London-based practice PH+ Architects recently opened a Sydney office.

Drew Hamilton, director at PH+ Architects, established the firm with Andy Puncher 10 years ago in London.

As director, he is the design lead on many of the practice’s projects, such as the Shree Ghanapathay Temple in Wimbledon, The Plinth in Limehouse and Squirries Street in Hackney

Architecture and Design spoke to Hamilton about establishing the Sydney office, learning from other countries and dealing with Sydney’s planning policies.

You’ve just opened an office in Sydney. What parallels do you see between working in Sydney and London?

Despite being 10,000 miles apart, Sydney and London face many similar challenges, one of which is housing. Both have witnessed significant urban development in recent years, yet demand for housing in each still continues to outstrip supply, leading to steeply rising property prices. With both anticipating further, significant population increases over the next 25 years, this shows no signs of easing, and poses questions (and opportunities), both here and in London as how to successfully accommodate such levels of growth. 

With authorities in Sydney (NSW) having set out a plan that moves away from a sprawling, car-based, suburban model towards a more compact and connected city, this correlates closely with the earlier thinking proposed for London, by Lord Roger’s Urban Task Force. The Sydney plan emphasises urban renewal around well-connected, existing strategic centres and accelerating new housing in designated ‘infill’ areas and priority precincts. This directly ties in with our own work in London over the past decade, which has been focused around medium-density, brownfield development in urban areas.

Practicing in London, a constrained urban environment and a demanding property market has required us to use our creativity to maximise the potential of sites, and we see these skills as being equally relevant, if not more so, in Sydney given the challenges it faces. London required us to think creatively to address its own housing needs. We see similar opportunities and challenges in Sydney to develop site-specific designs that respond to both physical and social context.

What could Sydney learn from London's approach?

London is a fascinating city in which to live and work, being both layered and dynamic. Whilst it has a long and evident past, it does not stand still and is always evolving. Generally it balances respect for its heritage with the need to adapt to current and future needs.

As architects it is a highly stimulating environment in which to work, in terms of making new interventions through a planning process that in our experience, recognises good design and encourages innovation where appropriate. This allows the city’s rich heritage to be acknowledged, retained and added to as the city continually moves forward.

The issue of affordable housing is also an interesting topic. In London there is a proactive policy of integration, which aims to encourage diversity and tolerance. Also, London has historically had an administrative body that deals with policy at a ‘citywide level’, as opposed to a ‘state level’, which would appear to be beneficial and is no doubt the reasoning behind the recent formation of The Greater Sydney Commission.

The question should also be asked, ‘What could London learn from Sydney’s approach?’ Certainly the quality and quantity of new public external spaces that Sydney has offered its residents has struck us – Ballast Point Park and Pirrama Park to name a couple.

It has also been incredibly refreshing to see relatively young practices here winning significant projects through open competition, such as Stewart Hollenstein winning the Green Square Library Project, and then those projects actually moving forward (actually maybe not so surprising given the Sydney Opera House Competition was won by a 38 year old!). However, this would be practically unthinkable in London, where the culture has become far more risk adverse in relation to larger projects. Sydney has to be applauded for this encouragement and support for emerging practices on larger-scale projects.

What was the most challenging aspect of opening the Sydney office?

Having spent 11 years growing PH+ (and seven years working in London prior to that), we have effectively been building relationships with clients, consultants and local authorities for the best part of two decades in London. Coming to a new city (indeed a new continent) has meant developing a whole new set of relationships, which has been both demanding but also exhilarating!

On a personal level, despite recent technological advances, it has been challenging not having face-to-face interaction with the team in London, and having had to reduce my involvement on certain projects there in order to focus on growing the studio here in Sydney. The sooner Virgin Galactic can offer two-hour flights between the two cities the better!

Has there been anything that's surprised you about working in Sydney?

First and foremost how welcoming and receptive the people have been. There has been a genuine interest in sharing experiences between the two cities, from clients, consultants and other architects. In terms of practice, several things initially surprised us here.

When assessing sites, planning policy here seems to be more prescriptive than in London. Stipulating, for example, building heights, numbers of storeys and floor space ratios (FSR). Whilst these may provide a degree of certainty and can be challenged, they may also stifle creativity. London’s approach does not stipulate such criteria. Rather it encourages/demands site-by-site appraisal, requiring a site-specific case to be made in each instance. Whilst this requires a high level of analysis and thought from architects, it also presents scope to propose and incorporate sound, creative solutions.

We were also surprised at the less stringent policy in relation to affordable housing on sites in Sydney. It’s maybe a contributing factor to Sydney recently being ranked second only to Hong Kong, for least affordable housing costs worldwide.

You established PH+ Architects more than 10 years ago. What advice do you have for any young architects thinking about starting their own business?

Know and play to your strengths.

Understand your market.

Surround yourself with good people.

Foster relationships – they are the basis of everything.

Always believe in what you are doing.

Don’t forget to enjoy the ride.