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Allen Jack+Cottier– how one architectural practice blends the pragmatic and artistic

Concept plan for Macquarie centre, Sydney
Concept plan for Macquarie centre, Sydney

Architect Michael Heenan, co-principal of Allen Jack+Cottier says he and his team saw the change in market demand for residential property coming a few years ago, and carefully adjusted their strategy to prepare.

“The resi sector went quite soft at the end of last year and into the early part of this year but then it steadied off,” he told The Fifth Estate this week.

Partly, this is the result of the relatively recent shift in demand to less detached housing and more medium to high rise projects, which are more complex and take longer to deliver, so provide longer lasting work.

It’s the kind of structural adjustment that will see the sector in both NSW and Victoria fare better in the downturn this time round, Heenan reckons.

The trend was evident “particularly in NSW where demand for higher density has overtaken that of detached houses, which take longer to deliver,” Heenan said.

“So I think the build out will still go on for another two to three years.”

New approvals will soften but the construction and architectural sector will continue to be in demand.

For now, there was also no sign that population growth would suddenly evaporate. So demand for housing will likely continue. Building suppliers certainly weren’t expecting demand to plummet, he said.

According to Heenan he and his team forecast a few years ago that the resi boom would end and that the studio’s weighting towards residential needed to be rebalanced.

“Maybe three years ago, we were at 65 per cent residential and we said we want to be less than half residential and more than half mixed use and with more education and cultural buildings.”

The result of that forward planning has been “remarkably successful”, he said.

“We’ve done exactly what we set out to do; we’re a lot more diverse.”

The studio now has half its work in resi and is handling “five or six” of the major new schools in the city and some other “very interesting projects” including a lot of urban design.

Western Sydney is the big game in town now

There was another change. The practice alighted on Western Sydney in a big way, with work fuelled by the huge infrastructure projects in the west.

Sydney’s Metro West was “a game changer”, he said, so too Western Sydney Airport, the two Parramatta light rails, and the Moorebank Intermodal Terminal – 10 major projects in all, if you look at the broader Sydney (“don’t mention WestConnex and the Allianz Stadium”).

“At one stage last year we had 12 major jobs in Parramatta.” Heenan suspects he’ll need an office there soon. Probably it’s inevitable. The firm is involved in four of the biggest projects at Parramatta, with up to 5000 apartments, “close to the harbour” (Parramatta River).

One client had 100 hectares to be developed and another has 300 hectares.

These combined projects will continue propping up demand for labour and essential services and housing. “The government is spending money in infrastructure and that should be the start of creating a city.

“So, I don’t think NSW is going to plummet.”

Right now the studio is growing. “We’ve been advertising for five architects for the past year.”

But these days it’s been strictly a Sydney story.

Before the GFC, Heenan had offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Ho Chi Minh City,  Kuala Lumpur, Brisbane and Perth. “We took everything back to Sydney when the GFC hit.”

It was a good move. The company was at around 100 then, pared down to 50 and is now back to 85.

“We’re very careful these days. We know things are coming off a bit but it’s slowing down off the edge of a plateau, not down the end of a cliff.”

The diversification has helped hugely.

In other parts of the profession some architects who have been “entirely focused” on a particular part of the market or have been locked into big projects now nearing completion will probably find themselves more vulnerable and starting to suffer, Heenan says.

But the biggest change for the studio now is a new filter system designed to weed out clients it doesn’t want to work with, such as those who won’t permit great buildings. Or who aren’t nice to work with.

“If it’s not going to result in excellence, in particular, and if they’re not lovely to work with, we say no.”

AJ+C Judith Poole sports hall

AJ+C incorporated an ecologically sustainable design for the Judith Poole sports hall and sports field. Photo: Tyrone Branigan

On sustainability, he says, the market has shifted significantly.

“Good sustainability is just an accepted part of our business and clients will often go beyond government requirements or take on their own requirements and understand the implications of sustainability from a mechanical and cultural point of view.”

Schools, unfortunately, don’t fit into that bill.

They are generally across it in their curriculum, but not always in the way it can be part of the physical structure, he says.

“The commercial office sector has been the strongest.”

At the top end of residential the message is seeping through but the middle rise market “still has no idea.”

Michael Heenan, Allen Jack+Cottier

Michael Heenan, Allen Jack+Cottier

A particular struggle with clients and local government, he says, is trying to convince them of the changes coming in transport – that we won’t need as many car parks, nor such wide roads.

“We’re pushing and pushing but getting almost nowhere.”

Another big change is to make apartments more child friendly.

After all these pragmatic elements, the strategy, the research and understanding of the market, getting the sustainability perfect and the economics, only then does his studio allow itself to focus on “the art and the poetry” of design.

After embedding a solid foundation and structure, he says, “hopefully what comes out of this is a much higher level of understanding of architecture and the work we do. Then you can get poetic and artistic.”

The proof is in the pudding. AJ+C studio won the top award out of 1100 entries in the World Architecture Festival recently plus a swag of other awards in the festival and the World Architecture News awards for projects such as the reference design for the Sydney Fish Markets and an indoor sports building at Abbotsleigh School in Wahroonga.

Heenan has also been seconded as judge and juror in the World Architecture Festival from 2010 to 2018.

Given his understanding of how to negotiate the various elements in this most complex of professions, you guess he’s counting on seeing out a few more competitions yet.

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