Type to search

Neolith helps designers navigate change in candid panel discussion


Designers gathered in Melbourne last week for a frank and informative panel discussion hosted by Australian Design Review (ADR) and Neolith on navigating industry changes, particularly the looming engineered stone ban.

With great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes. Architects and designers, as the masterminds of our built environments, must continually stay abreast of industry changes, from new regulations and standards to technologies and client preferences.

The industry is right now on the cusp of a significant development that has been coming for some time. A ban on the use, supply and manufacture of engineered stone – an artificial product that contains high levels of crystalline silica – comes into place on 1 July 2024 in most states and territories. The ban comes after Workplace Relations and Work Health and Safety Ministers last year determined there to be no safe level of silica in engineered stone products. 

It is a welcome change given the direct link between cutting the product and the epidemic of silicosis affecting engineered stone workers. However, the ban poses a challenge for designers. For a long time, engineered stone has been a popular and cost-effective alternative to natural stone.

Anticipating uncertainty around this period of transformation, ADR and Neolith, a world leader in the design and manufacture of sintered stone surfaces, invited architects and designers to the showstopping Sophia event space in Prahran on Thursday 20 June. Joining Neolith’s managing director Oceania Con Papadakis for a panel discussion on navigating industry changes were local interior designers Jade Whittaker of Breathe Architecture, Jessica Coulter from Cera Stribley and Brahman Perera of his eponymous studio.

The event also marked a milestone for Neolith: the launch of a pioneering new crystalline silica-free surface material that has been years in development.

Papadakis breaks down the ban and Neolith’s new surface

Moderating the panel, Coulter started proceedings by asking Papadakis to discuss the silica ban and its implications.

“At the moment, there’s not a nationwide standard across the board,” Papadakis said.

“We’re in Victoria so let’s focus on what’s happening here. As of 1 July, engineered stone cannot be used: no ifs, buts or any reason[s]. If the product isn’t installed before the first, it can’t be used.”

Alternative stone products, such as porcelain, sintered and natural stone all have risks associated, explained Papadakis. Even with zero percent products, fabricators still need to wear personal protective equipment.

“The ban is there to protect the industry, to protect the fabricators,” he said. 

“Not that the product can’t be cut safely, but it hasn’t been done so far so the Government had to take that step to say we’re enforcing it because the industry can’t regulate itself. The change has happened here in Australia. We look globally and there are murmurs happening in different regions at the moment.”

For designers, this doesn’t change much for medium- to high-end projects, where natural and sintered stone is already commonly specified. According to Papadakis, the entry-level market is where designers will see a “big shift”.

“It’s got to come down to how we design kitchens as well… Forty millimetres has become the standard [for edges]. We’ve got to go back to looking at 20mm or 12mm as the standard profile to keep costs relatively similar,” he said.

Papadakis was also asked to elaborate on Neolith’s new product.

“It’s coincidental that it’s ready now to launch, but we’ve been working on this for 24 months,” he said. 

“We’ve gone from two percent to zero. Now, it’s only a small shift relatively in terms of what crystalline silica was in the material. For us, it was more about removing the impurities that were in the raw material.”

Taking clients on the journey

Coulter then turned her attention to Perera and Whittaker, asking them about their initial responses to the ban.

“It’s always interesting to me what clients’ level of understanding is,” Perera responded.

“It’s a challenge to work out what role you’re actually playing in this relationship.” 

Perera said he always tries to distil his client’s core values – whether they be sustainability, durability, longevity or even just pure aesthetics – alongside his own personal agenda.

“There’s always some part of you that has a responsibility to guide them,” he said. “Your job is to take them on a journey and say: ‘You’re hiring me to tell you how to do something and I will respect your opinions. This is how I see it playing out and this is how it could be better for you.’”

Whittaker, who works at a sustainable architecture firm, recognised her unique vantage point to the ban.

“I remember when documents started being released by Safe Work, we were getting sent them by a developer, and we kind of had a little laugh internally like: ‘We don’t use that so no worries, nothing to worry about here’,” she said. 

“It’s pretty great to see the industry catch up a bit.”

Approaching ‘sustainability’

As the discussion progressed, the panel also explored responsible specification beyond the stone ban.

Whittaker touched on Breathe’s framework for assessing products for their environmental and social impacts.

“We have so much power as designers to use good things and then you start asking these questions and you look around and you’re like: ‘I’ve been part of degrading an environment because I really love this particular thing and it really suits my colour palette.’ You’re like ‘Wow, that’s on my hands a little bit’,” she said.

Whittaker reminded designers of their ability to “push” their suppliers.

“When we work at this scale, we have the ability to influence suppliers,” she said.

Reflecting honestly on his own relationship to the word ‘sustainability’, Perera explained his reluctance to use it.

“I’m big on vocabulary, like words that mean something,” he said. 

“I’m still not sure – and I don’t have any embarrassment about this – that I understand the word ‘sustainable’. To me, as a person and as a business, I’m still confused by the whole thing. And it’s ok to make mistakes and learn along the way is my caveat.”

Navigating change in the design industry

The lively discussion concluded with some nuanced questions from designers in the audience. ADR’s managing editor Jessica Agoston-Cleary and Neolith’s group marketing director thanked the panellists and invited everyone to continue the conversation over some drinks and dinner in the beautiful heritage space.

With strong foundations laid over the course of the night, we hope designers in attendance left with a greater confidence in their ability to tackle changes on 1 July and beyond.

Read about the top projects honoured at Queensland architecture awards.


You Might also Like

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *