alongside Russell Kennedy, Meghan Kelly, and Brian Martin.
It was published in 2016 after 10 years in the making. The document outlines 10 steps for designers and “buyers of design” to follow when representing Indigenous culture in their professional practice. To produce the charter, the authors spoke with First Nations Peoples around the world, conscious of the risk to appropriating Indigenous design through design practice.
So by developing a series of protocols the authors “embedded both respect and a culturally responsive design methodology”, and were able to “essentially pressure-test how one goes about Indigenous design inclusion and consideration,” Greenaway says.
This charter leads practitioners to foreground Indigenous thinking into the design process, mitigating the risk of intellectual property theft and embedding engagement at all levels of the design process.
“Critically, wherever there is an opportunity to embed Indigenous perspectives, sensibilities and knowledge systems – it is Indigenous led. What that enables is true voice, unmediated.”
“I think the penny has dropped – we realise the value of embedding Indigenous perspectives into projects, but it’s the how which is the biggest challenge… how we do it in a way that showcases and celebrates the opportunities that it raises,” Greenaway said.
Elham Monavari of the GBCA said that the charter informed Green Star’s inclusion of Indigenous engagement last year, which takes into account the RAP of a company alongside Indigenous design principles.
Ms Moylan-Coombs was quick to point out that RAP frameworks should not be the only thing a company takes into account when it comes to Indigenous engagement.
“A Reconciliation Action Plan can give you a framework to work within. It’s not the be-all and end-all. What really matters is the relationship you create with First Nations communities and individuals… otherwise it’s a tick-box exercise for organisations.”
Engagement with the community, and relationship with Country, is the most fundamental way an organisation can improve Indigenous engagement.
“It’s about that deep listening and being okay with uncomfortable truths. There are many truths that have happened in the history of what you know as Australia, and we are still coming through the intergenerational trauma of that,” she said.
“There’s been a level of cognitive dissonance for such a really long time. That’s shifting, and that’s a good thing.”
If you can sit with those uncomfortable truths, she says, then “you will be able to have better relationships with us in terms of projects that you do”.
The cultural rights that Indigenous people hold are not recognised by Australian law, she says – so “if people share things with you, and you love it… you can’t continue to assume all of that cultural knowledge, and take it as your own, use it and commercialise it. You constantly have to come back to the people who shared that knowledge with you – because the Australian law doesn’t protect us.”
Greenaway echoed this sentiment, saying that “it’s about shifting the mindset away from Indigenous design being exotic plumage… we need to move away from the commercialisation of culture and embed it in design thinking… it’s important that we don’t hoover up Indigenous knowledge and claim it as our own.”
Indigenous inclusion goes far beyond the aesthetics of the building, and deep into the building’s fabric and future uses. Opportunities can be created for Indigenous people and businesses from the design phase, through construction and well into the future use of the building itself.
Another important aspect that was brought up is how Indigenous practitioners are often “over-consulted” and not valued enough for their time and expertise.
“We do find ourselves in a position now where we’re exhausted from the over-consultation, so be mindful of that as you approach communities,” Moylan-Coombs said. “Find local consultants that can actually support you to connect in a really deep way with communities.”
“How do we demonstrate best practice?” Greenaway asked. “Something is valued when you actually pay for it. Engaging with Indigenous knowledge is equivalent to engaging a geotechnical engineer, where you have their specialised expertise, the knowledge holders of indigenous culture… require recompense for their valuable inputs and insights as part of the co-design process.”
Interestingly, Ms Monavari admitted that the genesis of GBCA’s Green Star Buildings’ Indigenous Inclusion genesis was not ideal, and might have been done better.
“The consulting versus the deeper engagement is something that I didn’t do very well when I was working on that particular credit. Because I did call Jefa and say, ‘hey Jefa I’ve got a couple of weeks before this ratings tool is going to be released, can you review this credit for me?’ And he very kindly… basically said ‘ah, no’. Because this isn’t a tick-box exercise.”
However, Monavari says that this public lesson exemplifies why it’s important to engage Indigenous practitioners from the outset, instead of leaving out as an afterthought.
We’ve clearly got a hell of a long way to go, but the ball is rolling.