With population movement and tourism affected by the global pandemic, growth in the architecture and building sectors has slowed to match. Is now the time for architects to steer towards a more sustainable approach to the built environment?

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say COVID-19 has changed everything, from the way we interact with each other socially to the way business can be conducted locally and internationally. Australia – with its small number of community transmitted cases – may have avoided the cataclysm experienced by many other countries, but there have still been consequences to the economy and, by extension, the architecture profession.

In its recent release, Measuring the Impact of the Pandemic, the Australian Institute of Architects highlighted “a substantial slow down in projects and measurable shifts in employment”, based on data supplied by 430 members of the Institute. In fact, 64.87 per cent of respondents to the AIA’s survey said they have had projects stalled as a result of the coronavirus, and about the same number reported a loss of earnings. The concern, writes Institute CEO Julia Gambage, is that “the pandemic will continue to have a significant negative impact on jobs beyond the short-term pain currently being felt.”

In the document, the Institute proposes a number of different ways to stimulate activity in the sector and rebuild confidence, including provision of incentives to encourage people to make their homes more energy-efficient, and stimulus packages from the government to build more social housing. But could it be that the issues facing the architecture community require more than just sourcing new projects?

“This energy is fantastic, this process is exciting but we’re putting it in the wrong direction,” says Caillin Howard, the Managing Director of Hames Sharley. “The fundamental idea is the building industry is going to be busy, so architects are going to be busy. Fixing existing residences up to be more environmentally neutral is terrific, but that requires minimal architecture. And it’s really valid to talk about a higher percentage of affordable housing and dealing with those crises, but again it’s not going to drive an economy or a development.

“Working in the public sector – education, defence – that’s going to be the easy way to keep alive if you’re an architect because you’re pivoting to where the activity will come from,” he explains. “It’s not going to be from the private sector, it’s going to be from the federal and state governments or areas of the private sector that are stimulated by government. There’s a massive chunk of residential subsidies, which means the residential market is currently amplified – especially Perth, where it’s doubled due to the state matching the government stimulus. So, there’s this momentary expansion that at some point, will need to return to a non-stimulus market.

Although the subsidies and support are appreciated and much needed, Caillin believes it is a great time to consider the bigger picture without stimulus or being in a negative market.

“As a profession, we should be talking at a higher level and contributing to the government in regard to white papers and policies about how you manage without population movement or growth. Our development and economy rely on growth and we may not have that to the same level which we’ve become accustom to. The pandemic has affected international and interstate migration and tourism – if you don’t have moving people, you don’t have moving needs.

Every 50,000 people we get, we need another couple of schools, we need another shopping centre, we need another hospital. The Sydney market has relied on north of 100,000 people population growth per annum, year on year. The boom in Perth, ten or fifteen years ago, was based on 40,000 to 50,000 people a year.

“That’s what actually drives us. And that’s frightening, because we’re talking about overpopulation – at some point the planet has to have too many people on it. We are working on an economy which is all about growth predicated by more people, and that will eventually not be as sustainable.

“Right now, we need to climb out of this little nightmare. But the minute we’ve climbed out of it, we need to start questioning an economy that actually values something different.”

For architects to stay busy and relevant without growth, therefore, would require a reappraisal of the purpose of architecture and those who create it.

“Our role is we study human behaviour,” Caillin says. “It’s what we actually do. So, let’s get together and think about the drivers of change; find opportunity out of the new set of behaviours that increased technology and the pandemic have forced on us. What does working remotely for eight months do to the Melbourne workplace market? What does it do to the largest food and beverage foundation in the country on the other side of it? What are we prepared to lose? What are we prepared to fight for? What role does architecture have in that? Let’s get our heads around what we need to do from a built-form perspective to build confidence back in retail and public spaces.”

Key to this process, he says, will be proving the naysayers and the economists wrong. “They say we’ll never mix together again, we’ll never go back into an office again. And that’s nonsense. We all get a little bit of rest in the cave by ourselves, but most of us, after a short space of time, start to go crazy. We’re tribal people, we get value from bouncing in and working with one other. Fundamentally, the human condition relies on a degree of social interaction.

“At the moment, no one can define the needs of a future building or a future place off the back of this pandemic. So that’s what we should be talking about and that’s what we should be investing time in.”

From that, we can give clearer instruction and clearer vision to governments, to banks, and to all the things that are going to hold back investment or confidence to make the change.”

For this to succeed, would require a change of perspective and the development of a new approach, Caillin believes – a skill set for creating opportunity in a recessive economy.

“Look at places like Detroit that have had negative population growth and have had to reinvent and rebuild themselves. Adelaide, too, has been working off negative or very small population growth for quite some time, and yet it’s still got an economy, it’s still got a healthy building market, it’s still got healthy design and architecture. It’s about repurposing, reusing, rethinking, as opposed to expanding and growing.

“In a negative market, the skills to reinterpret and create new value out of something that’s existing are as honourable and as beautiful as creating something afresh. And much harder. Economies that have gone backwards need design leadership. It’s not just about the beauty of repurpose, it’s about the use on the inside and the activation, and I think, in the future, architecture needs to be far more encompassing in not just creating the space, but also the mechanism of activating it. That starts to cross over into events, into who to work with to actually create the activity to test that space and how it works.

“When you’re building in a negative market, it really is the re-creation of value where value has been lost. Things that have become representative of neglect or negativity need to be refaced or repositioned to create hope and prosperity. And I think that is up to us.”

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