Once again this summer, and with what seems to be ever-increasing intensity, the news is full of stories about heatwaves and electricity generators/residents/cities not coping with the heat. For architects and planners, the designers and definers of the built environment, this is an issue which we can and should be talking about.
On jaunts throughout the sprawling Perth metro area I am constantly saddened and often infuriated by the never-ending sea of rooves which dominate our landscape. I do not doubt that a drive down freeways heading out of any of Australian capital city would reveal similar sights. The wholesale destruction of natural habitat, bushland and farm land is one thing, but the construction of bad homes which rely on and strain the power grid is a matter on which architects and planners should be speaking out. Loudly.
Architects aren’t infallible, or homogenous in skill and practice, but its hard to go through 5 years of study, then several years of ‘apprenticing’, then the extra study and cost and hassle of registering to become an Architect, without caring about buildings, people and the way we live. Maybe you don’t like the look of some ‘wacky’ architect-designed homes, but delve deeper and you might see how carefully considered they are – taking advantage of natural light (cheaper electricity bills), summer breezes (less aircon, if any), passive heating (less aircon again) and a generally more considered approach to living in a particular place or climate. Not always, but mostly. This is what we train for and this is what we love. Most people don’t go through all that effort to become architects only to do half-assed, slap dash work.
So if architects are going to all this effort to make homes and buildings work better, then why does our electricity grid suffer every Summer? The fact is that architects are involved in only a tiny fraction of designing and building homes in Australia; we casually throw around figures like 3-5% of new homes are architect-designed but I have no reference with which to back that up. And it’s likely a higher percentage in commercial & institutional work (hospitals, universities, office towers etc), but this post isn’t based in facts and figures, only professional observation and experience.
If we choose to take those figures as a reference point, then in the home building sector 95% of the designing and building is undertaken exclusively by non-architects. And I’m so happy for good builders to build homes because that is what they are trained in and knowledgeable about, but I am fiercely against bad designers designing homes. The fact is that while not everyone can call themselves an architect (you must be registered under state law), anyone can call themselves a ‘designer’. So anyone can put pen to paper, or mouse to computer, and draw up a building and say that it has been ‘designed’. Bullshit. Sure they have produced a plan, sure they have documented a building, but ‘designing’ infers an effort, a thinking and re-thinking, an experimentation and a knowledge of the background principles, and the ability to spot problems and then solve them. (NB. having said that, architects don’t have the monopoly on good design).
So if you have ‘designed’ an estate that requires the natural landscape to be levelled and unmade, I call bullshit. If you have ‘designed’ a home that relies on mechanical means of heating and cooling 365 days of the year, I call bullshit. If you have ‘designed’ a home with large percentages of useless, dark circulation passages, and an arrangement of spaces that pays lip service to the way people live and enjoy space, then I call bullshit.
The fact is that back in the day the ‘project homes’ of Australia were built by good builders, and designed by good architects. The suburban housing stock by which we define our national identity – summers in beach houses, cricket in yards, breeze blocks and mid-century design and a relaxed attitude and our indoor/outdoor lifestyle – much of that was forged by good architects working with good builders to great good homes for good lives.
The line of ‘that’s what the people want’ is bullshit – the people want to live in affordable but good homes. The line that ‘you can’t build an architect-designed home for that price’ is bullshit – it’s all based on common practice and the bargaining power that comes from repetition and large numbers. In this country we used to build beautiful, well designed homes that were available to everyone, and now we have swathes of air-conditioned houses which disregard and wipe out any trace of the natural context in which they are built, including the climate.
So when the news is full of reports about heat waves and how our power generation is struggling to keep up with the demand of the air-conditioners that are required to make these homes liveable, I get furious that architects and planners, our advocates and our professional bodies aren’t standing up and stating loudly and clearly that there are better ways of designing and better ways of building; that collectively we have the knowledge and the expertise and the desire to see that Australians can live in homes that are cheap, energy efficient and better in almost every respect.
We aren’t big on good design in Australia, it’s not in our DNA; we think its maybe a bit flashy. I’d argue however, that we do have a spirit of ‘problem solving’, which is design by another name. So why is it that if the first people of Australia built careful shade shelters, and the first European settlers built shading verandahs all around their buildings, and the mid-century architects used wide eaves and undercrofts, and modern Australian architects are striving for energy efficiency through passive solar design, material selection and insulations, do most of us live in houses that do little or nothing to keep out the sun, and rely on power-hungry air-con to do the heavy lifting? When did we forget to apply the age old solution to the problem?
And if we don’t care about design as such, Australians do care about cost-effectiveness and mortgages and power bills and enjoying nature and our active lifestyles – and all of that is best resolved through the problem solving skills of good designers.
So if you’re in the market for a new home ask the builder or salesperson who designed it and what are their qualifications. Go speak to an architect for half an hour and see what they can do for you (most architects will offer a free, no obligation chat to discuss your requirements). Even if you think you can’t afford an architect, you might just be surprised. If you’re an architect or a planner or a good designer or a builder or a client and happy homeowner and you love better buildings – blog and talk and chat and inform and shout loudly about what good buildings are. Talk about the problems and the solutions. Frankly, it would be unAustralian not to.
Registered Architect (WA)
Registered Building Practitioner (WA)
ABC News (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-01-25/extreme-heat-for-victoria-melbourne-hottest-day-in-a-decade/10748330)