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FRONT Featured Speaker Peter Tonkin on the importance of preserving our built heritage

We catch up with Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Director and FRONT Featured Speaker Peter Tonkin to discuss the evolution of Australian architecture, adaptive reuse, and why preserving our built environment is more critical than ever.

As a Director of Sydney-based practice Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, FRONT Featured Speaker Peter Tonkin is a driving force behind one of the most influential entities in Australian heritage. With the inaugural FRONT event just four weeks away, we caught up with Peter to discuss the evolution of architecture, adaptive reuse, and the critical importance of preserving our built heritage.

Peter will be speaking at the ‘It Ain’t Broke…The Value of Adaptive Reuse’ session. Read more interviews in this series here.


Indesignlive: Tell us a bit about yourself. What is your current role, and how did you end up in it? What does your average day at work look like?

Peter Tonkin: I’m a Director at Tonkin Zulaikha Greer. I’ve been there since the start of the company in 1987: I basically ended up here because I wanted to set up an office that had a collaborative and interesting sensibility to it, and built the practice with Brian Zulaikha and Tim Greer from there.

I don’t really have an ‘average day’ at work because we work on a very wide range of projects. I do a lot of interstate travel from time to time. Not so much in the past year or so because NSW is booming at the moment and most of my work at the moment is local, which is good.

In terms of the breadth of projects that you work on, is there anything that you enjoy the most?

No, I can’t really say. I think it’s more to do with personalities than the type of the project, and we’ll probably come to this later on when we talk about clients. But it’s not just about the clients; it’s everyone from the project engineers to the end users. As far as types of projects go, I think they’re all really interesting. I recently gave a CPD talk at the [Australian] Institute [of Architects] about working in the public sector, and it struck me how much of our work is in the public sector. You get very interesting and varied projects working in that space.

As you mentioned, you’ve been with Tonkin Zulaikha Greer since the beginning. Over the course of your roughly 30-year career, how have you seen the design industry evolve?

I think there are two fronts to that. One is within the architect’s office, and the other is beyond that. Within the office, of course, it’s all to do with computers and their impact. I can still remember being in another office when we sent our first fax and how we were all jumping up and down in excitement, and then when we first started TZG we had a computer, and to watch the spread of technology has been extraordinary. [Computers have] been such a great tool for reducing the terrible drudgery of hand drawing, but also for giving you the power to conceptualise and then transmit your vision to clients. It’s just extraordinary what you can do now and how quickly, and I think that has been wonderful.


[Computers have] been such a great tool for reducing the terrible drudgery of hand drawing, but also for giving you the power to conceptualise and then transmit your vision to clients.


Beyond the office, the big changes have been to do with the destructuring of the way that buildings are procured. We’ve seen huge growth in ‘partial services’, where you work on one phase of a job but not all of them. This is a particular disease with the public sector and local government: they’ll get one architect to do a concept, another to do the working drawings, and a third to do construction. Whilst they see that as cost effective because they can get the cheapest price at each stage, they lose all the embedded knowledge and the end results often don’t reflect the community expectations that informed the first stages. That’s the case with many projects, where the client’s control of the project is divested in one way or another and the end users are the ones that fail to get adequate results.

What would you say is driving the industry toward this model? Is that primarily a cost-oriented decision?

I think it’s the failure of a number of projects, that were run in a more traditional way, to achieve cost and time goals. On the one hand, I think that exploded the way the profession worked, but on the other… a lot of that is driven by a sense of probity, where [clients] feel they have to keep changing who they work with so there’s no perception of favouritism. A lot of people also seem to be saving money up front but they don’t realise that down the track, modest savings in fees can often result in big costs at the construction stage.

Carriageworks by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, photo by Michael Nicholson

Moving onto your specific practice, heritage and adaptive reuse is obviously a significant part of that. As you mentioned, the NSW industry in particular is booming – what are the merits of adapting an existing building instead of knocking it down and building a new one?

Again, there are a few fronts to that. Despite the industry’s preconceptions, adapting can often be cheaper. I think people are terrified of it up front, but in practice it can often be very economical. We’ve just finished adapting a very significant heritage building in Parramatta into a new primary school for the Department of Education, and its cost is significantly less than a similar new build down the road that was happening at the same time. If you really delve into it, then these things can offer genuine savings.


I often muse on the fact that the postcard images or the icons for every major city are their major heritage buildings and that really encapsulates the value that these things have. They define the city and I think people are really recognising that now.


The second thing is that you get more [with adaptive reuse], because you’re not fitting the building closely to the functional brief. Inevitably there are parts left over with a heritage building so you get more space, more ceiling height, more variety of spaces, and more high quality finishes because they’re already there. You might be paying to keep them but they are there, and they do give the building something that a new build – particularly a highly cost controlled new build – can’t offer.

The third is the value of the buildings themselves. Whether they’re highly significant or just old, they still represent the continuity and landmarks of our civilisation, which I don’t think can be undervalued. I often muse on the fact that the postcard images or the icons for every major city are their major heritage buildings and that really encapsulates the value that these things have. They define the city and I think people are really recognising that now.

It seems that for a long time we only thought about heritage in terms of heritage homes and the National Trust.

And as museums that had no life. But people aren’t going to that [type of heritage building] anymore, so the fact that we’re adapting them gives them a new relevance. If you can give these buildings a community or accessible use, that really strengthens the value of those buildings in the community.


If you can give these buildings a community or accessible use, that really strengthens the value of those buildings in the community.


Other practitioners have suggested that heritage and adaptive reuse projects often hinge largely on the client. In your experience, how much have you found that the client and their level of engagement factors into delivering a successful end project?

It does enormously, but I wouldn’t limit that to heritage projects. I think that idea applies to absolutely every project that you do, with the exception possibly of a lot of multiple housing projects and other generic projects, which rely less on the client. In those cases, the client isn’t particularly engaged provided they get the product they want at the price they want, so they give you a fair bit of freedom. But with nearly all other projects, clients are deeply engaged with what they’re getting. If they’re constructive and have a partnering approach, that can really make a project sing.

If you look, for instance, at last week’s NSW Architecture Awards you can see that the breadth of prizewinning projects all had genuinely committed and engaged clients, both heritage and non-heritage. In the end, it’s their building and they’re paying for it. If they’re not committed, it really makes life hard for everybody.

I do think that the level of unknowns – which are far more than with a new build – means that the client has to be prepared to weather a bit of a roller coaster ride, which they are because of the way that they embarked on the project at the beginning. They don’t do that blindly anymore. Everybody knows that it’s going to be a rollercoaster, and most people are prepared to weather that.

Paddington Reservoir by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer

Earlier, you mentioned that project success doesn’t just depend on the client – it also depends on other stakeholders. Can you expand on that?

It’s intriguing to me that building in Australia is kind of the last big craft industry, the last thing where the product is delivered by and large by handwork as distinct from robots in factories. That means that everyone involved in the delivery of the project has to be committed to it and happy to work together, which is really an extraordinary situation to be in in the 21st century.

You also have to bring a large amount of people on board at the planning and approvals level, particularly with state significant developments. I think that side of things only really goes sour when you’ve got people who are not prepared to have an outcome-focused approach – if I can put it like that – and for one reason or another don’t want the project to happen.


…you’ve got to hand your ego over to the project.


One of my lines at that talk I gave a few weeks ago is that you’ve got to hand your ego over to the project. I think that’s a big litmus test, particularly with the bigger projects where you are part of a team and the project is the thing, in the end, that matters. Not just in terms of design excellence and architectural quality, but also being able to meet the brief and be on budget. If you give the project your ego, that really starts to sort out a lot of these issues.

What do you hope to see more of in commercial design and architecture in future?

There are two things. After a long period in architecture, I’ve seen that the buildings that get knocked down or cost an awful lot of money to refurbish are the ones that were designed very tightly to a specific purpose. More of a sense of loose fit and durability – I’d love to see more of that. I look at Victorian terrace houses: they’re able to be adapted to contemporary living standards, which are completely different to the way we lived 150 years ago, but much of the building fabric is able to remain. Or buildings like Tzannes’ International House in Sydney, which has a beautiful universal floor plate that you can do anything with and will probably sit there really happily way off into the future. I think people need to be very mindful of that in their architecture: it’s all too easy to shove a column in and a set down or a shear wall, things that don’t really impact on planning now but make it impossible to alter down the track.

The other thing I’m really interested in is the ability of technology to make buildings more liveable. I don’t mean air conditioning and lighting, but future building management systems that can clean air more effectively, provide lighting, make people feel more comfortable, control noise… all this kind of stuff becomes more and more important as we’re more and more piled on top of each other. It’s this tiny chip of a whole new way that we might be able to control our environments and I’m looking forward to seeing how that develops.

Join Peter Tonkin and other leading practitioners at FRONT this 9-10 August for more deep dives into the ideas shaping the future of Australian commercial design.


Peter will be speaking as part of the ‘It Ain’t Broke…The Value of Adaptive Reuse’ session on Thursday, 9 August. Register for the session and the inaugural FRONT event here.

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