A key part of my role in the Ratio Urban Design team is carrying out urban design reviews assessing how a design proposal responds to relevant urban design planning regulations and overlays.
This process works most effectively when consultants are involved at the early design stages of a project so we can offer early guidance and circumvent regulatory issues likely to arise. However, I am more commonly engaged as part of a team of multidisciplinary experts reviewing an application that is already heading to VCAT. Sometimes my review is positive and I can support the design proposal as is or with minor revisions. This is not always the case and adjustments may be required.
Consultants in my position understand that – unfortunately – not every design will be an exemplar. However, as VCAT decisions can demonstrate, a good enough proposal that may tick all the boxes for technical compliance with the planning and urban design controls is no longer good enough to guarantee an approval. A proposal will also be assessed on other attributes such as the contribution it makes to its neighbourhood and – in more distant views – the wider public realm of the city.
Clare’s niche in Ratio’s Urban Design team
I work in a part-time capacity at Ratio while continuing with my architectural practice. My 30+ years of architectural experience provides me with different skills that can complement those of urban designers with backgrounds in planning or other disciplines.
For example, my architectural design ‘literacy’ allows comprehension of the more subtle design details of a proposal. I may also have a better understanding of influencing factors such as building regulations and the somewhat inflexible requirements of building services and fire authorities.
Beyond these pragmatic considerations, my experience helps me to put myself in an architect’s shoes and understand that a design is more than just a built-form product manufactured for a client.
Working with the Architect
An architectural design is a creative output that takes considerable time and energy to realise, and an architect will likely have an emotional attachment to their design. This is more than understandable as all good architecture requires passion and design ownership. A key aspect of my role is to look at a design with fresh eyes and to help architects understand why the current proposal may not address the nuances of the urban design planning controls and/or the broader urban context surrounding the site. An example of this could be that while a proposal might comply with height and setback controls, it may have a built-form volume or façade composition that accentuates its visual mass and will not achieve an acceptable urban design outcome.
To be effective, it is important that my feedback is specific and concrete and not vague urban-design speak. This is most critical in pre-VCAT reviews when timing to prepare and submit amended plans is often very tight. My communication technique typically includes hand-sketched diagrams, rather than relying just on words. While it is sometimes necessary to provide finer-grain advice about building details and materials, typically my diagrams do not provide a detailed re-design; rather, they give guidance to achieve the objectives of having an improved chance of success at VCAT and, most importantly, a better urban outcome.
Finally, during the urban design review process it is important to have strong opinions but not be rigid; an architect may come back with a different solution that is also effective in meeting the objectives identified in the review. If they do not, then it is crucial I deliver a clear explanation of why the proposed alternative strategy is not acceptable. If the architect will not (or the client won’t allow them) to make the changes required to achieve the stated urban design objectives, then I am unable to support the proposal at VCAT.
My work in practice
An example of my work completing an urban design review with a successful outcome recently took place when I consulted on a 3-storey townhouse development in a middle-ring Melbourne suburb ‒ a project which had previously been refused at VCAT.
I assisted the Ratio Urban Design team with a review of a new proposal prepared by a different architect and headed back to VCAT for a repeat appeal. While many of the issues identified in the original VCAT decision had been addressed, there were aspects of the design that required further refinement from an urban design perspective; specifically the design response to the existing low-scale heritage neighbourhood context. This was also a key concern for Council.
I suggested a number of design modifications, including finer grain external materials, and adding a layered front façade to reduce the visual height of the building. The proposed adjustments did not involve literally copying heritage design elements; rather, the suggestion was for an open steel frame pergola as a contemporary reinterpretation of traditional 2-storey verandahs found within the neighbourhood. The architect was open to incorporating these ideas and amended the design accordingly. The re-design process was collaborative and productive and the amended proposal was approved at VCAT.
If you are interested in engaging Clare for urban design review work, please send a query to firstname.lastname@example.org.