24 July 2014 — Implementing the New South Wales guidelines for multi-residential projects nationwide could improve quality sustainability outcomes while speeding up development approval, the new president of the Australian Institute of Architects David Karotkin says. In an interview with The Fifth Estate, Karotkin also says the AIA is launching a sustainability strategy that will create guiding principles for more future-thinking design.
The Perth-based architect, who is managing director of Sandover Pinder, says that NSW is currently the only state where it is mandatory to engage an architect on large residential projects, and the that fact other states do not have this requirement can be the cause of lengthy and complex development approval processes.
“At the moment, in every other state, anyone can design a building,” Karotkin says.
The result is in an increased need for planning authorities to act as quality control, which then means many projects get sent back to the drawing board because they fail to meet the detail of the various planning and design requirements, and applicable standards. This often complex and lengthy approval process is“the bane of the industry”.
Architects operate in regulated environment under the Architects Act, Karotkin says, and this means they are required to demonstrate minimum levels of competency and have obligations around maintaining those, including mandated standards of professional behaviour.
If it became a requirement nationwide for project to be designed and signed off on by an architect, planning authorities would then know the project had addressed the appropriate requirements, and could perhaps offer streamlined approval processes.
The mandated use of architects on multi-residential projects is one of the elements of NSW State Environmental Planning Policy 65.
Karotkin says SEPP 65 should be implemented nationwide, as it is a proven model that creates good benchmarks for project planning and design.
“Bob Carr recognised that medium density and high density residential developments were becoming more prominent and that the quality of design ended up affecting the quality of life for people who live in them,” Karotkin says.
“It is also about how the building impacts the urban landscape around it. Larger and more complex building types have more influence than just on the people occupying them.”
The next step could be to apply the model to other building types such as multi-storey commercial offices.
“It’s a good benchmark because the legislation already exists. We could identify other important building types [to apply it to] based on size, value, category of complexity and sophistication,” Karotkin says.
AIA to advocate for sustainability outcomes
The AIA’s new sustainability policy is also about improving the national approach to creating the built environment. Karotkin says it will be used as an advocacy document.
“At the end of the day, it’s a tool for advocating a position,” he says.
“The important thing with sustainability is when people talk about it, to really interrogate what they mean by sustainability. For a long time it was interchangeable with environmental [values], now to a certain extent that has become normalised.
“Now sustainability is about the quadruple bottom line – being environmentally, socially, culturally and financially sustainable. All those things really become a package, and when people talk about sustainability it really needs to be across all of those.”
In terms of the willingness of clients to embrace sustainability when it is suggested by an architect, or even request it as part of their brief, Karotkin says “it takes two to tango”.
“Architects don’t create in isolation. They are part of the team that delivers a project, and at the top of the team pyramid is the client. And if the client isn’t similarly adventurous or courageous enough to want to innovate and challenge, all enthusiasm from the architect can be stifled.
“There are people out there, however, who are prepared to back their architect.
There’s an appetite for challenging architecture
“When challenging projects are delivered they are quite readily adopted by the community; there’s an appetite for adopting challenging and unique pieces of architecture. And there are umpteen examples where projects have been watered down and they are the worse for it.”
Risk aversion is a major part of a client’s focus, but the end result can be that projects miss out on the opportunities that come from innovation.
“That kind of black/white, stop/go approach doesn’t match reality,” he says.
Governments could lend a hand
“It requires leadership – and that’s government’s role – to lead with governments making the right sorts of decisions for the community and having a long-term vision. However, politicians are on an election cycle and under constant pressure around the next election because their job is under threat, and that’s not really conducive to being visionary.”
In the absence of government leadership it is increasingly the business sector seizing the initiative to drive positive outcomes.
“It is great that the big business end of town can show leadership. If they have a long-term vision, then the community can see what innovation can do.”
He points out that the difference between developers and investors is the former do not live long-term with a development – they live with the profit and loss. However investors generally apply more long-term thinking, and can have a bigger picture that includes lifecycle considerations and sustainability.
The human dimension – it’s in the doing
In terms of which sustainability solutions hold the most promise, Karotkin says the human dimension is an important part of the equation.
“There are a lot of fairly high-tech environmental solutions. We could ask if it is the best use of those [project] funds from a sustainability point of view. We need to be mindful of not taking too narrow a view of sustainability.
“With Green Star nowadays they don’t give points for things that require human intervention, [such as louvres that require manual operation], because the thinking is that people won’t do those things.
“But if everything is automated, there is a loss of awareness on the part of people of how a building works. It’s kind of an educative process. There are lots of options with every design.”
Ultimately, he says, buildings are about people, and there is an old saying in architecture circles that “a building without people is a sculpture”.
“Really what we are creating is not complete until it’s got people in it.
“Design is inherently about projecting into to the future, and architects have to be in tune with the issues that are going to affect the nature of the built environment, and have to imagine their work as part of that. As a designer your work has an impact on human behaviour.
“If we just make our decisions through exhaustive analysis of human behaviour as it currently is, we’ll just keep designing the same thing over and over again. We need to look at how they could do things, and ask, “how can we design something that improves the way people live, work and recreate?”
“That’s what drives architects, the opportunity to influence people’s lives.
“As an architectural community I have a fair degree of confidence in our ability to forge an architectural legacy for future generations.”