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Tony Trobe talks to Architect Phillip Cox about Canberra

Tony Trobe talks to Architect Phillip Cox about Canberra


TT: Given you are a frequent visitor and significant contributor to Canberra’s architectural landscape what is your external perspective?

PC: It’s hard to imagine that Canberra is one hundred years old.  It does not bear the patina or the scars of antiquity. It does not give signs of ageing. It remains a city in adolescence with great expectations, a city where in the future, maturity will give character of age and elegance in aging.  


To the Australians who do not live here and jet in for specific purpose of government and business, the Bush Capital is fresh, green, pristine, low scale and suburban, not an urban experience, not really a city as most 20th and 21st Century cities are seen with their high rise CBD strongly emphasised, but a grand landscape of unsurpassed beauty.  It represents all that is good in Australia and the Australian Felix.


TT: Are Canberrans justified in their own satisfaction with their city?

PC: I tread warily on the subject of Canberra.  For those who live here there is admiration for its many qualities and then there are those who live in other capital cities in Australia where Canberra’s qualities escape the traveller from traditional cities and see it as a government manifestation; a symbol of nation, an abstraction of city, a city in infancy, a city of an aggregation of suburban settlement loosely linked by highways and bi-ways within landscape corridors.


TT: How does Canberra compare with other planned cities?

PC: There have been several attempts in creating capital cities in the world as centres for government of nations and I have chosen four such capital cities which have been designed specifically as such to draw some comparisons of why Canberra represents us best.


There are four most recent examples, which are interesting and bear common features:


  • Washington, USA (1791) (1788 Sydney)
  • Delhi, India (1911)
  • Brasilia (1960) (41 months to build 1956 – 1960)
  • Canberra, Australia (1901 – 1912 – 1913 Canberra)


All these cities have been created by the vision and the decree of governments. No city was there before, they were sites selected away from trade routes, rivers and harbours and all were greenfield sites.  They were all established for the centralisation of government.  They are not natural cities by aggregation of people for trade or defence purposes or commerce, but rather the product of political intervention. They are inherently unnatural in phenomena.



TT: What are the linking themes in these man-made capitals?

PC: :They have many things in common:

  • They all have been artificially created by government  
  • They are not commercially viable, as staid, not being on trade routes or harbours, or rivers
  • Their expression is pride of nation
  • They generally adopt neo-classical architectural forms as the expression of authority and control  
  • They are generally low rise, low density cities
  • They were generally planned without public transport systems  
  • They are heavily reliant on the motor vehicle
  • They are open space dominated


TT: You seem to know Washington reasonably well, how do you compare this with Canberra?

PC: The L’Enfant Plan (1791) for Washington set the pace for Capital Cities based upon American admiration of French planning and grand landscape statements such as Versailles and Haussmannian Paris, hence the commissioning of the French L’Enfant to carry out the plan.  


Certainly Washington incorporates the grand axes with architectural terminals,  Malls, open space networks and bosquette essential features of  French landscape planning. It is the antithesis of Georgetown, the 18th Century settlement, romantic and small in scale village character, which it borders in the same way that Queanbeyan had no planning or vernacular influence on Canberra. Washington is grand, but lacks human scale; it is undemocratic, imperialist in its planning assuming most of the planning dictums of a European heritage.  It is essentially an orthogonal plan slashed by diagonal avenues on intervention.


Washington like Canberra locates its cultural elements in the forefront of the network proudly displaying cultural wealth and value.  Canberra sports in the same way its museums, galleries and courts on prominent waterfront positions as does Washington.


TT: Brasilia has a different configuration do you think it handles the relationship to its suburbs better than Canberra?

PC: Brasilia too adopts the positioning of its cultural buildings along a centralised mall.  Lúcio Costa encouraged the use of the grand axis as the central spine for Brasilia, again using architectural elements to define space. The plan of Brasilia like a winged bird assumes such importance to the body of the central area for its meaning. Unlike Canberra the wings or the residential neighbourhoods are the most interesting and work better in my opinion than Canberra where residential neighbourhoods lack focus identity and definition.


The problem I see in Brasilia is that the central axis is far too long and the government buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer do not read as well from a distance as they do close up. The spaces contained in the first phase around the courts and the parliament is more successful now that additional water elements and earthworks define the spaces more succinctly. It is the most recent of capital cities.


TT: You seem to have a strong admiration for some of the ‘imperial’ outcomes in Dehli.

PC: Out of all capital cities, Delhi, the creation of Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker must be, from the symbolic and imperialist view, the most impressive. The power and the splendour of the British Empire mixed so successfully with the colour, architecture and the intrigue of India.


To stand in the Durbar Hall within the Viceroy Palace at the apex of the mall looking for several kilometres towards the gateway of India is truly a most memorable and spectacular sight. The spatial succession of buildings and monuments has been one of the great feats of the planning.  The waxing and waning of space driving along the mall as the President’s Palace is seen, disappears and reappears larger each time more impressive, empathic – the statement of intimidation and power is impressive.


This is unlike Canberra, which is democratic by comparison. The central axis from Parliament to the War Memorial is not the avenue of spectacular buildings and parade, rather it is a landscape gesture defined by roads and trees to give the effect of monumentality. It succeeds in this, unlike the triangulation between Civic, Defence and Parliament, which do not act visually in a way that is interpreted from the plan.


TT: Was Canberra design visionary or a throwback to the past?

PC: Canberra is a mixture of Beaux Arts Planning and the new found landscape geometries excited by natural features and topography. It is very contemporary in its design and the observance of preserving the integrity of the landscape within sustainable.  The same principles are used in planning dictums today. It was well ahead of its time.  No doubt Griffin’s theosophy, interest in Buddhist and Hindu religions and culture, contributed a great deal to this thinking.  His association with Frank Lloyd Wright and his anti-city philosophy manifested in Broadacre City; was an influence.


TT: What if anything has been lost form the original Griffin concept?

One only hankers for buildings in Canberra that reflect the interpretation of the Marilyn Mahoney drawings which have an Oriental sublimity, her drawings suggest the terraces of an Angkor Wat in the Australian landscape where buildings are integrated and not hidden, but part of an urban landscape. But this did not happen, instead the Canberra plan lacks the spatial elation of Delhi or Brasilia, instead it substitutes urban space with landscape spaces with the lake, definitions to ridges and valleys by landscape with government buildings are merely dotted within. There are no malls, streets, avenues of architectural definition.


The development of Government buildings and Ministries that define the spaces and the main avenues of the Griffin Plan are also missing and it is hoped that this will be addressed in the future. 


TT::Canberra has often been derisively described as “several suburbs in search of a city”. What is your take on its urban character?

PC: As much as I admire Canberra, the element which it lacks is city climax. The creation of a poly-nuclear plan instead of making a nuclear determined commercial area is a mistake. The national triangle barely reads.   There is no true heart or soul to urban Canberra – it celebrates emptiness rather than built form.


I cannot fall in love with the satellites, Woden, Belconnen or Tuggeranong. They will always remain adjuncts to the central area of Canberra robbing it of vitality, which may have been possible had they been aggregated. 


The argument that it was necessary for such urban and residential distribution to avoid congestion of traffic is spurious.  Grand suburbia continued the pattern of suburban sprawl of other cities within Australia. Ignoring the opportunity of creating a denser and more liveable city by higher densities.  The creation of satellite suburbs was an abdication of establishing a network of public transportation that effectively took people from home to work place efficiently.  Instead the motor car remained the primary means of transport with subsequent environmental impacts.


TT: Do you have any favourite buildings in Canberra

PC: There is much salvation in Parliament House and we have to thank Romaldo Giurgola for creating the only possible solution by crowning the hill and creating the finial on the centred axis. The building has  neo-classical elements, such as the colonnades and reference to authority. It is equally remarkable that it satisfied the organic nature of the architecture that Walter Burley Griffin suggested in his plan. It has more to do with the Angkor Wat element in the Mahoney drawings than any other. It is a great building to which we all should be thankful. Like the Sydney Opera House it is a lucky and rare experience.  Canberra is most fortunate. 


TT: What changes have you noticed during your years of association with the Capital?

PC::Canberra is growing up and becoming more human. There is more activity in Civic – more joy, relaxation and pleasure than there has been for a long time.  There still remains the issue of regional government being expressed on Camp Hill to articulate the nodes of the Parliamentary Triangle.  There is a lack of planning and architecture relating to circular sites and geometries and timidness for intervention. The great circular Parliament building of Delhi could well inspire the opportunities of circular difficult sites.


In the end, Canberra is a great place to live and possibly to work. It has a population comprehenable of 400,000 which is realisable; it has art galleries, museums and many institutions that other state cities envy. It has a landscape that is pristine and yet controlled and it has access to the South Coast beaches and the snow fields of New South Wales. It has all things for all people and maintains an egalitarian society despite the hierarchy of Governments


TT::How would you like to see the Capital developing?

PC::The next generation of architects and planners I hope, will not increase the sprawl of Canberra, but rather see new solutions in greater densities within the existing development.  There is much opportunity in developing residential accommodation of all types for the age groups and social circumstance of people who need it. Families with children will always opt for greener suburbia; however the young and the elderly most probably would opt for closer living and access to amenity and entertainment.

There is urgent need for proper transportation systems and railways to be introduced to cut down on the reliance of motor vehicles and there is the much needed fast rail between Sydney and Melbourne to reduce air traffic and the stimulation of growth between the three centres, which is now a hot topic in today’s media.


Both Sydney and Melbourne have benefited from inner city living and I suspect in time this will be the case in Canberra and this will result in better urban spaces . Linking the three cities in a more physical way could prove interesting.


TT::The Capital has two distinct Planning Authorities, what effect does think this has had in its evolution?

PC::The question is has the Canberra plan led by Griffin been improved by subsequent planners?  The answer must be yes, but it has been successfully interpreted by the National Capital Development Commission (NCPC) under a series of Commissioners, such as Sir John Overall and Tony Powell to bring Canberra into reality.  There was some intervention by Empire Planners such as Lord Holdford, but in general the NCDC doggedly determined the dream and we thank them for it.  In my opinion, the introduction of local government has not had the same determination of planning impact as NCDC good as it appears.  It has often been said that planning requires singular determination and design.

TT: Is there anything quintessential Australian about Canberra?

PC: Canberra remains simple, severe, sublime, a landscape beyond the dreams of Repton, Capability Brown or Le Vau. It is the grandest urban landscapes of the 20th Century and has no comparison or peer especially when we again look at the three other cities I have mentioned it has an Australian distinction of endless space.  It is truly an expression of our democracy and the Australian way of living.


It has the languor of the Australia psyche, rolling and subtle, its palate of grey greens and dusky blue hills are like no other in the world.


TT: The Capital has been criticised for its lack of walkability.

PC: The tyranny of the Australian distance is perhaps part of the character and perhaps the downfall of Canberra. It is not a walking city as the distances are too vast, particularly the national triangle.


To me, most great cities of the world are essentially walking cities like London, Paris and Barcelona. Canberra has walking nodes, however these require attention in the future development to ensure the integrity of the landscape and the vision of the Griffin Plan. 


TT: Overall as an experiment in urban design do you think Canberra has been successful?

PC: Canberra will remain one of the great urban creations of the 20th Century and proudly stands alongside with the other four great cities of the world as a great feat and experiment in urbanisation.


Happy Birthday Canberra. Its future is assured as it enters into the second century.


Philip Cox

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The Solar Slot

The Solar Slot

Recently I dipped my toe into the controversial pond containing the often competing imperatives of Canberra’s garden city character and people’s right to do as they see fit on their aspirational quarter acre … or in modern parlance 0.6177 hectares. I mentioned the difficulties in dealing with regulated trees, wild cards or potential black holes the normal punter should watch out for when imagining their own Grand Designs. I recently designed a house for a senior public servant who had bought a plot of land with seven regulated trees on it. It took many, many months to battle through the system and arrive at a workable solution. So caveat emptor where garden bit of the city is concerned!

Other than the issue of regulated trees what are the other ‘tricks for new players’ one should be conscious of when ‘eeny minny mo’…ing blocks for potential development?  Other than the normal ‘location, location, location’ thing probably the first cab off the rank would be an awareness of the block’s basic orientation? To ensure a sustainable outcome the most suitable blocks to redevelop are ones in landscape format, those with a long axis facing north. Look for a shape akin to that of a single bed in plan form and facing a specific directiion. It is not vital to have the long side of the block facing precisely true North, anything in the ‘solar slot’ is acceptable. The ‘slot’ is an angle between 20° west of North and 30° east. A rectangular house facing following the geometry of this block can be simple in plan form, cheaper to build and design and will naturally be able to take advantage of all of the available winter sun.

Canberra is a heating rather that a cooling dominated climate by a factor of about 8. By this I mean that if you were to heat and cool house to normal temperatures throughout the year one would use eight times more energy on heating compared to cooling. If you’re going to utilise the free energy from the sun getting the simple orientation equation right is a vital first step. Selecting the correct block makes all the subsequent design decisions click into place like lids on a pen. This is 101 in the school of passive solar design for our climate. Perhaps ignoring this simple principle was excusable in a previous less energy conscious age.  It seems unforgivable however to see how blind Freddie continues to the drop the precious ball.

With a good block selected the next thing is to get the most important parts of the house in the right spot.  This sounds obvious and it should be; it means locating the key living areas (probably the family meals kitchen zone) facing north. These too should have their long axis facing the sun and relate well to private outdoor spaces. A long rectangular house on a rectangular block also has the added bonus in that it is also less likely to overshadow itself. In thinking about these key living areas one trick is try to achieve a one-room thick  space with the benefit of allowing one to have alternative outdoor spaces both winter and summer on either side of the house. As long as the net energy balance works out this is a good way of avoiding glare.  The passively designed houses of the 70’s often had windows on the north only side and combined them with dark floor and wall finishes resulting in uncomfortable glare. Small double glazed openings on the south have the advantage of promoting good cross ventilation and that lovely indoor-outdoor feeling to key outdoor areas that most of us crave.

Combine these simple principles with high-performance windows, good levels of insulation for walls floors, ceilings, and you have a simple base recipe for good sustainable design. It is important to remember that a house is more than a machine for collecting heat it needs to be home too. I haven’t touched on the mysterious matter of thermal mass in this short piece but will return to it at some other time. The subject is definitely less complicated than cosmic dark matter or mysterious dark energy but often equally misunderstood

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My Favourite House

Tony's Favourite House

This week Tony answer some questions about his favourite building as part of an occasional series inviting other local architects to do the same.

Tell us briefly about yourself and how you got into architecture?

I arrived in Canberra in 1984 from the UK after giving up studying chemistry, taking up architecture at Nottingham, travelling round the world eventually ended up running out of money in Canberra. I have been proud to call it my home ever since.

Where is the house?

It’s called the Simpson-Lee House at Mount Wilson, Blue Mountains, New South Wales

Who are the owners?

Glenn Murcutt, as it turns out! He bought one of his own masterpieces in 2009.  It was very generously sold back to him by the client.

Who is Glen Murcutt?

Glenn Murcutt is arguably Australia’s most famous architect. He is the only Australian to have won the international architectural equivalent of the Nobel, the Pritzker prize. In the words of the Pritzker jury: “In an age obsessed with celebrity, the glitz of our ‘starchitects’, backed by large staffs and copious public relations support, dominates the headlines. As a total contrast, Murcutt works in a one-person office on the other side of the world”

What makes it special to you?

I arrived in Oz with old-fashioned ideas about architecture and handcuffed to the tyranny of a deep eclectic history. I like to think Murcutt opened my eyes to modernism in the Australian context. Glenn has invented a totally modern and quintessentially Australian aesthetic which continues to endure and influence today. The Simpson Lee house would still sit comfortably on the front cover of any architectural magazine today 35 years later.

Do you know anything about how the project came about?

The Simpson-Lees asked for a “secular monastic” house with a “minimal tough simplicity.”  It wasn’t all plain sailing between fully engaged clients and architect. Dialogue at every stage of the design process led to ‘vigorous debate and hard-won decisions’.

What did the architect think about the project?

Critically acclaimed, this house has been acknowledged by many as a formative project in the evolution of Glenn Murcutt’s work. When asked if it was significant to him, he replied, “Oh, there is no question of it. I can stand aside and simply say, ‘I am terrified that I will never do this again. It is a building that through my clients, I developed to a level beyond which I have never achieved before”.

Has the design of the house influenced your own work?

Adopting an idiom hopefully isn’t plagiarism. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Glenn at dinner ago in Canberra after a gave a talk at the National Gallery. I have a signed book called Leaves of Iron in the office which I drag out when I’m trying to big-note myself. Perhaps a mild form of imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Tony Trobe is Director of TT Architecture specialising in the design of sustainable residential Architecture. If there a design issue you would like to discuss Email

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Canberra’s seniors stymied for aging in place options.

Canberra’s seniors stymied for aging in place options

Over the last 12 months, development applications in Canberra’s RZ2 (suburban core) areas appear to have slowed almost to a standstill.  RZ2 policy is intended to revitalise Canberra’s established areas with much needed townhouse type development for people to “age in place” yet so little development is being pursued, RZ2 policy appears to be failing its purpose for being. 

I asked David Shearer who has commented on planning policy in the past to revisit RZ2’s planning and taxation levers.    


TT: Have you looked at the viability of small-scale multi-unit development in the RZ2 suburban core areas of Canberra

We receive an average of 10 enquiries each month in regard to RZ2 redevelopment and have worked on numerous RZ2 sites, but not for a number of years.  It’s a “go broke” analysis for a builder and there has been virtually no RZ2 multi-unit development in Tuggeranong or Belconnen under increased LVC (lease variation) charges and the planning changes within DV 200 “The Garden City” Variation.  Tuggeranong’s population is on a significant downward spiral, so this is a big issue for the viability of local schools, shops and businesses. 


Surely higher urban density would allow more use of each site in RZ2, and such zoned land should be in high demand?

RZ2 does not allow any more GFA (gross floor area) for redevelopment than for single dwelling builds (both at 50% GFA). This is a structural planning policy problem, as encouraging people to build large single dwellings doesn’t increase population density or add to the mix of housing available.

typical dual occupancy Lyons

TT: How does Lease Variation Charge (LVC) affect the feasibility of development?

That depends on what the development is. For example, a large developer recently built a new hotel in Kingston and completely legally, they paid no LVC whatsoever. Yet if the same house they knocked down to build a hotel was developed as a dual occupancy they would have been billed $60,000 in LVC, so LVC is a huge inhibitor to small residential projects, and obviously not an inhibitor at all to some others.

LVC in residential development is applied as a “per unit” charge so there is a motivation for builders to build fewer, larger, more expensive dwellings to minimise LVC, or not to build townhouses at all, and just build a single big house and pay no LVC at all.

TT: Given the government’s strong interest in expanding housing choices what would you expect needs to happen to encourage townhouse type redevelopment across Canberra.

There is strong market demand for smaller more affordable, “age in place” dwellings, but the current planning policy to promote variety of choice and taxation policy (LVC) are in conflict.

In RZ2’s case we have taxation policy driving development outcomes, whilst planning sits in the back seat. Maybe you should ask Ben Ponton what changes he would like to see in RZ2, and in how LVC might be redesigned to encourage smaller affordable dwellings?

TT: Yes. I understand there is a sizeable conflict between planning policy and taxation policy, how could this be repaired?

It’s pretty simple really, but it would involve a rejigging of the taxation levers. I have no issue with the concept of LVC. However, a “per unit” charge is crude as it is a much higher tax on smaller dwellings, so encourages the opposite type of development that multi-unit planning policy is designed to encourage LVC could easily be redesigned to be more fairly leveraged.

The simple fix for LVC is to pay it per m2 of development, and only leverage that on the GFA of development above what you can build a single dwelling to. If RZ2 planning policy was also redesigned to allow the market to determine unit mix, we would have a big increase in smaller more affordable dwellings being built across the suburbs.  

TT: I might ask Ben Ponton to respond to your assessment. He should be able to accurately advise just how many multi-unit DA’s are actually getting lodged and approved in RZ2 areas in Tuggeranong and Belconnen, and whether this is meeting the government’s policy directions and goals for urban infill.

I am sure Ben would love the opportunity to promote how he plans to fix the ongoing undersupply of affordable “age in place” dwellings.

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Let’s bring Frank Gehry to Canberra

Let's bring Frank Gehry to Canberra

Q: So what is Tony Trobe going to be banging on about today?

TT: Well I thought we could talk a little bit about the Bilbao effect.

Q: Sorry what’s that?

TT: It’s what Starchitects architects do?

Q: Sorry you lost me.

TT: Starchitects are the rock stars of architecture, talented celebrity architects jetted in to create iconic buildings 

starchitect Frank Ghery


Q: And Bilbao affect? It sounds like something that might happen to a hobbit?

TT: Not quite. Bilbao was until recently a sleepy mid-size city in northern Spain, coincidently with a population almost exactly the same as Canberra’s.  The good burgers Bilbao decided to puff their chests out and reinvent their town by engaging a Starchitect.

Q: …and who was this Starchitect

TT:  An American called Frank Gehry. In the early 1990s the Basque government coughed up $100M ($183m in today’s dollars) to build a spiffing building in Bilbao.

Q: So what did the Bilbaons come up with as a brief for Frank?

TT: In Frank Geary own words; “They said: ‘Mr Gehry, we need the Sydney Opera House. Our town is dying.’ I looked at them and said: ‘Where’s the nearest exit? I’ll do my best but I can’t guarantee anything.’” The Guardian newspaper gave the final result a good wrap describing the building as; ‘a convulsive, majestic, climactic assembly of titanium and stone, of heft and shimmer, a cross-breed of palazzo and ship
that also flips its tail like a jumping fish”.

Q: So did it work?

TT: Did it ever, it now has an actual ‘effect’ named after it and revitalised little Bilbao received its 20 millionth visitor to the museum on its 20th birthday.

Q: So Sydney and Bilbao have done it, who else?

TT: A pat on the back is due for own little Hobart which has now crashed through from backwater to full hipsterhood. The gorgeous Mona museum really has transformed this city into a real cool little capital.

Q: How much did this cost?

TT: Well it was paid for by a sporting chap called David Walsh with a magnificent $75M philanthropic gesture in 2001. The population of Tassie is 211,000 so that works out at about $350 for each man woman and child on the Apple Isle.

Q: How much did the Opera house cost?

TT: In 1973 it was $102M which is about $833m in today’s dollars or $156 for each Sydneysider, not bad value!

Q: And the Bilbao effect for Canberra?  Perhaps the light rail fills this slot? How much is that costing us?

TT: Well it was reported in the Canberra Times that the relevant figure is $939 million, which
is the ‘net present cost of the entire 20-year project’. With our 357,000
population it works out at $2533 each.

Q: So how do you compare the light rail to these other iconic projects?

TT: Looking at the published construction costs of the various projects it looks like we could either have one light rail, or pro rata; five Bilbao museums, seven Monas, 16 Sydney Opera Houses or another 23 Arboretum buildings.

Q: Yikes isn’t $939M a lot of eggs in one basket with the Capital Metro?

TT: Yep, I may be spitting into the wind but there is a strong case that this iron horse will be swamped by the oncoming tsunami of autonomous vehicles in the near future. The venture has also arguably diverted funds from other worthy endeavours such as the ‘City to the Lake’ project which sought to rescue the moribund city centre by connecting it to our best asset, the lake. Dear Frank Gehry; perhaps don’t wait for our call; we have probably ‘done our dough’ for the time bein 

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Architects fees and the ‘design dividend’.

Architects fees and the 'design dividend'.

McGlade House - cantilevered deck with midcentury modern aesthetic

The philosopher Arthur Koestler wrote a book called The Ghost in the Machine in 1967 which conjures up the notion that the mind is more than a cleverly arranged jumble of neurons. It may be a bit of a stretch but the supplementary question is can a building also have a soul or a spirit?  “Good design is a language, not a style”, it is the ghost in the machine. Goethe the German Shakespeare referred to architecture as ‘frozen music’, if this sounds like a load of toss do not pass Go, please move directly to the sports pages.

A client recently relayed a comment from their bank manager “why would you engage an architect they are expensive, why not go to a draughtsman instead?”  This is a reasonable question. So what do architects typically charge, do they deliver this ‘ghost in the machine’ and why would you bother engaging one?

Architects used to have a recommended fee scale but this was given the coup de grace by the ACCC. That fee scale used to put an architect’s fees for residential work somewhere between say 10-15% of the project value. Very roughly this fee split down into three semi-equal parts. 1; develop a design suitable to be approved. 2; the fine detail of the design, structural coordination, building code issues, interior design etc. 3; covers the construction phase.  In no.3 the architect ‘wears their client’s hat’ through the rough and tumble of the building contract.

I mentioned the idea of a design dividend when using architects. The first part of this relates to the 6-7 years design training architects receive which primarily teaches them how to think rather than how to draw. I recall a contributor to this column who proposed that design skills should be taught in school as a core subject as they were actually more important than either literacy or numeracy. Translating this dividend into the design of a home my expectation is that the client should be able to say about the outcome; “it’s not what I thought I was getting but I like it”.

Another dividend is a financial one. If the design is documented sufficiently (ie in stage 2 above) the project can be exposed to market competition in a tendering process. Builder’s overheads and profit would typically range widely between 12-25% and if you just throw your lot in with a single builder you are unlikely to take advantage of the market as you are not able to shop the design around. My own brief survey of projects that have been priced in a competitive process revealed a range of a whopping 25% between the top and the bottom on average.

I would like to finish was a slightly tongue in cheek thought experiment to emphasize the point about the design dividend. I suspect most architects, me included, would be happy to not receive any formal fee at all but the nearly paid the equivalent to 50% of the difference between the top and bottom price in a competitive tendering process. So by exposing your project to the scrutiny of the capitalist system you get not just the Ghost in the Machine but some hard dollar savings too. Just a thought!

Tony Trobe is director of the local practice TT Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you’d like to discuss? Email

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An adult’s cubby house: Unique architectural home stands out in Ainslie

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Fix the Territory Plan with mere strokes of the pen

About 7 years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald in an article in Canberra by Judith Ireland the following paragraph appeared;

More recently, Canberra has been named by the Institute of Public Affairs is one of the Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes, with cane toads and the White Australia policy.  Last year, the Lonely Planet website nominated Canberra as reader’s second least favourite city in the world (with Guatemala City at No.1.”

Most people who live here would strongly disagree with these sentiments. I am a ‘blow in’ Pom who has actually chosen to live here of all other possible places on the world. Canberra is not a mistake but it could be argued that some of the reactionary planning policies in recent years have significantly contributed to its perceived sterility.

If I were the king for a day (or Donald Trump) there are some quick fixes that I believe could make a dramatic difference to the suburban fabric of Canberra. These are some my ‘strokes of a pen’ amendments to the planning rules.

  1. A 35% plot ratio is the maximum for housing in core areas for dual occupancy where at least one dwelling does not directly front a public road.  This rule stifles development and goes a long way towards defeating many options for higher urban density or ageing in place, The bizarre corollary of this is that you are allowed to build a mansion to 50% of the block if you only build one dwelling. Go figure.
  2. Why is Canberra restricted to only two story houses for most suburban areas? It is the bulk and scale of dwellings but not the number of levels in in them that matters.
  3. Currently you’re not allowed a basement and two other storeys unless it is used for car parking. Really?…what difference would have a basement make to the amenity of neighbours.
  4. Attics are virtually ruled out by the daft and rather arbitrary rule that if the roof pitch is over 36° it is no longer counts as an attic. Roof pitches under that angle are perversely unworkable on modest houses.
  5. Although the rules around Mr fluffy blocks were supposed to encourage high-density development they have become watered down like an old teabag to the point where siting two dwellings on a larger block becomes highly problematic and the allowable plot ratios end up lower than that permitted for a single residence.
  6. About 14 years ago the whole notion of being able to create higher densities in the general suburban areas (RZ1) was been knocked on the head. If you have a big block in the burbs and want to build another dwelling behind existing house you might as well forget about it as the allowable area for it will be tiny and you won’t be able to sell it off.
  7. The Local centres planning framework needs to be reviewed to encourage redevelopment with higher density accompanied with appropriate planning rules to encourage developers and local communities to consolidate and invest. These are often sad places that could easily play a walk on part in a post-apocalyptic movie.

The plethora of rules that have been added to our gargantuan Territory Plan in recent years are much like a Segway; seemed like a good idea but don’t really work. To paraphrase Thomas Edison the planning code has not really failed just found 10,000 ways that don’t work in contributing to a vibrant city that can become immune to the barbs of the outsiders. Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

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Light Rail – mistaking the prancing stallion for a white elephant.

Socrates, the champion the examined life, thought democracy was ‘The least bad system available’. Fighting from within the system however he described the role of the individual as ‘a gadfly on the rear end of a noble and sluggish horse’. The noble horse that this columnist gadfly wishes to bite the backside of has unfortunately already bolted. And what horse is this? Having driven Northbourne Avenue recently I completely lost my bearings; the little visual clues from the vanished micro urban forest in the centre of the road had, at a stroke, been sacrificed on the high altar of our gleaming new light rail network.

Although one part of me strongly supports the notion that the disadvantages of a decentralized, spread out urban area are tremendous, and the environmental damage of urban sprawl cannot be ignored I would like to make three main points in an argument against the light rail being the best vehicle to save us from walking backwards into this chaos.

The first point takes a belated round arm swipe at Capital Metro’s economic viability. A ‘Deep Throat’, inside source, and former senior member of the government who had their hands all over the ACT budget described the expenditure on the light rail “fiscal suicide”. He said that if you were to compare the expenditure to one made by the federal budget it would be equivalent to 3 to 10 times the cost of rolling out the costs of the NBN. As with individuals, governments have a limited cheque-book and the question asked is, the light rail the next best thing for us to spend more than $1B on? My feeling is that this level of expenditure is akin to living in government assisted housing blowing your dough on a Ferrari.

For the second point imagine you are an alien in a spaceship looking t at Canberra from above and trying to work out where the centre is? Our green man may logically conclude that the locus is somewhere between the Braddon and Dickson. Scientist say Europe and America are physically moving apart either side of a trench in the Atlantic ocean at about the pace of your fingernail grows although emotionally it seems somewhat quicker on recent times. It seems to me as if the centre of Canberra is similarly on a tectonic plate sliding carelessly and inexplicable northwards away from our most beautiful ‘almost natural’ feature, Lake Burley Griffin.  Only a short time ago we were being soft peddled the virtues of the ‘City to the Lake’ initiative with the West Basin being activated.  The urban fabric between it and the current city centre was to be revitalised with pedestrian links, parks, a conference centre and potentially a stadium. Is this not a better use of resources than seeking to get a couple of thousand people from Gungahlin to the centre of Civic moments quicker?  The rub is that we don’t suffer from peak hours but merely peak minutes. You actually don’t need a light rail to increase urban density along the Northbourne corridor, just a few changes to the planning codes.

Thirdly, in the way that the stagecoach lost out to the canal, which lost out to railways in the Industrial Revolution which in turn lost out to the car, it is not reasonable argument that the light rail will very soon become a technology of the past. Just about every time you turn the television or leaf through an in-flight magazine (…ah! ‘publishing’ another disappearing technology) there appears an article about the oncoming tsunami which is the driverless car. We are a gas guzzling town whose design is predicated on a rolled gold road system, second to none. Would not a serious investment in the technologies of the future be a better bet than laying down inflexible, suburb-skipping pathways for an iron horse?

As I watch the backside of the metaphorical horse bolting down the our now denuded grand boulevard I wonder whether I have mistaken the prancing stallion for a white elephant? History has shown in places such as Copenhagen everyone is an ‘Urban guerrilla’ and can take a city by stealth and intervention. This little gadfly has the same notion.

Tony Trobe is director of the local practice TT Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you’d like to discuss? Contact us now.

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A Demonstration Suburb

Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Giants are not to run from but lived up to. Walter and Marion Burley Griffin are our own giants and they still loom large in Canberra’s rear-view mirror. The city’s origins lie in a thought experiment, a competition held a mere few generations ago producing one of the major set pieces in the history of urban design.

With any whistle-stop tour through the new greenfield suburbs one is left with the impression that a thorn has been grafted onto the rose left by the Griffins. The suggestion is that the current cohort is not doffing its cap sufficiently to the past and leaving a grubby legacy. This is exemplified by reference to a meeting I had four years ago with potential clients who were seeking advice to buy a parcel of land in one of the new suburbs. I thought this would be a piece of cake; just scan the subdivision layout, look for a lot that had a rectangular shape and with the long side facing north. This is probably lesson 101 taught to students of residential design. Well, blow me down, there were virtually none! On enquiry in high places I was advised that due to the then relatively new ‘solar fence’ legislation it was very difficult to orientate blocks facing north as they needed to be wider to meet the new rules and wouldn’t provide yields the government or developer required. I wrote a piece for this column titled ‘the law of unintended consequences’ which triggered a front-page ‘shock horror’ news piece; “new suburbs left in the dark. The aerial image of a typical suburban layout that is attached illustrates the point with a large percentage of the blocks facing the wrong direction, with little solar optimised private open space and certainly no room for the trees that have been the historic hallmark of the bush capital.

The law of unintended consequences relates to outcomes that are unforeseen and sometimes opposite to a purposeful action. In common parlance this is called a ‘backfire’. A good example is during the Great Plague of London there was a decree to kill all dogs and cats. These animals could have helped keep in check the rat population carrying the fleas which transmitted the disease; instead their demise exacerbated the problem. I believe the government in its Housing Choices initiative has recognised that all is not well in the new suburbs or the even the old ones. There is a dawning realisation that current outcomes are not meeting the aspirations of its citizens. The Planning Authority have been seeking ways to slim down the rather obese Territory Plan and they have introduced the notion of building ‘demonstration’ projects to be sprinkled throughout the suburbs. The intention being that any successful outcomes would move the design goalposts and filter through into a comprehensive re-jigging of the current planning regime.

Given the boldness of the origins of Canberra and the legacy of Walter and Marion I would suggest that a bigger roundhouse blow at the Territory Plan might be contemplated. Rather than a demonstration project I float the idea of a ‘demonstration suburb’. The first Garden City, Letchworth, began life in 1903. I spent many a weekend at Letchworth when my loyalties lay in the Old Dart. The city was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard who wrote a book titled ‘Cities of Tomorrow: a peaceful path to real reform’. I think Canberrans are probably up for a spot of real reform, a return to the notion of contemporary place making and an escape from an addiction to land sales income being the bully of ideology. In 1912 Walter Burley Griffin wrote of his plan that it be “A city like no other”. I would like to propose that an upcoming suburb be exposed to a wide-ranging international competition to pay homage to the past. We should seek to escape from the stranglehold that a vanishingly small group of urban designers have on the HB pencil. I would like to think our government and senior planners have the stomach to grab the baton of history and run with it. Just a few telephone calls have revealed some ‘benign advocates’ of design reform who hold land and would be keen to partner in a baton exchange.  Why not have a new fresh starting point with a shiny new demonstration suburb…’like no other’?

Tony Trobe is director of TT Architecture specialising in the design of sustainable residential Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you would like to discuss? Email