The Lounge Room

The Lounge Room

Shannon Battisson in conversation with the ACT Chapter President Philip Leeson 

Image by O Photography

We have many fantastic members at the ACT Chapter. This week we speak with Shannon Battisson, Director of The Mill: Architecture + Design, 2018 ACT Emerging Architect Prize winner, ACT Chapter Councillor and Member of the Chapter’s Sustainability Committee.

Who inspires you? (doesn’t have to be an architect)

My parents are a massive inspiration to me. Both strong unionists and feminists, they raised my sister and I to work hard, give life everything you’ve got, and to treat people well, always. Losing my father early also taught me some of the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned; that I am stronger than I could ever have imagined, and that life is painfully short.
My childhood years are filled with memories of the usual fun things, as well as early mornings on picket lines standing up for people who couldn’t stand for themselves, and watching my mum look after us as well as finishing high school and university, all while I was in primary school.
Between the two of them, they have inspired me in countless ways, but most strongly to work hard for the things that you love, to put people at the heart of how you work and live, and that life is short and meant to be cherished and enjoyed.

Why did you study architecture?

Funnily enough, my mother suggested architecture to me. I took a few years off after school to work out what I really wanted to do. I had planned to study medicine, but when it came to it I hesitated. I started work for Qantas Airways and gave myself some time to work out who I really wanted to be. It also gave me the chance to travel, and after one trip my mother lamented that I never brought home photos of myself in new places, just photos of buildings. It seemed pretty clear I had found something a really loved and could dedicate myself to!

You’re devoted to environmental design. Why so?

Environmentally responsive architecture is very important to me, and for a couple of reasons. The most important is that I believe very strongly that we need to leave the world in a better state than we inherited it, and that is not currently the reality. And the construction industry is uniquely placed to be able to make an impact on the damage we are doing, and to affect change moving forward. And the architecture industry should be leading the charge! With our help, we can not only create buildings that respond to their location instead of fighting it at great cost (both financially and environmentally), but we can also start demanding more as a society. I believe very strongly that we can promote quality design through everything we do, and educate those around us to start fighting sub par development and construction around our great city.

What are the challenges facing the architecture profession? What needs to be done?

I think the greatest challenges we face as a profession relate to our loss of standing in the industry. There was a time when architects were a respected professional, and our services were a highly valued part of any significant project. Now we are often ‘value’ managed out of the process, meaning our services are delivered by a project manager or a balance of client and contractor. I think this is leading to a devaluing of the design process, the protection of design intent, and the quality of design outcomes generally. I think we will only overcome this by banding together, and showing why we are an invaluable part of the industry.

What advice would you give to young women studying architecture?

Keep going, it’s so worth it!!! Architecture is such an incredible profession to be a part of. It is so varied, every day is different from the next, and there are so many different avenues you can pursue once you have the degree. I know architects who went into development, magazine publishing and even set design. More than that though, once you have registration it is an incredibly flexible industry to work in when you have a family. You can choose to work as part of a big firm or a boutique one, to work in sole practice, or to just take on the odd job as inclination and opportunity present. But the key to making the profession work, in my opinion, is getting out there and gaining as much experience as you can early on. And don’t delay sitting for registration. Whilst the task can appear daunting, having it will give you options later on. Also, be picky with the firms you approach for employment. All firms offer different working experiences, and I recommend finding one that fits the way you work, and will support you in developing your full potential as an architect.

As the ACT Emerging Architect Prize Winner, what do you think is the single biggest issue facing Canberra?

I think Canberra is at a real cross roads right now. We have an incredibly rich design history, from the Griffins onwards, world class architecture, international institutions, and culture that many towns our size would never dream of. But we are growing, and hitting our boundaries, and this means we need to make decisions about how we choose to go forward. I believe very strongly that we cannot continue to sprawl outwards in the way we have been doing. We need to ensure that our new developments are done with care, consideration and in a way we can sustain.

But more pressing right now, I think, is the densification and redevelopment of our inner city areas. In recent years we have seen massive change to our oldest suburbs, some of it good, some of it not so good. My greatest concern for Canberra is the current rate of demolition of older buildings. I hear many justify the removal of older buildings with the age old arguments of ‘they’re not up to today’s standards,’ or ‘you wouldn’t want to live there,’ or my favourite ‘they’re so run down it would be cheaper to knock them down and start again.’ Under the guise of densification and revitalisation I think we have recently lost some of our most iconic architecture, and many that (whilst some would argue unattractive) tell a vital piece of our story as a city. For me, this is a tragedy. But there are so many buildings currently on the danger list that we can’t rest in grieving for the lost buildings, we need to stand up and fight for the ones we can still save! I don’t want ‘death by neglect’ to be the architectural story we leave to our children.

Is Canberra’s bush capital under threat?

Sadly, I think it is. But I think this goes to what I was discussing above. And I think it is actually an issue of misunderstanding the history of the Bush Capital title! For me, the meaning of the Bush Capital actually lies in our geography, our location, and the great efforts that were made to ensure the green tracts made it all the way into our city. And I just don’t see why that is something anyone would want to be rid of. What kind of Australia do we have if we stop enjoying the bushland around us? After all, isn’t the Aussie bush what brings countless tourists to our shores every year?

What simple steps can Canberra homeowners take to reduce energy costs?

This is a good one! Canberra is famous for its harsh winters, but truth be told we have a pretty intense summer too. You would think that this would all come together to make it difficult to have low energy housing in our climate, but actually it’s really simple.

If you are building new, follow basic solar passive principles and you can’t go wrong. Face your house, and the majority of your windows, to the north. Put your living rooms, and any rooms you spend lots of time during the day in on that northern side. And invest as much as you are able into the quality of your building envelope, that’s your walls, roof, windows and floor, basically everything that stands between you and the chilly winter nights or hot summer days.

If you are renovating and older Canberra house it can be a little harder, but the principles remain the same. You want to invest your money where it will give you the best effects, and that is your building envelope. So bump up (or add!) your insulation. Replace the windows with higher performing ones. Reduce air leakage and droughts. And then, if you can, maximise the windows on the northern side of the house.

Regardless, interact with your house. I think we all do it fairly naturally, but for those who don’t, open the house up to the sun as much as possible during sunny winter days, and close it down on cold nights to conserve as much of that heat as possible. In summer, do the opposite. Close the house down during the day, especially any east/west windows that get too much sun, then open it up to the great cool breeze we get most Canberra summer evenings. That way, you start fresh again each day, and reduce how much you have to rely on energy consuming heating/cooling to keep you comfortable.

How does Canberra improve its housing stock both existing and in new developments?

Anyone who has spent significant time in Canberra is likely to have spent time in an old Canberra house, and felt the wrath of our seasons. These houses are the most difficult to improve, but is both possible and worth doing. By doing the things I mentioned above, you can make a massive impact on the quality of the space you live in, your ability to enjoy that space, and the amount you pay in energy bills. As a city I think we need to put careful thought into how we can come together to improve the quality of these older homes, as many people can’t afford to do the works themselves. And I think we need to think carefully about how we support the people living in these homes who do not have the freedom to be able to make improvements.

When it comes to our new developments I think the issue is twofold. Firstly, we have a minimum standard that new homes are to be built to in Australia. This is a great step up from the old Canberra house, but only if it is actually enforced. Living in a new suburb myself, I see plenty of examples of instances where houses may have met minimum standards on paper, but were not built to meet them in reality. Creating a system where the rules can be more easily enforced will have a dramatic impact on the quality of our housing stock. Secondly, we need to increase the space between the houses in our new developments. In my opinion, this can be done by reducing the plot ratio we are allowed to build to and/or moving to a site coverage rule instead (so more of the site must be left clear for vegetation). If we can increase the space between the houses, we can introduce meaningful vegetation back into our suburban blocks. This will not only make our blocks more enjoyable generally, but it will make a huge difference to the amount of light and air we get into our homes. This in turn will make a big impact on how much energy we need to maintain comfortable conditions within our homes.

What are you passionate about?

As you might have noticed, I am passion about people, quality design in all its forms, and the environment. I think they are all inextricably linked, and that even small improvements in these areas will mean big things for us as a society.

What is your favourite object/thing/collectable?

I try not to put too much value in things, as I lean towards sentimentalism, which in turn leads to hoarding for me! But my favourite object is my dining table. It has been handed down from generation to generation in my family, and was originally my great great grandmother’s kitchen table. It is a slightly awkward size (a little too wide for most dining rooms), but it holds a very special place in my heart. The joke of it is that it has been slightly altered by each generation, and in a charming way it tells a story of our family. I inherited it from my father, and whilst he never lived to meet his grandchildren, I cherish that they eat every day at the table he gave them. I love it so much, I even carted it all the way to Switzerland and back when we moved there for a few years! It is in desperate need of a good sanding and a new coat of lacquer, which I intend to do myself, and my husband laughs that this will be our generation’s piece in the story.

25 September 2018