A column about design process, design policy and design and politics.

This week

There are many ways to get plastered.” Old builder’s traditional saying.

It’s been a remarkable week of news, but you need to pay attention to the design bits.

Asbestos, (or O best ass)

Asbestos is in the news in NSW and the ACT. Scaremongering is easy, given we’ve known for forty years that when the loose ‘friable’ fibres are inhaled, they can cause mesothelioma, an awful deadly disease. Therefore asbestos products declined in the 80s, and have been banned in Australia since 2003. As a result, younger readers may be unaware of the backstory of asbestos in architecture. Here’s is a potted history.

Building products using asbestos as a strengthening agent started in the 1920s. By the 50s it had become the basis of many sheet materials and insulation in the building industry, witnessed by the three prominent advertisements for asbestos (above + below), taken from a 1954 commemorative edition of Architecture Australia, produced for the annual conference. 70 years ago it’s as a wonder product.

35 years later and asbestos all but disappears from Australian building products, as the lung cancer was linked not only the making of the material, but the cutting, drilling and assembly. What was once its highlighted quality of permanence - it doesn't dissolve or break down in the environment - is now the bane of the EPA. The only saviour here is that almost all of it appears to be far less dangerous bonded asbestos.

Plastered boards

The speculation about the source of the asbestos, and the video shots of mountains of plasterboard, highlighted two issues: its continued use overseas, and the problem of building waste generally.

In 2016 during the construction of the Perth Children's Hospital, plasterboard sourced from China was found to contain asbestos (as their standards differ to Australia), which caused severe delays in years, and tangentially contributed to the demise of one of the Perth’s best architectural firms, Jones Coulter Young (as seen in this monograph by URO).

Astonishingly, 8% or more of building material taken onto a building site, is later taken away and tipped as waste. Sustainable ways to reuse or downcycle are urgently sought. Plasterboard is one that can be crunched to recover the gypsum, but contamination by other products is problematical.

Braking bad

Asbestos was also widely used in brake pads. The famed Bathurst race was sponsored by Hardie’s (for the asbestos) and Ferodo (makers of pads). And the cars are sponsored by Marlboro, so multiple roads leading to lung cancer.

On a sad side note I note that Stephen Ashton, that very fine architect and co-founder of controversial Melbourne firm ARM, was speculated to have contracted mesothelioma from maintaining the brakes of his rally racing cars. This is his obituary in 2016 in A&D.

Canberra Asbestos

My involvement with asbestos in architecture started 50 years ago in my first job as an architect in Canberra at the Commonwealth Department of Housing and Construction. The super material to wrap the modernist open plan local schools we were designing (or rather me drawing) was sheet asbestos, curved bottom and top to create a floating organic ship. The cladding seems to have been replaced as the schools expand. Tangentially I worked on master plans for two schools on Wheeler Crescent in Wanniassa.

Canberra also suffered the misfortune to have more than a thousand houses with ceiling insulation (much needed in the colder climate) made from asbestos. Promoted by Mr Fluffy, the installations have required removal and remediation, sometimes requiring extensive work to encase the whole house in plastic, or in the worst cases, wholesale demolition.

A Joyce fall

I leap to the defense of Barnaby Joyce, (which may surprise given his appalling politics). I argue his fall from the planter in Canberra’s Lonsdale Street was as a result of poor design. The lightweight planter is made from glass reinforced polyester or GRP, better known as fiberglass, with a narrow bendable edge. It became insufficiently sturdy, and easy to slip off, under the weight of the rotund Barnaby. As to why he was sitting on the wrong end, and not on the timber seat, is a mystery best left to the NACC. 

It’s a similar scandal as the poor design of the steps that led to Dan Andrews fall in Victoria. Perhaps the good burghers of Canberra could switch to using wider and sturdier concrete planters, like their much-celebrated bus stops.

Taking Concrete Action

Canberra has a love affair with fully reinforced concrete. Just look at the ACTION bus stops (10 points if you guessed the acronym of the ACT Internal Omnibus Network). Solid construction, resisting graffiti and vandalism, they were designed by local architect Clem Cummings in the 1970s. Barnaby's not going to fall off the seat in one of these. Mind you, Barnaby's never likely to be waiting for a bus.

There are 483 on the ACTION network. Pity they didn’t have a spare one for the south side suburb of Curtin (home of the Radburn plan downunder).

Swift design

The most impressive design in Australia right now is the set (and dramatics) for the Taylor Swift ERAS tour. It's not surprising that Taylor Swift employs smart design ideas in every aspect of her performance, from clothes to sets to screens to sound. Recently the NY Museum of Arts and Design (the beautifully named MAD), had a show dedicated for the ‘Swifties’.

On one floor were many of the costumes designed or initiated by Taylor Swift, seen here in glass cabinets. What a pity that Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, supposedly pivoting to couture and textiles, closed before it could mount this Taylor Swift exhibition during her visit. Maybe next time, next century.


Intriguingly Trevor Dickinson, a Novocastrian, has taken a shine to all things Canberran and has written a book about the bus shelters, all 483 of them. He’s also created artworks and even a jigsaw puzzle.

Signs off

Taylor can be found on the back of a Suzuki Swift.

Next week

More on the Swift shift.

Tone Wheeler is an architect /adjunct prof UNSW / president AAA.

The views expressed are his.

These Design Notes are Tone on Tuesday #196, week 8/2024.

Past Tone on Tuesday columns can be found here

Past A&D Another Thing columns can be found here

You can contact TW at [email protected]