AA Roundtable 05

AA Roundtable 05, held at the Perth offices of Isis on 11 May 2011, looked at retrofitting the city. This report from Architecture Australia Sep/Oct 2011.

Panellist Melinda Dodson.

Panellist Melinda Dodson.

Image: Peter Bennetts

As Australian urbanity matures, architects are exponentially called upon to add on to, rework and reframe the existing condition rather than construct from a tabula rasa. In this roundtable held at the Isis office in Perth, four practitioners discuss their divergent experiences of retrofitting the city, with the knowledge that over 50 percent of the built environment we will occupy in 2050 exists right here and now.

Taking part in the discussion were Melinda Dodson (Melinda Dodson Architects), Kieran Wong (CODA), Peter Elliott (Peter Elliott Architecture + Urban Design) and Richard Weller (Urban Design Centre of Western Australia).

Melinda Dodson: When we started planning for this a few months back, we were intrigued by an assertion that came out of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, which asserts that 50 percent of the buildings we will occupy in 2050 exist now in Australia. I want to first start with the 2008 CSIRO study into embodied energy. With that study, the focus was on the construction of buildings and the benefits of recycling, and with that research, the CSIRO have said that the energy embodied in our existing building stock in Australia is equivalent to ten years of the total energy consumption of the entire nation. And then you could move from the building scale to perhaps the precinct city infrastructure scale. There have been a number of pieces of research. One example that Peter, I suspect, would know is the VicRoads and City of Melbourne Transforming Australian Cities research project, where the team have looked at a form of densification along urban transport corridors, and put the case for benefits in terms of a community vitality, the ability to make better use of existing infrastructure, minimize duplication, etc. And of course, thinking (bar not entirely) about best use of infrastructure and embodied energy, cities are so much more than that, but the case for reuse and recycling and retrofitting is a pretty compelling one, and if it is such a compelling one, why haven’t we drawn a boundary around our city and just said “this is the city boundary and we are now going to retrofit our buildings and our cities intensively”?

In terms of my own work, I live and practise in Canberra, which is a city not unlike Perth in terms of its calm, centric planning model, and at the moment in Canberra, we have the largest houses on average in the country. We also have more of an ecological footprint: four times what is a sustainable footprint. And in 2007, we travelled 35 million bus kilometres and 3,000 million car kilometres, according to the ABN. So, we have got some challenges, and some of them are probably very familiar to you in a Perth context. But we have also been locked into a very polarized debate. For me, the frustration that I have had with that debate has led to more recent work where I have been looking at alternative housing models. So, I guess it’s quite simply put – it’s the next-generation terrace house, and taking those square blocks that you can always locate to north, we are looking at new forms of sub-terrace houses to challenge the sort of large houses and long travel distances, which is a bit of a norm in Canberra. So, we’re doing that work within what’s called the urban intensification zone.

And it’s an example of the patterns that we see in cities where we’re actually finding parcels of land within our inner-city areas, and looking at these opportunities to retrofit in buildings. And I think, Peter, that’s one of the observations you have made of Melbourne, about that opportunity to retrofit into the city.

Peter Elliott: My understanding of the city is it’s already built, so you could walk to nearly 90 percent of the projects that I have done in that period of time. It’s a very small and compact world, and it’s one that increasingly in a city like Melbourne, I find enriching because what is beginning to happen is that the city, through its process of renewal – and every city does go through this, and you come to Perth, and it’s sort of rebuilding itself constantly – is that cities get richer and more meaningful when they absorb and build upon prior history, and it’s a kind of sign of maturity.

So, I’ve got a very particular attitude to both infrastructure and individual buildings, because my experience has been lots of small projects – in fact, tiny, almost incidental buildings – and yet, because of an accumulation over a period of time, they add substance. So, things that might seem small and insignificant suddenly become very important because they are the things that matter in our cities; they’re the fine detail of things that we know. I liken my attitude more to that of a surgeon or someone who has to look at things and say “that’s no good, I’m going to cut that out,” sort of cut and paste and reassemble, as well as building in.

Some building typologies are much more adaptable to change than others, and I think buildings can be forethought for the future, that they are made more adaptable just by their nature, and we know warehouses and nineteenth-century buildings, they adapt wonderfully; they seem to be rebuilt many times, and yet the gravitas of their substance as pieces of architecture or fabric, whatever, are so strong that they can sustain many changes. And I think that’s the sort of attitude we need. I think we need to build substance.

Kieran Wong: My small practice has started from renovations, which is all about grafting and increasing density, and as we have grown and thought more about both in Perth, the issues that have come to the front for me, and that we’re trying to guide the practice towards, are really about these targets that are certain things like Directions 2031 and Beyond – which is a planning instrument, a guiding principle – how those will impact on urban infill and how that will impact on housing and housing typologies … I think that there is a voice for architects in terms of thinking about, through diversity and through affordability in housing, because that’s, I think in Perth, the major challenge that we face, intensifying our city at the moment. I think that the public transport and the kind of affordability interface is most crucial in thinking about retrofitting their cities, or a city. [In Perth] a transport plan is imminent – they keep telling me it’s imminent – and I’m sure that it will be linked in some way to hopefully the idea of Directions 2031 and Beyond, but we will wait and see. And then hopefully as a result of that there might be some new thinking about density.

Melinda Dodson: So, 4.2 million people by 2056. What does that mean, Richard?

Panellist Richard Weller.

Panellist Richard Weller.

Image: Peter Bennetts

Richard Weller: The first thing I’d like to say about retrofitting is that it starts with an R and an E. We live in an age of the “re-” words, okay. It’s no longer an age of where we have that nineteenth-century – or even for much of the twentieth century – a kind of bravado about progress. “Re-” means re-vision, it means refit, rehabilitate, resuscitate. It’s about recovery. It’s always going backwards, and that’s a very interesting turn of events, if you will excuse the pun, in terms of the procedure of Western history, which we generally understood as an infinite period of progressive moments. So, I think the twenty-first century, generally speaking, is a paradigm shift where we are very concerned about how we reshape our urban environment, but not just our urban environments in a formal sense, in terms of their architectural composition, but their structural and infrastructural systems. It’s a systems view of things. The interest in returning in a non-nostalgic way; people say “I want to go back to nature,” well, there is no nature back there; it ain’t there if you’re looking for it. But the idea of renovating and restructuring our systems is very compelling, and I think would be the primary paradigm shift for the twenty-first century.

Now, to relate that to the two drivers that I see propelling this: one is population growth, you can’t ignore that … Cities are now recognized as places which put a dampener on population growth. If you want to stop population growth, do what the Chinese are doing and build cities. The big issue is how we deal with cities of 10, 20, 30 million people. It’s a very interesting thing in Australia – I reckon if I said to you I think Australians have a profound fear of cities, and if I said to you now I’m going to build a city of 20 million in the north of this country, most people would shit themselves. Cities for Australians are what they see on their holidays and voyeuristic, jet in, jet out, come home to what is actually a suburban condition. Australia is not a big city; it’s a big suburb.

Now, okay. You can get more people into some buildings, but generally speaking, you’re going to have to, I would have thought, build a lot of buildings, and on the back of an envelope – I’ve worked it out – if you have 20 million people, you need about 10 million apartments. You can say there is no sprawl or the urban growth boundary around every city, every Australian city, no more sprawl, which is absolutely impossible. It will never happen. Alternatively, the numbers – you don’t have to build quite so many buildings if you build freestanding homes but you’ve got to roll out a whole lot of infrastructure. Every Australian city is basically copying the others in terms of their approach to this problem, and … a planner sees the world in fairly – not simplistic, because they’re very good too – but they don’t see the potential of a range of solutions. So, what we currently have in all Australian cities is one strategy. You will get a percentage of sprawl, and we’ll all cry crocodile tears over that, and then you will get a percentage of infill development. The average infill development achieved in Australia overall is 30 percent. The current target in Perth is a ratio of fifty-three greenfield and forty-seven infill. So, they are the numbers we are talking about. Our planning policy currently sanctions extensive suburban sprawl, whether you like it or not. It’s 53/47. Keep the developers happy.

Richard Weller: I can guarantee you will not meet the 47 percent infill target because we have got tonnes of land and we’re very good at building suburbs, and consumers tend to like living in suburbs. So, how we retrofit our greenfield development, as well as we have got sixty designated sites in Perth as part of Directions or something like that. They are the hot spots that we need to work out how we get development into those areas. The corridor development that Rob is talking about in Melbourne, it’s a good idea. We had a look at it and on a national scale, if Australians agreed that they should live in apartments on arterial roads, you can fit them in, but they’re shitty places to live.

Kieran Wong: I don’t think it’s the issue of necessarily living on those arterial roads … I think the issue you have got primarily is that you have a distorted housing system, so there is no compulsion for a young person, or any person, to go and get a house that will not gain capital growth quickly. So, if you are looking to buy a house, the tax system federally and at a state level skews you to buying a four-by-two on a fringe because you can make more money out of selling your house than you ever will probably working somewhere else … I don’t want to talk about tax, but if you want to try and re-tweak that system, you have to take away some of that distortion in the system, because there’s no advantage to build a small house, for that person who is earning a certain amount of money, when I can sell a bigger house for more money, so you’ve got much more to build it. So, there isn’t that sort of a pressure to move that way.

Melinda Dodson: Other examples of where it’s easy to do some examples, in Perth, have we got vacated B- and C-grade office buildings?

Kieran Wong: We’ve got big holes in the ground that occur at various points in the mining boom. So you watch, basically, as the curve goes up and then the curve goes down, the holes appear and then disappear in the CBD. So, my journey is walking through the CBD and riding a bike, you just ride past holes, and then they get built up and then sometimes they get torn down. It’s very different, in many respects, to my impression in Melbourne where you don’t have these huge holes in the ground in the middle of the CBD. So, I just don’t think about all things retrofitting the CBD. I think the CBD is a kind of static place in terms of where it is, and how much stock it has.

Melinda Dodson: And what would you say about Melbourne in terms of how Melbourne differs from Perth, and what lessons there might be?

Peter Elliott: You look at Asian cities and what’s going on, you just think of Melbourne, cities that are piddling around with one- or two-storey buildings, and you just think, what are we thinking? We’ve got so precious, nobody is brave enough to tackle the hard issues, and so we just fiddle around. But the best opportunities are probably the industrial land in our central cities that are very valuable that are just lying vacant. Those areas should be outside the cities, and so we have several major industrial pieces of land that will become new cities in themselves, and so I guess they will get the full treatment. But if it’s just left to the normal routine, you just keep what you know.

Richard Weller: I reckon with the greenfield, you probably don’t have to worry too much. That product can roll out, but the landscape architects actually had a big role to play there in terms of getting the ecological structure right, bedding the thing down. They can; everyone knows more or less what to do. To make this more positive, I think your time has come. I think Perth is, for the Melburnian, there is a renaissance in the inner city, that moment in time where you’re getting the conversion of a classic American or dead Australian CBD into a central environment that people are attracted to, on a whole range of levels, as opposed to just a place which was emptied out of the corporates in the afternoon and then the teenagers coming in to try and wreck it in the evening. And so, there is the centralization of the CBD which is really wonderful, and it’s happening right in our times, and architects are engaged in that. So, absolutely – that’s what I’m saying, that’s now in Perth. It’s a renaissance. I think I can call it that. I’m prepared to say it is a renaissance – it’s a “re” word … Now, when I say an architect’s time has come, the only way we can convince the public that live in these environments to accept the transformation, the retrofitting of these places, is if it can be designed in a way that it is compatible. I don’t necessarily mean cautious, I mean innovative, creative, ways of solving very tricky problems, because most people perceive infill and density, as I said in the outset [that] it will just compromise their current sense of place, and they have not yet experienced the possible virtues of the way you – behavioural change is part of this too – how you live in smaller, tighter environments, and there are merits in that, as we all know. It’s not going to be for everyone, it is for a certain age group, a certain demographic. The real challenge in Perth is not how you do it in fairly salubrious locations where you have high amenity, but how you do it in shitty parts of the town, which are the parts of the town that were built while we were asleep, and that’s really hard. So, you go in there and keeping the project cheap will be the real challenge.

Melinda Dodson: One statistic that really interests me about the construction industry is our cities can contribute – well, the operation and construction of our cities contribute – to up to 50 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, not really that surprising when you think about the fact that so many of us are living in cities these days. So, there is some great means to be had there. We’re seeing that in terms of the energy-efficiency reductions in our buildings that more needs to be done.

Kieran Wong: I’m hugely sceptical about carbon reduction, because it’s such a kind of potential red herring in the way in which we think about a city, although we, as architects, think creatively, I think, because there has been enough research to show that people living in five-star houses use more energy than people living in the country. And you get a kind of human behavioural effect as a result of all that stuff. We see a lot, or have seen a lot previously with our residential clients who come in and say they want a sustainable house, and you go “okay, don’t do anything. What do you want now? Pay $20,000 and we’re all done. Just get over it. Your laundry is small, tough it out” … It’s difficult to constantly retrofit for carbon neutrality because you’re constantly buying more and more stuff, and putting more and more stuff in to achieve a goal of neutrality. I think that ultimately development should be led by leaders interested in how we live in communities? How do we actually engage with people going to work in the morning, and having somewhere where they can actually walk and there’s shade on the right side of the street. It’s not shaded on the wrong side of the street, and the breeze doesn’t flow down like a wind tunnel when you’re trying to get to the train station.

Peter Elliott: I think we’re facing a very interesting situation. A building I need to renovate that I did twenty-five years ago, before we got permission again, we had a series of reports done on it. Not one door in that building, it’s only twenty-five years old, complies with any current code, not one window, none of the wall systems. They’re effectively good buildings, but you look at it from today’s perspective and the glazing doesn’t comply, it’s designed not to be airconditioned, and in the last twenty-five years it’s had airconditioners clamped onto them. It’s designed to be naturally ventilated and shaded, all the things that good, basic, traditional buildings manage to do for pretty minimal cost, and now, essentially the majority of what we do is just bring up the current standards, and from what I can see, it’s a pretty perverse thing that we face. And it’s kind of what we’re looking at. I think, as architects, we all know in a way, a lot of the buildings that we know to be perfectly good will not come anywhere near the kinds of standards that are being expected or put upon. So, I think that’s a bit tragic. I think it’s just a thing we’re going to have to learn to deal with, but I’m not happy. I’m not happy.

Melinda Dodson: Peter, you have had a long track record working with existing buildings. What are some examples of how those projects would come to be, and why they haven’t doubled and not be able to be rebuilt?

Panellist Peter Elliott.

Panellist Peter Elliott.

Image: Peter Bennetts

Peter Elliott: I think it’s a mixture of things. You think it’s probably just the planning control mechanisms that actually make people keep buildings, and when I first started in practice in the seventies, that didn’t happen, people just expected to knock buildings over; it was a kind of ideological condition that we’re going to rebuild things, we’re going to get rid of all that old stuff. People now value things, I think, and so what I find interesting is that when people understand the intrinsic value of something then it’s worth keeping, and they will go to a lot of trouble to keep it and make it better. Because in a funny way – and I find that really interesting that quite sophisticated clients you might think would want a brand new building are more than comfortable with a mixed-mode thing because they get the best of everything. So, some of these are pretty extraordinary sites, I must say, but even so, I think it’s more about understanding intrinsic value in architecture and urban fabric rather than any particular controls or heritage issues, or any of those things.

Kieran Wong: The issue that the architects are very well trained in kind of responding to contingency, and they’re trained in a kind of a way that is very much an ideological concept of we’re going to construct this thing, the perfect landscape. And so there isn’t a culture of bouncing around as a response to all these things that hit architects. And I think that you go into practice and you realize that actually, you’re basically kind of like one of those American football guys clad in padding trying to run from one side of the field to the other while things have been thrown at you. Someone comes along and all of a sudden, you need an access consultant, and you’re like, “Who is an access consultant? What do they do?” All it is is someone telling you about handrails – that I have no idea about knobs on handrails and the diameter and all that sort of stuff.

Richard Weller: Going back to the point about Melbourne too, I think we have got to be careful about holding Melbourne up as a model. Melbourne is a very typical Australian city, and presents problems which are very much the same as ours … You expect to start to think like Europeans. That’s not going to happen.

Kieran Wong: I think the definite problem we have is that on one hand we’re talking about [things like] how you handle your site and the council, but the problem is really more fundamental. I think we have to look at this wealth; there is a question of wealth. What’s the wealth that we’re creating? And when you start to talk about ecological footprints, and what’s going to happen, obviously then you have to shift a little bit and take perspectives which encompass that, and I would like this discussion to continue on that level, because this is what’s happening – there is going to be a huge change because of the future we are going into … and so we should be thinking creatively about that and using those skills to come up with some models. But we have to go and start with what we’ve got. Can we talk about that?

Richard Weller: I think that’s a very good comment. Most of the major utilities in our cities are struggling with a fundamental design problem, how to retrofit their systems, but they don’t have design skills, whether it’s energy, water in particular, transport, food production, all of those major forces that shape cities. All the balls are being thrown in the air. Everyone is asking how we retrofit these systems which are bottled down in very linear models of excessive inputs, what we know now are excessive inputs and excessive waste. So, how do we start to close the loop on some of these systems? I agree with you. I think there is a lot of creative work to be done, and the architecting of the twenty-first century might be involved in some of that. I tend to think of engineers actually – you think of the engineer as a nineteenth-century character, building beautiful bridges and things, but I think their time might be coming too.

Melinda Dodson: Do you think part of it is about a move to precinct-based infrastructure, so you actually are prepared to decouple some, if not all, of your infrastructure from being a wider system?

Richard Weller: Going off the grid, you mean?

Melinda Dodson: Yes.

Richard Weller: There is some tolerance for going off the grid. I was talking to someone yesterday about a project in Sydney that was just remarkable in terms of it being completely off the grid – major infill, with a complete water system where they are claiming they have got the systems. It’s quite simple – they are actually going to export water to the city.

Panellist Kieran Wong.

Panellist Kieran Wong.

Image: Peter Bennetts

Kieran Wong: The issue is that you have a situation where the cost of utilities … it’s not the sort of thing that we are spending our money on. It’s not the lever that’s making us change the way we live in our houses or anything. We, as a society, are spending far more on services, so we’re paying for babysitting and car-washing and shirt-ironing far in excess of what our utility bills are, so it’s tricky to go into an argument and say if you do the right shading and have the right glazing and you do all this stuff, your energy bill will go down by $80 a year, and you’ll go, “Bloody hell, that’s what I spent on a babysitter last night.” It’s a very tricky kind of argument to decouple stuff and get off the grid. Because really, in terms of the impact to my life as a middle-class consumer, what is it doing to my life … People want to live in certain places, whether it’s carbon-neutral or it’s on the grid or off the grid or not, that’s why we’re there. So, how do we think about that and make those places more achievable.

And also another point, I suppose, about that decoupling is that we do think of utilities in a very utilitarian way, but we don’t think of utilities like harvesting or transport that way. We had a “head work” charge when we do a development; we know that the head work is charged for the public transport, we know the head work is charged for putting in light rail, and we know that the head work is charged for thinking about urban space, farming or community gardening. So, people accept they have to pay a certain number, and it’s very random, you apply to the water corp, and God knows what number they send back to you. Sometimes it’s 50,000, sometimes it’s 500,000 and you can’t figure out why. You pay that money and that’s the development contribution, and so you do it so that you get power, hopefully, to your site, or whatever it happens to be. But we don’t pay those other things. We don’t think about them holistically and say “the developer contribution should be this big, and the developer contribution should fund this rail system and that rail system or whatever,” or there should be an affordability contribution which means that we can actually start to have, like in Waverley, an affordability development contribution that says “we are going to pool this money; when we have enough money we’re going to use a council site and develop twenty apartments on it” or something.

Peter Elliott: This idea in the fringes of Melbourne because of the idea of the rollout of infrastructure, and it has such a negative impact that it just got whitewashed, and I think one of the fundamental things that’s facing out here, so if you want to look ahead at the population thing and the whole energy thing and everything, it’s very fundamental and it’s not really being addressed. And fundamentally, I think of the nineteenth century. They’re basically – Melbourne’s train infrastructure, its park infrastructure, boulevards, all the things that you associate with the greatness of that city, they are nineteenth-century things. We are struggling to build two new stations. We don’t have a train to the airport. We’ve built more tram lines maybe, but fundamentally, the city is just reaching a point where you can’t keep backfilling space, you can’t just keep building more stuff and not address those other larger, city-scale issues, and that’s not what’s happening. It’s very frustrating, and in a way, I’m less fussed about the fringe. You’re never going to stop the fringe. There are much more fundamental issues about the future of our cities than that particular issue, and they’re big ones; they’re ones that are expensive, and governments don’t know how to fund them, and if we don’t deal with them, then our cities – and Melbourne has already started this way and probably Sydney is mostly there already, is that they will just stop to operate, and then they will fracture. They will become something else. That’s what happens in life. But it’s reaching that point where I think those wonderful nineteenth-century foundations to our city are at the limits, and if we don’t have another idea, another way of dealing with them, not only will we undo those, we’re going to end up with dysfunctional cities as well.

Richard Weller: Dysfunctional Australian cities, historically, are only not familiar to us for a couple of recent generations – the late twentieth century, where everything is on tap and invisible as to where it came from and where it goes to – we’ve rendered all of the ecological connectivity of life invisible and we’ve enjoyed that. Just responding to the breakdown of infrastructure, in some ways, can generate quite exciting forms of urbanization because people are cunning and work their way out; we don’t need the utilities to necessarily be responsible for all these things. On the other hand, the smart city is about redesigning our systems and how you retrofit those transport, water, food production and technology systems as those systems will be the driver for the future forms of urbanization. And that area of the city is important actually, it’s critical.

The politicians are going to back away from the difficulty of adding more people to the current Australian city model because it’s just – it is too hard. We’ll get some really good activity centres and a bit of corridor development, we’ll get a lot more sprawl and we’ll all worry about that but it will probably be okay. I think Australia is looking at the possibility of a brand new city or cities, and the regions, we haven’t talked about the regions. We have a contest here in Western Australia called SuperTowns, which is a brilliant piece of branding, apart from the fact that it implies that there will be winners and losers, but a lot of our towns throughout regional Western Australia are identified as “super towns,” which means we are going to pump them with population, entrepreneurial initiative and so on. So, anyway, the idea of a new city I think is compelling, which takes me back to your place, Canberra, which was – maybe it’s not the festival capital of the world.

Melinda Dodson: Canberra is quite a good and positive example of centralization in a sense, because it’s a polycentric city, so we have our city centre and then we have a series of town centres, and whilst there are criticisms you could make … I’d like to think what we would see in the next fifty years is a more focused development around each of our town centres.

Peter Elliott: My perspective is tempered by four decades of evolution in the way our cities are developed and are lived in, and I remain incredibly optimistic. I must say that I find the kind of endeavour that architects bring to the problems – the fact that we’re still essentially idea driven – really is the best thing we can continue to do. Politics I’m not so sure about. I’ve seen too much of that. I’m very much a back-door kind of guy now. I think there are other ways of getting where you need to be, and I think we just have to be clever across a lot more terrain. I see hope in new generations of architects.

AA Roundtable is presented in partnership with ISIS. Roundtable 05 was held at the Perth offices of ISIS on 11 May 2011.

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Published online: 1 Sep 2011
Images: Peter Bennetts

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Architecture Australia, September 2011

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