Recently I was fortunate to moderate a panel at the Sydney Architecture Festival entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Where does your stuff come from?’; the topic of one of my recent Sourceable articles and the core of my work leading the Supply Chain Sustainability School. Despite being the same day as the AFL Grand Final, the session drew a good crowd and promised to be an interesting exploration of the supply chains behind everything from foundations to furniture to fashions: http://www.sydneyarchitecturefestival.org/program/where-does-your-stuff-come-from
But what happened next was unexpected; whilst I thought I knew which direction the speakers and conversation would take, I was wrong. Each of the four panelists was asked to introduce themselves and outline what they do, what they’re passionate about, and why it would matter to them where their ‘stuff’ (materials, resources, skills etc.) comes from. Preliminary introductions unfolded smoothly. And then, surrounded by beautiful furniture and great minds, we disappeared into a fascinating world of stories. Stories of Aboriginal design, the links between sustainability, beauty, spirituality and function in boomerangs and buildings, heirloom products, handprinting and restorative development, and the development, evolution and skills behind the knowledge, routine and physical jobs around NSW.
Speaking in the session were designer, artist and film-maker Alison Page, architect and sustainable development advocate Caroline Pidcock, furniture design curator, storyteller and our host at the CULT showroom Richard Munao, and business strategist, design thinker and jobs-for-the-future advocate Tony Stephens. A gender-balanced panel – well played Sydney Architecture Festival!
Alison outlined concepts of design from an Aboriginal perspective, noting the materials used, the traditions embraced and how communities each have a unique cultural identity and spirituality that needs to be reflected in the built environment. Caroline talked of handprinting; where a range of positive business impacts from best practice products to sustainability programs can balance an organisation’s footprint. Richard referenced the importance of authenticity and longevity in design, particularly in the creation and passing down of heirloom products and pieces. And Tony spoke of the importance of the skills and narratives within engineering, architectural and technical services here in NSW and the need to build on infrastructure investment domestically and expand internationally; whilst the Jobs for NSW initiative focuses on fast-growing SMEs and start-ups, the real ‘wicked problem’ is how to transition regional SMEs away from older industries and into newer ones. Their challenge is to create 150,000 new jobs in the four years to March 2019, and these need to be sustainable, lasting jobs.
The session also focused on the issue of beauty, and how we need a bit more of it in all our lives. I’ve said many times that the buildings we love will last forever; Sydney’s Bourke Street Public School, the Brisbane Arcade and Adelaide Town Hall aren’t just functional structures but places of beauty and inspiration, brimming with stories of their development and survival, and for this reason they will be maintained, repaired and truly loved.
With CULT’s stunning furniture and design around us, and conscious of Alison Page’s words about Aboriginal design blending function, beauty, spirituality and sustainability, we also examined increasingly popular rating tools such as the Living Future Institute Australia’s (LFIA’s) ‘Living Building Challenge’. LFIA Board member Caroline Pidcock explained how the design and architecture fraternity is embracing the concept of not only doing ‘less bad’ but developing buildings with a positive, regenerative impact. The Living Building Challenge recognises and rewards buildings around not only categories of their Place, Water, Energy and Materials use, but also themes of Health and Happiness, Equity and Beauty – including elements of Spirit, Inspiration and Education.
And behind all of these themes were woven the stories – those stories of buildings we love, stories of materials and their sources, stories of crafts and traditions, and stories of history and heritage. The conclusion? That whether we’re talking developments, designs, dresses or desks, people are showing more and more interest, and attaching more and more value, to the stories behind their production.
Mass-produced items may be cheaper and easier to obtain, but there are rarely stories behind them; there is rarely a connection. Heritage pieces, crafted items, carefully sourced materials and truly sustainable developments hold more stories, and the market value of these is growing around Australia. More to the point, Australia’s ability to tell these stories (and to verify them) will stand us in increasingly good stead worldwide. The value of these stories lies in their ability to show the ‘provenance’ or chain of custody of the item or service, the demonstration of awareness of the supply chain, the emotional involvement which often outweighs any economic drawback, the knowledge that a higher quality product will last longer and therefore be a better long-term decision (“buy cheap, buy twice”), the awareness that something is line with our own inherent principles and, to be blunt about it, the ‘bragging rights’ that come with such a choice.
So the panel, audience and I got to a conclusion, confirming that there is a growing demand for stories, beauty and quality, as well as a better blend of all three. As architect Richard Buckminster Fuller pointed out so accurately many decades ago, “When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
[Excerpts from this article first published in Sourceable online on 2 November 2016.]
Robin Mellon is one of Australia’s experts on sustainability in the built environment and is determined to leave the planet in a better shape than it was when he found it. Robin believes in a Better Sydney – better buildings, better communities and a better quality of life.