Cover of Property Australia, from 29th November, 2013

by Caillin Howard
Property Australia
29 Nov 2013
pp. 44-45

Spread from Property Australia, pp. 44-45

Putting architecture in its place

Historically, architects and urban designers have had a tense relationship. Too often, they are on opposite sides of the table in a development, with architects arguing for innovation in design and urban designers prioritising the context around the building.

Architecture practice Hames Sharley is different. The firm has put urban design at the centre of its multidisciplinary practice ever since David Sharley and Bill Hames opened the doors in Adelaide in 1975.

Over the past 38 years, with the knowledge built from its successful urban development division (which includes graduates of Harvard, Berkeley and Oxford), the firm has integrated its building designs into their environment, whether these are residential apartments, office towers, retail centres, or health and educational facilities. “Context is the cornerstone of everything we do,” Hames Sharley director, Caillin Howard, says.

The firm’s culture, steeped in the philosophy of designing in context, has kept it ahead of the many architecture firms that have added urban design practices more recently, Howard says. Hames Sharley has grown into a national practice with projects in every state (and overseas), and offices in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane.

In addition to architecture and urban design, Hames Sharley offers interior design, planning, and landscape architecture across its 12 portfolios, which include retail and town centres; defence; commercial and workplace; tertiary education, research and science; health; and residential. Specialists in strategic asset management help develop each brief, keeping the design tied closely to the client’s business strategy.

With some 149 major projects and many awards under its belt, the firm is now capitalising on its practical experience. “We have a lot of knowledge that has come from working with fantastic clients on fantastic jobs, Howard says. “As a direct result of those opportunities, we are capturing and using that knowledge, but that is not enough. To provide our clients with greater value, we decided to fund and drive our own research alongside that practical knowledge.”

For example, the firm has built a “toolkit” that urban planners can use to empirically evaluate the quality of design for “urban activity centres” (the community hubs of suburbs and cities). It’s a practical piece of research of great value at a time when the retail sector is under pressure. [See box for details]

Working with Curtin Business School, Hames Sharley also published a report in May this year called “The Housing We’d Choose”. The report reveals the housing preferences of resident of Perth and the Peel region based on surveys of over 2,000 people. (It follows a report of Victorian residents’ housing preferences published by the Grattan Institute in 2011.) Clients of Hames Sharley can use this information to develop residential project briefs, taking into account the regions where different age cohorts want to live, the accommodation they prefer, and the price they want to pay, among other considerations.

In the end, however, any successful architecture practice lives or dies on the quality and innovation in its design. Hames Sharley 12 directors and 130 professionals apply the research to the designs they create. “As a practice, we strive for a balance between technical knowledge and proficiency, and design and creativity,” says Howard. “We are not just adding research to the way we do things, we are changing our methodology and spending more time thinking and researching before we put pen to paper.”

The hard facts and research are very helpful for clients, such as government departments and developers, dealing with approval processes, providing certainty and directing the design process.

But creativity – design in context – is at the core of the practice and always will be, Howard says. “What’s critical is the combination of and balance between knowledge and creativity.”

“The vibrancy of urban activity centres – the community hubs of a suburb or city – can supercharge the success of the retailers within them.
Hames Sharley has built a toolkit to help planners evaluate the design quality of plans for new centres and the effectiveness of existing centres. Until now, it has been difficult to get clear data about what makes design work, making the job of planners a difficult one. “Design is often a ‘felt’ thing,” says Hames Sharley director, Caillin Howard.
The Urban Activity Centre Assessment Toolkit is based on ground-breaking research by Hames Sharley, developed in partnership with economic consultants, Pracsys, and the South Australian Government’s Integrated Design Commission.
The Toolkit brings developers, architects, planners, government and policy makers to the same table. Using the toolkit, all parties can evaluate designs and predict their success. The toolkit can also help evaluate what is wrong with struggling centres. The process is boon for planners, developers, architects, retailers and the community, who all benefit when activity centres thrive.”