Architectus, Design Charrette

The Fifth Estate interviewed chief executive of Australia’s biggest architectural practice Ray Brown for our podcast How to Build a Better World. Here’s our take of the highlights.

Ray Brown is a man who likes to cover his bases. As the chief executive of Architectus, now a company that employs more than 700 people after its merger with Conrad Gargett earlier this year, that’s understandable. The sheer weight of the payroll alone must be enough to sharpen anyone’s business acumen.

And in the notoriously diverse property industry it’s a good idea to keep on top of the sometimes wild cycles.

“Nothing is booming at the same time – some sectors struggle from time to time, for instance, we’ve been through something of a flat spot in housing over the last number of years and we are certainly going through a flat spot in terms of workplace and commercial office,” he says in a wide ranging interview for The Fifth Estate’s podcast How to Build a Better World.

Monocultural precincts and CBDs are really suffering, Brown says.

“If you look at New York for instance and look at the issue they’ve got there with office vacancy, what you are seeing is that precincts, which are mixed, [and have] a lot more diversity are holding up really well.

“There’s a lesson we take from nature –  that a healthy ecosystem is a diverse ecosystem, whether you are talking about an organisation or a building or precinct or a city, its diversity actually builds resilience. “

Right now arguably the most important cycle is the one that’s plunged our housing sector into crisis.

“Many things affect us personally. Many people in my demographic are concerned about where the kids going to live, how are they going to afford housing?

“It’s a terrible thing and if the only way you can, as a young person, get into the housing market is because of some family wealth. It’s an indictment that what we’ve created is market failure.”

Personal Journey

Brown’s own youth was spent in Adelaide.

It was there he became enchanted with architecture, but starting out in interior design.

A lecture by Australian architect, Don Langmead at the Institute of Technology in South Australia changed his world.

Langmead was a “wonderful lecturer” Brown says He “brought [architecture] alive and fascinated me and opened the door to a world I’ve loved ever since.”

So, about Adelaide…

We mention a series of articles from our long time contributor Mike Brown (no relation we assume) that were a mix of sentiments – some rather less than complimentary. But then he too hails from the City of Churches as it’s been known.

Brown’s personal philosophy is that you can absolutely poke fun at your hometown if you are from there.

“I was born in Melbourne, grew up in Adelaide and moved to Sydney and ended up studying at the University of New South Wales so I don’t really pay much attention to where you come from and all the big debate between the cities,” Brown says.

But he thinks Adelaide is a city “really hitting its stride”.

“There’s a lot of activity down there, the city’s really coming alive and there’s finally some density development within that square mile of the city. The economy is really moving along pretty strongly off the back of a number of things such as education, defence and obviously mining and agriculture in the hinterland – it’s really coming into its own.”

And it’s become an attractive destination for those looking for more affordable housing. The national movement towards a hybrid work environment means some of his own team members engage across long distances. And that means Adelaidians are staying put and still reaping the benefits of good jobs.

On charettes

Adelaide was also the site of the company’s recent charette that it’s been hosting for 15 years, where team members from across the country and New Zealand is flown in to solve an issue or develop a site.

“We did the Fish Markets in Sydney a couple of years ago, and then the Roma Street precinct in Brisbane and this year, we looked at Thebarton in Adelaide

Building resilience

On sustainability Brown says resilience is key.

“Whether that is through technical means in terms of guarding against flood and storm events – the kind of things we are seeing in Brisbane now or in north Queensland where we are starting to provide far more stringent standards on our buildings because of cyclones.”

And the stronger specifications around some buildings in northern parts of Australia are now “leaking out into other kinds of building types because we know the cyclones are going to be further south.”

Tougher standards will eventually come through building standards, but some people are getting in front of the rules Brown says.

There’s flood mitigation now required but there’s also human resilience to focus on, such as how to cool our suburbs and green the cities.

“There are benefits to that from a cooling effect but also from the mental health and psychological effect of wellbeing.

“That attitude that we are going to build a building and never maintain it has come and gone. “

Consumers are changing

According to Brown, growing consumer awareness of energy efficiency and the cost of energy has pushed developers to do more on ratings and certifications.

“I haven’t met a developer that’s not serious about [sustainability]. On some level, nobody wants to do a 3 Star Green Star building. Certainly not the people we are working with.”

But beyond that, he says, was is focusing on what would work best for that specific development, whether it was regenerative design, materials, community or water and energy.

Use some column grids – save carbon and save money

The big challenges now are about embodied carbon and Brown thinks we are now at tipping point because operational carbon is now less proportionally than embodied carbon so the focus is swinging to materials, such as using timber as a carbon sink.

In an echo of the recent talk by another architect Patrick Bellew who founded Atelier Ten Brown talks about the carbon savings of using column grids instead of open plan.

In a Melbourne office building a plan for 15 metre spans was reduced to 10 metres saving “hundreds if not thousands of tonnes of carbon –  and took cost out of the building too, interestingly.”

“Every solution is – in some way, bespoke once you start going down the refurbishment pathway,” he says.

What needs to improve

According to Brown, the speed of complexities such as building processes, controls, regulations and informing stakeholders needs to accelerate if we were to start addressing issues such as the housing crisis.

“We need to start treating [the climate] like a crisis and do things with more urgency. There is enough intelligence around it in the industry and around the table for stakeholders that get that … but there just not seem to be methods for accelerating the things we do.

“I’m optimistic that we do get good outcomes, but you don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good.”

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