Category Archives: design

Building Confidence: The Shergold-Weir Report and its Implications for Architects

The Shergold-Weir Report argues for better quality documentation and improved oversight. What do the recommendations mean for architects?

In mid-2017 the Building Ministers’ Forum (BMF) asked Professor Peter Shergold and Ms. Bronwyn Weir to undertake an assessment of the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia. The final report ‘Building Confidence’ was recently delivered to the BMF and is available for review here.

The stated goal of the report is to “enhance public trust through effective implementation of building and construction standards that protect the interests of those who own, work, live, or conduct their business in Australian buildings.” The report has a number of recommendations about the whole process of building and maintaining safe and well-constructed buildings, and has special significance in the wake of the Lacrosse and Grenfell Tower fires. It mainly deals with “commercial” rather than domestic scale buildings.

The report also has a number of observations and recommendations, which affect architects in our roles during design, construction and ongoing maintenance of buildings. If implemented it will change many aspects of the construction process, and in doing so it also presents a number of opportunities for architects to re-occupy areas of practice we have lost to other practitioners.

Building confidence and ensuring integrity

“The quality of buildings depends heavily on the competency and integrity of builders. There are many builders that have high standards of competency and integrity. However, the rates of disputes, alleged defects and reports of high levels of illegal phoenix activity are evidence that there are shortcomings in the performance of some builders. These need to be addressed.[p13]

Shergold and Weir are clear that there is insufficient supervision, auditing and expertise in the industry, and too many practitioners willing to take short cuts to save money and time. They also note that there are many conflicts of interest in the way compliance is achieved through private certifiers employed by the client or builder, and an unwillingness for certifiers or the approving authorities to enforce standards during construction. A number of recommendations address those conflicts by better documentation, registration of building practitioners, auditing of those practitioners, and inspections and checking during and after construction.

Registration of building practitioners

While there has been little progress on a true national scheme for registration of architects, our profession is often seen as a model for other building practitioners, where registration and licensing schemes vary widely between states and there is little appetite to harmonise systems or introduce mutual recognition across state borders. It also strongly endorses CPD (not yet a feature of all Architect’s Acts) and subcategories of registration for different building types – something which may be problematic for smaller architectural firms. It recommends strict controls on who can provide performance-based solutions under the NCC and when third-party certification of those solutions is required. Registered practitioners would also be required to have their work audited – so architects’ documentation for building rules consent could be audited by a third party. Building designers would also need to be registered – something which architects have long called for. It also calls for a consistent approach to the registration of builders, specialist subcontractors (especially fire contractors) and engineers.

Quality of documentation

There have been many reports over many years calling for better quality documentation by design professionals.  Shergold and Weir note:

“The adequacy of documentation prepared and approved as part of the building approvals process is often poor. The tendency for inadequate documentation to be prepared and accepted by building surveyors at the building approvals stage has increased, in part because of owners and developers endeavouring to minimise costs on documentation. This issue needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.

… Inadequate documentation can also result in hidden costs or allow builders to cut costs without owners being aware of it.

The integrity of documentation for future use is also compromised when the approval documents do not reflect the as-built building, or when they contain insufficient detail to properly inform building risk and maintenance requirements.” [p28]

Many of the problems noted are blamed on procurement methods, and in particular Design and Construct. The report notes often architects are not retained through the whole construction period.

“…architects and engineers have indicated that they may be engaged early in a project to prepare initial documentation but that their engagement then ends. Detailed construction documentation is prepared by others who may not possess the relevant skills. When products specified are substituted, architects, engineers and building surveyors may not be consulted.” [p31]

The report notes that the process for approving changes during construction is flawed, and that as-built documentation is either non-existent or of poor quality. It recommends that comprehensive digital manuals be required and that they should be stored centrally by government to allow access in the future by owners and maintainers of buildings.

Recommendation 16 of the report states that each jurisdiction should provide for a building compliance process that incorporates clear obligations for the approval of amended documentation by the appointed building surveyor throughout a project. It notes:

“Implementation of this recommendation will be challenging. It requires designers, building surveyors and builders to work to properly document design and construction specifications. This is the lynchpin of a best practice building approvals system and considerable effort will be required to effectively bring about systemic change in this area.” [p32]

Shergold and Weir envisage a very different system to that currently in place – but one that ensures the safety and amenity of the users of our buildings.

What does it mean for architects?

Architects must firstly take responsibility for, and publicly commit to, a better quality of documentation. The skill set for producing such documentation has reduced over the past generation, and the downward pressure on fees has seen it lost as a core business of many architectural firms. It is not seen as glamorous, award-winning or valued by clients, builders or end users. Endless reports on the value of good documentation go ignored, especially when fees and scope are negotiated. Footage of the Grenfell and Lacrosse fires should have awakened a new desire by architects to argue for good documentation, procurement and construction practice.

Our profession already has registration and a relatively good system for dealing with complaints from the public – but does it actually want to fight for a role as a leader in construction industry for integrity, competence and high levels of technical skill? Will we welcome the idea of auditing of our work and accepting criticism of poor documentation without blaming clients, builders and fees? These are moral, not just business choices, and lives depend on it.

Judging by past efforts to achieve any national improvement in the construction industry, the three tiers of our wonderful federated system of government will conspire to stuff it up. As architects, we owe it to the public to advocate for a better, safer and more trustworthy industry.  We need all architects to step up alongside us. You’d better start writing to politicians today if you want that vision for the future.

This article was first published on the Association of Consulting Architects Website

The State of Virtual Reality in Architectural Practice – 2017 Part One – Where we are

At Russell and Yelland we have been working with Virtual Reality for a year now. We would like to share some of our experiences and lessons from this journey which we see as the early days of VR.

The term Virtual Reality is an oxymoron; it is the combination of unreal ‘virtual’ and real ‘reality’. Virtual in this context is the computer simulation of what our senses perceive to be the world around us: that is, Reality. From its beginning VR hardware has looked like a bulky, cumbersome set of goggles.    While the technology is evolving it’s appearance has not changed much.

VR is not a new thing but recently there has been renewed interest and big name technology companies are jumping on board.

There are two key factors which recently arrived and made Virtual Reality accessible for architectural firms such as Russell and Yelland. We already had the first piece of the puzzle, the virtual 3D model, because this is part of our regular architectural design workflow.

The recent innovations which have been able to plug into our architectural practice are;

  1. VR hardware, now accessible, user friendly and at a level of quality able to provide an immersive experience.
  2. Real-time rendering software, aka a ‘gaming engine’ that runs in our regular design environment.

A life-like experience where one can move around the environment requires a powerful computer to perform the real-time graphics processing to update the view corresponding to every movement the user makes. The hardware providing the best experience right now is a ‘head tracking virtual reality headset’; the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are the two products which have created the recent VR sensation. These headsets both launched consumer products in 2016. Both plug into a desktop computer and require additional sensors placed around the user to translate real world movement into the virtual environment. The VR hardware acts as both the screen and the input (keyboard/mouse), movements of the users head are translated to input commands for the virtual environment.

The virtual environment must respond instantaneously to the actions of the viewer to create a convincing reality. Without the recent development of graphics technology and ‘gaming engines’ we would have to wait hours for CAD software to render a single realistic image. While not a super realistic representation, what the gaming engines lack in detail they make up for with speed. Real-time speed. Using our regular design software we are now able to plug-in a gaming engine and see our digital models in a life-like view while; moving through them, working on a design or trying different options.

The graphic output required to present an immersive VR experience is beyond anything we require regular video to provide and it all comes down to the frame rate. Typically a video can look seamless at 24 frames per second but when you introduce head tracking (the ability for the viewpoint of the scene to move in relation to the users movements) the frame rate demand skyrockets. A typical video feed at 24 frames per second, strobes as you turn your head, leaving gaps of darkness in the path of your glance. This is referred to as ‘latency’, not only does latency disrupt the immersion of the scene it is also a cause of motion sickness. The output recommended for a realistic experience with a motion tracking VR headset is 90 frames per second (FPS) and that is per eye, as there is a unique image sent to each eye. Comparing that to the movie industry standard of 24, a quality VR experience is asking the PC to output a total of 180 FPS which is 7.5 times more images than a movie presents its viewers with. Even The Hobbit movie which created fanfare with its “High Frame Rate” of 48 FPS is not even a third of this frequency. With that perspective it is not surprising you need a very powerful PC to produce this graphic output.

Such a setup is not very portable, though we did take the whole kit to Brompton Primary School for a media event (as pictured), it is not something you would want to assemble every meeting. At a minimum it required; 5 power outlets, the desktop PC, the PC monitor, two independent sensors plugged in and on tripods and the headset link box. We also set up a projector so the students not wearing the headset could see what was happening in the virtual environment.

With all of the setup, bulk and cables between everything including from the users headset to the PC we have still found the experience and comprehension of a design to be unequalled by any other presentation method. There have also been a spectrum of ways we can share these experiences with varying dependence on technology.

Stay tuned for part two to hear what else we have been up to!

Research in Practice

John Held reflects on conjunctions of research and practice in a talk presented at the Australian Institute of Architects Flipped Forum, which asked ‘Can practice lead research?’

What does it mean to ‘flip’? In the strict pedagogical definition, it denotes swapping the roles of classroom and homework – reviewing and gathering content out of session, and using face-to-face time for discussion and exploration of the topic. But in the context of this discussion more likely it refers to the idea of practice-led or practice-based research. What forms could that take?

I have a bit of a problem with the definition of ‘practice’ as an activity divorced from academia, and the related idea of practice being just about business, profitability and technical capability.

How not to do it

Our firm was approached by a university a few years ago for seed funding for an interesting project related to sustainability. We considered it carefully but they didn’t want us involved in the research – ‘please hand us your money and we’ll give you a report at the end’. Any chance of learning went out the window, as did we.

How it informs design

If you are to be good at what you do, you have to keep up with research. If you are going to be involved in design for education, know what the research is saying.

As an example, the research of Carla Rinaldi and her influence on early childhood education in South Australia continues as architects participate in joint research on pedagogy and architecture as part of the South Australian Collaborative Childhood Project.

Keeping abreast of research on environments for aged people with memory loss is critical if your buildings are going to be calmer, happier places in which to live.

Our work with Guida Moseley Brown on Mawson Institute Building V was informed by research on research – the concept of placing disparate science and engineering disciplines together; with offices and labs directly connected, and making those researchers bump into each other and help solve each other’s problems.

So perhaps the concept of practitioners and researchers ‘bumping into each other’ is an inspiration for how we should approach practice and research.

How does it happen in practices?

In the midst of project deadlines and dramas and worrying about not having enough work or too much work, the importance of both reflective practice and internal research is really important.

Access to your own data for decision-making doesn’t sound like high-end research, but it’s surprising the stories you hear of architects who have no idea about the detail of their own practices.

In our case, as an example, we’ve spent a great deal of time and reflection on how to change workflows, project processes and outputs to suit truly collaborative BIM workflows.

It may not sound grand but it involves the same methodologies as academic research. We are also researching ways of integrating Virtual Reality into those workflows – not just for clients, but as part of our design review processes.

Finally, we realise the important links between the universities and practice, which is why we have three of our staff teaching and always have students working for us to keep those links alive.

Few small practices have the resources to fund academic research – but as a profession we should be doing this.

How does it happen as a profession?

We really dropped the ball in the last 15 years as a profession in terms of research about architects.  There’s been no significant work done on the effect of documentation quality on construction costs for 17 years. It’s even longer since the CSIRO did research on fees.

We don’t know how many architects there are in Australia, how many work in alternative roles, what happens to graduates after university, and why starting salaries are below most other professions.

Susan Shannon’s work was the first I’d seen tracking graduates – and should be the basis of a much bigger longitudinal survey over many years to get a better understanding of what we actually do as architects – and as graduates who don’t get registered but do other equally important things.

The Parlour survey was the first time we’d seen the scope of the many different ways you can practice architecture.

Locally, the SA State of the Profession survey highlighted a number of issues that need to be addressed – pay, gender equity, career paths, the unexplained dropout of mid-career architects and, most importantly, the future of the profession. But tellingly, we couldn’t get the required outcomes from universities – at least not for the budget we had available.  We ended up going to people who bridge academia and other non-traditional forms or practice – in this case, Justine Clark and Gillian Matthewson.  And trying to get a national version of the survey up finding the funding is proving very difficult.

The spinoff – a great series of reflective pieces under the theme “Where to From Here” – again highlight a diversity of practice and a belief in the future of our profession.

Our next try at research is to get access to the large amounts of data held by government clients – in this case DPTI – to actually find out relationships between fees, hours, and building outcomes.

How does it happen as a policy instrument?

If you are going to lobby on behalf of architects to government or clients you had better have some facts to back it up – even in this world of alternative facts.

You want to change the type of procurement? Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.

Want us to work for free?  Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.

Want to cut our fees again?  Here’s some facts about what happens when you do.

Want to push us downstream, rather than as a trusted advisor?  Here’s the evidence.

But it’s hard to find good evidence, because the research isn’t there.

We don’t have a group whose sole purpose is to produce solid research: even if the answers are not quite what you hoped.

How does it happen as an industry?

It doesn’t – at least not enough. The lack of investment in R&D in the industry is well known, and because so much of it is fragmented and comprised of very small organisations it’s not likely to improve without external funding sources.

This is too big a topic for today – suffice to say that if architects don’t help lead the push for more research, other groups will, to our detriment.

Conclusion

Firstly, we need to see practice and academia as a continuum, as opposed to polar opposites, because that is how it is in the real world. At the same time, we need to understand who is doing the big picture thinking about the future of practice.  This can only happen if you treat “practice” (in all its forms) as a subject worthy of academic discourse and research.

Our main task, therefore, is to strengthen links between academia and practice – and understand that all the different and alternative futures of the profession are reliant on this.

Brompton Primary School STEM

In July 2016 the SA Government announced a stimulus package for the creation of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) facilities in 139 public schools across South Australia.

Construction of the Brompton Primary School STEM project commenced in December 2016 with a site visit from the Minister for Education and Child Development, the Hon. Susan Close. It will be one of the first of the STEM Works projects to be completed.

The design aims to encourage hands-on making and open-ended creative investigations.The robust finishes and open-plan workshop feel will show that the space is not ‘precious’ – it’s there to be used and it’s okay to make a mess!

The children will be the ‘star of the show’, with many locations for displaying and celebrating their work. Almost every surface will be interactive, including the ceiling, which is designed for hanging things from. Wall surfaces will used for display, storage, creation and collaboration, via a lego wall, pegboards, slat wall and whiteboards.

The four zones in the STEM space are denoted by different flooring, but are all interconnected, allowing multiple patterns of use. The dark room space is more formal, used for presentations, demonstrations, green-screen work and light experiments. The timber structure around the dark room is designed to with exposed connections to show how it was assembled.

The STEM space will connect to the courtyard and the veggie garden, as well as into the classrooms to the north. STEM will not be a ‘special’ activity but a normal part of the school day, easily accessible and highly visible.

To visualise this project in 3D, click on the image below to jump into a panoramic 3D representation. Each label will take you to a different view.

 

If you have a smartphone and want a more immersive experience you can equip yourself with a viewer such as the google cardboard and rotate your phone to have the views formatted in stereoscopic.
Minister for Education, Dr. Susan Close, takes a virtual tour through Brompton Primary's new STEM facility
Minister for Education, Dr. Susan Close, takes a virtual tour through Brompton Primary’s new STEM facility

 

Brompton Primary School's Principal, Tina Treffers, with the Minister for Education, Dr. Susan Close, and students
Brompton Primary School’s Principal, Tina Treffers, with the Minister for Education, Dr. Susan Close, and students

 

Brompton Primary School - the "darkroom"
Brompton Primary School – the dark room

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“A highly complex three dimensional puzzle”

One of the issues that emerged at the recent Australian Institute of Architects Conference in Adelaide was that, as architects, we aren’t that good at describing the work that we do and the value of our particular skill set.

Design can be particularly hard to pin down – the design process varies a lot from person to person, and the results of that process are hard to evaluate with quantitative measures. It is a process that has many ‘right’ answers to the same question (demonstrated by the entries to any design competition).

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