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Want to transform the way people live? Become an architect

Architecture quite literally forms the foundations of our society – so it follows that through good architecture, it’s possible to transform the way people live. Susan Ang, Senior Lecturer in Deakin’s School of Architecture and Built Environment, is passionate about empowering underprivileged communities by engaging them in the design and building process of developments such as community housing, schools, and health and recreation centres.

As exemplified in Ang’s career, becoming an architect can have you making a real difference to culturally fascinating communities internationally. Think co-designing an eco-museum for the Kelabit highland community, a minority indigenous group in Borneo, Malaysia, to house their cultural history and promote their culture to future generations. Or designing a women’s empowerment centre in Ampara, a rural eastern district of Sri Lanka, to house sewing skills and development workshops for a community of women ‘desperate for a place to call their own’. Ang also recently designed and developed sustainable initiatives for maternal and child welfare centres in Udupi, Karnataka, India, to ensure basic health and education services for the community’s poorest people, in a setting taking local community values into consideration.

‘Environmental social concerns are everyone’s concerns,’ Ang says. ‘As architects, our knowledge of culture and society, design and construction and the impacts upon the environment enable us to contribute our skills and knowledge towards enabling and transforming the way people live.’

As an educator, Ang is passionate about ‘Inspiring students to become socially responsible future practitioners and that the architecture profession serves society’. In this article, she explains some of the ways becoming an architect can help you change the world.

What are the biggest issues or current challenges that someone with a career in sustainable architecture can help address?

‘Architects are a servant to society, and must have a sense of social responsibility by designing sustainable buildings and communities that influence the way people live. Alongside minimising environmental impact, a big issue for architects is to reduce inequalities that are increasingly causing cultural heritage and social values to erode, especially in the rural areas.

‘Instilling a sense of social responsibility in architecture in future architects will build capacity and empowerment in communities to transform and change the way we are connected and the way we live on this planet. Some of the issues to address include:

  • reducing inequality and transforming our understanding of sustainability to resilience
  • rapid technological advances that are changing expectations and the way people live today
  • urban development and encroachment upon rural development
  • affordable housing (by 2030 five billion people will reside in cities, many in extreme poverty, creating a rising urban poor phenomena – adequate and affordable housing is desperately needed)
  • loss of social connectivity in high rise and high density development
  • resource management
  • people are living longer in combination with an aging population – by 2050, the global population of older persons is projected to be more than double its size reaching nearly 2.1 billion.
  • human mobility, designing for diversity and abilities, accessibility of cities and buildings and widening participation for all sectors of community.’

How are architects working to address these issues?

‘Architects, designers and built environment professionals are realising that community-centered (bottom-up) approaches that involve the end-user stakeholders in the construction and design processes can make a difference. Also essential to allow the process to be considered from holistic perspectives are education and capacity-building, community engagement through outreach initiatives and co-design, and integral design approaches.

‘The architecture fraternity is very attuned to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and collaborate closely with other professions to achieve common goals. Education and awareness in global issues and challenges is key in transformative research and practice. Professionals in this field collaborate with Deakin University researchers to ensure empirical evidence is collected to advance collective knowledge in the field. Professionals in the field regularly conduct applied design research that allows innovations to be tested in practice and on-ground. They often work in partnership with universities, government bodies, and not-for-profit organisations towards efforts that address Sustainable Development Goals at all levels.

‘In addition, architects are increasingly working inter-professionally with other professions, such as social health professionals, environmental scientists and assistive technology, to ensure that the built environment not only supports human life but works to sustain human health and wellbeing.

‘The issues are not limited to one context, so multidisciplinary education and practice are helpful in knowledge-sharing. Professionals in the field are constantly looking at ways to improve the way we do things, ways for the built environment to intersect harmoniously with the natural environment.

‘The future will see many emergent and new practices integrated with new technologies, there will be a growth in new concepts and built environment ideas that include smart living, smart villages and vertical urban farming concepts integrated into high rise buildings.

‘Designs will result in new building typologies, and new building forms that are totally climate-responsive and increasingly autonomous in their capability to generate their own energy, and incorporate integrated design strategies that support water harvesting, waste recycling and operational service activities.’

What is involved in a career in sustainable infrastructure?

‘Architects may be engaged to perform a range of services for a client who may be an individual or an organisation. This involves working closely with clients, stakeholders, government bodies, not-for-profit organisations, and built environment consultants, in the formulation of a design brief that suits the client’s spatial and functional requirements, analysing existing site conditions, generating and formulating design ideas that produce the best design solutions, and visualization of how the proposed design may look in the context of the site.

‘Architects have the ability to work with site constraints and turn them into design opportunities, as well work with engineering and building consultants to deliver projects on time and within the project budget.

‘Architects are also involved in mentoring and educating junior architects as the activities are very much “hands on” and previous experience and/or research into precedent case studies are valuable in informing and inspiring new ideas or new applications of existing ideas.

‘Architecture designs consider how the natural and built environments intersect and are involved in a range of activities that caretake the social and cultural environments. These include the responsibility of ensuring that all design and construction processes adhere to all necessary legal and safety building regulations.

‘Educational activities , fieldwork, community engagement, design, design research, environmental studies, artistic and creative activities, design communication through both digital media as well as paper medium are activities that are involved in a career in this field.’

What kind of people do you think careers in architecture are best suited to?

  • ‘People with the ability and capacity for lifelong and self-learning, reflection through action, and a healthy curiosity for everything.
  • People who appreciate and value that good design takes time and that design is always thoughtful and requires a process of testing and evaluation along the way.
  • People who appreciate that the experience, which is the sum of attitude, approach and methods, is as valuable as the outcomes.
  • People who love solving problems, love engaging and interacting with other people, and love having the skill and knowledge to make a difference.
  • People who are both creative as well as disciplined and organised.
  • People who are effective communicators.
  • People with digital and non-digital graphic presentation skills.
  • People are independent and confident thinkers.
  • People with vision and aspiration to make a difference.
  • People who have leadership qualities as well as team membership qualities.’

What are the volunteering, study and work opportunities would you recommend for those seeking a career in sustainable architecture?

‘Extra-curricular activities that challenge you to operate and thrive outside your natural comfort zones is beneficial in self-growth, confidence and interpersonal relationships.

‘Volunteer opportunities in global community build projects led by not for profit organisations or universities are excellent. An excellent example is Habitat for Humanity.

‘I always recommend international learning experiences through study exchange short term faculty led programs, design workshops, design competitions, and work experience (internships).

‘In addition, undertaking work experience or an internship in an architect, builder or building design consultancy is extremely worthwhile as it gives you exposure and insight into the profession and the scope of responsibilities and activities undertaken in architecture and built environment.

‘Finally, participating in open design competitions that see new ideas and proposals for a particular social design (such as disaster relief shelters) or competitions seeking innovations and solutions for environmental problems are also a great avenue for experience in the field.’

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Susan Ang
Susan Ang

Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture and Built Environment, Deakin University

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