We talk with Bates Smart director Philip Vivian on the sustainable benefits of timber architecture, the urgent need for urban densification, building for the long term, affordable housing and automation in design.


Australia’s tallest engineered timber office building, 25 King, which has been designed by Bates Smart, includes extensive use of innovative sustainable building materials, such as glue laminated timber structural beams and columns and cross laminated timber floors, as well as state-of-the-art technology to deliver what is being hailed as "a true workplace of the future". Why is timber making a comeback and where do you see it becoming central to construction?

Timber was the predominant material in construction if you went back a hundred years, and some of those buildings were up to eight storeys high. Back then it was the only building material and as we moved into the 20th century, other materials like steel and concrete became more prevalent.

I think the comeback now is really about sustainability; we’re saying timber sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, so it's helping us tackle the issue of climate change. Not only is it sequestering carbon, but it's also replacing other materials that have high embodied carbon.

The other aspect is the healthy work environments – people are looking for work environments that connect them with nature; what we call a biophilic work environment where people feel that they're connected to nature.

We are all working longer hours and to be in a completely artificial environment for all those hours is not a healthy thing. By being part of nature, you feel better about being at work.

About timber becoming central to construction, I think the interesting thing about 25 King is that it's a 10-storey building and almost all the structure aboveground has been replaced with timber construction; it's that kind of low to mid-scale building where timber can replace traditional materials.

Once we get into taller buildings – ones you might call a high rise – timber becomes less and less relevant. We have engineered a building up to 21 storeys in timber; unfortunately that's not going ahead but we showed that it can be done to 21 storeys.

What are the positives of a timber frame building from a design perspective? Also, apart from the height, are there other negatives?

Let's start with the positives first. The idea of a warm natural material with natural finishes is very alluring for an architect; it's also a material where you can expose structure. The interesting thing is timber is really cost neutral with traditional construction at the moment.

You're paying more for the materiality of the building, so they’re more expensive in terms of materials but you can build them much quicker and with less labour on site – on balance it comes out as the same.

For an architect, it’s an attractive proposition in terms of what they are delivering to their clients; the client is getting what they paid for, and they’re seeing the structure, they’re seeing the natural finish of timber instead of concrete or steel cladding, so it's got some great advantages in terms of really understanding how buildings are put together.

What are its negatives? The issue of shorter spans – timber is not as strong as steel or concrete, and it's not going to have a longer span.

Concrete is a much more plastic material if you want to put it into complex shapes; it's a lot easier than timber, which is a linear material and has certain limitations about getting more and more complex in terms of geometry, so these are probably the two major challenges with timber.

In an interview last year, you said that a society expresses its values in what it designs and builds. In that respect, what societal values are the most important to you and why?

I tend to look at the things we can have influence on and clearly one of the greatest challenges in the 21st century is the issue of climate change; it's really a challenge that we must act upon now. Just last week it came out that it's almost too late for us to have any impact on reducing climate change to less than plus-two degrees, so it's really an imperative.

What we're doing now is looking at more and more sustainable buildings, trying to get buildings that are sequestering carbon and not drawing electricity from the grid so we're trying to get buildings to be far, far more sustainable and more humane.

As we go into the 21st century, people are seeing their work and their life being far more intermeshed; if we go back to industrialisation in the 19th century, work was something that was very disconnected from daily life.

Even in the 20th century, we moved away from blue collar work into white collar work but you still went to work as a sort of drudge if you like, and the city was not seen as something you lived in and enjoyed – you went home and enjoyed your life.

What we're seeing is renaissance in cities in the 21st century, genuine places where you live and work. Cities are less polluted now and there will be more electric vehicles and automation, and lesser cars on the road.

I think the 21st century can be characterised as the century of cities, a century in which we are going to really start loving living in our central cities, which was simply not the case even 30, 40 or 50 years ago.

In terms of design, what would you like to urgently see change for the better that would reflect the 21st century Australian city?

I think the most urgent need for change is public transport. We've got to move away from this car dependent city model and get a model of a city based on public transport. I’m very happy to say that our three biggest cities – Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – are all currently building metro rail transport, so it’s retrofitting the cities.

It's great the government is supporting public transport, but I'd really like to see our government more proactively support density around those transport nodes.

There is a bit of a fear when the community sees density around transport nodes – does this mean the end of the suburbs? It definitely doesn't mean the end of the suburbs, but it means denser transport corridors with low density in between.

What I'd like to see the end of is low density everywhere. I'd like to see us develop away from the monocentric city model surrounded by low density suburbs that are car dependent, and move towards a more polycentric city model so there are multiple nodes of high density.

It’s not just one centre of work; you might notice from the Greater Sydney Commission’s vision of three cities that there are three work centres in Sydney, so it will become a city of three major centres.

But we need to also look at denser clusters of apartments and really change the balance from the single detached house, which is mostly being offered now to our community.

That's not really choice. I think part of the affordability equation needs to look at greater housing choice, so that we have a choice of different housing types, apartment types and apartment sizes.

As we move through life and families grow and shrink again, we can be living in the most appropriate and sustainable housing choice for that stage of our life. At the moment, Australian cities don’t really offer that level of choice to our residents.

I’ve heard a lot of architects talk about automation and technology being a big thing. Are there other things that are bigger challenges?

There are always short-term economic and operational challenges that any firm goes through; the economy's slowing so we are facing that, but I think climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

The other issue is inequality. There’s this huge inequality between the haves and the have-nots in society; the issue is how do we create a more just and equitable world.

We are just starting to, as a country look at delivering affordable housing, either through the public sector or the private sector in a much more serious way than we have to deal with the affordability challenge.

We all want to leave the world a better place but then when we look at the issue of affordability and inequality, it's not right. You know in the 21st century, there are still 33 percent of city dwellers living in slums.

The full version of this interview in podcast format will be released soon.