8 May 2014 — For Architectus design director Elizabeth Watson Brown, architecture is not about making objects, it is “making the infrastructure for life”. This central motif is echoed in the sessions she will be anchoring at the Australian Institute of Architects annual conference, Making: 2014, which kicks off in Perth today [Thursday].
This year’s conference is bringing architects from Asia, Africa and South America to join with Australia’s best architects to share ideas, experiences and inspiration around four key theme areas: Making Culture, Making Impact, Making Connections and Making Life, for which Watson Brown is the anchor
Prior to joining Architectus as design director in 2011, Watson Brown had run her own practice, with a strong portfolio of residential, education and public space projects. Shifting into a major project scale practice has been an opportunity to bring her passion for sustainability and the smaller, more intimate scale into a larger urban canvas.
“It was a big challenge [taking on the design director role]. I was approached in 2009, and I thought about it over a couple of years,” Watson Brown tells The Fifth Estate.
“The community [of the company] and the ethos of the people were important to me. And I realised I wanted to work on larger and more impactful things. I also realised I really like working collaboratively, and I enjoy the opportunity to think about [design] at the urban scale.”
One of the questions Watson Brown wanted to explore was whether it is possible to have particular responses to places that apply across all scales, from the personal to the city scale.
“When I talk about architecture, it’s about how we design life, and how we live together in community,” Watson Brown says.
The two sessions Watson Brown is anchoring at the conference feature architects from highly diverse backgrounds – BC Ang and Wen Hsia Ang from WHBC Malaysia, Cazú Zegers from Chile, Vo Trong Nghia from Vietnam and Marina Tabassum from Bangladesh.
As architects they work with peoples and spaces that are very different to the Australian context, and Watson Brown is looking forward to hearing about ways of thinking that range from the intimate scale to the urban scale, exploring the need to design for both privacy and community, and the judicious arrangement of design that achieves a balance between them.
“I am interested to hear how they enact the architecture of their place and their lives, and how they use architecture to support the kinds of lives they need in those places,” Watson Brown says.
“Some of the most fascinating architects are those who enact good things and support people who need support. There is a generosity of architecture about life, and the biodiversity of life.
“[It is about] how we make life better rather than making problems, how we make places that support and sustain life in the future.
“When we discussed the [conference] focus, we decided it is not just about physical making, but what an architect does in terms of making life. I am interested in architecture as the infrastructure of the life we share, and how architecture supports life from the personal to the public.”
Watson Brown identifies nature as part of the life architecture supports, and has a deep appreciation for the subtropical ecology of Brisbane, where the Architectus practice is based, and the opportunities it offers for climate-appropriate, sustainable, nature-inclusive designs.
Speaking to The Fifth Estate by phone from the roof garden that is a feature of the Architectus office, she said the subtropics benefits from the vegetation that creates a weave of green though the cities in the region, describing it as “balanced” in terms of nature and the built form.
The roof garden combines shade trees and food growing, something Watson Brown says is a “different way of thinking about how we [as architects] support life”.
Architectus moved into the office in 2013. As part of the fitout design, an operable wall was constructed between the office and the garden, allowing a complete flow between the inside and outside space.
“The light and air has changed people’s attitudes so radically to coming to work,” Watson Brown notes.
“We use [the operable walls and garden] as a demonstration for our commercial clients. And as an example to clients, we felt it was important to do the things we talk about [in our designs].
“It was not expensive to build. There is a whole zone on the edge of the operable walls, which we call the collaboration verandah, where we meet with clients. It has a view out into the greenery of the garden right out into the centre of the city.
The multiple benefits of greenery
“We have a garden club, staff will come out pick food for their lunch, and there are also other benefits it confers – studies have shown that even just looking out on greenery is good for our wellbeing, it increases it so much, and productivity is also increased by looking out on greenery. And [it was done] for so little outlay.”
One of the other aspects of the garden space Watson Brown commented on is its ability to give a balance between the public style of space of a large open plan office, and the need people have to retreat, contemplate, seek privacy or change space throughout a working day.
The complete openness of the indoor space to the outdoors means the office is blessed with extremely high levels of natural ventilation, and there are thermal benefits, which combined with the climate reduce the need to use mechanical heating or cooling substantially.
“In South East Queensland it’s an automatic decision [to use natural ventilation]. It has a very benign climate, so a lot of the year you can achieve comfort passively. People can survive in this climate without artificial enclosure, heating and cooling, and this [idea] is deeply embedded in what I think in terms of design,” Watson Brown says.
The tide is turning for sustainable design
Asked whether it was still a challenge to get some clients to embrace the ideas of sustainability, or whether there was sometimes a degree of reluctance around perceptions of cost, Watson Brown says ideas are shifting as sustainability becomes important for maintaining corporate bottom lines.
“The boardroom is not set up for nuances; it is set up for profit,” Watson Brown says.
“But now the whole [topic] of the world of business is intricately linked to the notion of community and sustainability. It is getting easier to get clients on board [and] sustainability is something people now ask for, especially in the larger public buildings [that are a substantial part of Architectus’ work]. And from the large commercial buildings point of view, there is a marketing aspect to it.
“It’s always something to have as part of the design conversation, and it is really critical to have it as part of the design conversation right at the beginning.”
Brisbane, with its verdant subtropical vegetation, gives Watson Brown the impression that “if all the people left the city, the forest would come back”.
“If you think about a big city or a building as an ecosystem then [you see that] it should be able to sustain itself.
“[As architects] we’ve got this amazing responsibility, where we are designing places and designing the infrastructure of life. In terms of energy, and materials, we have a responsibility to make them [environmentally] neutral at least.”