Peter Poulet on the new role of the architect

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Peter Poulet likes to think of architects as Renaissance professionals, “people who think deeply and widely”, finding inspiration in all kinds of disciplines, from sister fields such as engineering and design, to life sciences and the arts.

In his new role as Western Sydney University’s first professor of practice for architecture, Poulet tells his students that studying architecture is about asking the how and why, about collaboration and about taking a cross-disciplinary approach to projects.

“Collaboration has always mattered,” says the former New South Wales Government Architect, who has also served as a central city district commissioner for the Greater Sydney Commission. 

“But it is more obvious now than ever that the architect can’t make a building on their own,” he says. 

Architects can’t ignore the fact that buildings and their occupants account for about 25 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“We are trying to teach that as the very DNA of the [architecture] course… for students to think about design in the first instance as a collaborative process with an open-ended question: What are we trying to achieve? What are other people’s agendas? It doesn’t matter where you get your point of reference from.”

“Was this the thinking 20 years ago? No. The architect was still the solitary male hero doing everything himself and imposing his will on others. Those days are gone.”

And although Poulet doesn’t think architects behave like that today, he wants to strengthen and broaden that collaborative approach. 

More than just design

Launched this year as part of WSU’s new school of the built environment, the architecture program centres on urban transformation of contemporary cities, preparing architects for global employment by developing their technological and intellectual skills so they can create sustainable, resilient, and well-designed environments.

Peter Poulet speaking on the Tomorrowland19 panel about the future of design and construction.

The students will focus not just on the design of buildings, but also on how building materials are procured, how construction projects are financed, how they sit within cities, and how they can be built sustainably in terms of materials, technology and manufacturing.

The new school comes at a time when the construction industry is being called upon to do much more to curb its contribution to climate change. Poulet says architects can’t ignore the fact that buildings and their occupants account for about 25 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“That is pretty dreadful and architects do have to take some responsibility for that,” he says.

The industry that hasn’t reformed since the 18th century, is motivated by profit and self interest and not understanding it’s building for cities and for people.

Ideally, all architects would be designing zero carbon buildings and while there is a lot of progress at the top end of town, consumers need to drive demand for greener buildings in the mass market.

Rethinking housing’s role in society

That might only come about, says Poulet, if there is a major change in attitude across society about housing.

He says we need to ask whether housing is a luxury or a human right. Instead of viewing housing as a tradeable commodity, we should take inspiration from Europe where housing is much more affordable, and where there are stable, long-term rental markets. 

“Architects need to be well aware of these things, that this is the world we play in.”

He has some sympathy for consumers who are offered little choice or variety when it comes to housing stock. Much of the mass market, and especially small construction companies and independent builders, give little or no thought to sustainability.

“I blame an industry that hasn’t reformed since the 18th century and an industry that is motivated by profit and self interest and not understanding they’re building for cities and for people.

“The easy answer is to legislate to prevent that behaviour but it’s more a cultural shift in education [that’s needed],” he says.

“It’s hard to compete with the guy with a dog on his ute who gets his materials at Bunnings.”

There is very little pre-fabrication of housing components in Australia, for example, even though offsite manufacturing could drive down financial and carbon costs, improve efficiency and worker safety, and reduce onsite waste.

The “Tind” house, designed by architects Claesson Koivisto Rune in 2013 for Swedish prefabricated house builder Fiskarhedenvillan (Fiskarhedenvillan) © GCR

Pre-fabrication is commonplace in Europe. About 84 per cent of detached houses in Sweden use prefabricated timber elements. But in developed economies such as the US, Australia and the UK, it is estimated no more than five per cent of permanent housing has any significant prefabrication.

With many consumers favouring small builders, Australia won’t be seeing any of those fantastic prefabricated European housing components advertised on Grand Designs anytime soon, says Poulet.

“It’s hard to compete with the guy with a dog on his ute who gets his materials at Bunnings.”

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