9 Jul 2018 / News
Q&A with Karen Alcock

Today we sit down with Karen Alcock, principal at MAArchitects and long-time collaborator with ICON Developments, to discuss the role of design and innovation in multi-residential developments. Driven by a commitment to craft, creativity and authenticity of materials, Karen shares her views on what elements of design are essential to ensure we create buildings that stand the test of time.

As Melbourne is shifting towards higher density living, how important is innovation when it comes to designing multi-residential developments?

Design innovation has always been important; it is how we adapt to the changing needs of society. Architects are trained to question the brief and propose ideas for new ways of dealing with common problems.

What is more critical is the support of a sophisticated approval process that acknowledges the expertise of architects and encourages innovative developments.

What elements of design are essential so that residential buildings can last as long as possible and to what extent should design trends be incorporated?

We need to see apartments as long-term housing solutions, not just a commodity to be bought and sold. We design apartments that are still beautiful in 15-20 years even if they need a new kitchen or bathroom. The space, the ventilation, the light is at the core – trends change, but good design is always in fashion.

You established your firm 10 years ago – do you think good design is more important now than it was back then, and if so, why?

We are in a period of incredible growth and I think that the public are educated and understandably critical of the design that they purchase. You can’t get away from the investment aspect of any house purchase. We focus on good design which we believe equals a good investment.

With good design taking many forms, how can a balance between aesthetics and practicality be achieved?

I back myself and architects, and I don’t think one must be at the expense of the other. The skill of architects and designers is to get the two working together. However, I wouldn’t be an architect if I didn’t think there is always an opportunity to push the conventions and show how things can be done better – not just respond to what is expected.

That can be uncomfortable but also exciting – we can change the way we live for the better.

 While community engagement is a less tangible aspect of the design process, how can this become more prominent to ensure that the needs and wants of society and the broader environment are considered?

Community engagement is at the core of all our work. Our clients need to love where they live, as do the people that live close by. We don’t succeed as designers if we ignore the people outside the doors of our work.

As a practice we will stand our ground when we need to but we also are committed to collaboration (whether that be with council, future occupants or the broader community).

Thinking about materials, how significant is the energy efficiency and sustainability of those that you incorporate in your designs?

Fundamental! The world’s population is growing exponentially and the impact on its resources is intense. At every level we need to question the impact we have on the environment and minimise it as much as possible.

My great aunt used to have to put money in the electricity meter to make the lights come on. Now everything is on call and we have forgotten its value. As a practice we take a long-term view. Buildings need to ‘wear in not wear out’. An investment in a material that will last is more important than engaging with the latest trend.

What do you look for when selecting property developers to work with for residential projects?

Relationships are critical, getting a great project built goes beyond the money – it requires the commitment of the entire project team.

Trust is also a fundamental part of sustaining a collaborative relationship. I think the most successful projects start with clients who are not too prescriptive about the final outcome. We enjoy working with clients who are not afraid to push the boundaries but ultimately put their faith in us to deliver a high quality project.

What is the best way for architects and property developers to work together moving forward to achieve sustainable densification of cities?

Firstly, we need to acknowledge the unique skills we each bring to projects and understand that we need each other to deliver great projects.

We also need to get involved beyond our projects, engaging with government and the community to promote the importance of design, and be part of the strategic discussion of how our cities are going to develop.


Karen Alcock will sit alongside Kyle Reeve, development manager at ICON Developments, on the Designing for Life panel on 18 July. The event is part of the Collectivity Talks series presented by Communications Collective, in partnership with Open House Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased here.


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