Why the public deserves the highest level of competency for the design of multi-storey apartments

I refer to the recently published article ‘Why multi-storey apartments should be designed by competent building designers not just architects’. This is an old argument that was resolved in NSW over a decade ago and to the best of my knowledge is not being reviewed as part of the proposed reform of SEPP65 and the Residential Flat Design Code. However, as President of the Australian Institute of Architects I feel obliged to respond to the issues raised in the article.

Our built environment is fundamentally important to everyone, and no more so than the dwellings we choose to call home. However, despite the popularity of building and renovation shows on television, discourse about the importance of the quality of design and the impact it has on our everyday life is often missing from the media and our policy making arenas. Good design is about more than external appearances. Good design addresses functionality, safety, sustainability, productivity, and adaptability as well as aesthetics - and it is also inspiring. That is why SEPP65, with its focus on lifting the design standards of multi-residential buildings, has been widely recognised as positive and effective policy.

The NSW Government has undertaken a comprehensive review of SEPP65 and the Residential Flat Code and currently has a number of recommendations on the table for refinement. I am encouraged by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment’s documents that state the review has ‘confirmed that the policy set a new benchmark for apartment design’ and that ‘the design of apartments has improved markedly over the last decade’.

This success is due to the combination of requirements under SEPP65 including the design quality principles, design review panels, and the guidance provided in the residential flat design code (proposed to be replaced with an Apartment Design Guide under the reforms), together with the requirement for an architect to design or direct the design of apartment buildings.

Having acknowledged that the quality of apartment designs in NSW has improved as a result of the implementation of SEPP65, how can BDA seriously query the requirement to use a registered architect which is an integral part of the policy? Nevertheless, perhaps it is timely to revisit the rationale for the SEPP65 requirement to use architects as an assurance of design competency.

Architects are regulated by Architects Acts in all Australian States and Territories. These Acts of Parliament reflect both the qualifications and experience that registered architects possess, and they protect the public interest by providing a level of assurance to the public that those who call themselves architects have met appropriate competency standards. The Acts are upheld by Architects Registration Boards in each State and Territory and are backed by a disciplinary system.

Architectural competency requirements are set by the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia (AACA), a national organisation responsible for, among other things, facilitating national standards for the registration of architects in Australia. To become a registered architect, a person must have completed a Bachelors degree and a Masters of Architecture; undertaken a minimum of two years work experience under the supervision of a registered architect; and demonstrate via a logbook that a sufficient level of experience has been gained across the full range of competencies. In addition they must also pass oral and written exams set by the State and Territory Architects Registration Boards.

Architects demonstrate through the completion of these three comprehensive stages that they have achieved the competency standards established by the AACA.

To remain registered in NSW, architects must annually complete a set amount of ongoing education and skills development through mandatory continuing professional development (CPD) and architects must also have professional indemnity insurance (PI insurance). These requirements are mandated in the Architects Act, which again, serves to protect the public interest.

In NSW there is no formal registration process for building designers, so there is no independent mechanism to validate competency, no requirement for continuing professional development or professional indemnity insurance, and no independent complaints and disciplinary process.

The Building Designers Association protests that the SEPP65 requirement for multi - storey apartments to be designed by qualified architects is a restraint of trade, yet in the same article, the BDA espouse the merits of a licensing system for building designers and points to the registration systems in Queensland and Tasmania which restrict building designers from designing certain project typologies relative to their demonstrated competency levels.

As the article went on to say, there are pathways for building designers to become registered architects to accommodate those who do not have the appropriate university degree. Building design professionals who can demonstrate the required competency standards and who are willing to commit to the professional standards and obligations of the Architects Act are able to become registered architects. There is no restriction on who can demonstrate these standards in order to become an architect.

The Australian Institute of Architects believes it is in the public interest to license building practitioners, including building designers. We also support the principle of tiered licensing of building designers to recognise different competency levels. However any tiered level registration of design professionals must recognise that the qualifications, training and experience gained by an architect represents the highest level of competency. If a building designer believes that they have attained the same level of expertise as a registered architect and that they should therefore be licensed to provide unlimited design services, including those covered by SEPP65, then they have the opportunity to demonstrate this through successfully completing the pathway to becoming a registered architect.

The quality of our built environment affects the wellbeing of us all. Planning policies should continue to be implemented which recognise that using designers with the highest level of expertise is an essential ingredient to achieving the best possible design outcomes. Architects’ Acts recognise the unique expertise possessed by registered architects; they include professional obligations; and they are underpinned by disciplinary systems for non-compliance. Mandating the use of architects for the most complex building designs is in the best interest of the public.