Ben Hewett

Design and sustainability guidelines – or the lack of them – especially for high rise apartments in Melbourne, has been a controversial topic of debate among some industry sectors. But in South Australia Government Architect Ben Hewett shows how Design Review Panels are leading to a more collaborative approach and better outcomes.

Sustainability is “design 101” and at the core of how development proposals are assessed in South Australia, according to state government architect and Design Review Panel chair Ben Hewett.

As part of South Australia’s planning reforms, a pre-lodgement service with the Design Review Panel was introduced to ensure proposed major developments achieved good design. The review process aims to ensure projects incorporate fundamental passive design elements that result in better environmental, social and cultural outcomes. Hewett says there are also plans to further encourage appropriate densification, with design guidelines for medium density multi-residential apartments currently on the drawing board.

“Our role is very early in the process to help set good principles in place,” Hewett says in an interview with The Fifth Estate. “It’s very much about those big significant moves that can be made, and if you get those agreed early on with the developer, you get the biggest sustainability outcome with the least impact.

“Eighty per cent of what you can do are passive moves – the siting of the project, orientation, cross-ventilation, materiality and thermal mass, how you can shade windows. Those questions become very important with apartment buildings on city sites.

“Sustainability is design 101; it’s the basic things you first learn as an architect – how to capture the sun in winter, exclude it in summer, and how to achieve cross-ventilation. The Design Review process allows you to have that conversation early with the developer and the design team.”

A strong background in design

Hewett has a strong background is shaping new design guidelines. He led the Office for Design and Architecture SA since it formed in 2013 and was appointed executive director of the Integrated Design Commission SA in 2010 and project director of 5000+, an integrated design strategy for inner Adelaide. He has also been a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney’s School of Architecture, an associate director at Crone Partners, and has been director of his own architecture design research practice, Offshore Studio since 2007.

Hewett  also worked for the New South Wales Government Architect’s Office, where he was part of the team that developed the best practice Residential Flat Design Code, which was released when NSW implemented State Environmental Planning Policy 65 – Design Quality of Residential Flat Development, which could inform new guidelines for Melbourne’s apartment towers.

See our story NSW-style Guidelines Proposed for Melbourne’s high rise resi

Adelaide: Conversations about design are now shifting from an “adversarial approach” to a collaborative one – Ben Hewett

From adversarial to collaborative

In South Australia, Hewett says, the conversations now about design within the review process are robust, and represent a shift from an “adversarial approach” to a collaborative one.

There tend to be four basic scenarios, he says. First there’s the good developer and the good architect, which he says is “the stuff we love, as we get to support good design through the planning system”.

Then there’s the good architect and the not-so-good developer, in which case the review panel works to help the developer see why they should support the architect’s suggestions and communicates the necessity of meeting certain requirements around sustainability.

When the developer is good, but the architect not-so-good, the panel works with the architect to improve the design.

The hard one, however, is when both the developer and the architect are not-so-good.

“This one can be tough, because no one likes hearing criticism, but we’re very tough. We don’t like to hold back in seeking good outcomes,” Hewett says.

The design review is also designed to steer development in a direction compatible with the design culture Adelaide is attempting to create.

“We need to foster the environment we want. You can’t just let developers have free rein on communities,” Hewett says.

“Good design is about negotiating complex scenarios and balancing competing agendas to achieve optimum outcomes.

“To negotiate the complexity of the contemporary city you need collaborative processes and disciplines, and you need experts to work together, to work with developers, the community and the political realm.

“What we’re building now is our future design heritage.”

In terms of sustainability, the quadruple bottom line is considered. Hewett says the design review looks at a project’s economics, advising on where spending can best made. It also looks at the likely financial resilience of the built development, for example, if a project is to be a mixed use development considering how the development will ensure businesses want to occupy the spaces, and how they will give those businesses a good chance of succeeding.

“We’re talking about a sensible approach to getting the best value for money,” Hewett says.

“We also ask, is it inclusive? Does it cater for a diverse demographic? And we look at cultural sustainability – is it contributing to the makeup of the city?

“All of these aspects are important. That’s why [the review process] is an equal conversation between design, developers and government. It doesn’t solve everybody’s problems, but it helps with the bigger discussions which have the most impact.”

Hewett says communities should be involved in design, and that Adelaide’s promotion of the importance of design is stimulating a grassroots conversation about design in the city.

“Communities are intelligent – they are made up of everybody. Culture is also how we think about things and how we talk about things, and we are seeing an increase in conversation about design in the community.”

In terms of the oft-cited mantra of some developers that guidelines and statutory requirements are an imposition, and that ‘the market should be left to decide’, Hewett says there is a need to understand more clearly what the market is.

“The market is historical data; it’s what happened in the past. And in the past, not many apartments sold in Adelaide.

“With the panel [process], there are new types of products, and new options, and better quality, which can foster the market and leads to an increasing number of apartments sold.”

The panel comprises a pool of between 30 and 40 independent experts, and while it is not mandatory, Hewett says projects that do not engage in the review process as part of the pre-lodgement process may have a longer approval process and given the Government Architect is a mandatory referral body, may require review after lodgement.

When proposals are referred post-lodgement, it becomes more expensive and complicated for proponents to adjust the design to achieve the required standards, as by the time a development application is lodged, the final design and project finances are by and large locked down.

By undertaking the review during the early design process, when everything is more fluid and less money and time has been invested, Hewett says it is simpler for projects to adjust elements in order to achieve a better outcome. A planner is assigned as case manager for each project, and supports the project through the process, connecting proponents with the relevant bodies and streamlining the path to lodgement.

Furthermore, projects that complete the process, which involves up to four meetings between the proponents, four members of the panel and Hewett, are guaranteed to receive a planning decision within 20 days of lodging the planning application with the State Government’s Development Assessment Commission. That, he says, is “the carrot” for developers.

The reward for Adelaide is a better built environment.

“We have been seeing significant improvements in the quality of design, both outside in terms of how it looks and in how it works inside the building, and also how it works within the overall fabric of the city,” Hewett says.

The ODASA has now been tasked with preparing medium density residential design guidelines, and is currently undertaking consultation with industry.

“As the market matures, people get used to increased densities and the opportunities it offers, and people have a better idea of what they might be wanting in design,” Hewett says.

“It’s a different lifestyle in the inner city, where you are connected to a community of people and the social networks between the people in the neighbourhood. That’s a benefit of increased density. And considering things such as the ageing population and health costs, and increasing mental health issues, the cost of providing services for those things in suburban areas is very high. It is far easier and cheaper to provide those services in areas of density.

“One of the things I like about the centre of a good dense city is the quirky things. You have enough of a population for all kinds of business to be sustained, because there is greater difference and diversity, so you get a more inclusive society because the businesses are not just catering for a mainstream demographic.”