Theory in practice

As part of the NEXUS // 1.5 venture offered by Curtin’s School of Design and the Built Environment (DBE), students were asked to undertake the design research through a project-based study of Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) between March – June of this year.

The Treasuring Rotto Project involved designing and costing for several student building project propositions for Rottnest Island. Hames Sharley, among several other selected Perth based architecture practices, provided mentorship for the university design group, Quinta Designs, performing as the ‘Design Director’ to help guide students in creating their design brief.

The mentorship offered by individuals from Hames Sharley played an essential role in the design program by providing high-level industry smarts for 3rd years students.

We decided to sit down with Chelgrin Mueller and Yasmine Mnahy of Quinta Designs to find out more about their experience with the NEXUS // 1.5 program, collaborating with Hames Sharley and how the Treasuring Rotto project influenced their development on both a personal and professional level.

The Treasuring Rotto Project Launch Day

Tell us a little bit about Quinta Designs and the Treasuring Rotto project.

Chelgrin Mueller:

Quinta Designs are a university design group consisting of 14 students from diverse backgrounds. We value unique thinking and practice, and we believe that many
minds are greater than one.

Treasuring Rotto was really about opportunity and perspective. We were privileged to provide our client with a different perspective on how architecture can be utilised to enhance Western Australia’s most beloved holiday place. We aimed to treasure Rottnest’s most iconic characteristics and features through architecture. So, ultimately, this project for us was a call for celebration, celebrating Wadjemup and its culture through architecture.

What was your project vision for Treasuring Rotto?

Chelgrin Mueller:

Even before we began assessing the site on our visit to Rottnest, the team’s main ambition was to create a design that promised to preserve as much of the natural land as possible, not just for environmental benefits, but also as a gesture of respect to Rottnest’s cultural value for the Indigenous community, who cherish the land. So, our highest project vision was to have a minimal built intervention, to build without ‘building’.

Yasmine Mnahy:

Our vision was to create a proposal that enhanced the existing landscape with minimal built intervention. Wadjemup is such a culturally rich site with a series of unaddressed traumas; proposing traditional civil buildings seemed insensitive and too far forward. Through our research, we were able to identify some of the narratives that exist on the island: the modern tourist identity, the sentimental and nostalgic memories the island holds to many and the deep indigenous traumas. We were very lucky to have been able to be a part of many conversations with members who exist in these narratives. As a result, we were able to mark out where they all co-existed, like a Venn diagram. This is where our vision was born.

What were the challenges of the project?

Chelgrin Mueller:

There were also many challenges on the actual specifics of establishing any architectural contact with the site itself. No matter the design or its placement on the island, it would be immensely expensive to execute. The actual restrictions on the type of infrastructure or activities that could take place on various parts of the island added another layer of complexity on our desire to implement a ten-year master plan.

The ultimate challenge that the team had to surf during this entire project was being as imaginative and expressive as possible with our designs while complying with industry standards and regulations. It was adjusting to the dose of ‘reality’ in architecture that was admixed to our two years of non-regulated designing.

Yasmine Mnahy:

In addition to these, the development of the professional identity was a challenge as many of us had not been through any industry-based learning. Understanding business etiquette, deadlines, how fast-paced projects operate, work-life balance, dealing with conflict, taking responsibility, and communication were all part of the steep learning curve this project had to offer. We were also confronted with the realities of failure, on both a practical and a personal level. Taking ownership of mistakes and learning how to swallow our pride was difficult.

I think most of us found it quite overwhelming, and I don’t really think we will fully understand how much this semester has gifted us until more time has passed. I’m just incredibly grateful that we were given the opportunity to make mistakes without too much at stake.

How did you develop a solution?

Chelgrin Mueller:

Our design solutions really came from conversing with people on the island. Understanding people is crucial for our project because what we do is ultimately for the people that occupy that space. Listening to people dismiss the slightest suggestion of a civic centre was very interesting. Usually, holiday destinations were littered with resorts and other indoor leisure, however, Rottnest’s most cherished quality was its openness. It is untamed and doesn’t rely on civic activities for its tourism attraction. People visit the
island to explore it for themselves, and the curiosity of where each road leads and the sheer volume of places left unexplored is what keeps them coming back. So, we embraced this theme of curiosity and embarked on ways to implement designs that nurtured this curiosity, particularly for children.

Yasmine Mnahy:

Our design responses were developed through a mixture of these conversations and studying existing designs that were successfully established at sites with similar physical qualities—for instance, reducing the physical footprint of the structures. This is a design solution that aims to minimise the amount of contact a structure makes with the ground. Lessening the cost of site preparation. Responses such as these aided us in adhering to our desire to have a minimal built intervention.

How did the mentoring from Hames Sharley benefit your design concept?

Chelgrin Mueller:

Working with a firm that had so much experience in retail development meant we were partnered with a collective group of architects who understood the importance of time relative architecture. As we began to work to Hames Sharley’s standards and pace, our group’s weekly work output and design development multiplied rapidly. The level of detail we were able to reach in our design thinking was because of our partner’s ability to aid us in expediting discussions and leading by example on how crucial design decisions are made.

Yasmine Mnahy:

Hames Sharley pushed us to critique our design concepts at every stage to better our proposal; they provided us with a realistic, industry-level lens that we lacked, moving us closer to understanding the parameters that exist in regulated design. What was interesting for our team was that most of us were used to working individually, thus discussing ideas from 14 individuals proved to be quite difficult, especially with time restraints. It was eye-opening to see how these discussions were done in practising firms to professional standards.

What were the learnings from working with Hames Sharley?

Chelgrin Mueller:

We learned a lot from working with Hames Sharley; the importance of failing, learning, and moving forward. The standards that are out there, and the level we should aim. We also learned a lot about developing a winning tender and how to establish a relationship with a client and walk them through a design.

Yasmine Mnahy:

We learnt there really is no I in team, and that architecture is a collaborative, team-lead industry. We need each other. We were able to see how important cooperation is, especially against impending deadlines and winning tenders. Hames Sharley also set the standard of what good work ethic looks like.

How did the mentoring program influence you on a personal level?

Chelgrin Mueller:

For me, the experience opened my eyes to different aspects of architecture; it isn’t all about the design. Although I enjoyed the designing phase, the logistics of how these designs get built is equally as important and (for me) twice as intriguing. The nature of a tender is ultimately pivoted on an architect or firm’s ability to sell that design proposal. This mentorship program has shown me how architects in the industry build that rapport and instil confidence in their clients, to win tenders.

How did your mentors influence you on a personal level?

Chelgrin Mueller:

Brook and Derek taught me invaluable lessons on leadership. Although the original agreement with the Nexus 1.5 program was to provide the team with four contact sessions throughout this project, they offered the team a room in the office to work – as a way to make weekly progress with us on the project and to maintain a consistent relationship with Quinta Designs. This was an underlying lesson to me - that leadership is about creating a productive and motivating workspace for individuals, to enable them to be the best that they can be.

Jon and Oliver have really influenced me to always be attentive when designing. Just when we thought we had reached the final design outcome; they always found a
way to improve it. Now I understand that a design is never finished and is forever evolving as society evolves as habits and the use of space changes. The best thing to do is create designs that will constantly build on itself and can be built upon, in anticipation of the future.

Yasmine Mnahy:

I let myself take time to digest and understand the things around me. I watched, observed, and absorbed when my peers failed and succeeded; they too played a big part in my development. I have learnt that good leadership isn’t about dictating projects and calling the shots; it’s about nurturing a team and allowing everyone the opportunity to grow and play to their strengths while keeping everyone accountable. The leader constantly learns from their surroundings.

It was valuable to have Jon and Oliver on the team, as their recent experiences allowed for a level of familiarity throughout a challenging and immersive project. They were able to help us critique our designs and push us beyond what our team even fathomed. I was often prompted to think outside of the box and encouraged to explore the design through different mediums without having to worry if the work looked ‘pretty’.

Iterations and the collective journey are what is crucial to a design, even though it isn’t a clean and linear experience as many may expect. As Chelgrin mentioned, the design process is never complete, but I was able to learn the metrics that helped decide if the proposal was ready. There’s no knowing that the architecture will even get used as it was intended to, so the way people interact with the work will add another dimension to the design that we cannot foresee with certainty, but I’ve come to understand it as one of the beauties of the process.

What value did the NEXUS // 1.5 bring to the learning process?

Chelgrin Mueller:

The Nexus 1.5 program made all of this happen. It looks to fuse that gap between industry and academia. It’s made me realise that I don’t have to wait to reach the industry before I start practising. I have nothing but gratitude for Professor Khoa and Dr Jonescu for making this happen.

Yasmine Mnahy:

The NEXUS//1.5 gave us students the opportunity to build a bridge between tertiary education and the industry. Many of the lessons we have learnt through this
project cannot be taught conceptually and need to be experienced first hand. The programme creates a space where students are given a chance to discover their professional identities in the realm of architecture, understand the realities of the field, make mistakes, and ultimately start building confidence in their individual journeys. Being able to be a part of this move was truly a privilege, and I have the utmost appreciation for Professor Khoa, Dr Jonescu and the team at Hames Sharley.

Rottnest Island Authority (RIA) will assemble a panel of judges to select the best final building design projects, and the awards will be presented at an online exhibition.

To vote for the Quinta Designs’ Treasuring Rotto design, visit:

The Treasuring Rotto Project

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