Phil Harris and Adrian Welke, Troppo Architects

3 April 014 – The AIA’s highest accolade, the Gold Medal, went to Troppo co-founders Phil Harris and Adrian Welke in this year’s Australian Achievements in Architecture Awards. In an interview after the awards Phil Harris explains some of the firm’s thinking and why he likes what Tim Flannery  says, that  to feel comfortable, happy and mentally connected” in a place you need to interact with it “with your buildings, your clothes – all those things which mediate between the individual and the environment”. Willow Aliento reports

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At Troppo, they call it common sense

Phil Harris says that that at Troppo, they call sustainability “common sense”.

“There is a big proportion of people [in the architectural profession] who believe sustainability should just be an aspect of every project,” Harris told The Fifth Estate during an interview.

“The overall approach [to design] should be a pragmatic approach, and how to practice [sustainable design] should be a building having the smallest footprint possible with regards to materials and energy. It’s more the efficiency of space [which] we work with, and that comes from a cost prerogative as well.”

Troppo, founded in Darwin and with offices in Townsville, Adelaide, Perth and Byron Bay is know for designs with fluid combinations of outdoor spaces and indoor spaces, use of natural materials, natural ventilation and design responses which are anchored in place, climate and context.

A whole-of-site approach is taken, with aspects such as rainwater collection systems, stormwater management systems, waste management and recycling systems incorporated into plans. Energy-efficiency, maximum use of passive thermal techniques and consideration of the embodied energy of materials are also fundamental to the design process.

2011-05-8144-01-Invaritji Affordable Ecohousing Project-Troppo

The practice was recognised on a global level for excellence in environmentally sensitive design with the Locus Foundation Global Award for Sustainable Architecture in 2010.

“We try not to design buildings and just plonk them on a site. [We use] an ecologically inspired way of thinking.”

Harris outlines a hierarchy of sustainable ways of achieving ventilated space in a design in order of cost, from the cheapest – an all outdoor space – through to courtyard (still cheap), verandah (“slightly cheap”) and breezeway, which is more expensive.

“By the time you get indoors and start sealing it up, the cost increases,” Harris says.

One of the principles many of the Troppo designs therefore use is, “how little do you need to [use] to enclose the space.”

As an example, the design for a cliff top café in steamy Darwin was reduced down to the least amount of enclosed space, essentially being a verandah with operable screens for the dining area. Harris outlined the benefits – reduced cost, use of less resources and a more public space, and a function space which can operate without air conditioning, even in Darwin’s tropical climate.

“The last place anyone wants to sit is inside there,” Harris says.

The practice also runs its own café near the Adelaide office called Café Troppo, which is on a corner opposite one of the five squares in Adelaide’s CBD. The actual building envelope is minimal, with screens and blinds used to create outdoor rooms.

The need for environmental empathy

“I heard Tim Flannery give a talk about environmental empathy at WOMAD,” Harris says.

“The whole thing [he was saying] was one will never feel comfortable, happy and mentally connected with a place unless you firstly, connect with the environment and secondly, attempt to interact with it with your buildings, your clothes – all those things which mediate between the individual and the environment. [You need to] get to slowly comprehend it and get to love it.”

One of Troppo’s projects where creating the environmental connection was important was a Defence Housing Project, where Harris says the design response addressed Defence Housing Australia’s need that service personnel who are regularly shifted around the country feel happy, and connected, where they are currently living.

“It is better to have a domestic environment that embraces the place you are,” Harris says.

The Troppo team

Troppo says “building is a verb”

While the Gold Medal was awarded to the co-founders, Harris says the award really belongs to the Troppo collective past and present.

“In excess of 100 people have been through our practice [since it was founded in 1980 in Darwin] and the medal is for the work everyone has created,” he says.

“The award is a great opportunity to pause, and think, and look at where we came from and where we might be going.”

On being asked why he pursued architecture as a profession, Harris says he had “always liked playing in the sandpit, so I figured [when I got older] I would like to be making things.

“But it doesn’t take long [as an architect] to work out it’s about working with people, especially in residential. It’s an honour to work with people [who come to us as clients], sharing their dreams, hearing their stories, and trying to embed all of that in a place to live and how it might unfold in the future. It’s an intriguing process to be part of.

“In both commercial and residential [design] you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. When you are working more publicly, you draw in more heads, you draw in people and become richer for it. Working in that space is an honour.

“Good architects put themselves in those people’s shoes…people who aren’t even there.”

In the course of his professional development, Harris undertook an honours degree in housing studies, in “the minutiae of living”. He explained how one of the concepts of “pattern language” gave him a way of thinking about all the layers that make up an activity in a home, for example, the hierarchy of storage and how that relates to daily actions.

“If you think about [design] in a more abstracted way you can come up with novel and affordable answers, instead of big, fat answers,” Harris says. “And there is an overlap [with that] to green thinking. It’s [a case] of working out what you can do without, like fashion and style, the point [with buildings] is how they work.”

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