Making the World a Better Place through Architecture

Australian Institute of Architects

“Our mission is quite simple,” says Australian Institute of Architects CEO David Parken. “It is to make the world a better place through architecture.” This mission is achieved in two ways: by “promoting the value of architecture and architects to society,” and by “supporting our members in practice.”

The organisation was incorporated in 1930 and began laying crucial groundwork from the very beginning. If fact, “the institute was a key player in promoting the idea that the practice of architecture is a profession and needs to be recognised as such.”

AIA’s early efforts led to legislation that protects the name ‘architect’ by requiring professionals who use that title to be registered. Registration, of course, requires certain qualifications. “There needs to be a register of architects to protect the public,” Mr Parken explains. “So that if someone is calling themselves an architect the public can have confidence that they are dealing with someone who has appropriate skill and experience to assist them with their project.” He adds that, “it’s not against the law to have someone else design your building. But if you want good quality architecture it makes sense to employ an architect.” And good quality architecture goes beyond the obvious aesthetics. “It’s not just what [buildings] look like; it is how they perform, both functionally and environmentally.”

The AIA also promotes the value of architects and their designs through high profile annual awards. The peer review process begins at the state level and winners move on to the National Architecture Awards. The awards cover numerous categories and represent “a very broad and deep cross section of what is happening in Australian architecture,” Mr Parken explains. “So that is our big vehicle for promoting what the profession is doing.” The presentation ceremony for this year’s National Architecture Awards will be held in Perth on November 1st. The AIA also publishes Inspire, a 250 page, full colour book showcasing more than 150 award winning projects at both the state and national level each year.

In addition to promoting the value of architecture, the AIA supports the architects themselves. The organisation believes that one of the most important areas in which to offer support is sustainability. In fact, promoting sustainability in architecture and assisting members in achieving sustainable designs has become a key initiative for the institute in recent years. The result, Mr Parken believes, is win-win for everyone involved. “Sustainability is quite hard to get your head around,” he admits. “And we think architects can help… both with existing buildings, and also incorporating sustainability into new buildings so they are functional, but also aesthetically pleasing. We want the best out of the process.”

Compiling an Environment Design Guide is one way that the AIA promotes sustainable solutions in architecture. For almost two decades, the institute has sponsored leading minds in various sectors to research and produce papers on a wide range of sustainability related topics. The institute generally commissions 15 to 20 different research papers a year and currently has over 300 peer reviewed papers on sustainability and environmental design available to members. “That is really a unique piece of knowledge that we have created for the benefit of the profession so that architects can be on the leading edge in terms of these issues,” Mr Parken points out.

Adding a sustainability category to the AIA Awards has also been an important step in promoting eco-friendly buildings. “We realised that the general public wants to know ‘well, what does a sustainable project look like?’ So we introduced a sustainability category into our awards program… to recognise excellence from a peer reviewed point of view.” The institute has also recently modified the category so that entries must now formally outline how they are sustainable. Also, projects can no longer be directly entered into a sustainability category. Instead, all entries are reviewed for “outstanding achievement in sustainability,” Mr Parken reports. “Because we believe that all projects need to address sustainability.”

In addition, the AIA is currently building a new office tower in Melbourne that will be “an exemplar in terms of sustainability.” The 22 storey building is set to earn five stars in the Green Star rating system. “Because of the small footprint of the building, we weren’t able to go to six stars, so we turned our attention to the carbon side of things,” Mr Parken explains. First, the institute ran a total carbon modelling report for the building to uncover the ‘business as usual’ carbon footprint. This report covers the building itself, as well as materials, operational energy, transport both for construction and occupancy after completion, and the waste generated over the lifetime of the building.

The team then came up with various strategies to reduce that carbon footprint. “The building is going to be using 70 per cent less energy and therefore producing 70 per cent less carbon than a typical ‘business as usual’ building in the community,” reports Mr Parken. The institute is using a number of strategies, such as opting for bicycle storage instead of a car park and using a waste management plan that recycles 70 per cent of all materials used in day to day operations. “And what we’ve found through these strategies is that we could reduce the total carbon footprint – not just turning on the lights and running the air conditioning – but also the embodied energy, the transport and the waste by about 46 per cent.” The AIA is also requiring buyers and renters to sign a sustainability charter, “which means that everyone who buys or rents in the building signs on to offsetting the remaining carbon footprint of the building so that we can target carbon neutrality.”

The AIA has also been very active in partnering with other industry associations to promote sustainable buildings. The institute is a founding member of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), a non-profit volunteer organisation of industry and professional associations, non-government organisations and government observers invested in the design, delivery and operation of the built environment. “The sole purpose of this organisation is to discuss sustainability in the built environment,” Mr Parken reports.

Task Groups within ASBEC look at various topics around sustainability and work toward practical solutions. Part of this process involves commissioning research, and the organisation has uncovered some crucial findings. Mr Parken chairs the Climate Change Task Group, and he says that one recent research report commissioned by the group found that the built environment is responsible for 23 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Thirteen per cent comes from running Australia’s nine million households each day, and 10 per cent comes from operating non-residential buildings such as shops, offices, and industrial facilities. “Once we knew that we were a major emitter, then we could ask ourselves, ‘is there anything that we can do about it?’ The sector is growing, and so therefore the emission footprint of the sector is growing. So, how could we grow and still do better?”

The Task Group discovered that energy efficient designs “could make substantial savings on our energy use, and therefore our greenhouse gas emissions. We found that we could continue to build and grow, but we could reduce our footprint by about 30 per cent by 2030.” Fortunately, the group also found that this reduction can take place using technology that is currently available. “So we weren’t going to government and saying ‘give us a whole bag of money and we will go and research this and come back to you with the answer.’ We found that there were already technologies and techniques that could be deployed.” The group studied the barriers to utilising these technologies and techniques and is currently working to promote several incentives and regulatory changes that they believe would help increase the number of sustainable buildings being built in Australia.

The AIA has put tremendous effort into promoting greater sustainability in the built environment. The organisation believes that architecture is an important part of all our lives, and wants to promote the best design for every building – environmentally, aesthetically, and functionally. “We actually think in terms of the whole life of a building and we want the building to be able to serve its purpose efficiently, but also be delightful to be in,” Mr Parken explains. “We want to promote all the best things that are possible through design. That’s our purpose and it is something that we do passionately.”

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August 18, 2022, 9:15 PM AEST