Where are architects going with housing?

A'Beckett Tower - Winner 2011 Victorian Architect's Institute Award for multiple residential (two bed unit)

Victoria’s architects had their annual awards ceremony last Friday, handing out gongs in a range of categories. Curiously, the official AIA site shows the happy faces of the winning architects, but no pictures of the winning buildings. It should have both! Nevertheless, I finally succeeded in locating a file showing pictures of all the winning buildings in all categories – see Award Winners 2011.

Given the pressing housing issues facing our cities – like declining affordability and the need for higher densities in established suburbs – I was curious to see what the best architects in the State were doing in housing design, so I took a look at the winners in the New Residential Architecture category.

The premier honour for residential architecture in Victoria – The Harold Desbrowe-Annear Award – was won by NMBW Architecture Studio for a house in Sorrento. This is a detached house on a relatively large lot. In fact it could be is an up-market beach house.

There were three other winners in the New Residential category. Two of them – Beached House, by BKK Architects, and Westernport House, by Sally Draper Architects – are also detached houses in relatively remote (from Melbourne) locations, seemingly on even larger lots.

The only winner located in a metropolitan setting is the Law Street house, built for their own use by husband and wife architects, Amy Muir and Bruno Mendes. I like it, but architect’s own houses don’t generally provide a template for addressing the wider task of housing the population at large.

In contrast, there were only two awards for higher density housing. The premier Best Overend Award for Multiple Residential went to architects Elenberg Fraser for the A’Beckett Tower (see exhibits) and the other to Hayball architects for a three storey development in John Street, Doncaster.

A'Beckett Tower (exterior)

The A’Beckett Tower has a strong and colourful presence on the edge of the CBD that must have impressed the jury. You can see something of what the architects achieved with the interior of this award-winning building by looking at the floor plan of a 63 m2 two bedroom unit (see first exhibit) and at these pictures. Hmmmmm…….nice view.

Doubtless these are all worthy winners and I have no problem with architects designing upmarket houses. But I do wonder what vision the profession has of its social and economic relevance when it gives four awards to single dwellings – three of them detached and in essentially non-urban locations – and only two to multi-unit housing. In any event, I’d expect most income from residential work would be coming from multi-unit housing, not from a handful of made-to-order upmarket dwellings.

On another aspect, I found this extract from the jury’s citation for the A’Beckett Tower interesting. According to the judges, the project demonstrates “understanding, skill and inventiveness within the constraints of a developer-driven, large scale apartment building”. Developer-driven!? The implication seems to be that the architect’s job is unusually (unreasonably?) hard when the client wants to come out ahead financially and not lose money! Is the corollary that architects needn’t worry too much about what clients who aren’t developers want?


9 Comments on “Where are architects going with housing?”

  1. Factory says:

    “Developer-driven!? The implication seems to be that the architect’s job is unusually (unreasonably?) hard when the client wants to come out ahead financially and not lose money!”

    I’m guessing they mean to contrast it with jobs where they are working directly with the person who will be living in the house. Different customers have different priorities.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Yes, I expect that’s right but even one-off house clients have every right to be very demanding about both the cost and the brief. Public sector clients like universities and hospitals should be just as demanding as housing developers about getting what their customers (students/patients) want at the price the institution can afford. Seems to me the client’s demands are just another one of the many constraints that designers have to optimise. “Good” design should be just as likely to emerge from a “developer-driven” housing tower as from a bespoke house. “Good” design should not be defined as absence of constraints.

  2. heritagepoliceman says:

    As much as they would like to lead, it doesnt much matter where architects are going with housing.

    The vast majority of detached housing is designed by builders/ building companies, designed for max profit / sqm. And ‘what people want’. The design approaches (or style) used by builders is always a decade or two behind, or just on a completely different wavelength than what architects do.

    The big change last decade is high-rise, and lots but not all of the larger multi-unit dwellings ARE designed by architects, and the market ‘wants’ or at least is happy to pay for striking looking buildings, and a view, and appliances, but not necessarily grey water recycling or all north facing (really I dont know how developers get away with so many rooms where the lights have be on just to use them – and until recently prob high watt halogen downlights, and with lots of mechanical ventilation).

    But these are of course subject to the bottom line, ie. has to make a profit for the developers – I am actually amazed that in melb there seems to be lively competition for more and more adventurous design in tower blocks – we are so lucky that we havnt ended up with them all being gold-coast cheap every floor the same boring blocks, though there are plenty of those in southbank.

    So architects can only go where the clients are willing to pay, and traditionally that has been design-minded couples with a beach house or an actual block in the city, but far more likely an extension to an older house in the inner or middle ring usually – this is in fact where most small architects do the bulk of their work. Architects can lead in style and thinking, but can only practice when circumstances right. And many do as much as they can to make the places 5* rated or inventively compact, but plenty of others are just interested in the photo spread, as are their clients. And indeed pleasing the client is a mark of ‘good’ architecture, whether a designer couple or a corporation.

    So basically architects, as much as many would like to, cant lead much at all – its up to the state or fed govt. to make the most advanced thinking a regulatory requirement, but even then the ‘market’ ie. builders and their clients, have to want it, and more importantly be able to afford it. And the big builders / developers resist it all the way to bank. A lot like the car makers.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Multi-unit housing should have more prominence in architecture awards because 62% of new housing in Sydney and 32% in Melbourne is multi-unit construction, according to the Grattan Institute’s figures. If calculated by value I expect the multi-unit share would be much higher. If calculated on the aggregate fee income coming to the profession from the two forms of housing, I would also expect the share coming from multi-unit housing to be larger than the Grattan Institute figures indicate. Although a disproportionate number of architects work on houses, it’s essentially a cottage industry.

      There are also other reasons why multi-unit housing should be given more prominence in the awards system. We can expect this form of housing to become even more important in our cities over time and detached houses to become less important. It is also a much more socially relevant form of housing than large bespoke houses in country settings.

      I don’t agree with the idea that ‘good’ clients make for ‘better’ design than developers or that detached houses make for better design because they offer more freedom. Good design is about optimising within constraints. The outcome in each case has to be evaluated in the context of those constraints when using terms like ‘good design’ or making awards.

  3. D Lequeu - Footings says:

    Am I right in saying that ‘bedroom 1’ of the award winning A’beckett Tower has no window?

    • Alan Davies says:

      The euphemism is “borrowed light”! You can see it “borrows” its light from the hallway by having a wall of glass. There’s at least one building in Melbourne with units where both bedrooms “borrow” their light from a contiguous living space.

  4. PK says:

    Hi Alan, great site btw,

    I think ‘heritage policeman’ has hit the nail on the head.

    You state in your reply that ‘Good design is about optimising within constraints.’ That’s exactly it. When dealing with any large investment in our society today the only real ‘constraints’ that exist are legal and financial. ‘Will it make money?’ and ‘Can we get away with this?’.

    To answer the question “I do wonder what vision the profession has of its social and economic relevance” I’d say it doesn’t really have much of one.

    As much as architecture IS a form of art and expression it is also a profession and is ruled by a world of many functional constraints. In Australia one of the biggest constraints when designing housing, particularly apartments, is cost.

    Taking the apartment from the A’Beckett Tower as an example, as pointed out above, this is pretty shit design. You think the designers didn’t know they were making some pretty crappy spaces when they were doing this work? They knew, but they didn’t really have much say. Some real estate agent said that it would sell so they made it. It is a very basic, very cheap apartment, and it still costs $390,000, because apparently people don’t care. The way the world works now is that what’s most important is not the end product, but how well it’s marketed and therefore it’s profitability. Apartment buildings are huge investments, and everyone involved wants to minimise risk and mazimise profit. No one involved in these types of project wants to hire some crazy architecture firm with cares (actual cares that is, not just PR ‘mission statement’ crap) for the greater “social and economic relevance” of their work. And indeed most of the Australian public doesn’t really have much of an interest for this type of stuff when they’re considering their mortgages.

    The way the architecture industry works today if a firm has a reputation for doing conservative, but profitable, designs then they will attract more ‘developer-driven’ work. A smaller firm might not have the staff and resources to take on large multi-unit housing jobs, but they sure can do a good job at getting all the details right and then getting lots of nice publicity shots published. Good design is generally expensive design and unless we have some sort of major social shift this ‘good design’ will remain in the realms of the small-scale architecture cottage industry, and those who can afford to engage it. An increase in funding for architecture competitions could help to create more innovative and socially responsible architecture, but as politics increasingly becomes nothing more than a series of publicity stunts a lack of public interest and understanding of architecture equates to a lack of government funding.

  5. […] on the triumvirate of needs – client’s, user’s and the community’s – is something I’m interested in and have written about before e.g. Is architectural criticism critical? Our main topic of […]

  6. […] cookie cutter houses constructed by developers are McMansions. Large architect-designed bespoke detached houses like these aren’t described in such sneering, deprecatory […]


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