Architecture as a profession often attracts well-intentioned people, looking to make an impact with what they do.1 However, the fundamental structure of the construction industry can be an obstacle to achieving this mission. Work that has a genuine focus on sustainability and fostering communities is the exception and not the rule, so how can architects reposition themselves within the industry to create work that is more widely beneficial?
One American architect, Jonathan Tate of OJT has done this by leading his own residential development, Saint Thomas at Ninth in the office’s home town of New Orleans. This decision came out of frustrations Tate had with the traditional developer model. In an interview with Curbed he explains, “builders don’t care what it looks like, developers are looking at the bottom line… it’s a financial transaction versus a design and experience. And that’s a really poor way to see the world.”2
However, leading the development process was not just a way for Tate to maintain design control, he was looking to demonstrate how denser, more sustainable housing typologies could provide affordable accommodation in this gentrifying area as it transitioned from industrial to residential.3 The Saint Thomas at Ninth project sees 12 units tightly organised onto a former warehouse site. They are energy efficient and despite their compactness, offer inhabitants spacious living areas, outdoor amenities and high quality finishes. In order to achieve this, Tate had to expand his skills and learn to navigate the financial and legal components of development, as the zoning laws originally would only allow three houses on the site. 4
The Nightingale Model, founded by Australian architect Jeremy McLeod, is another example of architect-as-developer housing. In this model, the community of residents contribute funds to the project at the start of the development and are included in the design process, resulting in bespoke housing that meet the community’s needs. Similarly to Saint Thomas at Ninth, the high-density approach is allowing people to own property in gentrified areas such as Brunswick and Fremantle at a lower price point. With four completed developments in Victoria and 6 more in progress, including Nightingale Fremantle in WA, the Nightingale Model is finding success across the country.5
Another architect who is operating outside of traditional practice is Clare Richards, a graduate from The Bartlett School of Architecture who’s non-for-profit firm Ft’work architects has no buildings in its portfolio to date. Instead, Richards works to improve communities through collaboration with local people and grassroots organisations. Her most recent initiative ‘My Place’, engages young residents of community housing complexes to be involved in the building’s regeneration. The project is focused on improving places without any new construction and provides young people with new skills in the process. 6 The approach of working with existing structures within the community could also serve as inspiration for a more sustainable way for architect’s to operate. Can they make a greater or equal impact by applying their skills to manage existing resources instead of allocating new ones?
By broadening their skill sets, these architects have looked to make more of an impact with their work, both in terms of sustainability and benefit to community. While it is difficult to measure in the short term, the positive impact of these projects it does suggest a shift in how architect’s may need to operate in the future in order to create work that aligns with their values.
This is especially relevant since the establishment of Architect’s Declare in 2019, as many architecture firms in Australia and abroad have announced their commitment to the organisation’s values.7 It is possible that honouring this commitment will require architect’s to adapt to new models of practice. They may need to be louder about what they believe in and sever ties with developers that are unable to adapt and share their vision, in favour for those who are more progressive.8 At this time of climate crisis, architect’s need to continue trying new approaches and be open minded about the ways in which they can contribute.
Editors note: Australian Architects Declare is a movement, not an organisation or an official association. AAD has a growing bunch of passionate organisers, ambassadors, and volunteers all stepping up to be more involved in promoting Architecture responsive to the climate crisis.
- Rowan Moore, “Where are the architects who will put the environment first?,” The Gaurdian, August 31, 2019, accessed April 1, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/aug/31/architecture-to-counteract-climate-change-ilford-market-cork-house-barangaroo-mycelium
- Diana Buds, “The rise of the architect-developer,” Curbed, December 10, 2018, accessed April 2, 2020, https://www.curbed.com/2018/12/10/18127314/architect-developer-urbanism
- Jenna McKnight, “OJT completes sculptural affordable housing in New Orleans,” Dezeen, May 28, 2019, accessed April 2, 2020, https://www.dezeen.com/2019/05/28/saint-thomas-at-ninth-condo-development-ojt-new-orleans-housing/
- Buds, “The rise of the architect-developer”
- Lucy Feagins and Jeremy McLeod, @Mercedes me with Jeremy McLeod, TDF Talks, July 26, 2018, https://thedesignfiles.net/2018/07/tdf-talks-mercedes-me-architect-jeremy-mcleod/
- Ella Jessel, “Ft’work’s Clare Richards: ‘There was no real life in my architecture training,'” Architect’s Journal, December 20, 2019, accessed March 3, 2020, https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/ftworks-clare-richards-there-was-no-real-life-in-my-architecture-training/10045753.article
- Editorial Desk AAU, “Australian architects join global movement to declare climate emergency,” Architecture AU, July 26, 2019, accessed April 2, 2020, https://architectureau.com/articles/australian-architects-join-global-movement-to-declare-climate-emergency/
- Olivia Round, “Australia’s leading architects share what they are willing to fight for to achieve near net-zero by 2050,” Urban.com.au, September 26, 2019, accessed April 2, 2020, https://www.urban.com.au/news/australias-leading-architects-share-what-they-are-willing-to-fight-for-to-achieve-near-net-zero-by-2050
- Nicholas Failla, Australia’s leading architects share what they are willing to fight for to achieve near net-zero by 2050, 2019, https://www.urban.com.au/news/australias-leading-architects-share-what-they-are-willing-to-fight-for-to-achieve-near-net-zero-by-2050
- William Crocker, OJT completes sculptural affordable housing in New Orleans, 2019, https://www.dezeen.com/2019/05/28/saint-thomas-at-ninth-condo-development-ojt-new-orleans-housing/