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START-UP DEVELOPERS

What would our cities look like if the old model of the developer didn’t exist?

The large-scale developer’s primary concern is financial return, and quite often the architecture has suffered so that more money can be made. Perhaps the future of architectural practice goes beyond merely drawing lines for a developer – the architect might become the developer. A new kind of developer with a focus on sustainability, liveability and design – motives above and beyond profit.

Last year a simple hand gesture accompanying a few words sparked discussion about modern architecture, and what matters to me is not who said it but what they said:

“Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it!”

(A middle finger rose from a clenched fist to provide the exclamation mark.)

Here in Melbourne we see these residential towers being built with zero sense of place, no consideration for the end-user and ‘architect designed’ is just a phrase the developers use to put up the price of each apartment. Is this going to continue into the future of architecture, or will architects stand up to large developers, or take the next step and do away with them?

On social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, debates about the apartment buildings sprouting across Melbourne’s skyline have been lively. For this article, a building will be described in the most general of terms so that you can picture one of many applicable buildings, however there is one particular building that is being brought up in these debates. This building appears as a box; no street setbacks, and just a bunch of colours on the façade to make it appear lively. The typical floor plan of the apartment consists of a bedroom with access to an en-suite, and a living/meals/ kitchenette area with no balcony or opportunity for passive cooling or ventilation.

Many comments on the Facebook news article criticized the building, and rightly so; it was a very ugly building. There was a comment that asked “Why are architects boring?”; and another that demanded architects actually earn their huge fees when designing these apartments. This is a little unfair, as well as grossly inaccurate. Do architects wake up in the morning, grab their satchel-bag, head to the office and order their coffee along the way, excited to design these kinds of undelightful apartment buildings? Or are these buildings designed because, as the classic retail saying suggests, “the customer (client) is always right”? While we may know this saying is not true, when the clients are the ones writing the cheques, they are almost always “right”.

What if clients – in this case large developers – didn’t write the cheques and didn’t dictate the design? What if small, naïve developers could band together to provide joint funding for thoughtful developments? This isn’t a far-fetched scenario that we can only dream about, it is currently happening, the Nightingale model is an example of this. Large developers typically prioritise financial return neglecting liveability, sustainability and design. However, while the Nightingale model still provides financial return, it puts emphasis on liveability and sustainability which provides affordable housing that is well designed.

 

 

The Nightingale model is currently being applied to three developments, but for every one of these developments there are dozens upon dozens of greedy, money-hungry developerdriven apartment ‘future-slums’ being built. There are many architecture firms struggling with developers at the moment trying to get them to understand the importance of good design, with some developers listening and taking on the architect’s advice. Many developers however tell them not to worry about the design but rather how to squeeze extra apartments in so they can get more of a return, and it’s this type of thinking that is detrimental. Is this the future of architectural practice?

I hope that isn’t what the future holds for my architectural career, but rather in future practice there is a change. A change in the way architects – and the services they render – are viewed by the general public and by clients and developers. I envision a future in architectural practice where architects can architect, where developers don’t lead the design with architects simply drafting. I envision a future in architectural practice where architects not only tak back control of the design process but of the entire process. Architects used to be seen as ‘the master builder’, however this is not the case in modern times. It’s time to regain that mantle.

I envision a future where architects are developing their own projects for the sake of the built environment. When a collective of architecture firms can design and fund an apartment building, everyone can reap the rewards; from the shareholders, the architects, and residents, and the broader urban population. Through being able to take full-control of the building (finance, design, construction, sales, and ongoing management), the architect can start to appeal to the particular needs of the individual, not the developer-orientated ‘typical buyer’ cookie-cutter profile of a human.

In the future I hope the typical large developer becomes redundant, and instead the figures are made up of many smaller architecture firms and general people who care about the built environment. A mid-sized apartment building may be estimated to cost $4.7 million to build, however, apply the Nightingale model with many ethical investors, and aim to sell a lot of apartments ‘off the plan’, and suddenly it’s a viable and beneficial option. It’s an ‘everybody wins’ situation; investors get a return, it provides great architecture for the built environment, the residents have a sustainable and liveable apartment and we don’t have to look at another eye-sore. The only loser in all of this is the developer who was only involved to make as much money as possible for themselves, without consideration for others.

How would a small architecture firm, seemingly with little cash to invest, get involved in something like a medium-tolarge development? Much like their firm, they could start small and build up. The Nightingale model could be tweaked slightly to apply to commercial properties which could involve ethical investors fitting out a warehouse to lease out, still applying the idea of sustainability, workability and of course financial return. Small firms wouldn’t be investing to build a 300m tall, glass, shiny office tower in the CBD but investing in smaller commercial properties could provide more long-term return.

Developers are dominating the built environment, a stroll around the CBD and fringe suburbs confirms that. Drive to the outer suburbs and it becomes even more apparent that perhaps we need to stop giving so much power to developers, and that it’s time for the architect to wrestle back control. The future I want to architect in involves removing  developers and replacing them with ethical investors who care; who care about the built environment, the value of design, sustainability and the future of the city, and of course care about the end-user. Whether it is medium-density residential buildings, low-rise commercial offices or an adaptive reuse to facilitate retail, the investors care about more than just returns.

I want to practice architecture where the Nightingale model is considered common-place whether the developments are residential or commercial. The built environment, our city, and our future need architecture firms to take back developments from today’s typical large developer.

In the future I hope to see architects, engineers, landscape architects and builders do what they do best; create beautiful built environments that enhance people’s lives, not just pursue maximum profits.