Overcoming the Built Bias

My partner has recently purchased a motorbike. A Ducati to be precise. Those of you who understand motorcycles and the variety of subcultures that have developed through motorbike riding will understand that this purchase marks the beginning of a new phase of life. I am being half serious, half sarcastic about this, but there is no doubt that immediate mobility and direct contact with the city, the elements and the landscape have forever altered my view of the city.

The problem is: I don’t drive the motorbike, I am a mere passenger, hanging on for dear life at the back of this mat black motorised Monster. Whilst it must seem quite disempowering to some, I’ve actually found the experience of being on the back of the bike, wearing an helmet that isolates you from conversation, music or whatever form of entertainment, quite emancipating. It’s given me some valuable time to just connect with my thoughts and that is where a lot of the blogpost ideas originate from.


Robert Pirsig in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ is a soothing account of this symbiotic relationship between man and machine, the balance between the philosophy and the practicality of riding through a landscape. I have to admit, I didn’t finish the whole book, but the first few chapters capture the gist of this new intellectual outlet that the confines of a motorcycle helmet has brought forth.

In one of the longer rides of my life from Kangaroo Valley back up to Sydney, driving past coastal, rural and urban landscape, a real question that is fundamental to our industry, the built environment industry, popped into my head: Do we have a built bias? Must the advice we give our clients who are trying to solve organisational and business problems always result in the form of a built outcome? What are other ways in which built environment professionals could add value to some of these questions?

I know it sounds stupid, and obviously, we must respond to problems we are posed with with the tools that we possess, there is no doubt about that. But at the core, there is the assumption that a client approaching an architecture or design firm (perhaps less so for an engineering firm) has gone through a strategic design process already: they have thought about about their strategic goals, they have a clear idea of where they would like to be and they have a roadmap for what is needed in the organisational, business and physical design of their business.

Having been around for a little while now, my experience is that that assumption is very rarely validated. Often the appeal of a new facility, of iconic architecture, of slick photos in a magazine often comes as an early consideration to whether a project has legs and is worth doing. It is true that the built in the form of buildings and interiors is a very powerful vector through which to communicate an organisation’s  values (and I am using the word in very general terms here deliberately), but are there others that could be equally as powerful?

The same way that no organisation would ever pretend that moving into a new office would alone solve productivity issues, or change the culture of an organisation in any significant way on its own, why are we willing to think that building a new piece of real estate has the potential to transform a city, or a neighbourhood, or an urban culture?

Aligning organisational culture, business model and multi-channel experience is what strategic design needs to be about. It is about the creation of meaning for a business or an organisation and helping to find the right multi-channel experience for that meaning to resonate with customers and investors. I know it sounds very business focused, the days where money is spent because we can are well and truly behind us. Clients of the built environment professions are looking to maximise investment, to sweat the assets they already have. I believe this is an opportunity for the emerging strategic design profession, helping and guiding clients through the the alignment process mentioned earlier.

To ground some of these ideas, I’ve thought of some examples that I think demonstrate the point I am making, albeit in different ways each time.

My first example of how this strategic design process has increasing importance for clients is based on an experience collaborating with Steve Coster of Hassell on what looked like a workplace project from the outset. Steve is a different breed of architect in the sense that he cannot rest content without really understanding the business drivers of a client and manages to resist the temptation of picking up a pen and sketching out physical spaces until the strategic goals and end state of the client organisation have been clearly defined. This means, that at all times, one must be ready to give the advice that a built outcome is not what is needed to solve the problem at hand, which many architects would find hard to do. And to a large extent, this is what Steve did for Hub Melbourne. The final physical expression of what is ultimately a network of individuals who see value in working in a space together was very paired back, the furniture was inexpensive and movable, allowing for multiple configurations of the space. The volume of the space itself was largely left intact and it would therefore appear, that this was a job done with an economy of means. I don’t have the specifics of the financials or the budget set at the beginning of the project, but my intuition tells me that the physical outcome was what it was not because it was cheap to implement, but more pertinently because it was the right outcome for Hub Melbourne as an organisation. It responded to the need to keep the financial threshold to entry low for users of the space, to maintain authenticity and to be welcoming to a range or people.


The Arts is another sector where economy of means and authenticity is an important factor to engagement of end users and industry prosperity. It is the ultimate bottom-up industry that relies on affordable space for survival. Yet, when we think about cultural infrastructure, we often think of developing large auditorium projects, based on projected audience demand, programming and ticket sales. The often overlooked side of the equation is the production space, the rehearsal and workshop space, the rough space where a lot of the creative magic happens. When working with Arts NSW on the Vision for Walsh Bay, the question of whether a major infrastructure investment would price out a lot of the sector’s practitioners was discussed and is, in my view, still a valid consideration under the master plan proposed by the Government Architect’s Office.  I guess the point here is that, whilst investment in the Arts is much needed in this state, it is possible to conceive that the solution to meeting the creative community’s needs doesn’t require spending 100 million dollars on an auditorium on the harbour, but rather in a plan that manages engagement with this community with an economy of means.


This relentless focus on the built is partly due to the fact that government funding is granted for capital works and that excludes organisational change and business strategy. Embedded in the way in which funding and money is granted is a belief that better facilities will enable better outcomes. And to some extent, this case can be made convincingly. But in other instances, it is an investment in operational budgets, in change management programs (but not in a management consulting way), in leadership development that can really pay dividends.

It does not mean that the built is off the table, I see it merely as our obligation as designers to make sure that all components that are going to ensure the success of a project are in place before we commit to it. It’s a dangerous tack to take, especially in this market, but hopefully as professionals, we are resilient and lateral thinking enough to add value in those early stages of the definition of a brief to continue to do good business even if the outcome is not immediately and obviously built.

I am interested in your points of view about this and whether this is an industry shifting trend. Thoughts?


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