The only thing I hate more than people who treat me like I’m subhuman are people who treat me like I’m superhuman. Spoken by a Cyborg in the novel Ternary, by Kristin L. Stamper.

For so long, Australia has been a binary nation: Indigenous + Invaders. Labor + LNP. Men + Women. Cities + The Bush. Owners and Renters. But seismic shifts are happening. We are moving to ‘ternary’, or base of 3.

Now everything is ‘three-way’. Noel Pearson, in his searing analysis for ‘The Voice’, identifies indigenous, white settlement and multiculturalism. The demise of the LNP in the last two years has seen the rise of Greens, Teals, and Independents as a third force. LGBTIQA+ recognises ‘non-binary’ in so many ways. The cities and bush, pale in comparison to vast suburbia, even in the regions.

Nowhere is the rise of the ternary more pronounced than in architecture and design. Older readers will well remember the rubric of costs, time and quality - famously you could pick only two. Now clients want fabulous design, low cost and built yesterday. The NSW Building Commissioner epitomises the change: no longer are cost cutting (the ever-evil of ‘value management’), or the dictates of time, reasons for poor construction quality. We’ll have it all, thanks.

The goofy graphic presages a more important ternary: the ‘triple bottom line’. Where once it was just design and cost, now it's social, environmental, and financial sustainability that dictates large and small projects. I marvel at how the slow burn of environmentalism through the second half of last century suddenly sprouted the need for a ‘social license’ in the annual reports of the 21stC, alongside the financial data.Architecture in thirds

The practice of architectural design has changed. For eons, design was between the architect and client, construction between the architect and builder. Binary contracts. But both acts now have a third actor: the project manager. Statutory requirements are now so complex, and so far beyond any one architect or builder, that a consultant manager for consultants appears. What was once a singular or binocular vision is now watered down on multiple fronts.

The PM promises to corral an ever-broadening range of consultants: not just the usual suspects of landscape, structure and MEP, now it’s acoustics, access, fire (bush and brigade), traffic, heritage, community consultation, contamination, geotechnical, codes and standards specialists and on and on. Things that were never to the fore in the past now play an active third part in what we do, all filtered through a ‘glorified post-box’.

Clients in thirds

Clients once represented two types:  the civic / public domain, and the private / commercial. With the withdrawal of public funds, and a commercial obsession with greed, a third way is emerging: not-for-profit and philanthropy. In this we are playing catch-up to the USA, the only developed country with a lower tax/GDP ratio than us. They’ve been at it longer, hence better, but we are now seeing a rapid rise in cooperatives, community housing providers, and other philanthropic organisations.

One of our clients, proposing a co-living project for key workers in a wealthy area, was fronted in the street by a well-known local developer. When told it was not for instant profits, but to provide a service, the developer was dumbfounded, speechless. As if he’d met an alien from another planet. So long as governments abrogate their responsibilities for shelter for the whole community, long may the (third) force be with us.

Housing in thirds

For most of last century we had two types of housing: homes and high-rises - now we see the emergence of a third type, which the Danish cleverly label ‘low + close’. These are infill and new housing projects that are low in rise, but so compact they lift the density without lifting the skyline. The ‘Aussie backyard’ is not a shrunken balcony but a shared community space. There will be a lot more on ‘low + close’ in ToT columns in the coming weeks.

Rising income and wealth inequality has morphed the ownership characteristics too. Once a binary of ‘owners and renters’, it’s now a ternary of property developers (with two or more houses), purchasers with mortgages and the long-forgotten renters. A regime of negative gearing and capital gains discounts have distorted the housing market to such an extent that a third tier of funders, described above, are re-inventing the 1920s build-to-rent model.

Building in thirds

With demise of so many building firms (more than 1200 in 9 months) we hear a lot about rises in materials and labor costs. But there's a third part, rarely mentioned, that's had a far bigger impact on building costs long term, and that’s ‘preliminaries’. Adding modern site safety and better worker amenities to the traditional overheads, margin and profit has seen ‘preliminaries’ grow from

10% to 30% of total costs. Gossip has it that one big industry leader charges 40%.

As projects get larger and more complex, we seek to make them safer and less intrusive and impactful. Safety measures include protection for workers with screening and scaffolding, and for the public with hoardings and anti-pollution measures. Better amenities see workers with improved conditions and an increase in women on site. But clients are often resentful that a third of their money does NOT appear directly in the building. A decease in worker injuries and deaths tell a different story, albeit not a good one in the bankruptcies that are causing so much sub-contractor pain.

A third way

On the one hand, each step in the drive to ternary has been beneficial, with more diversity, more community and more richness. We are no longer binary, yes or no, black or white, stop or go. And all the better for it.

On the other hand, the cumulative effect has been to make the architectural process a messy grey sea of costs, time and quality. We have certification confusion, corporate complexity and consequent cock-ups.

Time to find a third hand to sort it all out.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his / contact at [email protected].