Richard Kirk and what the judges were looking for in the 2018 architecture awards

Inside the thinking of the 2018 Australian Institute of Architects awards jury, especially about what’s meant by sustainability.

It may sound odd coming from an architect, but “the less building you build, the better,” whether by using clever design to convince a client to downsize, or “repurposing” older buildings for new aims, says Richard Kirk, who chaired the 2018 Australian Institute of Architects awards jury.

Sustainability, he said, underpinned all the entries in all award categories, and, with more tools at their disposal, architects across the board had presented sophisticated, multi-dimensional and holistic approaches to environmental challenges.

“There’s a sense of urgency. It’s not optional, but embedded in the projects. The cost of a poorly designed project is borne by the community; the public is another client.”

Increasingly, he said, it was important that the community too became more skilled and educated and buildings had to demonstrate what was possible. So the winner of the sustainability award had to be a “step above” business as usual, to push boundaries and establish a new benchmark through energy use and material re-use.

Nightingale 1 – Breathe Architecture. Photo: Peter Clarke

The jury found what they were looking for in Nightingale 1, gifting its architects with the David Oppenheim Award for Sustainable Architecture, for a modest block of carbon neutral apartments on a small scale industrial “brownfields” site in middle ring Melbourne.

Kirk said the project was remarkable in that it had used “every possible means” to achieve a sustainable outcome.

Designed by Breathe Architects, Nightingale has none of the following: car parking, aircon, second bathrooms, individual laundries, plasterboard ceilings or toxic finishes.

It does have: passive principles achieving an average NatHERS 8.2 stars; parking for 42 bicycles and car share; rooftop gardens and a shared rooftop laundry; natural light and ventilation to all bedrooms; a shared 18kW PV array; a shared solar hot water system; shared hydronic heating boiler; re-use of rainwater for irrigation, laundry and shared amenities; recycled timber floors; exposed concrete structure; formply joinery; concrete bench tops; hydronic heating and double glazed, thermally broken windows.

Importantly, Kirk said, it was an architect led co-development model with purchasers contributing by buying off the plan, the second of its kind by Nightingale, and there was a waitlist for more.

“It took technical ingenuity and a lot of perseverance,” said Kirk, and also received an award in the housing category because of its innovative and inexpensive financial model and middle ring industrial siting where higher density is increasingly important.

“That’s why Nightingale is a great demo project for cities around Australia, it’s a type of development that doesn’t rely on conventional models. The ones we did seek out were the ones that thought about the benefit of the project in the community in a broader sense beyond the site, where architects drove the agenda.”

Barwon Water by GHD Woodhead. Photo: Trevor Mein

In terms of re-purposing, the water authority in Geelong, Barwon Waters with architects GHD Woodhead, achieved a National Award for Sustainable Architecture for the overhaul of its headquarters, in which much of the original concrete and steel structure of an existing building was retained, with an estimated saving of a million kilograms of CO 2 compared to using new materials.

Of the material removed from the site, 80 per cent was recycled. The consolidation of the water authority’s employees into one office also saw a 70 per cent reduction in electricity use and a 90 per cent in gas use.

Kirk said: “What was also positive was that re-using those buildings meant they stayed in the city centre while a lot of regional centres have struggled to retain critical mass. It was a holistic approach to sustainability which wasn’t just about energy and water, but the commercial centre too, and the result of an architect working with informed clients.”

Through a good briefing and clever design, Kirk says it is possible to use less space in a large organisation or get a homeowner to downsize. The principles are the same. A project his own office is doing started out at 20,000 square metres, and will hopefully go down to 10,000.

How, The Fifth Estate asked, do architects deal with affluent clients who want houses with say five bedrooms and six bathrooms, where each child gets their own bathroom?

Kirk had an interesting response: “Well, in some ways the house becomes more useful as the family goes through transitions – enabling adult children to stay at home until 30 is not entirely about indulgence, but about future proofing as well. The key is versatility and diversity in housing.”

Kirk argues that the real problem is the focus on single housing types or models during large development booms. A development with several thousand apartments of the same type and, for example, with the same ceiling heights, is inflexible and hard to redevelop later.

A sustainable building is one that can change its use over time.

Barangaroo House – Collins and Turner. Photo: Rory Gardiner

Infrastructure-wise, he said, Australia was on the cusp of an unprecedented boom, with spending to the tune of $54 billion in Victoria alone (and similar amounts in Sydney). Much of this was dominated by engineering preoccupations, and developer led, with public space and design thinking only tacked on later, when it could be too late to salvage the public realm.

In cities built in the 19th century, such as Brisbane, key buildings were designed by architects with a shared vision, while now so much is developer dominated and city centres are built with a government/developer/private investor model, all in their separate worlds.

The professions need to have a collaborative approach, which he believes architects are best placed to provide because one of their core skills is bringing together multi-disciplinary teams.

Ultimately architects are also trained to think spatially about issues, which is not something that comes easily to most people.

“Cities are a system and need to be thought of that way, and architects have a role in reminding people of that and of what it takes for them to be great places for people.”

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  1. Great insights and comments from Richard about infrastructure and public space, the separate worlds, multi-generational housing and the spatial training of architects and their collaborative skills. And well done Nightingale!

    I would add in terms of sustainability attention not only to human need in all its diversity, but attention to detailing and construction of the building fabric. Juggling energy, fire and moisture control, if ignored or poorly installed, will potentially see mould become the ‘new black’ (literally) and buildings a health hazard and/or prematurely demolished. Delivery models that just ‘kick this down the road’ are definitely not sustainable