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Brisbane's Carolyn McLean on small green spaces and evolutionary design

Carolyn McLean

By Willow Aliento

30 April 2014 — Former Woods Bagot partner Carolyn McLean has taken the plunge and set up her own independent architecture practice in Brisbane.

She told The Fifth Estate it had been a long-held ambition to go solo, and given the plethora of projects that have come her way since, she has every cause to be glad she made the leap of faith.

“I spent 14 years all up with Woods Bagot in Malaysia, Dubai, Sydney and Brisbane,” Ms McLean said. “The timing was right [to make the move] as I had just picked up my first independent commission, a house in Adelaide.”

Carolyn McLean Architecture has grown from there into a practice with 10 jobs on the books and a focus on residential and hospitality sector projects, including a resort on the Gold Coast, apartment projects and private homes.

The pre-games beautifying begins – with a green twist

In terms of how the Brisbane property sector is faring for new projects, Ms McLean said there is a “feeling things are starting to move”.

She has observed a heating up of activity in the hospitality sector ahead of the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, as motels, hotels and resorts refurbish accommodation; and she believes this urge to upgrade aesthetics will also stir up activity in the restaurant, cafe and retail sectors in Brisbane as well as on the Gold Coast.

For many undertaking upgrades, a sustainability upgrade in terms of energy efficiency is part of the package, with hot water system upgrades and installation of LEDs common measures.

“In many cases there is a pragmatic [energy cost] aspect to sustainability in refurbishments for clients,” Ms McLean noted.

The market gap – affordable liveable housing

Ms McLean said there is still a real lack of affordable housing in Brisbane, especially accessible affordable housing.

She is a strong advocate for the Livable Housing Australia design principles for accessible housing, and hopes that within the next few years all new housing will at least achieve 12 out of the 16 key principles (a Silver level), pointing out that the need for accessibility is not something confined to those with permanent disabilities.

“You can have a family of able-bodied people, and if one of them breaks a leg playing football, things like stairs and trip hazards will be an issue,” Ms McLean said.

Some of the principles she includes in designs include stubs for the installation of grab rails in bathrooms, level showers that are (she notes) easier to clean, straight stairs that suit the installation of stair-lifts if needed and wider door frames – which have the added benefit of improving ventilation and air flow.

Small is beautiful – and sustainable

“I am quite interested in small spaces and apartment design which is affordable and sustainable,” Ms McLean said.

In design terms, she translates those concepts into a focus on sustainable materials, smaller footprints and flexible spaces.

“In apartment developments the one-bedroom apartments are generally the poor cousins,” she said.

“The corner apartments are usually two-bedroom apartments, while the one-bedroom apartments are in the centre, and miss out on natural ventilation. I am interested in working with developers and clients to change that and develop a different product for the one bedders and smaller spaces, and to work with developers on apartments which are more sub-tropical in nature.”

Ms McLean is also a firm believer in specifying low-VOC paints and floor coverings for projects, and using innovative products including bamboo and low-e particle boards.

“The innovative companies have done the work testing products and have done the paperwork,” she said. “So it has become easier to source sustainable materials.”

Her ideas have been shaped by four years working as an architect in Malaysia, and six years in a design leadership role at Woods Bagot’s studio in Dubai, where she was a member of the Emirates Green Building Council. Some of the projects she worked on while in the UAE included Masdar HQ, Zero Carbon City, Dubai; Tritvam, a five-tower sustainable multi-residential project in Kerala, India; Bahrain City Centre; Badrah Community, a 577-hectare master-planned transit oriented and self-sustaining community on the Dubai waterfront; and Ramlat Juman Affordable Housing in Saudi Arabia.

Working with principles of orientation, shading and natural ventilation in a setting of such extreme heat is knowledge she now transfers into creating low-energy designs for Queensland’s steamy climate.

“There are way too many houses and apartments being built which are not taking the basic principles of passive design [including orientation and natural ventilation] into account,” Ms McLean said. “We need to start to build a different product.”

Evolving the apartment product

Some of the evolutionary concepts Ms McLean would like to incorporate into designs include movable walls that lift up from the floor level for small spaces, enabling a greater degree of indoor–outdoor flow. These kinds of concepts she believes are ideally suited for subtropical climates.

“We don’t think laterally enough about what can be done with walls,” she commented.

Transport is another aspect she is passionate about, envisioning a shared car system for apartments where a rental car company provides a small number of vehicles for an apartment project that residents can then rent by the hour when they need to.

“I have never owned a car myself,” she said. “When I need a car for a project I hire one by the day.”

Some of the advantages of this kind of innovation in terms of buildings themselves would include a dramatic reduction in the space required for allocated car parking, and a reduction in the need for mechanical ventilation to mitigate vehicle emissions.

“You could also add a little cafe to the [project], and then you have a development with more than just physical properties.”

Desert experience gives perspective on sun and water

Living and working in the Middle East gave Ms McLean an acute appreciation of the value of water conservation.

“In Dubai, water is a massive issue, and it really is even in Queensland. Two-thirds of the state is in drought, and when it floods, that water can’t be captured because it is polluted. There needs to be more council support for measures such as rainwater tanks. If we are not careful, we will need to look at desalination more, and the energy requirements for that are massive,” Ms McLean said.

“Having as much as you can in terms of energy and water onsite reduces infrastructure costs [for developments]. Governments should be keen to get as much of people’s energy and water at each site as possible.”

This includes, she said, support for solar power installations, citing the loss of the Queensland government solar incentives as “extremely disappointing”.

The opportunity of small footprints

Urban infill projects are another area Ms McLean believes offer many opportunities for the sustainable approach, especially in the context of the reduced support for urban expansion. The Brisbane City Council, she said, recently reduced the size requirement of blocks for urban infill projects.

“Designing for small spaces can also be influenced by boat design and being clever with compact spaces, which will at the end of the day produce smaller footprints with very comfortable living environments,” Ms McLean said.

 

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