In this edition of Talking Architecture and Design, we speak with Sandra Furtado, principal and director of Sydney-based architecture studio Furtado Sullivan on a range of topics from environmental efficiency in design, vernacular design, architecture across different continents, carbon neutrality, women in architecture, leaving a legacy and more.

In an interview to our magazine a couple of years ago, you said and I quote, “There is a cost-effective way to achieve environmental efficiency even if the client doesn't want to.” What exactly do you mean by that and is that still applicable today?

One of the things I discovered as I studied sustainable development was that there is this market expectation that a green building is a sustainable building, which the market uses to potentially get the revenue they want from the commercial perspective.

But sustainability at heart is something that can be achieved through clever design and that comes through the proportion of the spaces, the sizes and placement of windows in certain directions to create airflow, by understanding the environmental constraints of the site and then designing towards that end. Those are things that are inherent to the practice of architecture if you use the principles of vernacular design.

Your experience tends to go across three or four continents. What are the more obvious differences between the way architecture is approached in Australia and Europe, the Middle East or Africa?

There are two key things here – the scale of the project, the technology that is specific to a country and how the industry delivers that product; and the other is about the type of client that you work with, how visionary they are and how willing they are to create a product.

I think there is also a difference when you work with a client who’s creating an asset for themselves versus a client who's developing something that's going to be taken over by a third party; for example, when you develop a multi-residential building and the developed product is then transferred to an end user or group of people who will then become the owners of that asset and will be carrying on costs of maintaining that asset over time.

When you build a building for the owner, you're thinking about building something that is going to last, has reduced maintenance costs, and is energy efficient because those things eventually become meaningful in terms of the running and operational costs.

You decide at the beginning that you want to design for all these environmental efficiencies. However, if you are building something that will be passed on to someone else, the discussion will be focussed on making it as cost-effective as possible even if it’s going to be expensive on the operational side.

On the subject of procurement in Australia, especially in large projects, the architect develops a design up to a certain level of documentation, about 70 percent, and then the client goes to the market and asks for the market to give them a price, following which the client will choose a builder and a tender from that group.

The architect is then introduced to the builder. This was something new to me when I came to Australia because never in the past had I seen the architect working for the builder and the builder dictating what needed to be done. This is usually a collaborative process with the architect and the builder trying to achieve the most cost-efficient way to address issues.

I think procurement makes a huge difference about the quality of the built environment overall; however, it’s unfortunate that it's become the mainstream mode of construction in Australia.

What are the main issues when it comes to mental health in architecture, building and construction?

There are times when you are taken to almost extremes where you do question your role in the profession and whether it is relevant.

You know this happens because of external pressures that not only come from tough deadlines but also how much support you get from the people around you to solve complex problems.

At the workplace, you realise that it's mostly about managing relationships, it's about teamwork, it's about communication and it’s about being in a continuous negotiation process that involves design, creativity and problem-solving.

There are so many different levels of relationships that architects deal with on a day-to-day basis. Within the office you've got to bring over your consultants together and sometimes you've got meetings where you have thirty people in the room who are all working on multiple projects but you need to get them to focus on the pressing issues.

So, on one hand, you are working through the design of a building, and on the other, you are delivering that design. When you go onsite, you have to go through a process where you are solving problems with a group of disparate people. In Australia, I've heard so many different languages being spoken onsite and sometimes there is a communication gap between the foreman and the people or between the different trades.

As an architect employed by the builder, you've got to try and keep everybody's interest in line but at the end of the day you also want to deliver a building that is beautiful.

I have heard stories of colleagues who were broken by tough experiences onsite and had to take time off and get psychological support; they didn’t have a lot of help from the practice when all they were doing was trying to protect the interests of the project and therefore, the practice too.

When these things happen, you do question what's right and you hope that you are never in that position. But if you are in a position where you can make changes and influence, then you've got to try to help them or try to protect them.

In 2011, you wrote 'Entering the ecological age: Carbon neutrality: myth or reality?’. It’s almost 2019, is carbon neutrality from a built environment perspective, more myth than reality? Or is carbon positive the way forward?

What's the true meaning of carbon neutrality when you're looking at the built environment? Some people would look at carbon neutrality purely from an energy perspective – their energy consumption over time and whether it can be offset through carbon credits.

Or do you go deeper and think about the impact of the assets you are designing and developing, the carbon intensity of all the materials that you know you need to use to build that building, and whether you are designing the building for the next fifty or hundred years or even ten years?

Some buildings are designed for fifty years but then there is an expectation that every ten years everything that happens inside them is going to evolve and change.

So when you think about the carbon intensity there, then the calculations become so complicated because you have to think about the impact now as well as the recurring impact of maintenance; and the fact that the building may not be recyclable or whether you can count the carbon credit for utilising some of the materials by repurposing them elsewhere.

There are all these different nuances when people talk about carbon neutrality, which can be actually really complex. Even if you were to look at this from purely an energy perspective, a sustainable built environment is only sustainable for as long as its users have sustainable behaviour. For instance, you can have a superefficient building but if you leave all the lights on when you’re not there, your energy consumption will go up regardless.

Another aspect that comes into play is the footprint of the building: a high rise building has a lot of stacked levels and a small roof whereas a warehouse has, maybe one or two levels and a larger extent of roof area.

So if you are thinking about harnessing energy from the sun, of course the one that has the largest extent of roof area is the one that is going to be able to collect more energy but you might not be able to have as many users inside to utilise the energy as you would in a high rise building.

So, you also have to think about energy efficiencies not on a building level per se but how the building connects and plugs into its immediate network and how the play of synergies between users can actually create efficiencies.

At the end of the day, by connecting different buildings with different types of users, you can create efficiencies because the peak energy for offices happens at a time where there is lower energy for residential and then it kind of balances out at night.

Let's talk about women in architecture. Nearly half of all graduates in architecture are women but less than one in four are practicing architects. In your opinion, what can be done about it?

I never thought of me as being a woman when I began my architectural journey – I always thought that I was one of many people in the team. There’s a group called the Architects Male Champions of Change Group, which has been kind of developed by the Institute of Architects.

They have done wonderful work championing the cause of women in the profession. I used to question the value of having a group of very influential and talented individuals (but all males) discussing problems related to women architects. If the Institute is championing diversity, then it should be a group that is diverse.

Coming back to the mental health conversation, some women may get to a point in their life when they think this type of pressure is not worth it and they just move on because they have other priorities in life that make their career less meaningful for them to feel accomplished.

If you were given one last thing to design ever, what would it be?

I would love to do a waste management facility.

It comes down to working with people that are as aspirational as you. The world is full of people that go from A to B with a straight line and they don't really challenge or question anything. The world needs people that can bring some kind of an enjoyable experience for those around them and we then create something meaningful in a society – that’s really how I see the role of an architect.

This is an abridged version of our interview with Sandra Furtado from Furtado Sullivan.

For the full interview, go to our podcast here.