Conferences are Good for the Soul

Covid times are strange. With so many restrictions and lockdowns and event cancellations, the days seem to meld together. Weekends have been spent at home, holidays haven’t been booked, and work has been happening 6 feet away from my bedroom. Much of the days seem to follow a very similar house-bond routine. I usually attend at least one, sometimes two, national conferences each year. For the last two years both the LEA and AIA conferences have been cancelled, and I have missed that energetic activity of learning and listening and collaborating.

This last week the monotony was shaken up when I attended the brilliant INDE.Summit, a day-long online conference organised by Indesign. It was so fantastic to again be inspired by amazing speakers, and hear about all the different ways people are working to better the future in the Indo-Pacific. It was incredibly heartening to hear from most speakers about the importance of sustainability (in lots of different forms) and an understanding that we need to prepare for a climatically changing future.

And I was surprisingly engaged with the online format. There was some initial (and, it turned out, unwarranted) hesitation in spending another day on what I thought would be like Zoom calls. But the interactive format made up for that completely, so you didn’t feel like a bystander, but a part of the event. Most of the presentations were clear and the interaction opportunities of live Q&A and emoji reactions meant as an audience we felt we were in the buzz of the audience. Through the chat function people could discuss what they were hearing and share thoughts – it really had that same experience as being in a live arena. But with speakers from many different countries, something we may not be able to do again in person for quite some time. I was really impressed with how it had all been put together to make such an engaging and inspiring format.

So, what did I learn? Oh so many things. I made about 20 pages of notes – something I haven’t done in a long time and am even now still feeling it in my writing hand! The four main strands of discussion were Finding and Financing Sustainability, the Changing Ecosystem of Commercial Space, Manifesting Culture, Place and Identity, and Balanced Housing Design. Speakers included architects, developers, researchers and planners from across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Sri Lanka and India. The interesting diversity of experience and the impact of the global pandemic came together in some great conversations.

Finding and Financing Sustainability. Our first panel discussion of the day included Iwan Sunito of Sydney’s Crown Group, Dr Jeremy Smith of Irving Smith Architects, NZ, Stephen Cairns of Future Cities Lab, Singapore and Emma Telfer of Melbourne’s Assemble Housing. This mix was one of my favourites, perhaps coincidentally that it was also one of the smallest panels. Most panellists noted that the push for sustainability is now getting so ingrained in purchaser / customer requests, that companies need to evolve and embed sustainability practices into everything they do. Emma noted Assemble takes reference form the UN Sustainability Development Goals, which ended up a recurrent theme as the day continued on. And these sustainable practices were not just in building and planning, but in social sustainability too, like Assemble’s push for social equity in the opportunity for home ownership.

Jeremy equated sustainability with time. We all need to embrace the slow iterative nature of change and start making changes on a personal and company level. We are often told to be proactive, but in fact we need to be reactive, to what is happening around us and be willing to change and adapt to create a better future. And rather than wait for technology to help us, we need to look at the opportunities we have right now and improve them. Jeremy gave the example of material use in NZ which I hadn’t realised. As an island they have limited access to concrete and steel, so they use a lot of timber, and in one of his projects they re-engineered the timber structure to reduce the mass of the timber by 25%, meaning this same renewable resource could be used for four times as many buildings. Amazingly, he quoted that in the next 35 minutes, all the timber for that building will be regenerated on the island – incredible!

I was interested by Stephen’s perspectives on the urbanisation of Asian countries, starting with the fact that literally half of the world’s population will move to cities by 2050 – cities that are not yet developed or even built. As cities break their bounds, how do we plan around agriculture and productive use of space. Most likely buildings in big cities are going to need to be more than just buildings – they are going to have to be living landscapes, connection centres, communities and carbon sinks. He shared an example of an expandable housing project he is involved in in Singapore which he nicknamed ‘sandwich construction’ – where the Ground floor and roof are provided with a shell of up to three floors for the residents and their families to fill in later, as required. (Imagine trying to get through our NCC process! ) He recognised that while we might need to look at density in our ever-growing cities, we need to reimagine the ways we do density. He also discussed the increasing prevalence of “nature’s rights” and how this will impact on our future growth opportunities.

Iwan and Emma wanted the audience to know that developers are not (always) the bad guys. In trying to identify and solve current issues like urbanism, density, social housing and equity, with modern environmental solutions they not only want to make a change, but are also being led by community desire. Iwan noted the impact of biophilia which was increasing the quantity of green spaces and common areas within current housing developments, and Emma noted the way they are considering carparking spaces to be able to be utilised for other purposes in the future if (hopefully) autonomous transport methods become more mainstream. Iwan identified that these projects are the ones getting the funding as multinational companies realise these projects provide less climate changer-related risk in the future. Developers were keen to do them, however they needed the designers to tell their stories and create the possibilities for more sustainable projects.

Changing Ecosystem of Commercial Space. It always amazes me that we are currently living in a time where literally every person in the world is being affected by the one same thing. It is a sign of how connected we all are and how our impact is local as well as global. James Calder of ERA-co, Rosemary Kirkby of Rosemary Kirkby and Associates, Mike Day of Roberts Day and Nayan Parekh and Tom Owens of Gensler, were keen to discuss how this massive event has changed our workplaces, and subsequently our city’s commercial buildings.

As Nayan noted, this has been the biggest demonstration – globally – of working from home experiences. This has led to a huge amount of data on what has worked and what hasn’t. And while every workplace is uniquely different, it seems that in most office-based workplaces there was a huge demand for some type of hybrid working, with the main deciding factor to do with commuting times. The further workers typically lived from their workplaces, the more likely they were to want some level of hybrid work.

This led to an interesting discussion on various liveable neighbourhood models, and whether working spaces and their associated industries like stationery and printing, would ‘pop up’ in more suburban areas to cater for this need of people to reduce their commute, but also have a working space that wasn’t home. While some businesses are doing this eg banks de-centralising their staff back to the suburban branches, there hasn’t been a large-scale push for this yet. Partly this is due to our changing community design, where community spaces like theatres, are now being abandoned for internalised spaces in our ever-expanding suburban homes with spaces like media rooms. The panellists seemed split over what would happen to the CBD in post-covid times, noting that while offices were moving out of the cities, there was still a need for connection and central community, and a re-concentration of the Arts (as one example) could be how the CBDs reinvigorate themselves.

Rosemary recognised that people still need some semblance of work-life which is not available in fully WFH conditions. (She also identified the large and unbalanced bulk of work done by women during these conditions, as another limiting burden on women in the workplace.) So one of the big issues that needs to be dealt with in this new working landscape is bringing together community, and understanding the culture of workplace. When workers return to the office, they are looking for things that can’t be done at home, like collaborating, having private conversations or in-person meetings. So in the future design of workspaces, they will likely need to provide a diversity of spaces for a variety of activities, with less emphasis on team connections that have now moved primarily online, and will stay that way with physically disconnected groups for a long time.

It is interesting that the panellists noted that these issues had been discussed for many years, and the desire for WFH or hybrid working, had been requested for a long time. It is interesting that the issue had to be forced, but now that this new way of working exists, it is unlikely that things will ever go back to completely the way they were. Rosemary noted an example from some of her contemporaries that they are “bleeding talent” from some of their staff who are not going to competitors, but are going “home to think”. This new way of life has changed a lot about not just how people work, but why, where and with who.

Manifesting Culture, Place and Identity. Culture, place and identity is such a big part of any great architectural response. This session featured panellists Akshat Bhatt of India’s Architecture Discipline, Richard Francis-Jones of fjmtstudio in Sydney, Michael Mossman of the University of Sydney and Goy Zhenru of Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand-based Goy Architects. It was great to hear the different perspectives of place from around the Indo-Pacific and how this impacts architecture across the region.

Interestingly all the speakers spoke about the different dichotomies in which they work and practice. Zhenru and Akshat both approached place in a very specific cultural sense, bridging between the history of place and craftsmanship, and the opportunity to shape a new regional identity. Akshat’s interest as an electronic guitar player led him to look further into bridging two worlds – between rock and classical Indian. He believed music was the way to fuse the two different styles, particularly between the West and the East, in a way that wasn’t considered (for him) in architecture school. At both macro and micro scales, Akshat noted the quest for people to find their own voice within the historically democratic use of public space in Indian culture. Zhenru’s beautifully descriptive evocations of memory through traditional materials and texture creates cultural responses that look both backwards and forwards. This connection back to traditional makers creates the antithesis to our current technology in a really interesting way, appreciating also that faults and errors can sometimes be the very thing that makes things beautiful. Especially in today’s disconnected, image-centric, online-focussed communities, people want a connection to their social heritage and architecture can create that sense of belonging and allow for self actualisation.

Michael shared his understanding of connection to place as a First Nations Australian; as being part of country. A common theme among the day, Michael implored us as architects to collaborate widely, and authentically stop and listen, valuing reciprocal relationships where architecture aims to enhance place and value cultural connection. He believes exploration of differences is the way to find commonalities, and connections to place will lead to connection to people, which is surely as architects what we all want from our architecture… Processes for effective architecture must both acknowledge and advocate for traditional owners and should have the opportunity to create new meanings, by sharing stories across countries and cultures.

Richard also advocated for a strengthened listening process where architecture starts by trying to do no more damage. Our understanding of heritage can be skewed as we try to preserve a static moment in time rather than all the messiness of tangled lives. And any time we make a mark on the land, it is never the same again, so we need to find an authentic way to acknowledge this in our responses to place, to fully capture the social, political and physical context.

Balanced Housing Design. In our last session of the day, Palinda Kannangara of Sri Lanka’s Palinda Kannagara Architects, Shannon Peach of Millieu in Melbourne, Gabrielle Suhr of SJB and David Kaunitz and Ka Wa Yueng of Kaunitz Yeung Architecture shared their views on how social housing can be better designed for culture, community, economy and, most importantly, people.

Shannon noted the current shifts in the supply of housing, as they try to change the system from one where 90% of inner city apartments purchasers are investors. One of the the ways to change this system is to provide better quality spaces for people to move into the inner-city for all its benefits, as this is what owner-occupiers are demanding – better design and sustainability as a standard, not an add-on. He identified how this is also changing communities though, where you get gentrification in existing areas as the demographics of the inner-city are changing, and people invest in their community as they are staying there for a longer time, and have the stability of home ownership. These changes need to be carefully managed through a cultural awareness and collaboration process, with authentic and meaningful dialogue with existing and proposed new residents – an ongoing theme for the day, really. Communities need to form organically and are better formed by breaking down the mass and allowing, not forcing, people to participate.

By contrast, Gabi shared her experiences working on build to rent projects, where developers are now looking for more sustainable and long-lasting materials, knowing they they are going to be maintaining the properties for a really long time. This has also seen the increase of micro-apartments to provide a more affordable renting model for those who may be high-risk of homelessness. (While I love the theory of this I do also find it interesting that the effect on the developer’s long-term bottom-line is the impetus for better design and construction quality for apartment buildings, and when they were ‘just’ being on-sold to investors, who were also then renting them out, then the quality didn’t matter so much – but at least its a start!) Ka Wai and David are also seeing similar trends with their government and NFP clients in the design of funded social housing, and it is heartening to see governments setting guidelines and benchmarks for environmental and social sustainability in the design of social housing. This has also helped to decrease the stigma associated with renting in our country that still holds onto the Australian Dream, with its ideal of big backyards.. With this is mind, landscape and connection to the outdoors is still an incredibly important part of the lived experience and it is heartening to hear it be really celebrated in the social housing / build to rent projects SJP and Keunitz Yeung are working on. I loved Ka Wai’s discussion on ‘finding the joy’ in design – that even with the most prescriptive requirements, you should still design to the individual nuances of the community.

Palinda shared the Sri Lankan context of government-funded social housing, which was a majority part of development after the 1948 Independence, up until the current day. For this reason there is very limited demand for private sector housing developments. I did really appreciate the example he gave though of a low-budget housing solution he prepared for a client in climate-change-affected floodplains. Working with nature, rather than against, he designed a house sitting high above the plains, on construction scaffolding. It was lightweight, fast to build, and protected the occupants from rising dangerous flood levels – what’s not to like? Would love to see that presented to a Building Certifier here, but when you think about it, its really very sensible..

I left the conference feeling really energised by the presenters who had so generously given their time. I was really pleased to see the connections made online between the speakers, panel moderators and the audience, and to feel that reinvigorated community atmosphere as we all sat in different countries around the world, learning about how to individually and collaboratively improve our cities. I loved hearing from people I hadn’t heard from before, and particularly appreciated being introduced to the beautiful work of Goy Architects, Palinda Kannangara Architects and Architecture Discipline, and am sure I have hours of research to do learning more about our cities from the Future Cities Lab. Thanks to Indesign for an incredibly well put together forum – I hope to attend again next year!

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