Action and connection in the regions

Zammi Rohan , 17 April 2024

The recent BES•Tville event in Townsville was a huge success, attracting a diverse audience of 195 people, all eager to hear from speakers Andrew Maynard and Adam Haddow, and facilitator Helen Norrie. Chief organiser Zammi Rohan from Counterpoint Architecture discusses the foundation and objectives of BES•Tville, future plans, and the importance of connection and action in the regions.

Can you tell us a bit about your recent event – BES•Tville? What was the genesis for this event? How were speakers selected for the event, and what expertise did they bring to the table?

‘Tville’ is the common abbreviation for our City – Townsville.

Over the last year we have been talking to other architects and allied professions about a lack of vision for the future of our City. Typically, we have relied on our city leaders to define, promote and drive this vision, but there hasn’t been much happening in this space in recent years. So, rather that sitting around and waiting for someone else to do this, we thought we could be a catalyst to spark some action. We felt that a good starting point would be creating an event to bring together our local community to hear about some amazing work happening in other cities, and exploring how this could be applied in Townsville.

BES•Tville is an inclusive network that unites the Townsville community to explore ideas that promote positive outcomes for our City. BES•Tville champions events that focus on education, knowledge sharing, collaboration and networking.

Our first event focused on high-density housing and a discussion on its application in Townsville. This is a really important topic for our City (explained further below).

We aimed high for our guest speakers, approaching Adam Haddow (SJB) and Andrew Maynard (Austin Maynard Architects). They are both highly acclaimed and considered innovators and leaders in design thinking around high-density living and city-shaping projects.  They are also recipients of recent national and international architecture awards. We thought our chances of getting them on board were fairly slim, but they were both very supportive and were keen to help out and get involved. Coincidentally, Andrew was currently designing a new home here in Townsville.

A special thanks to Helen Norrie from the University of Tasmania for connecting me with Andrew and Adam.

What were your main objectives or goals for this event? Did you achieve them?

Our key objectives for the event were:

Bringing together a diverse audience with varied interests and expertise to share knowledge and ideas

Architects are great at organising conferences where we talk to a room full of architects, and we absolutely see the value in those events for our profession. But we felt that there was a great opportunity to broaden the audience to include other professions and the wider community in these conversations to educate, inspire and promote real outcomes. Our event was attended by architects, engineers, property developers, builders, town planners, the city council, advocacy bodies, politicians, lawyers, real estate agents, local business owners, teachers and students, to name a few.

Engage with the younger generation

As architects we are often heavily focused on the ‘now’ and the immediate needs of our clients. We felt that if we are creating events that are looking at the future of our city, it was crucial that the younger generation was part of this conversation. It was also a great opportunity to introduce them to the amazing world of architecture through great speakers sharing really interesting work, and hopefully sparking an interest in architecture.

Promote ongoing conversations and encourage real outcomes

A really positive outcome from the event was the diversity of the audience and the genuine interest and enthusiasm around the ideas that were discussed. There are now 195 people in our city who have an understanding of the key concepts around the topic, and architecture and urban design more broadly, and hopefully some of them can apply that in their own working or personal lives.

Off the back of this event, our company, Counterpoint Architecture, has been exploring local project opportunities with Austin Maynard Architects, which has been really exciting for our team to work alongside them and see how they approach things like feasibility, council engagement, and design.

How did you organise the event? Did you collaborate with others? Were there any notable sponsors or partners involved in supporting the event, and what role did they play?

We collaborated with a local town planning consultant, Milford Planning, to organise the event. Milford Planning was a sounding board for our early discussions about creating the BES•Tville concept. We have many similar values and aspirations, and are both motivated to drive positive change for our City. This event collaboration also aligned with our objective of including other professions, and opened up a much larger audience through a broader, shared network.

The event was sponsored by Lysaght, NPS Commercial Furniture and Buildable Approvals. Their financial support enabled us to make the event really affordable. This was an important consideration for us to attract a big audience to an event that was very much a new concept. Also, the support from sponsors enabled us to provide free entry for students from local schools and James Cook University.

I would also like to acknowledge our guest speakers for supporting our event. They are both very busy and in high demand, so we are grateful for their generosity with their time and costs to visit Townsville.

We made a concerted effort with branding, graphics, website and ticketing to convey that this was a high quality event, and that played a big part in attracting a big audience.

Our ticket price was $77 for the two-hour talk, plus complimentary drinks and food after the event.

We also went through the process of making this a formal CPD event for architects.

Attendance of 195 is a very impressive figure for a regional event. How do you think you were able to attract such a large crowd?

Local industry events are very rare for our region. Annual awards nights are our most regular type of event, and these are typically attended by around 50 people. We get the occasional CPD presentation from suppliers, but I can’t remember the last time we had an event here with a guest speaker talking about architecture. So, we weren’t sure how well supported this event would be, and set ourselves what we thought was an optimistic target of 100 attendees. We were blow away by the response with 195 tickets sold. We had a large contingent of architects fly down from our closest neighbours in Cairns (still 350km way). We also had people from Rockhampton, the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. This shows that there is a strong appetite for high quality regional events, and people are prepared to travel.

We found that most people are willing to support a new concept like BES•Tville if it is through a trusted connection and particularly if you make the effort to contact them directly via phone or email. This approach was much more successful than the generic bulk email invitations.

The quality of speaker and relevance of the topic resulted in a high level of interest in the event.

Were there any standout moments or highlights from the event?

I think everyone found it quite fascinating that Adam and Andrew, two guys who both grew up in regional Australian towns, are now leading the way with the design of really important city-shaping projects in places like Sydney and Melbourne.

During the Q&A at the end of the event, they also shared some personal experiences from their early years growing up in regional towns and how that has shaped them – both on a personal level and how they apply that in their professional work.

How did the event address current trends, challenges and opportunities in regional architecture?

A shortage of housing is being felt across Australia, but each location has its own unique challenges. Townsville has a population just over 200,000 people. We have a strong economy with many new emerging or growing industries. But rental availability rates are <1%, and there is huge demand for new homes. Although there are many development sites around our city, very few high-density housing projects have been built over the last decade. Our regional location inflates building costs, and property valuations are low compared to major cities. So we have a whole range of metrics that don’t align. Rather than increasing density, there has been a continual suburban sprawl that is creating many other issues for our city.

Adam and Andrew discussed a range of alternative development models that they have been exploring, such as collaborations with councils and housing providers, unlocking under-utilised inner city areas through broader master planning strategies and town planning, and looking to build smaller, more sustainable buildings.

Why are events like this important in the regions?

Queensland is huge. There are only 16 countries in the world that have a bigger footprint than our state! So we appreciate the challenges for state or national organisations to cater for the regions. Through my conversations with other regional architects, there is a sentiment that we are often forgotten about and don’t receive the same level of support and engagement for events as our Capital City counterparts.

For us to attend a conference in Brisbane we need to factor in flights, accommodation and a full day away from the office. So it is a costly exercise. It typically costs us five times the cost of the event ticket to attend a Brisbane event.

By creating our own local events we can overcome the obstacles of travel and cost and it opens up a whole new range of opportunities for us. We can control the event topics, select our preferred speakers, and make decisions around frequency and costs.

We have limited exposure to high quality architecture in regional areas, so it is really valuable for us to be able to bring some of the best architects in Australia to our city and share this information across our community, and inspire others.

Do you have plans for any future events or initiatives?

To be honest, we didn’t really have any event management experience, so despite our event appearing quite organised, we were really winging it! Fortunately it all worked out well.

We are currently working to formalise the BES•Tville entity, with some governance and a Board of Directors / Committee to drive this concept forward.

Planning for the next BES•Tville event is now underway.  We are in the process of fine-tuning our event theme and reaching out to potential speakers and this is a really exciting part of the process.  We hope to announce our next event very soon.

Visit the BES•Tville website.

Visit the BES•Tville Instagram account.

Zammi Rohan is a co-founder and director of Counterpoint Architecture in Townsville. Also see our member profile of Counterpoint Architecture, which discusses the practice origins, the challenges and benefits of merging practices, remote work and upskilling, and diversity and collaboration in the regions.