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Comment: Why is it important to communicate the value of architecture?

In this comment piece, Lindy Johnson, director of Lindy Johnson Creative, urges architecture to communicate its value. Johnson says that architects are needed more than ever but their value is highly underrated — and that we’re all the poorer for it.

Comment: Why is it important to communicate the value of architecture?

Architect Kim Baber with architecture and design advocates Lindy Johnson and Martyna Kulczyk, photograph by Emma Nevison.

A common misconception about architects held by the general public is that they only design expensive houses. This is sometimes true — but it is far from the profession’s only job. So, how can the real value of architecture be communicated? And why is this important? Architects have the skills to address key challenges of the present and the future. Climate change, the housing crisis, and the demands on our expanding cities need ambitious architectural thinking.

Designing for climate change

Climate change is causing increasingly regular, extreme, and costly weather events — and the built environment is being severely affected. Who can forget images of, for example, the town of Lismore being submerged by 2022 floods? The population needs building design that will withstand the full impact of climate change.

Architects, alongside their colleagues in engineering and urban planning, are in the best position to design for floods, fires, and extreme heat. Reducing carbon emissions is another challenge facing the profession. The construction sector is responsible for 39% of global emissions, and construction is one of Australia’s most active industries.

Architecture - Communicating its value
Designing for climate change, Wilson’s Cottage by climate-resilient architects JDA Co., photograph by Toby Scott.

Architects are well-placed to advise the sector on cost and material efficient carbon-cutting measures such as changing supply chain processes and adaptive reuse practices. When it comes to sustainability and the built environment, architects are leading the way.

Our industry knows this—but there is still a lack of understanding in the wider public. As such, communicating architects’ knowledge of climate-resilient design is crucial. More understanding will lead to more resources and more informed decision-making.

Addressing the housing crisis

As we all know, housing stress is fast increasing in Australia (the Australian Bureau of Statistics defines “housing stress” as when a household pays more than 30% of their gross income on housing costs). Key contributing factors include population growth and lack of public and private investment in quality, affordable housing.

A 2022 study by the UNSW City Futures Research Centre estimated that 640,000 Australian households are currently experiencing housing stress. This figure is projected to rise to almost one million by 2041.

Architecture - Communicating its value
Anne Street Garden Villas, Anna O’Gorman Architect, photograph by Christopher Frederick Jones.

These statistics have a serious human cost: young families, older single women, and low-income Australians are unable to find reasonably priced homes, especially in capital cities. And the challenge is not just getting into a home — it’s finding a well-designed one. Residential design fundamentally impacts the cost and quality of everyday life.

Architects can help address the housing crisis by designing affordable homes with good access to amenities: green space, natural light, and natural ventilation. As the population grows, the need for quality medium-density dwellings will also continue to rise. For Australians used to the suburban dream of the stand-alone house, this requires an adjustment in thinking that needs to be reflected in thoughtful design.

Architects are skilled at balancing the need for individual privacy with access to community. This is essential — loneliness kills people. The profession needs to stand up and advocate for its expertise in designing superior medium-density housing.

Related: SJB and the question of housing density

Anne Street Garden Villas, Anna O’Gorman Architect, photograph by Christopher Frederick Jones.

Contributing to civic life

I see architects’ value as unsurpassed when they are creating vibrant public infrastructure with future-proofed value. After all, architects are the kingpins of designing for human behaviour. For example, consider how they can contribute to quality public design in the upcoming Brisbane Olympics.

A skilled practice will consider everything from outdoor precincts, where athletes and visitors can walk from venue to venue, right through to the specification of the doorknobs on well-ventilated stadium toilets. Without architects’ big picture perspective combined with attention to detail, there is a risk the Brisbane Olympics infrastructure won’t serve Queenslanders long-term.

Anne Street Garden Villas, Anna O’Gorman Architect, photograph by Christopher Frederick Jones.

One way to embed strategic design thinking into high impact decision-making is in the role of the government architect, who traditionally acts as a design advisor for policymakers. Given the importance of architecture socially and economically, it is insane that governments aren’t investing in architects. Instead, government architect offices are, on the whole, under-resourced and lacking in authority.

The Victorian state government halved the role’s funding in 2022. Despite recent advocacy from the Australian Institute of Architects and Architecture Media, there is no Australian federal government architect. Part of the problem is a lack of understanding in the community about what architects bring to the table — and some blame lies with architects.

Architects need to do more to articulate their value

The profession has not done enough to communicate the true value of good design. Architects have so much knowledge and expertise to share with the Australian people. I want to hear their voices on the importance of design to our built environment and every aspect of our lives. At the moment, I’m not hearing them.

As the effects of climate change are increasingly felt and Australian cities and regional hubs continue to grow, skilled designers will play an essential role in society.

Every hospital, school, and sports facility needs good architecture. Effective design communication means that the broader public can understand the immense contributions architects make to society every day.

Lindy Johnson Creative


Lindy Johnson, photograph by Mindi Cooke.

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