Council Election Special: Q+A with Councillor Rohan Leppert

In many ways it is the local council level of government which has the most profound impact on our built environment. In most cases they are the first line of decision making for buildings seeking planning approval and they also have a very significant role to play in the formation of local planning strategies and regulations. Right now the 79 local governments across Victoria are in election mode, with the postal ballots being accepted until Friday 21 October.

In this election special, The Red+Black Architect spoke exclusively with Councilor Rohan Leppert from the Melbourne City Council. Rohan is one of very few councilors across the state with any formal training in planning or architecture.

Red+Black Architect –  You’re currently studying a masters of urban planning and environment. How has this influenced your decision making process when considering planning applications?

Cr Rohan Leppert – It’s a really good question. I’m only half way through the degree which is quite theoretical and I’ve not had to do too much technical work yet. To be perfectly honest, the work I’ve been doing at council has been influencing my work in uni much more so than the other way round. It’s good, I appreciate having a much more solid understanding of the history of planning in Victoria to when I’m applying my role as a decision maker on planning applications and planning scheme amendments at the city of Melbourne. In many ways, I think it improves the quality of my work at the city of Melbourne. I’m in a very fortunate position.

CR Rohan Leppert

CR Rohan Leppert

R+BA – From what you’ve seen of how the council operates and the various councillors, how they vote and questions they ask. Do you think that the other councillors have a genuine understanding of what they’re deciding upon or it is very much a case that they’re relying on their officers to sort of hold their hands through the process?

Cr RL – Well there are eleven councillors and I think it’s fair to say there are eleven different understandings of the role of a councillor. That’s natural and inevitable. Well before I went back to do more study in this area, I’ve been on the public record being quite critical of the lack of training available to councillors at the beginning of a term. Because roughly half of all matters considered by council are technical planning matters and none of us have any training whatsoever upfront.

I think that’s inadequate for somewhere like the city Melbourne, which is growing at break neck speeds at the moment and which has one of the most complicated sets of different planning controls across different areas of most councils. I also think it’s too easy for councillors to throw their hands up in the air and say that their role isn’t to judge the quality of planning applications. It’s either to say, we’re not qualified, therefore we must always vote the way offices tells us to. The logical extension that argument is why get elected in the first place. Or in the worst cases, and there is maybe a couple of councillors on this council that do this, they believe their role is to vote based on the quantity of objections and so it’s gut feeling whether they like it or not. It’s a gut feeling whether there is community opposition to an application or not but as we know that’s not the way planning rules work. The council is meant to take a much more legally pure approach and decide whether or not an application complies with the scheme. Not decide whether or not the application complies with their gut feeling. This is a problem for all councillors at all times but we often have quite a few messy debates at the city of Melbourne because we all have different understanding of what our role is.

Of course I would say this, but I believe I have a much more correct understanding of what our role is than others do, but all councillors will say that!

R+BA – How would you rate the Melbourne City Council’s performance over the term?

Cr RL – What we’ve done this term is automatically consider all ministerial applications for towers above twenty-five thousand square meters in floor area. That has changed the quality of the public debate around what constitutes good planning in the central city. It has forced the minister’s hand on quite a few occasions and it’s pressured the minister to be more publicly accountable for the decisions that he makes. Whether that was Matthew Guy or now Richard Wynne. The council has definitely this term improved the quality of debate around central city planning and that alone deserves a tick I think.

The other side of that same issue is the fact that, because we consider so many large applications in public, I think this council is very bad at switching over to considering small applications in ResCode areas for example. Far too often I think some of our councillors particularly those who might not live inside the municipality – and we’re unique in being the only council Australia where a majority of councillors don’t live in the municipality – don’t know how to deal with issues surrounding smaller residential zone applications. So a bit of mixed report card from me.

We’ve improved the quality of debate around ministerial applications but we still make a mess far too often of the residential design applications.

R+BA – Perhaps the most contentious CBD shaping projects of the Melbourne city council at the moment is the redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Market. What is your take on what has been proposed and the process to get to the proposal?

Cr RL – There are lot of aspects of the Queen Victoria Market renewal that I strongly support including upgrading the car park to a new central city park for tens and thousands of new residents to enjoy. We need hot running water and a refurbishment of the bathrooms and the public amenities and the pedestrian areas and just the streetscapes generally to the Queen Victoria Market. All of these things are important, overdue, excellent things to do. There is still a very valid public debate over the extent which underground services are needed and council needs to do much more work to demonstrate what that need is.

There is more work to be done on being transparent about what the global budget for the whole renewal program is and what its component parts are going to be spent on. The biggest thing, I’ll certainly be continuing to advocate strongly for, is to improve the governance of the Queen Victoria Market, which is now quite outdated. The constitution which is a couple of decades old now, has one remit for the board and management and that is to drive a profit and return it to council. Now, the markets are a lot more than that and the management of the market now really answerable to both the board and the council in a way because the council is leading the renewal and that’s forcing the boards hand on a lot of its operational decisions because they have to anticipate that renewal. I think it’s time for a governance overhaul of the Queen Victoria Market and that’s going to be important now during the renewal, not afterwards, because the governance structures are very out of date and probably aren’t serving the market and the people of Melbourne as best they could.

R+BA – Do you think there is enough support of the existing businesses to continue to operate during this sort of uncertainty or down the track when there is construction work to make sure that the long serving businesses survive the disruption.

Cr RL – Well I absolutely don’t think that there was enough but last month at council, I moved a motion to establish a compensation fund for all traders. All traders who aren’t on perpetual licenses have now been given a five year certainty through the life of the renewal to know that they will be trading throughout, but what they hadn’t been given was an insurance that they won’t be worse off if they take that five year license. I’ve established a compensation fund by forgoing the license fees that come from Queen Victoria Management to the council which I want to be passed on as fee relief to the traders.

Any trader who can demonstrate that they’re worse off as a result of the renewal, we will make a proportional cut of their license fees. I think that’s only fair because what is happening here is going to be very disruptive. The end result is promised to be a vast improvement and I’m going to work very hard to make sure that is the case. In the meantime, we have to be scrupulously fair and supportive of the traders who are the lifeblood of the market and have been for generations.

R+BA – What are your thoughts on the state government’s draft apartment standards?

Cr RL – We considered this at council recently as well. Look, it’s a strange one. The apartment guidelines have been such a long time coming and obviously Mathew Guy went through a couple of rounds of work on this and then there was a big pause with the change of government and then it was promised to come back soon. In one sense, these are years too late. In another sense, what’s been released now seems to be quite rushed and incomplete. I’m quite critical that the draft standards have been released but the draft objectives haven’t been released alongside them. If we’re looking at a performance based regime, a ResCode style regime for apartment standards, then the state government should be consulting on that comprehensively.

It’s all very well to say here are the draft standards but if you don’t know what the objectives are then you don’t have the complete picture. There are also quite a few issues that I know are going to be picked up in this consultation round. For example the standards about the dimensions of rooms may be causing knock-on issues. This has all been in the public realm. I’m very nervous about what we’re going to be saying with more and more tiny living areas because there are no standards around minimum dimensions and sizes for living areas but there are around bedrooms.

While the bedrooms might be getting a higher quality, are the living rooms going to become lower quality? All of these issues need to be properly tested and to be frank, we’re a long way from something that I’m confident will be improving the quality of apartments in Melbourne.

R+BA – Wouldn’t that be the role of a draft document, to have that discussion early rather than to lump it together as the final release?

Cr RL – That’s right but my understanding is that the final is going to be released in conjunction with the final central city built form review controls. That suggests to me that the complete apartment guidelines planning controls won’t be consulted on. We’re just looking at the early draft standards only now and it may be that there is no consultation on the complete picture before they’re gazetted in December. I don’t know the answer to that question but there is still a little way to go.

R+BA – What project or precinct do you consider to be the most vital to get right for Melbourne’s future? Or to put it in another way, in hypothetical question. If you can instantly fix one precinct or build one piece of infrastructure for Melbourne, what would it be?

Cr RL – I’m strong supporter of the Metro and I think that’s going to be a complete game changer for transport in Melbourne but that’s a very standard answer that you’re going to hear from many people. If I could wave my magic ward, I would go back in time and stop Matthew Guy from rezoning all of Fishermans Bend to capital city zone overnight. We’ve now got a Labor government who have inherited that problem and has pretty much decided that it’s too complicated and too great an infringement on property rights to reverse that decision now. We’re in this ludicrous space where they’ve released a draft vision framework for Fishermans Bend which talks about what land uses they want in each of these precincts, but they know full well that they have a capital city zone which allows most land uses as of right.

So they’re looking at financial incentives to encourage apartments in some areas but not others, offices in some areas but not others, artist live-work spaces in some areas but not others. We’re now looking at a situation in Victoria where we’re ‘post–zoning’ in terms of how we’re going to be generating and incentivizing land use. That’s quite dangerous. It’s relinquishing government’s role in regulating good public outcomes and it’s embracing this very unpredictable, very neo-liberal space which I’m utterly nervous about. I think that the Labor government is not averting the disaster in Fishermans Bend that Mathew Guy created and that’s very scary.

R+BA – What’s on your agenda if you’re re-elected for another term?

Cr RL – A lot of things. We released a twenty-six page policy platform. It’s always the way that the Greens are very policy heavy in the context of elections. I would like to refocus council attention on the affordability crisis in housing in the central city. As you may know the offices have worked for years and years preparing a housing strategy for the city of Melbourne which at five minutes to midnight, a majority of council decided they did not want to include any planning controls for affordable housing quotas in urban renewal areas. That was devastating. It means that after all of that work, council does not have a policy on how it is going to drive affordability in urban renewal areas or anywhere in the city other than a few individual sites that it happens to own.

Council squibbed it and the planning minister also squibbed it. He went with an election promise of introducing inclusionary zoning in some areas, we’ve heard nothing more of that in two years now. The council and state government must start addressing this issue. I know it’s very much a state government issue as well and state government needs to build more public housing, it needs to introduce more planning controls to force a higher quality apartments and more affordable apartments. Council can play leading role on that as well and it completely squandered that role in this term and we need a bit more of a shift and the balance of votes on council to be perfectly honest to make a different in the next term. Housing affordability is a huge emphasis for me going forward.

R+BA – What is your view of developer donations to candidates? Would outlawing this practice, banning developer contributions, will that push it underground in the sense that it will be invisible to scrutiny . For example, many developers are sort of the ‘mom and the dad’ kind of developers who are not huge players in town, but they do projects all the same.  They are somewhat anonymous and so if they donate via their personal name, how would you know if they’re a developer or not?

Cr RL – That’s absolutely right. I believe that developer donations are a form of soft corruption at least and must be abolished but how you define ‘developer’ is the crux of the matter. In New South Wales where donations from developers have been banned, there has not been enough work been done to be define in the legislation what that actually means. Luckily though in New South Wales they’ve got ICAC which is a strong anti-corruption body which can weed out the behind-the-scenes, getting-around-the-law activities that have gone on in that state.

For example in Victoria, if we were to introduce the New South Wales model of banning developer donations, I don’t think our IBAC is strong enough to do what ICAC does. You can’t just copy what they have done in New South Wales. We need a very strong definition around which class of persons and organizations may not make a donation, and mechanisms to stop the transfer funds via a third party as well. However the principle is absolutely the right one. That councils which deal so often in making assessments of whether or not development should go ahead, must not ever be influenced. The constituent members, the councillors, must not ever be influenced by donations from developers.

It just makes the work of council grind to a halt if we lose quorum as we’ve done at this term of council here. Just as badly, the perception in the public that council cannot act in the public interest is utterly, utterly damaging and it loses all the good will that there might be for council to plan new planning rules and to plan new communities. It just puts this big question mark over everything we do and that’s just so lamentable. Especially for those of us who have vowed to never ever, ever take a donation from any developer, and of course the Greens never will.

R+BA – Recently Sydney had their local council elections and there was a bit of controversy around the state government introducing new rules around how businesses could vote and so forth. Despite all that, the siting Mayor, Clover Moore was re-elected by an even stronger margin. Is there any lessons to be learnt from that context or is Melbourne in completely different bubble?

Cr RL – There are similarities but there are quite a few differences as well. The law change in Sydney recently was just about compulsorily enrolling businesses and giving them all two votes. That was the only bit of the legislation. It was much easier to galvanize opposition around because it was quite clear that that legislation was introduced for one reason only, and that was to knock off the incumbent Lord Mayor.

In Melbourne, we’ve got this system in place already but it came into effect as part of an omnibus package with the 2001 City of Melbourne Act introduced by the Labor Government. Jeff Kennett introduced two votes for businesses in the 1990s but it wasn’t until the omnibus City of Melbourne Act in 2001 was introduced that the sweeping changes in all aspects of City of Melbourne Elections were introduced.

There wasn’t the opportunity there for the public to galvanize around those changes because they were part of a more comprehensive suite of changes and it also wasn’t about getting rid of an incumbent because immediately before the act was introduced we’d had administrators at the City of Melbourne. Of course all local residents are always happy to get rid of the administrators! There hasn’t ever been the outrage in Melbourne that there has been in Sydney and yet our electoral system is much worse. Non-residents make up sixty percent of the residential role here whereas in Sydney, the residential role is still the vast majority of the role.

Because of that set of circumstances we’ve never had the public outrage that we’ve seen in Sydney recently. Which is a shame because the Melbourne electoral system is fundamentally a system that enfranchises money, it’s the most male electoral roll in the country, it’s the most wealthy electoral roll in the country and as I said earlier, it’s the only council in the country where majority of the councillors live outside the municipality. Now all of these things really deflect the purpose of local government I think. It removes council from the day to day work of the community to too great an extent.

It’s a strange situation. We’ve got a much worse situation than Sydney does at the moment and yet we’ve got less of the outrage because of the particular ways that both systems were formed. That’s the system we all have to work in.

R+BA – Thank you very much for your time.


Voting for local council elections close on Friday 21 October 2016, make sure you have your say.


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Q+A with Vanessa Bird, Victorian President of the Australian Institute of Architects

Whilst there has been substantial publicity and commentary around Victoria’s proposed apartment standards, the Central City Planning Provisions, Melbourne Amendment C270 have been quietly progressing. Recently Vanessa Bird, the Victorian President of the Australian Institute of Architects, took some time to answer a few questions about this proposed planning amendment  as well as the institutes wider advocacy agenda


Vanessa Bird, Victorian President of the AIA (photo credit: Dianna Snape)


Red+Black Architect – For those who haven’t been following this process, what is the Central City Planning Provisions amendment about, and what is at stake?

Vanessa Bird – Amendment C270 proposes changes to existing provisions within the Hoddle Grid and Southbank. The stated aim is to protect the liveability of the city by ensuring the provision of space around tall buildings, protect important public spaces from overshadowing, including the Yarra River, and establish floor area ratios for new developments. Developments which exceed the base floor area ratio will be matched by public benefits such as on-site public open space and laneways, or social housing within the development. No maximum height limit is proposed except for identified special character areas. A floor area ratio of 18:1 Is proposed with uplift bonuses available for the provision of public benefits.

R+BA – As Victorian President you have been leading the AIA’s response to this process. What outcomes are you hoping to achieve?

VB – The AIA aims to shift the discussion towards mechanisms that reward design excellence. We have a role to play as the ‘critical friend’ to government – as NSW President Shaun Carter put it – advocating for good planning and excellent design outcomes. This means we can be supportive but ask provocative questions as an advocate for the success of C270.

In August the Institute presented on C270 at a Planning Panel hearing. The presentation focused on 2 key points. The first being that design excellence is a key pillar of any good planning outcome and should be rewarded. A well designed city needs both good built form outcomes and good design outcomes, and the two are not mutually inclusive. The current C270 does not place any weight on design excellence. We argued that good design is critical to good city outcomes and should not be separated from planning. To achieve this end, we have proposed a Design Review Panel for any project over 18:1 or to provide significant Floor Area Uplift for projects that gain permits through a DRP process. We acknowledge that a DRP process by its very nature will be a more time consuming
process, which is critical in achieving a good design outcome. Lack of time is not the friend of good design. Given this, the developer should be rewarded with significant uplift benefits for embarking on this process as it will cost more money, and may result in a more expensive building, while producing greater long-term benefits to society. In addition, an independent architect should be mandatory on all projects over 18:1. Any project over 18:1 is of significance and as such design should be considered paramount.

The second part of the presentation focused on expanding the definition and scope of Floor Area Uplift for Public Benefits. We support Public Benefits which improve the quality of the public realm and architecture, of the diversity and accessibility of the city, and which allow architects to design innovatively to create a memorable and sustainable built environment. The definition of Public Benefits should be expanded to include, Sustainable Design, works to Heritage Buildings, Innovation, Social Use / Mixed Use. Precinct-based benefits were proposed – meaning off site benefits – and point to the need for Precinct Masterplans. Several Chapter Councilors and members of the Large
Practice Forum contributed to the content and presentation including Tim Leslie, Matthew Smith, Adam Pustola, Ingrid Bakker, Craig Baudin, Jesse Judd and Alison Cleary.


R+BA – The recently released draft apartment standards proscribe minimum building set-backs for apartments, is there any potential overlap between these policies?

VB – Under the proposed C270 amendment 5 metre setbacks are mandatory. Overlays will continue to operate, so the requirements of the Apartment Standards sit below the requirements of an overlay. The AIA proposed that controls be mandatory unless you go through DRP where say an average setback calculation could be considered. This would allow for a variety of built forms rather than a strict vertical face to the boundary, such as a curved facade which reduces the setback in the middle of the site but increases it towards the street frontage. These variations would need approval by the DRP to ensure they meet the planning objectives and delivering design excellence.

R+BA – With a renewed focus on advocacy, will the Institute be looking to provide input on the Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel or the recently released vision for the Arden urban renewal precinct?

VB – Yes, just last month I MC’d at an ‘industry networking event’ for members of PIA, AILA and AIA where a group of cross-disciplinary speakers spoke about transport options for cities, which apart from public transport included bikes, walking, and autonomous shared vehicles. Rob Moore, City of Melbourne Project Executive for Melbourne Metro Rail, gave a fascinating talk on maintaining design quality on what is extensively a civil engineering project. Interestingly he used a WA Government Architect diagram to guide the design review and decision making process. As the AIA becomes a more active advocacy voice, we are asked to provide feedback more often on more
topics. Our work and that of the office of government architect are increasingly informing the debate on cities.

To answer the second part of your question – a group of Chapter Councillors and the Urban Design Forum are working on an AIA position on Arden-Macauley. Architects of course contribute to the debate through the quality of their design work but also need to stand up for the precinct and the public interest.

R+BA –  Do you think that the VCAT system for appealing planning decisions is working as well as it could? Some recent decisions such as the now infamous Nightingale refusal, give the perception that some outcomes can vary depending on the member hearing the case. Should cases be heard by a panel of members rather than an individual in order to dispel this perception?

VB – The member question is a VCAT matter, although they do have 2 or 3 members on larger cases. VCAT is a transparent process. The AIA supports the maintenance of community consultation and the right for third party appeal. That said, we would like to see a Design Review Process that carries weight at VCAT incorporated into the assessment process in the Apartment Standards Guidelines. The VCAT pathway adds to the cost of housing through delays and representation costs, so certainty in the Decision Guidelines and their assessment is crucial. Design experts are needed to assess design objectives, not planners or lawyers – again highlighting the need for DRPs with authority.

R+BA – How would you rate the current State Government’s performance on built environment issues?

VB – The AIA can’t rate a sitting government whose projects haven’t yet been delivered. It’s at the end of the term when they can be evaluated. As mentioned earlier we work with government to achieve the best outcome and advocate for the public interest. We do though welcome the initiative of the Apartment Design Guidelines, C270 is a positive step as is the long overdue Melbourne Metro Rail Project.

R+BA – Thank you for your time


Architecture is for everyone

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Seeing the light: Victoria’s draft apartment standards released

After many months of speculation, the Victorian Government has finally released a draft of the minimum apartment standards. The standards are a compromise but none the less a welcome step in the right direction.

The award winning Quays Towers by MCR

The award winning Quays Towers by MCR

The big headline from Sunday’s announcement, covered here in The Age, is that there will be no minimum apartment sizes, however minimum balcony sizes and accessibility requirements on bedrooms and bathrooms will assist with safeguarding functionality.

Habitable rooms, such as bedrooms, living rooms and studies, must have a window visible from all points within the room. This is the end of bedrooms without windows and saddlebag floor plan layouts.

“Buildings that rely on borrowed light, buildings that have poor ventilation, buildings where you can barely put a double bed into the bedroom: this is not the quality of apartments that we should have.”

Planning Minister, Richard Wynne

The standards will offer a degree of flexibility. In the instance where a particular standard cannot be met, alternative design solutions that meet the overall objective can be considered by council. This will likely placate concerns that the standards could jeopardise design innovation.

Reports of the death of South facing apartments have been greatly exaggerated. 

Towers above 25 metres in height will need building separation of at least 24 metres. This will no doubt be a positive for areas such as the CBD, Docklands, Fishermans Bend and Box Hill, as it will help to protect the cumulative effect that towers can have on the street. It will also help with visual privacy between apartments.

By popular demand, storage space has been increased. The draft standards propose a minimum 8 cubic metre storage space is required for a two bedroom apartment and 10 cubic metres for an apartment with three or more bedrooms.

 RMB storage space data
64.7% of Victorian respondents believe their apartment storage space is insufficient for their needs

Minimum ceiling heights have not been specified, but instead will be linked to the allowable depth of the apartment. There are effectively two categories for this requirement, single aspect apartments that face south and all other apartments. For the purely south facing apartments, a maximum ratio of 2:1 , dwelling depth to ceiling height will be required for habitable rooms.

For all other apartments the depth of habitable rooms is capped at a ratio of 2.5 : 1. For these apartments the ratio can be extended if an open plan living area (kitchen, living, dining) configuration is adopted. In these situations, provided 2.7 metre high ceilings are provided the living area can extend 8 metres from the facade.

apartment depth diagrams

Diagrams from the Draft Apartment Standards (Page 20)

Considering this room depth standard, it would be reasonable to predict that 2.7 metre ceiling heights are bound to become very popular in new apartments, despite not being technically mandatory.

As previously reported here, evidence gathered from suggests that apartment dwellers, just like those living in detached homes, want to be able to entertain guests in their home. With this in mind it is a pleasing to note that a requirement for communal space has been included for apartment buildings with more than 20 dwellings. In practice this could be either indoor or outdoor space as demonstrated by exemplar apartment projects such as The Quays by MCR, Upper House by Jackson Clements Burrows and The Commons by Breathe Architecture. Further enabling social interactions within the home, minimum balcony sizes have been increased. The new minimum area requirements for theses spaces now also specifically exclude any air-conditioning equipment.

outdoor space data copy

Finally, whilst it might seem like window dressing at first glance, the draft standards include requirements for deep soil planting and vegetation. Providing opportunities for trees and other vegetation is critical to reduce the impacts of the ‘urban heat island effect’. Studies have shown that this effect is already killing people and that with global warming it is only going to get worse. It is therefore very welcoming to see that requirements for deep soil planting and other vegetation have been included.

In addition to providing the draft standards, the State Government has also provided some guidance on how the implementation of the standards will occur. There will not be an overnight change, but rather a three month grace period from the time at which the final standards are adopted. In addition to this, a compliance checkpoint has been flagged prior to a building permit being issued.

“To maintain design quality in apartment developments after the planning stage, it is proposed to introduce a checkpoint at the building permit stage where a registered architect or a registered building designer (who has completed the advanced training course) can verify that all relevant apartment design matters have been met.”          

Draft Apartment Standards, Page 9

In contrast with New South Wales apartment rules, SEPP 65, the Victorian Standards are comparatively mild. Logic would suggest that potential apartment sites will lose a small percentage of their value as developers adjust their expectations. This in my view is likely to offset the majority of additional construction costs. It seems incredibly unlikely that we would see an excessive increase in apartment prices as a result of these standards. Nevertheless we have an existing affordability issue that both State and Federal Governments should be addressing. There are multiple policy settings that could adjusted, from taxation, investment regulation and strategic planning, all of which should be a high priority.

For the naysayers who are absolutely convinced that we cannot afford these standards, we need to properly consider the cost of doing nothing.

  • Discrimination and exclusion of people with reduced mobility from living in standard quality apartments
  • Increased deaths from urban heat island effect.
  • Increased impact on global warming through lower efficiency buildings.
  • Probable increase in poor mental health resulting from oppressive dwellings with poor day-lighting and ventilation.
  • Apartments that do not meet community expectations of live-ability will continue to drive suburban sprawl as more people look to options other than apartments.

If we are serious about equity, city resilience and the well being of people living in apartments in the future, these standards represent Victoria’s best chance at change. Relying entirely upon the free market is not an option.

Feedback on the draft standards can be provided until September 19 via the DELWP website here

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Melbourne Open House 2016

Now in it’s ninth year, Melbourne Open House once again pushes the discovery  and appreciation of architecture and the built environment into the mainstream. 

Medibank offices in Docklands by Hassell

Medibank offices in Docklands by Hassell

With well over 100 different buildings to experience across the weekend, those wishing to indulge their curiosity were spoilt for choice. From the historic to the contemporary, from very public buildings to very special private residences, the program delivered in spades. As always it is impossible to see everything, but with Open House a solid fixture in Melbourne’s busy events schedule, it is possible to build up a collection of experiences year on year.

Take a look back at previous Melbourne Open House weekends
2012 2013 2014 2015

Medibank Offices

How can a large corporate organisation provide a healthy 21st century work environment for its staff? This was the challenge that faced the architects Hassell when conceiving the new offices in Docklands for Medibank. This fluid form tower represents some of the latest thinking on office environments. Boasting an outdoor sports court, edible garden, flexible work spaces and even an indoor fireplace, the building is a generous investment in the people who occupy the building.

From a visitor’s perspective the wow factor is all in the atrium. Crisp white ribbons provide a rich layering effect which is emphasized further through brightly coloured floor and ceiling surfaces. The result is a vibrant, energetic building, which must surely be a delight to work within.

The Argus Building

The Argus newspaper was a highly innovative and respected newspaper that was published between 1846 and 1957. The building on the corner of Elizabeth and Latrobe Streets in Melbourne was built as the headquarters for all aspects of the publication between 1924 and 1926. The newspaper was abruptly discontinued in 1957 and at some point after that fell into disrepair. In 2014 the building was reopened as an education facility for the Melbourne Institute of Technology. Since that time it has been a particularly popular attraction on Melbourne Open House weekend for curious visitors.

The interior fit out and alterations were undertaken by Design inc. Whilst there is some of the remaining original fabric exposed, it is unfortunate to report that within the vast majority of the interior, the old has been completely covered with the new. This raises interesting questions about the preservation of our built heritage. On the one hand the ability for an otherwise derelict building to be given a new use will ensure its survival into the future. On the other hand, to cover up the internal building fabric with white plasterboard and commercial flooring seems like an opportunity lost. No doubt the design team and client had their reasons. The building was in a perilously poor state and there are always limitations on what a client can spend to realize a project.

The Supreme Court of Victoria

Perhaps one of the most surprising  and interesting experiences available, was the visit to the Supreme Court of Victoria.  The Supreme Court is actually a collection of buildings originally designed by A.L. Smith and built between 1857-1884. The classical stone facade that graces the street conceals a large courtyard within. This external space is the setting for the glorious Supreme Court Library, the dome of which can be seen from the streets beyond. From within, the library feels like a relative of the much loved State Library of Victoria although it is actually older than the Joseph Reed building. Despite the grandeur of the detailing and decoration, the space itself is surprisingly intimate. As well as the architecture the library holds a fascinating collection of books and historical documents. In a glass case, an Argus newspaper from exactly 100 years earlier is on display, reporting losses from the ‘Great War’ and complaints about the Hoyts theater prices.

The other notable spaces within this complex are, of course, the courts themselves. These spaces are some of the most serious that you will experience in Victoria. Court 4, otherwise known as the Banco Court, is the oldest and most elaborate of the court rooms. The finely detailed ceiling is both extraordinary and unexpected. The fixed timber seating, which was carefully thought out well over 100 years prior, still operates in the way originally intended. There are only a few minor additions to the space, such as a couple of large monitors for the jury to observe video evidence.

Unfortunately photographs are not permitted to be taken within the court, so really you have to go an experience it for yourself.

With tens of thousands of visitors to buildings across the city, Melbourne Open House continues to prove that architecture is for everyone.

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Red+Black Review: The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre

Melbourne’s most important building to be completed in 2016 sits proudly at the top of Elizabeth Street as a beacon of hope to all Victorians fighting cancer. 

Beacon of Hope: The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre by McBride Charles Ryan in partnership with STHDI

One of the great success stories in the development of the city of Melbourne is the creation of the flourishing Parkville medical precinct in the early twenty first century. Just to the North of the CBD, with the University of Melbourne as an anchor point, a collection of world class research facilities have sprung up at an astonishing rate. Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute, the Peter Doherty Institute, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the Melbourne Brain Centre are all now located within the precinct which also boasts the new Royal Children’s Hospital, the Royal Women’s Hospital and the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The crown jewel in this impressive collection is the new Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) which stands proudly as the flagship and gateway to this precinct.

The genesis of this building was from a tender bidding process which was won by the Plenary Health consortium. Embedded within this consortium were STHDI, a joint venture between architects Silver Thomas Hanley and Design Inc, who provided design expertise in laboratory and clinical design. Architects McBride Charles Ryan (MCR) were brought into the consortium to provide their design expertise on the external form and the public areas within the building.

This bidding process set a clear vision for what the project was to be from the very start. A world class clinical treatment, research and education facility all in one building.

“The promise that you have made to the State has to be delivered”

Debbie Ryan, MCR

From the viewpoint of the architects, there can hardly be a more challenging project.  A massive site, a $1 billion budget, a huge number of stake holders from multiple organisations and multiple government bodies and the requirement to facilitate cutting edge technology. Yet despite these challenges, a brilliant piece of architecture has been produced.

The first thing you notice about this building, from whichever direction you approach, is the seductive organic expression which willfully sweeps across the facade. The crisp white lines that branch and spread across the glazed envelope intentionally reference the research collaboration and networking ambitions of the centre. Fittingly they also mimic the wiry winter branches of the elm trees surrounding the site.

VCCC 7Along the north edge of the building the facade expression takes on a more sculptural form to present an entry colonnade to Grattan Street. Utilizing finely finished and detailed concrete and fibre reinforced polymer, the building successfully integrates with the busy pedestrian thoroughfare of the street. Soaring above the observer are two bridge connections between the VCCC and the Royal Melbourne Hospital. These enable the two hospitals to share operating theaters, if the need arises, providing the benefit of additional resilience and efficiency to both hospitals.

Entering the main lobby, or ‘welcome hall’ as it is known, it is clear that the organic theme expressed externally has made it’s way to the interior. The bright and well-proportioned space is generous without overwhelming and disorientating the visitor. Despite being a largely white space, the design successfully navigates the danger of becoming visually sterile. Texture, pattern, and slight splashes of colour are all used with precision.

Moving deeper within the building, the grand central atrium reveals itself, providing an abundant source of natural light throughout the centre of the plan. Vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Guggenheim in New York, white ribbons dance around the void to spectacular effect. Directly below, where one might have expected a staircase or lobby, an open amphitheater space reminds the visitor of the educational role of the building.

VCCC LiftsHospitals and laboratories have to meet some of the most stringent design regulations of any building type. With the very specific requirements of Australian and international standards, it might have been expected to notice a convergence in design. Clearly the VCCC has avoided this anonymity. For MCR it was also of substantial importance that the building have a particularly Australian identity. The use of spotted gum timber as an orientating surface within the public spaces subtly makes this differentiation.

As with other major hospitals across the globe, a significant problem is attracting and retaining the best staff. Even though it has only just opened, the VCCC has already lured several world class Australian researchers back to Australia from prestigious international positions. From a research perspective, the building is also a symbol that our State and Federal Governments are taking cancer research seriously.

As well as being a success story for the MCR and STHDI design team, the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre is also a parable for the State Government, on the importance of a strong Government Architect. In procurement models where architecture teams are embedded within an overall project consortium, there is every risk that design quality can be sacrificed for other objectives. The best protection for the public against these sub standard outcomes is for the State Government client to be provided expert advice. If the government will not accept a reduction in design quality, then the consortium will be forced to deliver on what was promised.

For researchers, the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre is a solid commitment to Australian medical science, in the form of a world class facility. For students and young professionals this building is about supporting the future of cancer treatment. However perhaps most importantly, for patients and their families, this is a building that exudes optimism and hope in a way that only the best architecture can.


Architecture is for Everyone


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Red+Black Interview with Michel Masson, CEO of Infrastructure Victoria, Part 2

Michel Masson is the CEO of Infrastructure Victoria, the government body charged with formulating a 30 year strategy for Victoria’s infrastructure. This is the second part of the two part Red+Black Architect interview.

If you missed Part 1 click here

Michel-MassonRed+Black Architect – While selecting the right piece of infrastructure to build at the right time is critical, it’s equally critical to the liveability of the state to ensure that the design quality of the proposed infrastructure is of a very high standard? How is Infrastructure Victoria addressing this complex issue of the design quality?

Michel Masson – Let’s be clear as to what Infrastructure Victoria stands for. We are responsible for the strategic planning only. We’re not touching on the procurement. We’re not touching on the delivery. Clearly, we’re not here to revisit designs and look at those when we identify projects. That’s at a later stage. Having said that, we do acknowledge the importance of design in getting the right outcome. We are very focused on being outcome oriented, rather than focused on an output.

With that in mind, we’ve looked at a couple of ideas that are about improving design standards.

We are looking at universal design principles to provide accessibility for people with mobility challenges, and how we can push that further.  We’ve looked also at active design as a way to promote more active lifestyles using infrastructure, such as putting cycling and pedestrian pathways into new developments.

We’re looking at design in relation to social housing.  We’re also looking at design around cyber security. Infrastructure will have more and more technology embedded into it so that needs to be taken into account.

R+BA – Have you been consulting with the Office of the Victorian Government Architect on how to achieve design quality in the process of delivering infrastructure?

MM – You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve had already exchanges with Victorian Government Architect Jill Garner in order to have exactly that discussion. We’ve highlighted a couple of areas where indeed our role and their involvement into the strategy could actually be reinforced to ensure design is considered.

R+BA – From the projects that made it into the options paper, are there any that you found particularly surprising either in perhaps because they initially sounded far-fetched but have since shown promise or perhaps a project that was assumed to be a very important part that actually is not particularly viable?

MM – It won’t come as a surprise that when you table 236 options in a very agnostic way, of course, some catch the attention of the public more than some others. Infrastructure Victoria is an evidence-based organisation. We are totally agnostic. We tabled those and we’re very interested to get the feedback from the public.

Of course, when the public cast their eyes on recycling water for drinking purposes, or the mobile police stations for instance, this is very good news for us because we certainly don’t want to shy away from controversial ideas.

Our process is not a popularity contest. We clearly want to engage with the community and say, “We’re here to plan for the next 30 years. Clearly the next 30 years won’t be anything like the past 30 years. Let’s think outside of the box.”

Business-as-usual won’t cut it when it comes to planning for the next 30 years when you’ve got so many new people coming and settling in Melbourne and you’ve got technology changing so rapidly. We need to think differently when it comes to water, when it comes to education, when it comes to transport. Of course, there are some far-fetched ideas but we’re talking about the future so let’s unleash our imaginations and also look at what worked in the rest of the world.

R+BA – How does Infrastructure Victoria assess projects that cross state borders, for example, the high-speed rail on the Eastern Seaboard?

MM – There is a close collaboration between Infrastructure Australia, Building Queensland, Infrastructure New South Wales, Infrastructure Victoria and Infrastructure Tasmania.

We meet on a regular basis in order to exchange information on who is working on what. We’re not here to reinvent the wheel in our silos, far from it. The more we collaborate, the more we share what we are working on, the better we cross-pollinate our ideas.

Of course, in the process of exchanging ideas and cross-pollinating, we discuss national projects like high-speed rail or inland rail in order to confirm our thinking and come up with a consistent approach.

R+BA – With the way technology is advancing rapidly, is the 30-year goal a realistic goal or will it be virtually obsolete within a decade? How do you deal with that rapidly changing technology?

MM – I think that the beauty of having a 30-year plan is that it’s sufficiently far off in order to be able to make some good assumptions as to how we see the future. Clearly we don’t have a crystal ball. Ten years ago, nobody knew that we would have these mobile phones in our pockets and how much it would revolutionise our lives.

Having said that just because we haven’t got a crystal ball doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan. This is the whole essence of planning.

It is important to keep in mind that we’re going to refresh our strategy every 3-5 years. This is not a one-off exercise and then we’ve got to live with it. If that were the case, you would be absolutely right, it would be a pointless exercise.

Two things to keep in mind: one, we’re very mindful that technological advances will make a big impact in how we build, how we operate and how we maintain infrastructure. That’s why we got technology at the forefront what we are looking at. We’ve secured the help of the former chief innovation officer from Google to help us think about the “known unknowns” but also the “unknown unknowns”.

We also need to be very clear in identifying what are the potential disruptors that we need to monitor the impact of. It’s very clear that we can already see the impact of big data and the internet on things. We can see how sensors are already revolutionising water use, for instance, or the energy sector.

I’ll finish off by saying that the last big elephant in the room that we are working on in terms of modernisation is driverless cars. Is this a blessing or is this a curse? What are the changes of the paradigm that we should be looking at in order to leverage upon this and all of the implications that this will have.

R+BA – Yes. It’s very hard to get your head around exactly how that will play out. It could go two ways, in terms of rapidly increasing the amount of cars on the roads because we’ve got all of these cars driving themselves and running errands for people or perhaps it could reduce the numbers of cars, particularly households currently with two cars.

MM – Even if you’ve got less cars overall, you will have more kilometres being driven. It comes back to that question of what is the outcome we want to achieve. Driverless cars also cast a light also on the concept of ownership. With driverless cars, if we stick to the concept of ownership of a car, it will bring different outcomes than if we look at the driverless cars in a new paradigm of non-ownership.

R+BA – Barcelona recently wired a lot of their streets to prepare themselves for an innovation of these driverless cars. Is that something that’s in the draft options report, the idea of WiFi on the street everywhere, facilitating that sort of future outcome?

MM – We certainly are in the process of identifying what are the technology changes that we need to facilitate in order to enable the driverless cars to flourish in the future.

What do we need to start looking at in order to ensure that Victoria is ready for what is to come. It’s not a question of if that’s going to come. It’s a question of how fast and how prepared we are. A lot has got to do with policies and regulations currently in place that need to be looked at in order to ensure that Victoria is ready for it.

R+BA – Absolutely. I can imagine the law would be one of the areas that would need to change, who’s responsible for accidents and so forth.

Are there any aspects of Infrastructure Victoria’s work that have been overlooked or under reported in the media … Is there a message that you would like to put out there that sometimes gets lost amongst the East West Link and other controversial topics?

MM – Well, one of the key characteristics of the 30-year strategy is to cover the whole state, meaning that regional Victoria is equally as important as metropolitan Melbourne. We are very eager to have regional Victorians express their views throughout the consultation so that we are sure that what we table to Parliament reflects their views and their contribution, not just what is best for Melbourne.

The other thing which has probably been overlooked is our guiding principle of land use planning being integrated with the infrastructure planning. We’re very keen to look at ways of bridging that gap. Of course, we are working in close collaboration with the Melbourne Planning Authority. The refreshed Plan Melbourne will be an input into our strategy together with the regional growth plans. Looking at the next 30 years, I think one of the most fundamental changes that we can bring is better integration between infrastructure and land use planning.

The last thing that I’ll say is that we are very ambitious in the final strategy we plan to table at year end, because strategy without execution is nothing. We’re very keen to not only provide a pipeline of strategic recommendations, but for the final strategy to be workable. It needs to be an input to the community, to business, to the local and state governments.

We’re very keen to identify in parallel to our strategic recommendations, what are the tactical next steps? What is the first actionable item that we should be starting to do in order to see a recommendation being implemented?

It may be as an example that we plan for significant capital expenditure, say for a road for instance in 10 or 15 years. Even though you won’t need to build it for 10 or 15 years, we would recommend to pass the relevant legislation in the first 18 months to preserve the corridors. That I think will reposition the true essence of planning into the state of Victoria.

R+BA – Thank you very much for your time




Architecture is for Everyone


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Red+Black Interview with Michel Masson, CEO of Infrastructure Victoria, Part 1

Ever since the East West Link fiasco there has been substantial talk about removing the politics from Victoria’s infrastructure planning. The perception has been that politicians choose infrastructure projects that best suit their political agenda, rather than the projects that meet the objectives of a broader plan for a city. One only needs to read the East West Link report from the Australian National Audit Office to see how politics can interfere with due process in infrastructure delivery.

Infrastructure Victoria is the body created by the Daniel Andrews led State Government to fix this problem. Recently the CEO of Infrastructure Victoria, Michel Masson, took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the complex task of preparing an evidence based infrastructure strategy for Victoria.

Michel-MassonRed+Black Architect – Currently Infrastructure Victoria is working through a process to develop a 30-year strategy. Where is this process currently at and when can we expect the draft strategy to be released?

Michel Masson – 2016 is clearly the year of the development of the 30-year strategy which will be tabled to parliament at year end. Where are we at? The method we took is one of common sense.

First, we decided to look at what are the problems that we’re trying to solve instead of looking at the solutions. There are so many engineering solutions out there looking desperately for a problem to solve in order to justify their existence and request for funding.

This first round of consultation – which focused on our discussion paper Laying the foundations  was where we asked the community what are the infrastructure challenges we should focus on.

We know all throughout the process we’re going to have to make some pretty tough decisions in terms of what we do and what we don’t. This is strategy 101. You decide what you’re going to do, and equally what you will not be doing.

We were very pleased with the level of engagement we received from the community during that round of consultation. We received a lot of very good feedback about the importance of putting regional Victoria front and centre in the strategy.

We also received feedback about the need to promote integration between the land use planning and the infrastructure planning, which we’ve now incorporated into our guiding principles.

We have just finished the second phase of the consultation surrounding the options paper. Once we defined the strategy framework and the problems we’re going to focus on, we looked at the options. We’ve tabled to the community over 200 ideas to address Victoria’s infrastructure needs. At this stage, the whole process is to get constructive feedback and criticism from the community on the options we’ve put forward and also source new ideas from stakeholders and from the community.

We are in the process of putting all of these pieces of the puzzle together which will form the draft strategy to be released later this year. That will form the basis for a final round of consultation, again asking  the community to review our draft recommendations and tell us:  “Do we agree that this is the pipeline that we’ll want in the short, medium, and long-term?”

Once we’ve incorporated that next round of consultation, then we’ll table the final strategy to parliament at the end of the year. Once that strategy is tabled to Parliament, the government has 12 months to respond with a five-year plan.

R+BA – Those projects in the draft, will it be prescriptive as to for example project X will start between 2018 and 2019 and project Y will follow that from 2020 onwards? Are there timeframes for those projects?

MM – First of all, we talk about options and not necessarily projects and the reason is that our approach is not just about building new pieces of infrastructure. It’s first and foremost about how do we look at demand management and most importantly how do we optimize the current assets? How do we make the most of what we currently have before we look at building new things? We’re very keen to look at policies and regulations which are currently in place and should be amended or new policies and regulations which would help make better use of the existing assets.

The draft strategy will be a series of recommendations, policies and regulations, and new pieces of infrastructure which will be positioned as short, medium, and long-term draft recommendations. We won’t be as precise as saying this should start the second quarter of 2018 but we’re really going to position them as a pipeline. The recommendations will make it very clear as to how they interact with each other.

It will be clear that before you go to that big piece of new infrastructure as option D, you’ve got to do A, B and C beforehand. Everybody will understand why it makes sense to do A, B and C before D. Again, we recommend but the government of the day decides. They may want to go straight to D but everyone will be able to measure the consequences of the impact of bypassing A, B and C and going straight to D.

R+BA – As part of this process you’ve used citizen juries?

MM – Yes

R+BA – How does this work? What have they been deciding upon?

MM – We were very keen to ensure that in process of the developing the 30-year infrastructure we had depth and breadth in the consultation. This was about real, genuine engagement, not just an exercise in ticking a box. The citizen jury is a very interesting way to give a voice to the people. It was fundamental to have the right tool, the right mechanism to have the community express their views.

We’ve created two citizen juries – one in metropolitan Melbourne and another in regional Victoria which is based in Shepparton. These citizen juries are two groups of 40-ish people which have been randomly selected but statistically representative of regional Victoria and metropolitan Melbourne.

They spend six Saturdays meeting every few weeks and work like a court jury. Each jury has the opportunity to call on experts on a range of issues- from former treasurers, experts in transport planning, specialist in schools or education and so on – in order to gather evidence.

At the same time they are going through all of the options which we tabled. At the end of the process, they will deliberate and provide their recommendations.

The interesting thing with the citizen jury is that you need to reach consensus with forty people. What we’ve seen is when you take forty people from all parts of the socio-demographic fabric of Victoria, you get a lot of common sense.

When you ask them to come up with one common view on the future of transport or education, the answer you get is just fascinating. We’re very keen to see what their recommendations will be, which will form a key input to the draft strategy.

R+BA – Will we be able to see a report on that process and their input? Will that be identifiable in that draft strategy as ‘here’s what the jury said’?

MM – Absolutely. It will be clear where the jury’s recommendations are positioned in the draft strategy but we will also be releasing the citizen juries’ recommendations in full prior to that.

R+BA – When you released the options paper, it must have been terribly frustrating having some politicians and media outlets falsely reporting about Infrastructure Victoria making recommendations for projects rather accurately describing projects in the report as options for consideration. How would you address those commentators?

MM – I fully acknowledge that the complexity of what we’ve embarked upon developing a 30-year infrastructure strategy is not something intuitive to grasp. We’ve been engaging with the media at length to readdress that perception. We are keen to reiterate that these are options, not recommendations. Everything is on the table and this options stage was really when we invited the community to tell us what they think and what we missed as we prepare the draft strategy.

It is very satisfying to feel people are now inside the tent with us and really eager to provide their views. In fact, the number of submissions we’ve received echoes that.

R+BA – How important are cost benefit ratios? Are there circumstances when projects should be built regardless of the cost implications?

MM – Benefit cost analysis is a very interesting aspect of what we are doing. Infrastructure Victoria was created for three purposes. The first one is to develop the 30-year infrastructure strategy. That is a very strong focus this year. The second one is to provide advice to the government on projects and the government has already requested Infrastructure Victoria to provide advice on the second container port in Melbourne. The third is our research program.

Through our research program we looking at the tools currently being used in decision-making and assessing projects, including benefit cost analysis. It’s a very useful tool but its an imperfect tool, because it only captures economic benefits and costs. We are currently trying to capture social and environment benefits in monetary terms.

Currently, we take full cost of an engineering solution, a tunnel for instance, but we do not take account of any benefits from leaving everything above ground flourishing in terms of social and environment impact which is a problem. Everybody recognises that. When I say everybody, I mean Infrastructure Australia and the state infrastructure bodies. Victoria is taking the lead in working on this.

R+BA Looking back upon the East West Link Saga, what do you take out from that whole process that eventuated?

MM – To be clear, Infrastructure Victoria is positioned to look ahead at the next 30 years. We’re not looking back at past decisions. The past is the past. This is not our field. We are taking for granted as a base case all of the major projects which are fully committed and funded. That’s why people are asking, “Why aren’t you talking about the Western Distributor? Why aren’t you looking at the level crossings?” We are not assessing those. We take those projects already underway as the base case in projecting ahead for the next 30 years. When it comes to what has been known in the past as the East West, we are steering clear from politics. We are steering clear from what it was and we’re looking at what it should be in the future. Our recommendation could be completely different from what has been known as East West. We’re not barracking for an option or solution in particular. We’re just looking in an evidence-based way at what is for the good of Victoria in the next 30 years.




click here to continue reading part 2

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