Billard Leece Partnership's (BLP) Health Director, Mark Mitchell, oversees all of the practice's projects in the public and private sectors. His significant portfolio of health work includes developing solutions to complex problems at the Royal Melbourne and Alfred Hospitals, as well as the Royal Children's Hospital.
Mitchell's projects are recognised by professional peers for their architectural merit and healthcare administrators for their innovation. His aptitude for translating the clinical imperatives of healthcare into planning to create operational efficiencies is evident throughout his work.
Tell us a bit more about yourself.
After growing up in country Victoria, I completed a degree in Architecture at the University of Melbourne. After working across a number of building types in the justice, defence and university sectors, I found my niche in the design of healthcare facilities.
Healthcare is a particularly demanding field of expertise and requires constant education and collaboration as the science and technology advances so quickly, and the industry is focused on continuous improvement in practice. We have assembled some fantastic minds in the office which track trends in clinical practice, as well as trends in other sectors. By actively participating in conferences and study tours, we ensure there is a vibrant culture of knowledge sharing across the office. So I guess my trainers in a sense are my clients, colleagues, and collaborators.
I was drawn to architecture through a love of drawing and I still love the fact that architects can synthesise a complex idea into a simple sketch. I am really interested in a clear explanatory diagram as the basis for a legible, elegant building.
Moreover, it’s when the project moves from diagram to design to construction that the skills of the architect are called upon to turn words into beautiful built objects.
What does your standard day involve?
Well, it has to start with a “to do” list for the day – we directors are quite a hands-on bunch at BLP so a typical day is quite varied. It is likely to include internal design sessions over butter paper, project reviews, client meetings and presentations, and of course there is the practice paperwork. I find that meetings can be really rewarding and a way of testing ideas across areas of expertise. As an architect it’s important to make the most of the time we have with our colleagues during the day – it’s a constant discovery process through teaching and learning. But, I find that the end of the day is an ideal time for thinking, a time to contemplate how to approach the following day.
What tools and software did you use for the Royal Children's Hospital?
We undertook the RCH project as a joint venture with Bates Smart. It was a true collaboration pooling skills, knowledge and experience which included tools and software. Being such a large project we tested and experimented with software through the bid and post bid-phases – including CAD, modelling and rendering, and administrative software. We chose what we believed to be the best communication tools for the task. After some on-project testing of an early version of Revit, we used 3D Triforma to model up the structure while AutoCAD and Codebook were used for detailing and planning.
While BLP places a high emphasis on using smart tools for design and documentation, I tend to draw by hand as an efficient way of explaining an overarching concept for development, or for defining a smaller study to feed into a larger concept.
Did you face any design challenges for the Royal Children's Hospital project? If so, how did you overcome them?
There were numerous design challenges for RCH. It was fast-track design and construction, and it was the first major children’s hospital development in Australia for 20 years. Each of these presented architectural and other challenges.
To respond the fast track nature of the project, the project was divided into four buildings/zones which were resolved in parallel by separate teams. The north building was designed without a basement so it commenced construction from day one, while the basements were being dug under the east and west buildings. The advantage of fast-track of course is that we see our buildings finished sooner.
We sought innovative healthcare design solutions throughout the facility, but also wanted to break away from traditional perceptions of what health buildings look like. Healthcare design is fairly regulated with guidelines, and sometimes these did not consider the specific needs of children. Suitable, full scale mock-ups were used to test and refine a design concept with clinicians, so that risks could be designed out.
What is the biggest challenge you face every day?
I can find it daunting to get through the amount of specialist literature published these days. In the healthcare design filed, we need to support our design decisions with evidence as well as experience. I am fortunate to work with in-house clinicians who can synthesise some of this information into easily understood design parameters. This process clears the way for innovative design to flourish.
What is the favourite part of your job?
My favourite part of any job has to be the day that the building opens and all the key stakeholders get together to celebrate the collective hard work of all towards a common vision – a vision to which we have given form. It’s fantastic to hear feedback on how a building is improving the lot of its occupants, but even more satisfying when the building users have understood the ideas of the building so much, that they take ownership of them as their own. Finally, it’s really rewarding to learn of studies conducted at our completed projects, where the outcomes of patients, families and staff are demonstratively improved.
Which project of yours are you most proud of, and why?
Healthcare is often called social infrastructure. On the basis of which project provides maximum social impact, it’s difficult to top RCH as a once-in-a-lifetime building designed for the benefit of generations of children. The client’s aspirations were always challenging and the rate of learning through this project was intense for all. On this project, I was exposed to a myriad of new processes and a suite of talented specialist consultants which we didn’t know even existed prior to RCH. While the design outcome is a source of enormous pride, the creative process to get there was equal parts inspiration and exasperation.
The Royal Children's Hospital, designed by BLP with Bates Smart, is a place of fun for parents, staff and children; a place of comfort during times of anxiety and an environment that sustains the family bond at times of disruption and dislocation.
Any advice for emerging architects or architecture students?
As an architect you need to make many decisions every day. Every decision you make on a project has a design impact, even in reference to the smallest detail on the largest project. My advice is to get your ideas out, share them with your peers and colleagues, and don’t be afraid of asking for help. You should choose a part of the project you want to champion as your own, and when it’s built, show it off with pride.