From day one, Shane Rothe and Kim Lowman knew they wanted to work on large-scale projects. The pair met at the University of Melbourne in 1981, and ten years later, they had their own practice.
Cut to 2017, and the semi-eponymous firm Rothelowman is on the larger side of the architecture spectrum in Australia. Over a quarter of a century and more than one hundred new employees later, Rothe and Lowman have retained both their design philosophy and their shared wavelength. Despite shifts in technology and a gradual honing of Rothelowman’s three pillars – architecture, interior architecture and urban planning – the practice has remained at heart about its human outcomes. (“Because at the end of the day, that’s who architecture is for: humans,” says Rothe.)
As they enter their 25th year leading large-scale projects around the country, Architecture & Design sat down with the Rothelowman co-founders to talk about the philosophy that has gotten them to where they are today.
Kirsty Sier: Rothelowman has been around for 25 years now, and with 155 employees, would likely be on the larger end of companies in the industry. Throwing back to a quarter of a century ago, what did you have in mind when starting the company?
Shane Rothe: Kim and I met at [The University of Melbourne in 1981] and we always thought we would end up working together; we always knew we wanted to be in our own practice. That opportunity came up in 1991, but before that, we worked together for a short time in Hong Kong – we both ended up working internationally – and during that time we were surrounded by significant projects. That helped shape our vision of what we wanted to do, which was to work on large-scale projects. We’ve had a very strong relationship over many, many years and it continues to be so. It actually helps with the culture of the firm.
Kim Lowman: It’s important to mention that architects get better as they age [laughs].
KS: Cutting to today, what’s your design philosophy now? Has it changed?
SR: I think we were on the same wavelength since day one. The fundamentals of that design philosophy remain the same. We use context and science and innovation and budget – which are always different for every project – but at the end of the day our vision was [and is] to create and make great architecture. Our methodology has always been the same, but the difference from most architectural practices is that we take drivers from science and innovation. We work with it as part of a team of designers. We select the people we want in our firm very carefully and we have a lot of great minds in-house, across all of the disciplines we offer as services. Because the way we design, it’s important for us to use science and research and a parametric approach to architecture, and the people we surround ourselves with are the best designers in their fields.
KL: Further to what Shane was saying about parametric design, [it’s important for us] to take on some vision of the future and try to understand where and what architecture will be. We want to design ahead of that and be at the cutting-edge. [Rothelowman takes] the newest ideas and technologies and hones them for use in the built environment. Recently, for example, we’ve taken on a few projects in the Docklands area down here [in Melbourne] – which is changing pretty rapidly – and [for these projects] we’ve taken [into account] the wind dynamics; we’ve worked out the science of the wind acceleration, so the buildings look great, but they also optimise the wind’s impact on the building. Aside from [its efficiency for the building], it’s also cost-effective, as it reduces the amount of materials and optimises their use. It also enhances the pedestrian realm, as the wind funnels down to the ground-level plane. We’re very excited about that.
SR: We’ve always led the market and been early adopters of technology and disruption opportunities. That continues today. When Kim talks about parametric design, we’re advancing that very quickly, and there are a number of new technologies and innovations that we’re taking on to stay at the cutting-edge (for instance, virtual reality). We also talk a lot about how it will impact humans, because at the end of the day, that’s who architecture is for: humans. We’re looking at how our buildings can help create communities; how we can integrate the residential and commercial and urban realms to create better community outcomes for humans.
KS: Aside from the obvious differences of design, planning and scale, is your philosophical approach consistent from smaller projects to the larger ones?
SR: Yes, we’ve grown from small projects to larger projects but our philosophy and fundamental approach is to deliver a high-quality outcome and to leave a legacy that will last. Larger projects are more complex in the kinds of details they require, but we’ve become very talented at delivering larger projects; we’ve developed a very thorough methodology. And as a national practice with firms in cities around Australia, we’ve learned to work in any environment.
KL: We still plan our design from the large-scale, but we’re actually really passionate about honing our projects down to the finest detail that there is. I suppose that comes from our backgrounds working on smaller projects.
KS: Aside from sheer size, how has Rothelowman changed over the years?
KL: What’s happened as we’ve grown – and it’s been steadily, rather than one huge burst – is that we’ve taken on different typologies in projects. That’s very much what happens in the market – from commercial to residential to mixed-use and hotels and student accommodation. That’s changed, but we were always very strong about being one company. We’ve become inter-state and started taking projects on nationally and internationally, but we always wanted to do it all in-house. [As we’ve grown], we’ve also expanded internal services, from market planning which is big picture and shifts and moves between the buildings and [their] interface with the community, through to the architecture; the finer details and the interior design, which is all done internally. We liked to bring all of that together so that everything is integrated. We believe that makes for a better outcome.
SR: Great architecture comes from collaboration. Buildings benefit from having all of these disciplines come together. We’re winning competitions because of it. When there are different companies working [on different elements] of a project, there [tends to be] competition and push and pull between them. Projects benefit from collaboration within one company who can provide high levels of all of these disciplines. This multi-disciplinary approach is also good for our in-house talent; it attracts some amazing architects to our firm, because they know Rothelowman works quickly and delivers these detailed projects on large scales.
KS: As we’ve already established, a lot of your projects are conducted on larger scales, such as shaping whole precincts and preparing masterplans. What is your approach to these projects? How do you ensure a balance between small details and a bigger picture vision?
KL: We’ve got a very thorough process in-house now, and it goes through a high degree of quality control; we’ve got experts on that all within the company. But the design philosophy that comes up at the beginning of a project and its themes are all responsive [context and the specific requirements of the site].
SR: What we’ve learned from day one is that great designs come from projects where you don’t stop designing. We design every day for the entire length of the project, and we don’t stop designing and ironing out the small details. Detail comes from continual attention to detail. It doesn’t stop when you get a planning permit; it doesn’t stop when you get approval; it comes from working on it every day and continuing to refine the design until the very end.
KS: What’s an example of a project of yours that really demonstrates Rothelowman’s design philosophy?
KL: There’s no one project that we’re particularly proud of; we’re proud of all of our projects. For everything we take on, we always have a focus on strong outcomes. We build maybe twenty projects a year in Australia, and we like to think they get better and better. We’re proud of all of our projects, but we’ve diversified so much that there are now a lot of large-scale projects with mixed uses, which is exciting, and which is where the industry is headed.
SR: We’re doing projects throughout Australia all the time, [but a lot] of our clients are international. We don’t only work for them here, but we’re getting opportunities to work for them overseas in their own countries. [These clients are] recognising that you don’t have to go to the [United States] to get great design, because they’re seeing so many high-quality outcomes here.
KS: As a multi-disciplinary practice, why do you think it’s important to balance different aspects of the design spectrum – from architecture to interior to urban planning?
SR: We’re true believers in having all of the primary requirements in-house, all working together. We’ve been of that attitude since day one. We have three strong divisions across the country: architecture, urban planning and interior architecture. Kim and I have always been able to do all three, so we’ve had it since day one. We’ve drawn in more and more experts and become larger and more organised – we also have a broader space that we work in and we’re more specialised – but it’s very much all still integrated. Because, as we’ve mentioned before, we strongly believe this results in more cohesive and quality outcomes when it can all be done together, as part of one project team.
KS: Do you think that these disciplines are well enough integrated within the broader industry?
SR: I think it is, but I think that some of the great architectural firms in Australia just design architecture. Which isn’t wrong, and these practices design great and beautiful buildings. But we choose to [provide] the whole service due to the complexity of the projects that we take on. I think in the future there’ll be a greater push for this approach, especially in the larger mixed-use projects. We really do need the experts, and the outcomes do need to be integrated. A great piece of design can be good on its own, but it’s even better as a whole, when all aspects of the bigger picture are accounted for.