Well-designed public buildings are sustainable buildings, and I’m not solely referring to this in an environmental sense. A growing trend coming out of this year’s Victorian Architecture Awards is that engendering positive social outcomes through architecture is increasingly important, especially when it comes to public spaces.

When we look at sustainability through a social lens this can be defined through the notion of “longevity”. Creating public architecture that motivates continuity and growth in its public users is imperative for sustainable built outcomes.

One clear and current example of this can be seen in higher education. The built learning environment must adjust alongside pressing technological trends in order to retain and build upon face-to-face social engagement of students. In doing so this ensures that students have a collaborative and engaging space to meet and learn resulting in a growing communal cohort.  

Bunjil Place 3 by John Gollings

How can it be achieved? It comes down to design resilience and proper consultation processes. Both architects and an ever better informed client sector now see the benefit of hosting extensive conversations and workshops prior to work commencing. Determining how spaces should be used, these processes are valuable to the design of quality architecture. Quick-fix solutions or less-than-rigorous design processes cost more in the long run, by creating expensive “white elephants” that do not reach the potential of their purpose.

The far-reaching contribution that public architecture makes to daily life has been one of the most significant themes to emerge from this year’s shortlist. Numerous projects have highlighted the importance of creating multiple or overlapping uses for each space. Monash University’s Learning and Teaching Building, designed by John Wardle Architects for the Clayton campus, is a great example. For the increasing proportion of international students, and those who might have a mix of online and classroom study, it’s critical to have a focal point for face-to-face interaction. As soon as you walk into the Monash building, it’s obvious the foyer is not only serving as an entrance to the space but it’s being activated by the students who are inhabiting it and using it as an informal learning space as well. It’s fully occupied and this “duality” that starts to exist is imperative.

RMIT New Academic Street by Peter Bennett N

The nurturing of a public realm within the education sector is something I’m particularly impressed by across this year’s shortlist. Lyons Architecture and their collaborators’

NAS) project for RMIT University shows how important it is to provide for culture and community as the architectural environment changes to meet new learning methods. RMIT has made its campus and brand identity synonymous with being at the heart of the city and the NAS project cements that. It provides a vertical campus that also activates surrounding streets and laneways. Its creation of covered arcades and laneways, while also providing retail space, student spaces and rooftop gardens, is an exciting example of permeable, multi-use public architecture.

Monash L+T Building by Trevor Mein

There’s something incredibly positive about seeing this kind of activation. Buildings benefit from being fully occupied providing varied spaces for traversing and passing through; pausing. As we see greater population density across our cities, space becomes an incredibly valuable commodity – not only from an economic perspective, but also for the relationship it has with those who are interacting with it. The value a space contributes to users can be just as, or more, important than the value it holds as real estate.

The public realm is about social connection.Providing a conduit for people to interact is incredibly importantwhen it comes to strategic and effective urban planning. Architecture and design’s public sphere nurtures communal responsibility and a civic dimension that makes a city more than form making. The role of buildings, parks and urban design, all of the conditions in the public realm, are really important for building community and a sense of belonging.

Bunjil Place, designed by architects fjmt, is the perfect example of a new form of community and civic building fulfilling these needs. It incorporates a library, theatre, function centre and a multipurpose studio, an art gallery and the City of Casey customer service centre, all in the one building. It’s designed as an inclusive, hybrid form of public building, reflecting and embracing the diversity of its community. It’s a good example of the kind of democratisation of buildings’ usages that we can see emerge from robust community consultation processes.

Similarly, Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library is much more than a library. Designed by GroupGSA, Bargoonga Nganjin – which, appropriately, means “gather everybody” in Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri people – is a 6 Star Green Star building that is home to a library, maternal child health service, playgroup spaces, the customer service centre for the City of Yarra, community meeting rooms, an exhibition space and a spectacular rooftop garden.

North Fitzroy Library by Tom Hutton

Designed to provide a suite of services for people of all ages, from newborns to seniors, the building is intended to support the wellbeing of its community for decades to come.

For me, this is the next phase of sustainability. As well as aspiring to the highest standards of environmental sustainability, let’s also build in design processes that consider the role of people and how they bring buildings to life.

As architects we are building for people. The instigation of building sustainable communities is an imperative condition for successful architectural and urban planning outcomes.

Amy Muir is director of the Melbourne-based architecture practice, MUIR, and was elected as Victoria’s fourth female chapter president in February 2018.