From the top

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Christina van Bohemen.

Christina van Bohemen. Image: Jane Ussher

Architect Christina van Bohemen, director of Sills van Bohemen, spoke about her new role as president of the NZIA with Justine Harvey.

Justine Harvey: You have worked in various roles on many boards and committees within both the NZIA and the wider profession. What learnings from these positions do you bring to your new role?

Christina van Bohemen: The biggest advantage is that I’ve come to know a lot of people, both in Auckland and around the country, which is a great start in terms of connection. It means I know the organisation too – I am aware of its structures and nuances. Also, I’ve been on council for a while and was involved prior to, and was supportive of, the organisational review that we did. So, from that point of view, I see an opportunity to perform this role as a continuation of that by keeping the institute on a roll.

JH: What do you think are the key issues and challenges concerning the profession – in both the short and long term, here in New Zealand, and have you any thoughts yet about how these might be tackled?

CvB: To some extent, the issues are the recurring ones; most immediately, for the organisation to convey what the profession has to offer. There’s always that discussion about recognising the value behind investment in architecture and the importance of quality design in our cities and neighbourhoods. In terms of how we address that, we have outlined in the strategic plan that we need to undertake an increased degree of public outreach – so we’ve refocused ourselves to reflect that we exist to promote the value of architecture; support our membership; and engage with stakeholders across the industry.

In terms of recentring our attention from a purely organisational viewpoint to that of a publicly focused one, it is more about how we can convey the value of architecture to the public. The challenge for us there is working on both the residential and the non-residential level. On the one hand, a large number of practitioners are primarily concerned with the residential market; so, in terms of consumer uptake, there’s that level but there are the other levels as well, which all work very differently.

We know that the percentage of architect-designed houses is fairly small, somewhere around five per cent, although many people’s experience of architecture will be through some kind of public building – a school, a library or a civic space in the city. Therefore, ensuring those places are well designed and that the brief and scope of services allows architects to achieve the most out of each project is paramount to creating a fuller understanding of the architectural process by the public and commissioners of architecture.

Also, there are the other day-to-day challenges. For example, now that we are incorporated into the Construction Contracts Act, there are questions around the organisation’s advice to members about how to work under those different conditions. And then there are ongoing issues about trying to work with, government agencies, in particular, to achieve appropriate and insurable terms of engagement.

JH: What are the hurdles in the way, then?

CvB: Ideally, if you’re going to engage in a services contract with government, there should be one contract and, then, there may be special conditions that might apply to a specific situation. But what’s happening post-Christchurch earthquakes and following the leaky building crisis is that there are contracts being created which are complex and uninsurable; so, as a result of councils ensuring that they’re not liable, we’re tying ourselves up in knots and creating high-level costs.

That’s an issue around people not understanding the architectural process, with the result being that from the outset the best outcome for the project is undermined. All of these concerns are key, on top of the usual issues of practitioners finding jobs, ensuring the jobs are completed, and not drowning in the almost-limitless compliance issues. And architects receiving a fee that reflects the great scope of work we have to do these days to produce a building.

JH: You mention the amount of compliance that needs to be adhered to; is the consents process stifling creativity within New Zealand’s built environment?

CvB: Certainly, there is increased documentation required and you may say that that is not necessarily a bad thing. However, there are significant challenges in getting through the consents process and much of that is because councils are defaulting to a limited range of acceptable solutions and that may well stifle innovation.

Similarly, if the person who is examining or reviewing the consent applications really only understands the E2 solution, then that is a limiting factor. In theory, there are other ways to demonstrate compliance but it seems that it’s a bit of a challenge to verify an alternative solution within the compliance framework. So, the risk there, is that people default to a more conservative approach to the detailing of buildings.

JH: Do you think there’s a way that that can be redressed?

CvB: I’m not sure what the answer is [to the compliance issue], other than to advocate for acknowledgement that we as a profession have significant skills in putting buildings together. Some government departments will understand what the consequences will be if innovation goes out the window – on building costs, building performance, and technical innovation and evolution. So there’s no easy answer there. A few people will battle on and keep pushing the envelope but, if that’s only happening building by building, it’s difficult to achieve those precedents and for that learning to become more widely understood.

JH: Do we need an independent organisation that promotes quality architecture to the general public and which is funded by government, Lottery or via other funding avenues? For example, the UK has Open House and the Architecture Foundation.

CvB: We’re unlikely to see our government front up with some money but it would be great if the Ministry of Culture and Heritage could be persuaded to engage in this issue. I think it’s a numbers issue and, yes, it’s a great idea. There are a number of existing organisations around the country that engage with architecture, heritage and civic issues, however, the challenge they face is the numbers and the wherewithal. So, in many ways, I think the institute is the best organisation to take the lead on that right now.

JH: The housing shortage is a topical issue in New Zealand; is there more the industry could be doing?

CvB: In terms of the industry, do you mean the profession or the industry, because there are two different aspects there? In terms of the industry, we still have the issues of building costs and the fact that we have a duopoly on building supplies, which I believe even the productivity commission’s report didn’t properly address and it’s clearly in the ‘too-hard basket’ for the Government.

The profession, meanwhile, is involved in designing more multi-unit developments than has probably happened in the past and, also, is working with Housing New Zealand; so it’s good that architects are involved with that. At its heart, the housing issue is down to a lack of foresight, including: a lack of building during the GFC when developers went away; growing migration; changes in housing dynamics; and, in the case of social housing, a government that hasn’t been building houses for its less-fortunate citizens.

All that being said, what Auckland is going through at the moment is the same thing facing every major city around the world and it’s all to do with greater urbanisation. It’s an opportune time for innovation in the way we produce houses – prefabrication is the opportunity that is not being exploited, and I think this is because of the conservative nature of the construction industry and the fact that prefabrication really requires a different procurement method at the outset.

JH: Having worked in the architectural field for 18 years, it still concerns me that there are so few women at the top of the profession within firms and as property developers and, especially, heading up projects in the civic and commercial realms. How do you think the wider profession can redress the gender imbalance?

CvB: The reality is that there are a lot of women in senior positions working on a myriad of projects. I don’t want to make excuses because I think we clearly have an issue around a lack of senior women in the more corporate practices; however, my intention is that we look to adopt and then encourage the use of the guidelines that Parlour has developed. It’s about ways to make family-friendly practices, whereby a business uses the people resources that it has and finds solutions that are suitable for part-time work or devises an alternative work structure.

The other thing to note is that there is now a higher percentage of women being registered, so the gender imbalance is decreasing at least in the registration numbers. The challenge now is to keep those women in the profession and to keep them registered. We need to encourage them to put themselves forward for awards, to nominate themselves and each other for institutional participation and to recognise that they are role models – and for practices to encourage this.

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