National Practice Director at Mirvac Design, Peter Cotton, professes to a few passions in life: architecture, with photography and cycling falling in behind. Interestingly, his experience of each activity has him working at altitude; he doesn’t mind cycling all the way up Australia’s highest mountain ranges, and of course, the outfit he leads designs its fair share of the country’s tall apartment towers.
Cotton joined Mirvac Design in 1989 and became the National Practice Director in 2004. As the Design Director for the Newington Olympic Village, he led the architectural team through the successful bid phase to the start of the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
He held a number of roles for the Mirvac Group before focussing on the centralisation of Mirvac Design from early 2009.
Below he tells us a bit about becoming National Director for the in-house design team at giant Australian property company Mirvac, his journey into the role, including the ‘pleasant surprise’ of discovering the collaborative nature of working amongst in-house construction, sales and marketing and development teams.
How did you come to be an architect? And to work at Mirvac?
Coming from a family of accountants and bankers, I wanted a career that was more about physical outcomes, so chose architecture. I started at UNSW in 1974 as a part time student, which was great as there were only a handful of part timers and therefore were able to build good relationships with tutors such as Russell Jack. Also being part time meant I was learning about the reality of architectural practice.
I made a mission of working for small firms where I was able to experience and partake in the whole design and delivery process, with projects rolling over within 12 months. I continue to recommend this approach to recent graduates.
After working in Sydney for a few years, I was offered a challenging role to set up an office in Queensland for the company I was then working for which I did for a few years. I was then offered a role in Mirvac Design (then HPA) back in Sydney. As we had just had our first child, I was happy to come back home, but the first project I worked on for Mirvac was in Queensland so I spent the next year travelling back there on a weekly basis!
You’ve worked at Mirvac for two-and-half decades, rising to a senior position in one of Australia’s most successful property businesses. How has the company and your role evolved in that time?
I started at Mirvac Design as a project architect in 1989, just before the property downturn of the early nineties. The scale of projects were significantly larger than I had experienced in previous roles, but I found a highly supportive team within Mirvac Design and the wider group, with in-house construction, sales and marketing and development all on tap working in a collaborative manner rather than the adversarial approach I was used to.
After becoming a Director in the mid-2000s, I was asked to lead the design team in the Mirvac Lend Lease bid for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games Village (Newington). This was a highlight of my career.
Newington, Homebush, New South Wales, was the home to the 2000 Sydney Olympics housing 16,000 athletes. (1996 / 2008)
I was lucky enough to work with a broad team of highly talented architects to deliver a significant project for the Games which also represented a benchmark for residential development in Australia. Newington showcased significant innovation in the areas of sustainability (the Solar Village, energy and water efficiency), master planning and design.
After the successful conclusion of the Games, I undertook a national role overseeing product design across all Mirvac projects and eventually as National Practice Director in 2007. Over this time, Mirvac has grown significantly, with landmark projects in all states (Walsh Bay in Sydney, Yarra’s Edge in Melbourne, Cutters Landing in Brisbane and Burswood Peninsula in Perth as examples). This was a period of significant growth for Mirvac and the design team expanded accordingly.
The Walsh Bay Redevelopment located on Sydney Harbour, 1996 / 2006, was a significant urban renewal projects in Australia.
Few architects and designers have had the experience of working for large companies. How do things differ to working in the more typical specialist consultant architectural firms?
We actually are quite specialised in the area of residential design and delivery, from single dwellings up to 30-plus storey apartment towers and mixed use developments. The key difference is the fact that we have basically one client with familiarity and design diversity being the real challenges for us as architects and designers within Mirvac.
Over the last 5-10 years, we have implemented strategies to address this. Internally, we have four Design Directors who each drive their own individual design agendas which creates design diversity across our projects.
In addition to this, we engage external architects on selected projects where there is a specific advantage in doing so, such as authority design competitions and major bids. As well as providing design diversity, working with external teams also injects fresh thinking into the whole team and challenges the status quo around responses to market drivers.
(above) The Yarra’s Edge development creates a new urban community and major new waterfront plaza with strong links to the Melbourne CBD, the Yarra River and Southbank.
There’s much talk recently around design groups adopting integrated service offerings, but Mirvac has successfully done so for a long time. Can you explain how it works?
Mirvac’s integrated model, with design, construction, development and sales-and-marketing working as one team, has the project as the key focus. We work collaboratively from project inception to completion to achieve the best project outcome from a design, construction and customer perspective.
One distinct advantage of this is the early involvement with the sales-and-marketing team to analyse the customer profile in detail, including direct interaction and feedback during the design process. This ensures that the customer is front of mind from the beginning of the design focus and feedback can be instantly integrated into the design.
Also, the construction team and cost planners are involved from the early design concepts to ensure cost and buildability issues are continually addressed and do not require major compromises too late in the design process.
We also obtain detailed post occupancy feedback from customers which is then fed into future projects. This all results in significant IP that has built up over time within Mirvac Design.
Mirvac are working with external architecture practice Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT), and UrbanGrowth NSW, to deliver Green Square Town Centre’s tallest tower, apartments named Ovo.
What are you most proud of in your professional work?
Personally, Newington, the Olympic Village, but from a team perspective the collective body of significant projects we have achieved as a design team over the last 30-plus years.
Newington includes 2,000 dwellings and includes 400 hectares of parkland, pedestrian linkages, a school and shopping centre.The architectural challenge was to create a coherent overall composition, while at the same time achieving an individual and recognisable expression for each of the buildings
What’s the most exciting thing to you in the future of your field?
The residential markets have changed significantly over the last 10 years, becoming much more demographically diverse. This, coupled with the ever increasing rate of technological change makes for some exciting opportunities in design innovation. Those that approach this with open minds and commitment to invest in innovation will be the winners.
Mirvac Design worked with a number of architectural practices to produce a variety of dwelling types at Newington. Architects in association: Eeles Trelease, Vote Associates, Tanner and Associates, Gordon and Valich, Virginia Kerridge Architects, Grose Bradley Associates, Order Architects, Tonkin Zulhaika, PTW, Hassell
If you weren't an architect, what would you be doing?
I don’t know what I would be if I was not an architect. It is a profession that has grown on me over time. If I have to make a call, probably photography, which is one of my keen interests.
I’m also a keen road bike rider, going out every weekend and have done some long rides in New Zealand around Lake Taupo and from Canberra to Perisher a few times. The hillier the better for me (within reason). I am also enjoying sailing (our son is an Australian champion in a number of sailing classes) and travel to out of the way places with good food and wine along the way!
Images via Mirvac Design