In October 2019, Abbie Galvin was appointed the 24th NSW Government Architect – the first female to take on this role since the office was opened over 200 years ago. With a strong background in national and international projects, she brings a wealth of experience, and a focus on design excellence and public spaces. Infrastructure magazine sat down with Ms Galvin to find out her vision for the office, the importance of good design and sustainability for our cities, and what the infrastructure sector can do to support this.

Transitioning from project delivery to strategy

The Government Architect’s office was established in 1816 with Francis Greenway appointed as the first Colonial Architect responsible for designing the NSW Government’s public buildings projects.

In 2016, on its 200th birthday, the office transitioned from delivering projects to providing strategic services to the government, championing design excellence across the state, as well as shaping quality places and public spaces by advising and collaborating with agencies, councils, industry and community.

“This was a major shift, and an incredibly significant one, as the need for architectural advocacy and an architectural voice within government became more important than delivering buildings,” Ms Galvin said.

“There is a wonderful wealth of talent in architectural practice, so government no longer needs to design per se but it does need to set standards and benchmarks via policy, guides and codes, and it needs to be a great client. It needs to show leadership at every level of decision-making and commissioning of the built environment.”

Ms Galvin is the first women to hold the position of Government Architect in New South Wales, and when asked what impact she thinks this will have and why it’s taken so long for a women to be appointed in NSW, she replied that she will bring a different perspective, not because she is a woman but because has different skills, experiences and approaches to the people around her.

“The roles we have in our societies need to be representative of the wonderful and diverse mix of people they comprise. Why has it taken so long for a woman to be appointed to the role? Well, that reply probably takes a lot longer than a few lines to answer as we delve back to the root causes of gender stereotypes that have been culturally ingrained for a very long time,” Ms Galvin said

“However, I like to focus on the future, not the past, and now we have a woman in the role, let’s ensure I will be the first of many.”

A vision for the future

Ms Galvin said her vision is for us to be in a position in NSW where not only design professionals, but the whole community, values and prioritises the importance and impact of design of the built environment.

“We need everyone to care, from those in the corridors of government to our private sector power brokers through to local residents who encounter the impacts of built environment decisions every day. It affects us all the time, not only when we choose to pay attention to it.

“Ultimately, respect needs to be at the core of good design. If design is respectful, it is having due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of our society.”

She said a key goal for the Government Architect’s office is to embed design quality and design-based thinking to make beautiful and enduring, sustainable and accessible spaces and places. Five major priorities have been identified to achieve this:

  1.  Promoting an integrated approach to urban design, where place and climate sit at the centre of decisions, rather than coming in at the end once the transport and infrastructure, and economic overlays have been done
  2.  Helping make the State Government a smart client by looking at the criteria established at the beginning of a project in the Strategic Business Case, such as how briefs are developed, how projects and design teams are procured, and how design evaluation criteria is presented at all the gates in the process
  3.  Teaching everyone how to begin the process of caring for and Designing with Country, which is about improving the health and well-being of Country led by Aboriginal cultural values
  4. Design Assurance, including strengthening and broadening the reach of the State Design Review process for all state significant projects, as well as implementing a networked system of design review processes across government led projects
  5. Environmental Stewardship through Design. To help the NSW Government achieve its goals of net-zero emissions by 2050, strategies about built environment targets and performance will be developed, ranging from urban planning decisions about density and sprawl, transport, connectivity and resource use through to a specific focus on buildings, their performance and their materials

The Government Architect’s office is currently working across a range of significant projects, including the development of a new Design and Place SEPP (State Environmental Planning Policy).

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to help shape policy that will embed design and place in the formation of our built environment,” Ms Galvin said.

Designing great cities

Ms Galvin said at the core of good city design is framing the form, shape, function and qualities of public space.

“Great places and cities don’t happen by chance: they are designed, and continue to be designed, as we manage their transformation.

“A great city is an energising and inspiring place to live; it is a dynamic, and constantly changing place that can reshape as society evolves. A great city has density and mixed-use neighbourhoods where housing diversity, commercial, retail, hospitality, cultural and entertainment facilities are available.

“It is safe, walkable, cyclable and should have the ability to be totally automobile-independent. Importantly, it has great public places, large and small, where people can congregate and interact.”

These ideas have been synthesised in NSW’s integrated design policy Better Placed, which provides clarity on what the Government Architect’s office means by good design, based not only on how a place looks, but on how it works and feels for people, and outlines processes for achieving this.

One of the greatest challenges Ms Galvin identified as facing NSW’s public spaces was prioritising them.

“When we prioritise economic, financial and private interests over the provision, quality and amenity of our public spaces we will always struggle to get great outcomes. We shouldn’t be fighting battles for the provision of, and investment in, wonderful public spaces, we should be focusing on increasing our knowledge about how people use them and what makes a place successful.

“I’m responding to this as we are all in COVID-19 spatial isolation, and it has demonstrated with extraordinary power how integral our public spaces are to us as a society. People have flooded to our parks, streets and squares – to walk, cycle and exercise – with a renewed appreciation for their value.”

Integrating sustainability into design

Sustainability also plays a key role in good city design and will be a key vehicle for the transformation of building design and the construction sector in order to tackle climate change through the move towards zero-carbon buildings.

According to Ms Galvin, while the COVID-19 crisis is currently at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we need to seize the opportunity to rebuild the economy post-pandemic in a way that supports both people and the planet, and creates a new, more resilient, healthy and equal society.

“Already today, buildings and their construction together account for 36 per cent of global energy use and 39 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually, which tells us that climate change is the core driver shaping cities over the next few generations,” Ms Galvin said.

“Sustainability of the urban landscape is the sustainability of its component buildings, its transport, its amenities, and its social fabric and culture, and therefore our strategies need to encompass the whole lifecycle of planning, designing, constructing, operating and disposal of buildings.

“So we will see change in the way we teach and practice architecture, planning and construction, change in our land-use planning and urban sprawl, more prescriptive building energy codes and certification requirements, regenerative energy approaches, technological advances in materials, through to robotic fabrication that reduces waste and enables great flexibility in form and material.”

She said we will also continue to see governments legislate for change and support research and innovation in the industry.

“In March, the NSW Government released the Net 0 Plan, Stage 1: 2020–2030, which identified the intention to expand the NABERS rating scheme to other major building types, to improve the National Construction Code and BASIX, to embed sustainable building material standards and targets into NSW Government infrastructure projects, and to lead a national strategy to achieve net-zero embodied carbon in building materials.

“As built environment professionals aiming to make the circular economy a reality, we all have to advocate for and support significant and holistic regulatory change.”

The role of the infrastructure sector in improving city design

According to Ms Galvin, the infrastructure sector will play a key role in supporting improved city design.

“Everyone must have a common understanding and goal that all elements of our infrastructure ultimately need to contribute to safe, healthy, beautiful, walkable, cyclable and inspiring cities,” Ms Galvin said.

“Our cities are the densest expressions of layers of infrastructure, which sometimes works in harmony with the quality and amenity of our places, and sometimes with frustrating discord. Successful development can’t be based simply on the quantum of infrastructure growth, but on its effectiveness, its quality and what it contributes to our urban realm.”

Ms Galvin said with Australia, and NSW in particular, in the midst of an infrastructure boom, it is imperative that we correlate the development of infrastructure with the opportunity to either transform or develop towns and neighbourhoods for the better, and importantly not to ignore or destroy their unique characteristics.

“Long-term thinking and an integrated approach to infrastructure and city making between economists, planners, developers, engineers, architects, urban and landscape designers is critical. We need greater and earlier involvement of design and designers within systems and processes that are part of the infrastructure of our built environment and we need to be strategic, think spatially and work collaboratively,” Ms Galvin said.

“A hospital doesn’t just provide a critical health service, a new metro station doesn’t just enable mass transport of residents from A to B, and a new school doesn’t simply extend our education system. They are all opportunities to extend and make great places that are healthy, responsive, integrated, equitable and resilient.”

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