“Like many architects, we believe that sustainability has to be at the forefront from the very beginning of the design process,” says India Mitchell, Associate Architect at K20 Architecture in South Melbourne.
“It’s really about assessing the outcome that a client wants and seeing where we can include elements like passive design or sustainable materials into the building layout. And as we continue to develop the project, we go back and reassess those initial concepts and see how we can strengthen them as we get into more technical stages.”
India is putting her user-centred approach to work in K20’s portfolio of community buildings. “We do a lot of work for local government, health and tertiary education. My role focuses on sustainability and how we can tie that into our standard community building briefs without compromising what the client is looking for in terms of budget, aesthetic and functionality.
“There’s no sense in installing a really efficient hot water system, for instance, if the end user isn’t going to use it in a way that’s going to work for them. It’s about understanding how the building is going to operate and how we can tailor our initiatives to suit that operation, as well the physical and social context of the building. We might want to put in a really environmentally friendly timber facade, but if the structure is in an area that’s highly vandal-prone and it’s going to be getting spray-painted all the time, that’s actually not environmentally efficient because of the ongoing maintenance required. So, in that case, it’s not actually a sustainable outcome.”
The key, she says, is getting a really deep understanding of end-users’ needs, often through concept-testing of new ideas. “We might try an idea that we haven’t used in a project before based on a theory which will sometimes be successful but, as with all buildings, some of the ideas don’t work. It’s about developing that intellectual property and institutional knowledge in the practice to know what has and hasn’t worked and how past ideas can be strengthened or whole new ideas can be introduced. Architecture is always a balance between creative and technical; between the artist and the engineer.”
A great example of a complex project with ambitious Environmentally Sustainable Design (ESD) goals is the Bayswater Early Years Centre, India says. The structure was designed as two U-shapes, centred around a large Eucalypt tree. “This was a great strategy to break up the building and allow natural light to get into nearly all of the rooms, while retaining the existing tree. It also enabled us to build a service corridor around the perimeter of the building so that future users won’t need to chop into the building or redesign parts of it to upgrade or replace those services down the line. It’s all about adaptability. If we want this building to survive for a hundred years or more, we need to design it in such a way to allow it to be updated to meet modern and changing needs.”
There are some unique considerations for working in the South Melbourne area, India says, with its quaint village feel in close proximity to the CBD. “It feels a bit like a town within a city, which makes it a really great place to work. There’s a great sense of community here that we want to include in our buildings by bringing people together.” Of course, bringing people together has been especially challenging over recent months, with Melbourne spending more than 200 of the last 365 days in lockdown. “I’ve spent nearly all of the last year and a half working from home. We’ve adapted really well, but there’s still a serious toll that’s been taken on everyone with regard to mental health and fatigue.”
One of the things India has missed most in the pandemic, she says, is her parents, who she used to visit nearly every weekend. Born and raised in Victoria with a sister and two brothers, India’s childhood was very different to the life she’s now living in the big city. “I grew up on a dairy farm on the Murray River in rural Victoria. I spent most of my life outside as a kid, helping Mum and Dad on the farm or getting out on the river. I also rode horses semi-professionally growing up and I still do.”
“I’ve spent nearly all of the last year and a half working from home. We’ve adapted really well, but there’s still a serious toll that’s been taken on everyone with regard to mental health and fatigue.”
Her parents have since sold the farm; after rolling droughts for many years, they decided to leave the dust and move a bit closer to Melbourne. “A lot of those communities are dying because there’s no way to make money there in the way they used to. The farms are sort of semi-abandoned now and my parents wanted to find new opportunities somewhere a bit more green.”
India has always felt a strong connection with landscapes and the environment, as well as the physical relationships between buildings and their natural context. Her experience on the farm also helped to shape her understanding of the complexity of environmental issues and their solutions. “Farming cops a lot of flack from an environmental perspective, but no one’s out there protesting against the use of concrete. And those of us in the industry know that buildings are among the least sustainable things that we do.”
Bringing that environmental lens to the work is where India thrives, and she most enjoys the excitement of the beginnings and ends of her projects. “That’s where you see the quickest and most tangible rewards: when it’s all new and fresh and you’re learning about a client, and then fast-forward 5 years and you’re finally standing in the building you designed and seeing all those things come to life. But, of course, it’s all that hard work in the middle that makes the difference between a good building and a bad building. Those hours and hours you spend putting lines on the page or researching materials; that’s what’s most important. I also love mentoring emerging architects and seeing them evolve. One day, a graduate you’ve been training for maybe two years will come out with the best idea – that’s a fantastic moment.”
Despite the rolling lockdowns, India has a range of projects currently under construction including a regional netball centre, a futuristic library and what she jokes is an award-winning toilet block. “The library project is early days, but very exciting. It’s being developed in the context of how we can bring communities together post-COVID in a socially-distanced world. The ‘million-dollar toilet block’ has a really functional layout but the exterior is more like a sculpture than a building, featuring curved brickwork inspired by seashells. It’s got public toilets and a changing places facility to enable people who are highly physically disabled to enjoy the beach. I also have a much larger regional netball centre in progress which we’ll be getting Green Star-rated. It will utilise solar and battery power, as well as a service corridor similar to the one we designed for the Bayswater project.”
With the Australian construction industry pressing ahead under heavy restrictions – builders are allowed on site at only 25% capacity – India is happy to see her projects progressing, though she acknowledges that the impacts of the pandemic persist and progress is anything but linear. “It’s challenging to look to the future with all of the uncertainty around the coronavirus but, on a personal level, my partner and I just bought farm property. I’m just really excited to renovate our new home, move out of the city, revisit some of my childhood passions and live a bit more more sustainably.”
To learn more about India and her work, follow her on LinkedIn or visit https://www.k20architecture.com/.