ACA President’s Comment – February 2020

John Held , 3 February 2020

As disaster strikes, John Held discusses the importance of sharing knowledge and experiences, and the broader role of the architect in society.


This word seems to be the theme for the start of 2020. The spread of bushfires across the country has been a distressing constant on our newsfeeds, and a sobering reminder that much more serious action to decarbonise our economy is required.

With everyone’s focus on bushfire recovery (and how people can help), we’ve asked several architects with experience of bushfire recovery work to offer their advice and lessons learned. This month, we kick off with a reflection by Ninotschka Titchkosky on her work on the Narbethong Community Centre, and we have several more in the pipeline. We also publish Rob Stent’s overview of his research into the broader role of architects in the recovery planning processes after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. This makes compelling reading, and we encourage everyone to consider what these findings mean in terms of the current recovery process.

We are also keen to provide a platform through which ACA members can share their knowledge, work, experiences and advice around bushfire recovery work and pro bono work more broadly.

  • What are three key lessons for those who are keen to embark on disaster recovery work?
  • What place does pro-bono work have in the broader role of the architect in society?
  • How can ACA contribute to a wider debate about environment, building and government policy?

Contact Angelina or me if you have thoughts on these issues.

Connected to the question of our profession’s role in the bushfire recovery is the broader recurring theme of architect’s role in society, and how our practices can be responsible corporate citizens. Architects Declare has started the year with a strong campaign exhorting architects to act by committing to become carbon neutral over the course of 2020. They set out a clear and concise course of action – 1. 100% Green Power by 30 January 2020. 2. Carbon audit by 30 June 2020. 3. Carbon neutral by 30 December 2020. Social media feeds have been awash with pledges from practices large and small, and twitter news is that retailers of Green Power have been flooded with enquiries from architects.

We have also seen recent debates about high-profile international architects working for repressive regimes, or arguing that we don’t have a responsibility to the workers building our projects, not to mention our staff. Here in Australia, reports of unpaid overtime, under-award wages and unreasonable expectations of staff recur with depressing regularity. If you can’t run a well-organised and profitable practice without resorting to fee cutting and poor treatment of staff, perhaps you shouldn’t be in business in the first place.

In the midst of all of this, one of the most disturbing things I have read relates to emails tabled at the current Grenfell inquiry into the fatal London fire. These exchanges between the architect, fire engineer, contractor and subcontractors appear to dispassionately discuss the logic behind deleting fire barriers behind the cladding at each storey – arguing that they would be ineffective as the cladding would have burned away by the time they were required. We wait with concern for the final report. Reports of possible criminal proceedings and even jail time are a sobering reminder that architects have a duty of care to those who live and work in the buildings we create. The grand gesture and the beautiful space cannot be at the expense of harming the building user. Or, for that matter, the planet.