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Interview  Government, industry, academia and construction – a new cooperative model Shaun Carter talks to Peter Poule

Transforming the NSW Government Architect’s Office

Interview  Government, industry, academia and construction – a new cooperative model Shaun Carter talks to Peter Poule

Government Architect Peter Poulet discusses the restructuring of the GAO and the future vision of his role

Shaun Carter: At least half the Institute members that talk to me are completely supportive of GAO moving away from its fee-for-service design role to a more strategic and design thinking role. The argument of the other fifty per cent of members is: ‘Look at the long history of the Government Architect prior to the change. The Government Architect’s Office is the gold standard in terms of design excellence, and what good strategic thinking can do to deliver the greatest value for government’.

Peter Poulet: Your members are right on both counts. We should not be in direct commercial competition with the private sector and we no longer are. In turn this has given us the opportunity to focus on the value adding of our strategic role: the advice and direction we give to Government and communities. Our intention is to engender design thinking in Government.

I also agree we have to set the gold standard, as you put it, and that is still our focus. If anything, buildings will be even better delivered collaboratively with an informed Government client.

Our strategic focus aims at delivering this. Our work with Government at the very early stages of projects through mechanisms such as Strategic Frameworks helps by defining parameters, expectations and ambitions for projects. This benefits everyone, project clarity for our design partners as Government is able to clearly articulate what it requires and most importantly community understanding with no surprises for them.

The Minister has clearly spelt out what the Government needs us to focus on and that is to make people’s lives better through sustainable and inclusive growth. This task gives us opportunities to work across government to enable and support design quality. Specifically, this encompasses Design Led Planning, establishment of a Government Architect’s Design Excellence Program, enabling Green Infrastructure, stewardship of heritage and strategic projects.

Our role as people who bring forward the good ideas using design methods sees an expanded future for the role. I imagine this as a three-way partnership between us, industry and academia.

It seems like your aim is to bring university into that conversation with government and industry. How could you start bringing those three together?

My goal is to have an industry reference group, which will include those three pillars of our industry. We’ll start there and ask that group to start advising us how we go about it. I envisage academia even running PhDs with us, running design competitions for students and running elective courses. The cooperative model I’m putting forward between the government, or the Government Architect, the profession,

The cooperative model I’m putting forward between the government, or the Government Architect, the profession, industry and academia, is equally applicable if you include construction. Cooperative between the client, construction and the design profession. Why doesn’t it work there as well? It’s a question for all of us. The future of how we build is being invented now, new technologies, new materials, new manufacturing all leading to innovative outcomes.

If you can make that work and really get that three-dimensional triangle working at those four points – government, industry, academia, construction-procurement – it’s going to be wonderful, not only for architects that work for the public good. I’m on the record saying that you would need somewhere between 30 to 60 staff to be able to do all you need to, in terms of interacting with government agencies, but also to engage with academia and industry.

We’re starting with a core of twelve, but hopefully, with a project budget that will help us leverage the private sector to deliver as well. I don’t want to get too large, because a large organisation becomes a bureaucracy. I’d love to have a standing army of professionals out there who are prepared to act on our behalf. They’ll need to be skilful and know what our methods are, to deliver either a design conversation, design excellence adjudication, or write some early briefs.

Looking across all the other states with a Government Architect position, are you operating in a similar way to them or reinventing the role?

What’s consistent across all the jurisdictions is the advisory and review role. It’s probably most advanced in Victoria and South Australia, and in South Australia it’s legislated. Any state significant development gets referred to the Government Architect for design advice.

But their mechanisms are limited. The three- or four-dimensional model I described is new. That’s above what other states do. I think it’s a richer model which will deliver better industry connectivity, and better currency to the role, because of that connectivity. We can’t be backward or behind the times if on a daily basis we’re engaged with the profession on real projects.

Probably the most difficult question that I find that I get asked by members, is: how has this change occurred? Do you see yourself as an agent of change, or was this a direction the government was hell-bent on going on?

It was a combination of the two. When I first entered the office I involved the staff in a number of conversations around what our office should be. At that very point, everybody said, ‘Oh, we need to be valued by government, strategic, encouraging the industry, co-operative players in delivering better outcomes’, all those things. This pointed to a very different model to the historical one and it pointed to a model deploying contemporary means. This is what we have now achieved and are building.

Many people find change difficult, and a criticism of myself is that I didn’t recognise that clearly enough. So when I put forward the prospect of the change that has now occurred, it’s been seen by some as abandoning the old. I think I’ve actually cemented the role of the Government Architect into the future, and it’s the role that’s important. I’m not going to have the role forever, but I do want to make sure that the role has relevance and longevity. Many of the staff are supportive of that, even at their own expense, and that’s what I’m talking about, people in the public service understanding the greater good.

I think it’s important to (a) cement the role as being meaningful, and valued, and respected, and having longevity, (b) to choose those critical projects that are going to fit it as imperative that we exist, and (c) make sure we start getting across all of government, not just those people that are interested in us.

I don’t have a stylistic focus. I’ve got a process focus that involves good thinking, good ideas, innovation and the best people.

This is the best value when you deal with the economic, but also the social, cultural and environmental factors that need to be considered for public sector projects.

The environmental aspects I believe are back on the table. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact that construction and building have on our environmental performance as a society.

This plays into the heritage conversation argument. What are we knocking down? Do we have to knock anything down? Why aren’t we reusing more? Why aren’t we building for reuse? Why aren’t we building buildings that will allow for loose fit, long life? I think that is a conversation we need to have with our development industry and with our government.

There needs to be a serious value add proposition, as opposed to how it’s seen at the moment – as an impediment or a problem. I think it’s an amazing opportunity. That’s where we have expertise. We’ve got very good heritage architects.

The GAO 200 celebration gives you a great platform to celebrate what you’ve done, and how you are the cornerstone of building a community, a city and a nation, but equally the platform to have that voice to articulate the Government Architect position.

Minister Stokes is very supportive. He’s interested in design, and in design leading innovative thinking and solutions. We’re making sure that the transformation of the office is a success, and that it has a clear mandate.

A fantastic legacy for my tenure as Government Architect would be a cementing of the role in the mind of government as meaningful role that they’re going to actually nurture and support. The legacy that I want to leave is the advancement of the role for the next 200 years.logo abdigital

Peter Poulet was the inaugural State Architect of Tasmania from 2009 to 2012. He has served as the NSW Government Architect since 2012