Applying Some Thought

Mode Design

There is no disputing that the commercial building industry is currently in a depressed state. But that does not mean everyone is suffering. In a very real sense, it seems the cream is rising to the top and those businesses that can demonstrate genuine skills, together with a modern approach to organising their activities, are increasingly benefiting from a more discerning customer approach.

Today’s client demands total value for money and a professional approach to on-time delivery. This plays to the strengths of a design practice we have visited previously but which continues to intrigue with its novel and forward-thinking approach.

Mode Design is a multi-disciplinary practice with nine studios across Australia and New Zealand, employing some 100 staff in the disciplines of architecture, urban design, master planning, interior design, landscape architecture and graphic design. Mode takes advantage of modern communications so not all of its offices – situated in all the major cities and now including the recently-opened Perth branch – are required to incorporate all the functions. Instead, all plug into a kind of central services channel where all offices are linked, interconnected and working for each other. This increases efficiency, obviates wastage and duplication of effort or staff, and tailors Mode for the modern age.

Rhonan O’Brien started a two-person practice in 1991 before becoming Managing Director of Mode. Rather than adopt the usual ‘me-too’ approach to the business, he has clearly taken a great deal of thought over the direction his company, and the industry it serves, might take over the coming decades and applies environmental, economic and social sustainability criteria as the most important outcomes of projects the company is engaged in.

Clients are very cautious at present about commercial development and will only work with companies that can give them a very strong commercial rationale, says Rhonan. Without demeaning or undermining the role of the architect, the business case has become overwhelmingly the more important criterion for a project’s viability. It is consistently not rocket science, he concedes, but about getting it right first time.

Recent projects include the head offices of DTDigital and Ikon Communications in Melbourne, and the Palmerston Water Park in Northern Territory, but something else is occupying much of Rhonan’s attention right now: portable and affordable housing.

Governments across Australia now have a definition of ‘affordable housing’ that means the not-for-profit organisations that own the properties may not charge more than thirty-five per cent of the market rate or thirty per cent of someone’s income. A recent development has been the interest of all parties in transportable properties that can be demounted and driven from one state to another as demand waxes or wanes. One such client segment is hotels and accommodation including, but not limited to, provision of rooms for resource-sector workers.

In a sense, Mode is going with the trend, getting involved in this probably less lucrative, less prestigious sector that many companies would be sniffy about, but Rhonan believes that if this is the way forward, it’s better to be on the train than to miss it. Mode gets involved with design of facades and interiors, but also of ground services and other provisions of placing the building on a new site. “The role we have is a lesser one but I suggest that, as architects, we ignore ‘modularisation’ at our peril,” he explains. He is in no doubt: this is the trend. “Not everyone drives around in a customised car – they are happy to drive in a vehicle that 150,000 others have.”

Not that everything will become standardised; the climatic and planning requirements are different from one location to another. For example, a hotel in Melbourne would not feature balconies because no one wants them, “but in, say, Cairns, if we don’t plan a balcony for every room, we probably won’t get the job,” he explains. But modularity is on the horizon in the hotel industry and, Rhonan says, in hospitals and other healthcare projects, and definitely in affordable housing.

Mode has interests in anything where there is a repetitive element – correctional establishments, for example. The company worked for Laing O’Rourke on the Darwin Prison project, which consisted of three major facilities: an 800 bed correctional facility; a thirty-two bed mental health and behavioural management centre; and a twenty-four bed supported accommodation and program centre.

The repetitive element extends to high-rises as well. Mode is currently working on high-rise projects where the complete interiors are flat-packed to be inserted into a concrete structure. “Every container is complete with a unit fitout.” The obvious advantage: speed. Economies of scale are also important here, but as Rhonan emphasises, if you can get a project operational in six months instead of twelve, you double your internal rate of return. “It’s staggering how many people don’t get that.”

Cost is also a factor and a substantial amount of prefabricated product is brought in from China. Yes, it is ‘downmarket’, he acknowledges. It would not be an acceptable route to take for a five-star hotel. But clients in the medical or corrections sector, whose overwhelming priority – beyond operational efficiency – is cost control, are increasingly demonstrating that they are open to the modular route.

The price of this particular freedom is eternal vigilance. Rhonan stresses the importance of keeping a very close eye on the quality of what gets delivered from China; you need someone on the ground examining everything, all the time. Mode’s reputation so far has been founded on quality, so ‘going modular’ has had to have had strict quality control to avoid hurting the company’s image. “Plumbing and electrical are the key things where people continually get caught out.” Otherwise, prefab containers would arrive in Australia with non-approved switches or plumbing fittings to Chinese rather than Australian standards. However, it is impossible to ignore this source of supply, or to be sentimental about the supply chain at home. Rhonan points out it could get cheaper still: talk of a property bubble in China leads to thoughts of manufacturers flooding export markets with product they may not be able to shift up there – which would offset the advantage of a lower Aussie dollar.

“This is not something I am advocating – but it doesn’t pay to ignore these factors. If we wanted to put all our eggs in one basket, we would still [just] be in Brisbane and designing townhouses.” Mode was recently approached by a tier-one construction corporation and asked if demand for educational facilities could be supplied by modular buildings sourced in either China or India. Rhonan believes the answer is “yes”. Demountable buildings are nothing new in Queensland; “the quality coming out of China today is far in excess of those old buildings.”

Mode’s clients are building concrete-based projects that will last for a hundred years. “I have no doubt of that. So if you have a prefabricated system throughout the building, it must be capable of being renovated and refreshed at least three or four times during that building’s life. It makes perfect sense that the shell is concrete or a similar very resilient material and the prefabricated modules are simply slid in as a complete unit – and can be slid out and replaced.”

Think of a chest of drawers: scaffold the outside of the building and add an external hoist, then simply pull out the interior just like a drawer. Rhonan predicts that if this is not already happening, the first such building may be unveiled very soon – in Australia. Mode Design has a very international outlook and he reminds us that Japan has been doing essentially the same thing for more than twenty years already. Two Japanese specialists in this field are currently studying the Australian market; both have been dealing in accommodation in post-nuclear disaster Fukushima.

As if modularity were not enough in the way of forward thinking, Rhonan gives us a preview of what promises to be a whole new philosophy: innovation capitalisation, which Mode is just rolling out. “Capitalise on four specific elements of a project: economic, social, educational and environmental. Depending on how you mix those four elements, you can have an exponential multiplier of benefit out of the project.” Mode is just completing a small pre-architectural concept project for the Red Cross, a drop-in centre for young people; in itself it is not a significant project but, “it is one where we are hoping to demonstrate this idea of innovation capitalisation”. It sounds like we need to book our next chat with Rhonan and his team already.

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’?

July 14, 2020, 10:37 AM AEST