As a director of Sydney-based practice Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, FRONT featured speaker Peter Tonkin is a driving force behind one of the most influential entities in Australian heritage. With the inaugural FRONT event just weeks away, we caught up with Tonkin to discuss adaptive reuse and the critical importance of preserving our built heritage.
In terms of the breadth of projects that you work on, is there anything that you enjoy the most?
As far as types of projects go, I think they’re all really interesting. I recently gave a CPD talk at the [Australian] Institute [of Architects] about working in the public sector, and it struck me how much of our work is in the public sector. You get very interesting and varied projects working in that space.
The NSW industry in particular is booming – what are the merits of adapting an existing building instead of knocking it down and building a new one?
Again, there are a few fronts to that. Despite the industry’s preconceptions, adapting can often be cheaper. I think people are terrified of it up front, but in practice it can often be very economical.
We’ve just finished adapting a very significant heritage building in Parramatta into a new primary school for the Department of Education, and its cost is significantly less than a similar new build down the road that was happening at the same time. If you really delve into it, then these things can offer genuine savings.
I often muse on the fact that the postcard images or the icons for every major city are their major heritage buildings and that really encapsulates the value that these things have. They define the city and I think people are really recognising that now.
The second thing is that you get more [with adaptive reuse], because you’re not fitting the building closely to the functional brief. Inevitably there are parts left over with a heritage building so you get more space, more ceiling height, more variety of spaces, and more high quality finishes because they’re already there. You might be paying to keep them but they are there, and they do give the building something that a new build – particularly a highly cost controlled new build – can’t offer.
The third is the value of the buildings themselves. Whether they’re highly significant or just old, they still represent the continuity and landmarks of our civilisation, which I don’t think can be undervalued. I often muse on the fact that the postcard images or the icons for every major city are their major heritage buildings and that really encapsulates the value that these things have.
They define the city and I think people are really recognising that now.
It seems that for a long time we only thought about heritage in terms of heritage homes and the National Trust.
And as museums that had no life. But people aren’t going to that [type of heritage building] anymore, so the fact that we’re adapting them gives them a new relevance. If you can give these buildings a community or accessible use, that really strengthens the value of those buildings in the community.
If you can give these buildings a community or accessible use, that really strengthens the value of those buildings in the community.
What do you hope to see more of in commercial design and architecture in future?
There are two things. After a long period in architecture, I’ve seen that the buildings that get knocked down or cost an awful lot of money to refurbish are the ones that were designed very tightly to a specific purpose.
More of a sense of loose fit and durability – I’d love to see more of that. I look at Victorian terrace houses: they’re able to be adapted to contemporary living standards, which are completely different to the way we lived 150 years ago, but much of the building fabric is able to remain.
Or buildings like Tzannes’ International House in Sydney, which has a beautiful universal floor plate that you can do anything with and will probably sit there really happily way off into the future. I think people need to be very mindful of that in their architecture: it’s all too easy to shove a column in and a set down or a shear wall, things that don’t really impact on planning now but make it impossible to alter down the track.
The other thing I’m really interested in is the ability of technology to make buildings more liveable. I don’t mean air conditioning and lighting, but future building management systems that can clean air more effectively, provide lighting, make people feel more comfortable, control noise… all this kind of stuff becomes more and more important as we’re more and more piled on top of each other. It’s this tiny chip of a whole new way that we might be able to control our environments and I’m looking forward to seeing how that develops.
Join Peter Tonkin and other leading practitioners at FRONT this 9-10 August for more deep dives into the ideas shaping the future of Australian commercial design.
He will be speaking as part of the ‘It Ain’t Broke…The Value of Adaptive Reuse’ session on Thursday, 9 August. Register for the session and the inaugural FRONT event here.