Sixty Years of Innovative Architecture

Allen Jack & Cottier Architects

For the architects in the Sydney, Brisbane and Beijing based firm, design is more than a routine technical process; it is an art form. And this creative approach, Mr Heenan insists, is key. Of course, “we do structural analysis, environmental modelling, thermodynamic analysis, and materials research,” he adds. “But what you are really trying to do is get all over that and start being poetic. Start lifting it beyond the norm.”

Allen Jack & Cottier have certainly succeeded in pushing beyond the norm. The firm boasts a roster of trailblazing projects – from a new city in China able to accommodate 30,000 residents to portable living quarters in Antarctica. Indeed, some of the company’s most exciting recent developments are challenging the entire industry to rethink the limits of retail and mixed use development here in Australia. The team believes that, “we can do much better than the standard big box shopping centre model. You can have a wonderful community feel in a large development,” Mr Heenan insists. “You can have retail development, you can have community facilities, and you can have wonderful landscape.”

Rouse Hill Town Centre is one example which showcases the company’s ability to throw off the shackles of traditional retail development. The $470 million dollar project, delivered in conjunction with architectural firms Rice Daubney and Group GSA in 2008, “redefined what a big box shopping complex could be,” Mr Heenan explains. Remarkably, the team created a thriving and aesthetically pleasing town centre for northwest Sydney within a big box shopping centre. Instead of the usual car parks and generic storefronts, the complex offers open, tree lined streets, inviting cafés, and shaded benches overlooking fountains and greenery. The team also introduced a range of amenities, including a nine screen cinema complex, educational facilities, a library, community facilities, and health and medical centres. The result is a pleasant, people friendly community centre in what could have been an unattractive and impersonal strip mall.

The team also set out to “break ground” on environmental performance at Rouse Hill Town Centre through a forty per cent reduction in energy use and a sixty per cent reduction in water use. That, along with the team’s holistic vision for a better community, has been successfully achieved, and a number of other retail developments are now studying the innovative model. “I think it is the way we have to go,” says Mr Heenan. “We have to realise that retail hubs have got to be way more than the rule of thumb retail centres. They have to be activity centres, they have to be sporting centres, they have to be cultural centres and they have to act the way a traditional town centre would.”

Allen Jack & Cottier’s success at Rouse Hill was followed by Balgowlah Village, another mixed use development project challenging the notions of what can be achieved in a regional shopping centre. The project successfully integrates a large shopping complex, 234 apartments, and ample parking, recreational, and community facilities into a suburban Sydney setting. “Instead of wasting the two hectares of roof of this shopping centre, we’ve actually turned it into a village,” Mr Heenan explains, complete with swimming pools, gardens and artwork. The result is an unexpectedly relaxing hideaway conveniently located within an urban environment. “You are in the middle of the bustling city [but] you can hear the birds, you can feel the breeze. And yet you can catch the lift down to grab a coffee or to jump in a cab or jump in a bus to the beach… You wouldn’t know you are actually living on top of a shopping centre.”

The greatest challenge was integrating all aspects of the site, which range from loading docks and car parks to quiet plazas and lively cafés. “And that’s not easy to do and do well. But if it comes off like it has in Balgowlah, it’s a model. It’s a model for the future of shopping.” The industry agrees. The project won the Woodhead Award for Best Mixed Use Development in 2011, one of the building industry’s most coveted awards.

Allen Jack & Cottier’s achievements have continued throughout the GFC, despite the challenges. “I think any architecture firm that is still surviving and thriving after the last three years of the world financial crisis is by definition a well-managed firm,” Mr Heenan explains. “We run a very healthy practice,” he adds. “No one owes us any money, we don’t owe anyone any money and we’ve got money in the bank. And to say that as an architecture firm in this environment is pretty amazing.”

The firm’s successful management is no coincidence. Several new strategies have enabled the company to run like a well-oiled machine, freeing up the team for what is most important – architecture. Most notably, the executive structure has been rearranged for greater efficiency and advanced project management software has been implemented across the board. Regular meetings keep the team on the same page and the PMO2 software keeps a running record of every project in real time, so everyone is fully abreast of each and every development. The result is “a healthy, profitable company, focusing now on our clients and architecture, not on the nitty gritty of project management, because that is now under control.”

Mr Heenan also credits the company’s talented staff for its enduring success. “Our people are very important to us. They are understanding of our determination to produce excellent work all the time.” Life at Allen Jack & Cottier isn’t all work and no play, however. “To [produce the best work] you need people who are happy working here, who have good work-life balance, who understand that we respect that,” Mr Heenan explains. As a result, “It’s just a nice place to work.” Indeed, most senior staff have been with the firm for 15 years or more, and even those who leave often find their way back again. “Many go away and test the market for a few years and come back to us.”

Allen Jack & Cottier actively encourages employees to give back, particularly to young, aspiring architects in University. Mr Heenan leads this initiative by example, working closely with 300 students each year. At the beginning of the term, he presents an Allen Jack & Cottier design, follows up with several lectures throughout the year, and reviews the students’ final project. He finds the students’ unique approaches to an Allen Jack & Cottier project hugely rewarding. “[It] is a wonderful incubator of ideas,” he says. “It’s just wonderful – the breaking apart, the thinking about materials and structure and approach to environmental design.” The relationship also provides Allen Jack & Cottier with the best and brightest new talent, for top students are often offered a place with the firm upon graduation.

Mr Heenan is optimistic that these young architects will be entering a better financial environment than architects have seen for the past few years. “It’s been a tough couple of years in the architectural industry, in the construction industry, and in retail,” he admits. “But we see it improving.” One of the greatest challenges of the GFC, Mr Heenan says, is overcoming the highly competitive bidding wars. “Fee biding on projects has gone to a ridiculous level where people are on survival mode,” he explains. “And if you want to do a great job for a client you can’t be the cheapest. And that’s an issue for us at the moment. We are trying to run projects the way we always have on half the fee.” Fortunately, the situation has begun to improve, and Mr Heenan predicts a steady increase in industry activity throughout 2013. He adds, however, that recovery will likely be frustratingly sluggish. “We’re not there yet. It’s going to be slow growth throughout the year.”

Efficient business practices will continue to be vital, he cautions. Fortunately, Allen Jack & Cottier is well equipped to run a streamlined and productive operation, and the team has a number of exciting new projects in the pipeline. Indeed, one can only guess what game changing approach to architecture the firm’s innovative minds have in store for 2013.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

May 27, 2020, 3:56 AM AEST