Adapting design in a tight market

Source: Business News

Architects and interior designers are adjusting their approach in response to the unstable construction environment.

THE flow-on effects of the state’s overheated construction market are being felt across every facet of the industry.

And architecture and interior design businesses are no exception.

To deal with the challenges, those sectors have adapted to the changing nature of the market as developers, landlords and builders look to take on less risk.

One strategy has been a shift towards repositioning existing buildings – stemming from a need to upgrade assets in a more cost-effective way and the global push for sustainability – which has gained traction in the past 12 months.

As a result, designers and architects working on interior projects are experiencing a busy period.

A lull in activity in the apartment market has resulted in some designers aligning their focus elsewhere as activity normalises.

It is a different story for MJA Studio, however.

The Subiaco-based architecture firm has emerged as a dominant player in the apartment space, designing three major Western Australian apartment projects that started construction last year.

Celsius Property Group’s $60 million Elysian project in Subiaco, Erben’s $32 million Jolimont development Florin, and ADC_’s $40 million Freeman Residences in North Fremantle were designed by the practice.

Construction work is ongoing at each project after breaking ground in 2022.

Additionally, MJA Studio designed Blackburne’s $350 million western suburbs development The Grove, which began construction in 2021, and Hesperia’s recently completed Victoria House apartments.

As the practice’s design director, Jimmy Thompson said making developments stack up in this environment required negotiation between all parties.

“The past 12 months have been really hard to get projects off the ground, but it’s around collaboration with contractor clients,” Mr Thompson told Business News.

“[It’s about] understanding how you can make buildings get to a price point that’s achievable but the feasibility can stack up.

“It’s a lot of back and forth [and] a lot about understanding or thinking about ways to do things differently, what innovation can you bring into it.” Different ways to approach or procure materials for a project was an example of innovation Mr Thompson highlighted. “It’s a lot of to and fro, there’s no magic bullet,” he said. “It’s sort of chipping away at it and trying to find solutions.” Another MJA Studio project is Mustera Property Group’s 13-storey apartment tower Forbes Residences in Applecross, which is due for completion later this year.

The $90 million development, designed with Singapore-based architects WOHA, was developed with a green plot ratio of more than one-to-one, which means the vegetated areas in and around the building will exceed the total site area.

A Perth first, this is being achieved through a series of sky gardens, green walls, green roofs and landscaped areas.

The project is targeting a five-star green-star rating, which has been accomplished at Hesperia’s Victoria House.

Another commonality between these two projects is the collaboration of multiple architecture firms, which Mr Thompson saw as a recent trend for the industry.

MJA Studio, which has remained in fifth spot on Data & Insights’ architects list (see page 33), designed Victoria House with Maylands studio Finespun and Subiaco’s Palassis.

“More and more in Perth we’re seeing large-scale projects [with] multiple architects involved,” Mr Thompson said.

“I think that spirit of collaboration is a really great thing.”

Green focus

The role of designers in adding to projects’ sustainability credentials is well established and has only intensified during the past 12 months.

As Australian Institute of Architects WA president Sandy Anghie explained, the importance of sustainability as a key element of design was made clear at this year’s architecture awards.

“What we are doing with the awards is judging sustainability across every category,” Ms Anghie said.

“You can’t have design excellence if a building is not sustainable.”

She added that the property industry accounted for close to 40 per cent of global carbon emissions, meaning it had a responsibility to find ways to reduce its impact.

For Mr Thompson, a shift to greater market acceptance of sustainability has occurred during the past decade.

“Elements of sustainability, which we used to fight really hard to get into projects, are now accepted norms,” he said.

Mr Thompson said much of this change had been driven by apartment buyers’ willingness to ask questions around a project’s design, its reliance on mechanical heating and cooling, access to natural light ventilation, electric vehicle charging and solar panels, and embedded energy networks.

And despite the cost pressures developers are facing, sustainability was at the forefront of design.

“Everything at the moment is under pressure,” Mr Thompson said.

“We’ve seen huge escalation in building costs … so there’s pressure across the board.

“But it comes back to if it’s important for the buying markets, then it becomes important for developers.”

Embedding sustainability in design was also key to gaining development approval amid the state’s incentive-based planning system, he said.

“If you’re asking for discretion on height, yield or plot ratio, you need to have a strong sustainability story to justify that planning discretion,” Mr Thompson said.

“Elements of sustainability, which we used to fight really hard to get into projects, are now accepted norms
– Jimmy Thompson

Global architecture firm Hassell has experienced an uptick in adaptive reuse projects, where existing buildings are repurposed.

The Perth firm’s work on the $53 million vertical campus at St George’s Anglican Grammar School in the CBD exemplifies this trend.

The Murray Street development, approved by the City of Perth in April, involves the transformation of an existing office building into a school.

Hassell senior associate Yong Lee said the move towards repurposing assets was a theme across many of the firm’s projects.

“We are working on a lot of adaptive reuse projects,” he said.

“I think [there’s been a] shift in thinking about shiny new buildings. There’s definitely been a refocus, given the market factors at play.

“That’s forced clients to … look in a different direction through existing building stock, and also with that sharp focus now on sustainability, which is really at the forefront of the wider industry’s thinking.”

Mr Lee added that he had noticed a greater awareness of what it meant to be sustainable among developers and consumers.

“It’s not just PVs on a roof, it’s a more holistic picture,” he said.

“There’s definitely a wider awareness both in the public and also with our clients … it’s definitely been more prevalent in early conversations of design and what and how that might be embodied within a particular project.”


Multinational architecture firm Woods Bagot is also focusing on upgrading existing buildings, including Central Park, anchored by Rio Tinto, on St Georges Terrace.

Woods Bagot has delivered upgrades to the ground floor lobby and end-of-trip facilities at the 51-storey office tower in recent years.

For the firm, repositioning assets has provided a steady stream of work.

Woods Bagot principal Kukame McPierzie said building owners and operators were looking to set themselves apart.

“[We are designing] at least four projects up and down the terrace, and they are not trying to be the same,” he said.

“They are all trying to find [their] special sauce, their point of difference.

“People have realised it’s not just about an office, it’s [about] wanting to represent something, to be part of a community.”

The studio, which moved from eighth to 15th on Data & Insights’ architecture list, and from first to third on the interior designers list this year, recently designed new offices for accounting company BDO and property developer Blackburne.

Mr McPierzie said the BDO offices, which were complete last year, reflected a move towards an open-plan workplace.

“It was about shifting their way of working from cellular offices to a more collaborative environment,” he said.

For Blackburne’s new offices, at its $300 million One Subiaco development, the design represented an identity shift for the company.

“For [Blackburne] it was about how they could create a workplace that represents who they are; it feels residential,” Mr McPierzie told Business News.

“It’s about who they are as a brand, and that’s what’s bringing people back together.

“It’s less emphasis on spacing and masks and all the things you think would be post-COVID, [but] more about how to support people coming together.”

Hames Sharley, which moved into top position on Data & Insights’ architecture list this year from second place previously, recently repositioned its workplace division to its interior design division.

Business News understands the move resulted in the firm’s head of workplace being made redundant.

A spokesperson said the change “reflected the criticality of creating inclusive, well-connected and sustainable internal spaces”.

The firm, which has offices in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Darwin, recently completed Curtin University’s new TL Robertson Library.

Hames Sharley said the building was “designed to go beyond the traditional function of book preservation, to facilitate connection and cross-pollination of ideas.”

Thriving sectors

Woods Bagot added to its stable of hospitality projects during the past 12 months with the restoration of the Bassendean Hotel.

Its fifth project for ARK Group, which sold most of its venues (including the Bassendean Hotel) to Australian Venue Co in mid-2022, the refurbishment reflected the will of the community, according to Mr McPierzie.

“Hospitality has been one of our strongest sectors for a while in Perth,” he said.

“It is about community, place [and] existing buildings.

“The Basso [Bassendean] is a really thriving community asset in the heart of town.

“Refurbishing that … we had a whole design narrative that looked at community history and sort of brought that to life.”

Mr McPierzie said the Bassendean project was a case of a client understanding a building’s potential and wanting to redesign it in a way that helped it reach that potential.

“Where a client says ‘we’ve got this great asset … I want it to be really good’, they’re the projects we jump at,” he said.

“I think there’s genuinely this push now [that] good design is not an optional thing; the community expects it, asset owners and clients expect it.

“We see this shift in Perth that ordinary is not okay anymore.”

Mr McPierzie said the multiresidential market was struggling in the current economic climate, but strong demand meant it would rebound.

“Our strongest sectors over the last few years and looking ahead are interiors, education and science,” he said.

The practice is also designing a $6.5 million Sporting Globe Bar & Grill at the site of the former Fremantle Hungry Jack’s, for Signature Hospitality Group.

Elsewhere, the state government’s $9 billion Metronet project has made transport a strong space for designers over the past few years.

MJA Studio has also worked on hospitality projects recently, including Dandelion in Karrinyup.

Mr Thompson said that, given the cyclical nature of the residential market, it was wise to diversify.

A majority of MJA Studio’s projects are in Perth, but the firm also has a Melbourne practice.

Early talks

The construction industry’s move towards an early contractor involvement model has also occurred at a design level.

As Hassell’s Yong Lee explained, this method of working helps limit exposure to risk.

“We are finding that we are getting involved more and more [in the ECI model], particularly if it’s a project of a certain scale,” he said.

“It helps to de-risk the process, getting the builder involved early, particularly with the market volatility and prices going north.

“It is definitely something clients are embedding in their procurement models now.”

For Mr McPierzie, this approach works well when a builder genuinely commits to providing early input on specific parts of a project very early in a design.

“Where you’ve got genuine engagement by a builder there’s an incentive then to do it properly, to do it well,” Mr McPierzie said.

“[But they have to] be providing timely input to the design on big-ticket items early enough in the process.

“There has to be an incentive. The builder needs to know that if they’re putting all this intelligence into that process they’re a chance of getting the job, or they will get the job.”

He said clients were increasingly keen to speak with architects at earlier stages than in the past, which reflected a growing interest in design.

“We find a lot of clients ask us for early advice these days … probably because design is more valued now than it once was,” Mr McPierzie said.

“We are in the conversation earlier.”