“For architecture to exist in regional and outback areas it may need to walk to the beat of a different drum.” - Cameron Anderson of Cameron Anderson Architects.

Architects Cameron Anderson and Alexandra Murray and graduate architect Jack White are currently half way through the Architects Outback program, a tour of regional and outback NSW that aims to provide architectural representation and services for towns and communities that don’t currently benefit from the services of permanent architects.

The program is a product of the NSW Country Division of the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) Small Projects Grants 2015 and has also been supported by the NSW Architects Registration Board (NSWARB).  

Anderson, Murray and White have already visited Bourke and Walgett and plan to stop in at Coonamble and Coonabarabran. Architecture & Design caught up with Anderson to discuss the program and why its necessary.

What is the Architects Outback program all about? Why did it come about?   

Architects Outback is a program that aims to make the services of an architect more accessible and economical by providing representation in outback and regional towns and communities that currently don’t have access to the services of permanent architects.  This is a pilot program that will visit four towns over four days and will see us travel over 1,200km, covering four different local Councils that have a combined area of approximately 87,000sqm. We have partnered with the Local Councils in each of the four towns of Bourke, Walgett, Coonamble and Coonabarabran which will allow us to meet with any individual or organisation for the purpose of providing advice relating to anything architecture or construction. 

The program aims to obtain some economy in scale and resources and, if successful, develop a regular and permanent service that can utilise the services of many other regional architects operating throughout NSW.  The program was investigated following many conversations with residents of outback and regional towns who, in the past, have really struggled to find people to assist with architectural projects. This is also the case for many industries, not just architecture.

Do you think the quality of buildings outside NSW Metropolitan areas is less? Does this have something to do with a fewer number of architects?

Not necessarily and it also depends on how you determine what “quality” is and how that is measured or perceived as different regions have different values, all influenced by social, cultural, economic or environmental considerations. You can still find some pretty ordinary buildings in metropolitan areas that have a high number of architects practicing so I don’t believe it relates strictly to number of architects.  Economics including median house prices, cost of living and wages, I feel, play a very large part in the shaping of the built environment, as does policy implementation and the regulation of the building and construction industry, however, if there is no choice available then naturally the built environment can suffer in terms of quality. For architecture to exist in regional and outback areas it may need to walk to the beat of a different drum and that is where regional sub branches such as the NSW Country Division of the Australian Institute of Architects are extremely important to the profession and they need to be valued accordingly.

Queens Pinch Road Residence in Mudgee received commendations at the 2015 AIA NSW Country Division Architecture Awards for Residential Architecture - Alterations and Additions. Photography by Amber Hooper

Why don’t people in the Outback hire architects?

In my experience it is due to a number of factors.  Time, distance, availability and cost seem to be the biggest hurdles and even when those hurdles are overcome that doesn’t necessarily equate to success or client satisfaction so clients still need choice. Architecture will always require a careful working relationship and a high level of trust between client and architect, and outback and regional projects are no different. 

Why are there fewer architects in the Outback?

The outback, and more broadly, regional areas can be tough places for anyone to operate let alone an architect. Certainly some of these areas don’t have the capacity for full time architects as the demand for services is constantly fluctuating. The education of architecture is generally city focused and the natural progression from study to professional working life is typically within metro practices. I believe there is scope to review this focus and provide incentive for younger students, graduates or architects to consider regional practice, even if only for short periods of time or to somehow utilise existing capacity within the profession to help service regional demand when required, however this isn’t entirely straight forward.

What does an Outback architect do differently to a city one?

I wouldn’t consider myself an outback architect, more a regional architect with an interest in how to assist outback towns and communities. Large parts of the architectural process are generally the same in relation to services and stages of work, however we do tend to find that the extent of those services can be less for certain stages of the process. We also tend to have less input from consultant services and so find ourselves working very closely with individual trades.  Projects also operate on a very different timeline and can be influenced by the natural environment and farming outputs, so program expectations are constantly being revised.  We have a client who hasn’t seen decent rain in four and half years, therefore there isn’t a lot of building work going on. But as they constantly remind me, "every day without rain is one day closer to rain". Incredible optimism in a very challenging environment so I think this kind of work and interaction requires a completely different sensibility. On a less serious note, black clothing is definitely out and boots are for everyday wear... not just for site meetings. We also tend to spend a lot of time on the road so my Spotify playlists and podcast collections are reasonably extensive. 

High Cube Cafe in Mudgee by Cameron Anderson Architects won the James Barnet Award the Public/Commercial Architecture Award and the Small Project Architecture Award at 2015 AIA NSW Country Division Architecture Awards. Photography by Amber Hooper

What advice would you give to someone looking to take up the profession outside the NSW metros?

It is not for everyone but it can be incredibly rewarding and satisfying. Country towns and regional areas are pretty amazing communities so getting involved in the community and taking your time is a good start. Most people I know who are working regionally have some form of connection to the land through family or past experiences and so when moving to regional areas have a pretty good idea of what to expect.  Regional or country practice, like farming, can at times be a difficult existence, however there are certainly plenty of upsides. I feel pretty fortunate to be able to exist in a country town and practice what I studied to do. It would help to also lower your expectations in relation to caffeine. I have certainly become accustomed to the fine art of coffee or tea made with long life milk, however you can’t beat country and outback hospitality. 

What is the ultimate goal for the Architects Outback program?

This is an evolving area of the program. Originally the goal was to develop economical and accessible architectural representation for outback and regional towns by establishing efficiencies in how regional practices might service these areas.  This is still at the core of the program but it is hoped that the research and feedback will lead to further developments and innovations for regional practices and the profession generally, while also supporting the work of architects operating outside of metropolitan areas. Hopefully the program can lead to innovation and develop further to help regularly service much larger areas of NSW and potentially beyond.