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Of Poms and Pavilionisation.

I have been in Australia for over half my life thus by pure maths I am now more Australian than English yet still get sledged as a whingeing Pom. I’ve heard various origins of the POM word; one being that it stands for Prisoner Of her Majesty and was an epitaph given to the very earliest arrivals. Version two is that it is the condensed form of pomegranate and refers to the ruddy complexion of early disembarking, pale-faced early boat-people. I read somewhere that a Brisbane based Pom took a newspaper to the Human Rights Commission bleating that the use of the word pom was an act of racial vilification. I embrace the term however and as a token of the close relationships of the two countries. 

One of my more persistent whingeing rants deals with the appalling lack of attention given to the way housing blocks are laid out in suburban subdivisions. There has been a huge ‘ball-drop’ in regard to basic solar principles, a classic case of the law of unintended consequences resulting in a “duh?” moment now writ large. It is almost inconceivable to me how such a high a proportion of blocks facing completely and utterly the wrong way continue to be rolled out. With a long axis going north-west it is almost impossible to get good orientation to living areas without significant architectural gymnastics.

This leads me onto the topic of the week which is how to deal with such blocks. I have often found that the idea of the ‘pavilionisation’ of the house is something to place into the design thought bubble. With a series of carefully conceived rectangular parallel pavilions arranged on an East-West grid (ie long side facing North) and connected by understated links some surprising results can be achieved despite the adverse starting conditions.

In the suburban situation for new houses not only does the pavilionisation method solve the solar issue it allows for human scaled courtyard spaces to emerge from the gaps between the built elements. These spaces effectively become outdoor rooms allowing for the, loved by all, inside-outside connections to arise naturally. They also offer options for a variety of seasonal conditions and can also become a strong aesthetic component of the overall composition.

The idea of pavilionisation also is a left-field way of dealing with steeply sloping sites where the different building elements, being relatively modest in scale allow the overall building to be stepped up or down the contours.  This minimises the cut and fill necessary and the associated costs. Monolithic buildings often incur significant expense in just getting out of the ground and to the observer appear to fight the slope rather than embrace it.

For extensions and alterations pavilionisation can be a simple way of adding area. I often like to think that the extension component should contain the most important aspects of the house which nearly always is the family/meals/kitchen area. In my view the starting point for any design should always be to ‘get the best stuff in the right place’. If an extension is ‘pavilionised’ it affords itself the opportunity of an individual and separate architectural expression, even something quite different from the original. The big mistake is often to carbuncle the new lump onto the old. In the pavilion model the existing house can remain largely as it is and be seen effectively as the annex to the new rather than the other way around.

In the rural situation the idea of pavilionisation often comes into its own. It is a not only a method of addressing the solar issues but of producing discrete pockets permitting the building to protect itself from the wind. Often driving along highways in the country one sees a McMansion sitting lost in the landscape like a pea on a drum. Conversely the look of old homesteads that have an organic appearance suggestive of individual elements created over time are more pleasing to my eye. This historical reference can also be a model for the new where a cluster of appropriately scaled elements congregate to give the appearance of a settlement rather than a formal structure in the landscape. They sit in the landscape rather than on it.

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Literary Rock star fails to circumvent the lake!

On Saturday I formed part of the devoted Bill Bryson flock accompanied by a packed crowd of equally eager-eared, Zimmer frame pushing, grey-hairs. Avuncular, charming Bill held court as a sort of literary Bruce Springsteen.  No cocaine here; any pills popped by punters at the show would more likely have been statins, aspirin or krill oil.

Bill has been a bit on the nose with Canberrans in the past for mildly derogatory, yet amusing comments made in his book 1996 Down Under where he wrote; “Canberra, awfully boring place. Beer cold, though.” Then he thought for a bit more and decided to come up with a new slogan for Canberra. First he wrote, “Canberra — There’s Nothing to It!” and then “Canberra — Why Wait for Death?” He concluded his brief excursion to with ‘Canberra is a gateway to everywhere else’… Queanbeyan I suppose?

Bill has been to Canberra six or seven times now and has tempered somewhat; he ‘mea culpaed’ himself in spades by seducing his adoring audience with earnest flattery about the Capital, Australia and Australians in general. We were described as being as ‘ironic as Iowans ‘(whence he hails).  It’s okay now, he loves us.

He was asked about what Canberra could do to boost itself up the world table of sought-after places to live and as a preamble his response described efforts to walk around Lake BG on each previous visit. On this occasion he said he plunged off into the wilds fronting the east basin or, “into the bit of the lake on the right” to attempt an epic aquatic circumvention. After a couple of hours or so, encountering only the odd empty park bench he become worried the Capital had been depopulated in ‘On the Beach’ style.  He settled, with less bold ambition, to merely seek somewhere to have a coffee. After four hours he conceded defeat and returned bewildered, exhausted and in the nick of time to just make his own gig. His advice to us was ‘we need talk about the Lake’. The venue sang with applause.

On his tour he had already visited Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane and Bill was eloquently intoxicated in referring to the river and the couple of South Banks he came across. To paraphrase, his central theme was; ’stop being so precious about the lake; grab it embrace it, love it, use it’.

In the forum in the Canberra Times on Saturday 22 March a long piece on front page introduced us to the beaming Malcolm Snow; our new chief executive of the National Capital Authority who declared his passion to ‘mix things up’. Our freshly minted CEO has now inherited the poison chalice of the obergruppenführer of the lake. He was quoted as saying “when you travel overseas you admire cities in the world that seem to be able to mix up and incorporate users activities which make them really interesting places to be, these places seem to be able to support a great diversity of activities socially, demographically, economically and culturally”, he said that he sees “common DNA” between the lake and Brisbane’s highly successful South bank where he had been CEO for six years.

Welcome Malcolm and thank you for your spirit, let’s hope that your ambitions do not end up as quixotic tilting at windmills and your “desire to increase the scope for people to use the lake” does not end up in that waste basket of crumpled dreams. Don’t be in the middle. Bring it on.

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Building costs for Dummies

Q: I have just bought an expensive Fluffy block, am thinking of building a new home and have been getting wildly differing advice on the cost of building houses

TT: Just a quick dip into the internet by anyone shows a range of figures from less than $1000/m2 to over $4,000/ m2 which are bewildering to anyone, particularly if they haven’t built before.

Q: So what are the factors that produce such a large range of cost?

TT: It isn’t really rocket science. The reasons can neatly be put into three categories which all are, once you think about it, just basic common sense. There is correlation between size, complexity, inclusions and the overall cost of buildings.

Q: OK, the first seems fairly straightforward.

TT: Yep, blind Freddy can work that one out, the bigger it is the more it will probably cost.

Q: Complexity; that seems like a broad church?

TT: There is huge range of style of building styles.  At the bottom, with little in the design that deviates from simple standard basic brick veneer construction, on a flat site many project home builders are producing Mc Mansions at under $1800/m2. These types of houses dominate the suburbs and are fine… if this is your cup of tea. Everything about these sorts of homes is generally ‘bog standard’ and requires no specific detailing. These homes can usually be put up by reasonably competent builders and tradesmen with little supervision, they sort of build themselves.

Q: So what is ‘non-standard’ construction?

TT: Every part of a house from the footings to the roof can be designed in a more expensive way. If you are looking at construction methods and aesthetic styles that deviate from that of the brick venereal disease you should be thinking of allowing at least $2,300/2 – $3000/m2 or more. The over 3000/m² category is magazine fodder. Suspended concrete slabs, steep site slopes, articulated building form, cantilevered elements, soaring or complex roofs, exotic cladding materials and custom detailing all contribute to this increased cost but hopefully in a resultant design dividend.

Q: What sort of effect can different inclusions have?

TT: With Project homes it is generally a race to the bottom in regard to the allowances for tiles, taps, windows etc. Good examples of the range in cost of different elements are for example; that you can get a reasonably workable plastic cistern toilet for $300 but a fancy wall hug pan might cost $2,000 ie,  seven times as much. Carpet may cost as little as $60/m2 but a polished hardwood floor would be four times as much at $250/m2. A set of windows in a project home may be as little as $22,000 whereas a reasonably well performing double glazed window would cost more like $45,000 and high-performance thermally-improved windows can be $70,000 or more.  If you think of the relative level of inclusions being like buying different quality cars from say a Kia to a Honda and then up to, say a Beemer you’ll get the idea. You get what you pay for.

Q: Are there any tools to help make sense of this?

TT: I have developed a very simple spreadsheet calculator that I would be happy to make available for free to any readers should they wish to contact me by e-mail.

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 tonytrobe@ttarchitecture.com.au.

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IN LOCO (owners as their own developers)

A slightly odd vice of mine is an appreciation of the joy of acronyms. Some might consider this an annoying affectation but I prefer the tag of charming foible. Four years ago in a quixotic flurry of self-righteous indignation aimed at the lumbering leviathan that is our planning system I instigated a national competition to address to dearth of housing choices available in the Territory. In thinking of a catchy title for the enterprise I focused primarily on the potency of the acronym and managed to boil the almost incomprehensible ‘New Experimental Architectural Typology’ Housing into the more palatable NEAT Housing.  The competition garnered enthusiastic support from the ACT Government, the Land Development, ACTPLA, Defence Housing, and ACT Housing. Fifty seven innovative entries from around the country and many heavy hitters in the development diaspora voiced support. Three weary years later this Don Quixote continues to tilt at windmills to see it realised. ”if this initiative fails to get up it will be over my dead body” is a quote from the head of a major government organisation promising a change to the housing palette in Canberra. That promise still lies on fallow ground.

This column has had a particularly strong focus in recent times on the lack of housing choices for those wishing to age in place.  There are many in the community marooned on large blocks by reactionary planning policies. They would love to downsize, not to an apartment block but rather stay in location with a smaller house and garden and better utilise their monster blocks of land. These blocks have been arbitrarily zoned as inappropriate for more than one dwelling. Let’s be frank, Canberra is one of the most spread eagled cities on the entire planet. The notion that everyone wants a quarter acre block is out dated similarly to open cast coal mining and hacking down prime old growth forests.

Perhaps something can be achieved ‘despite’ the government rather than ‘because of it’. Developers generally incite the butt end of distain. Many in their Walter Mitty moments however have entertained the notion of dipping their toes in the shark infested development pond to make an easy buck on an undercapitalised asset. Whist giving advice to developers on how best to go about developing a block I often wonder why more people don’t weaken to capitalist tendencies themselves; they could be the ones swanning around in the new Beemer. They have the asset in the land but I guess they don’t have access to the design, building and financing skill set necessary to pull it all together.

How about his for a thought experiment: perhaps owners of suitable blocks of land (even in groups owning adjacent properties) might act as their own developer in a joint venture with an architect, a builder and a financier? They would all jointly take the risk and share the potential rewards in an equitable manner. The mechanics of this could be fairly straight forward with the land owner either sharing in the overall profit or retaining a home in the development and thus realising the ambition of aging in place.

I propose to start a register of interested parties who would like to investigate this notion and have called it ‘In Loco’. In addition and more importantly this may provide a base group to lobby the government to amend its archaic attitude to zoning and unban infill in the burbs. Drop me a line if you are interested.

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Starchitects for Canberra

Q: So Tony here we are once more, with you talking to yourself again.

TT: Indeed, I feel like a bit of a loser, I couldn’t get either of my two of my regular readers or even my mum to agree to be interviewed. The design community are clearly a bit shy.

Q: So what are the Trobe twins 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.

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 being.

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The Robertson House on Oaks Estate

This column piece is based on a book produced by Tim Reeves and Alan Roberts titled 100 Canberra Houses (a Century of Capital Architecture)

 

TT: The House seems an excessively plain little cottage. What is significant about it?

AR: The early Canberra Administration provided very basic accommodation for single construction workers but did nothing to help those who came with family. Robertson House is the sole surviving example of the makeshift dwellings that construction workers built as family homes, improvising from whatever materials could be scrounged. The Canberra administration stigmatised them as ‘humpies’. It turned a blind eye to those built on leasehold land, which it controlled, but those built on freehold land like the Robertson House were not subject to its jurisdiction. Humpies were usually temporary homes of two or three rooms but the Robertson House, built on Oaks Estate, continued to grow as a more permanent home.

TT: What was significant about Oaks Estate?

AR: Oaks Estate was originally part of Queanbeyan though it lay within the border of the Federal Capital Territory. It had a long association with the railway and river crossings that converged on Queanbeyan and attracted industries including flour milling and market gardening.

TT: Who were the Robertson family? AR: They had been living on the estate from the 1880s. Dick Robertson, the second generation there, worked at the flour mill. But once construction of Canberra began, he (like many Oaks Estate families) looked to it for work. He worked first at the Royal Military College, Duntroon and then on government construction projects. Dick may have been a labourer, but he had ability, patenting inventions including a sprinkler and a beehive smoker.

TT: When was the house built?

AR: Dick’s house was first recorded in 1913 though he did not acquire title to the land until 1919. It was a four-room house built by the family in stages without local government approval. It was constructed with a frame of stringy-bark poles. The walls and ceiling were lined in part with tar, oil and kerosene tins that had been opened out and flattened, as well as tin off-cuts, packing-case boards, weatherboards and fibro. Galvanised iron off-cuts came from the construction jobs that Dick worked on and were riveted together well enough to last a century. Packing boards used in the flooring came from boxes of medicine delivered to Dr Blackall in Queanbeyan. In the 1920s, the family added a new kitchen at the back of the house, together with another bedroom and a front verandah. Dick and Mary Robertson raised eight children there.

TT: What did the ACT Administration do about the house?

AR: The Robertsons regarded their family home with great fondness, but the Canberra administration took a different view. Charles Daley, appointed Civic Administrator of Canberra in 1930, viewed the entire Oaks Estate as an eyesore and tried to cede it back to NSW. When that failed, he ignored it in the hope that buildings there would fall down from lack of government maintenance and infrastructure support. The Robertsons did not allow that to happen to their home and, living on freehold land, they were fiercely independent of the ACT Administration.

TT: How is the Robertson House cared for today?

AR: Two of the Robertson sons, Les and Tom, lived at Oaks Estate all their lives. The house was left to deteriorate after Les died around 2000. The National Trust of the ACT classified it and then, in 2010, the ACT Government allocated money to stabilise the building and commissioned a conservation plan. It is often open in Heritage Week.

Tony Trobe is director of TT Architecture who specialise in the design of residential Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you would like to discuss? Email tonytrobe@ttarchitecture.com.au.