The legacy of the Architectural Practice Academy

March 5, 2014

The first article from one of our newly appointed contributing online editorial assistants, a reflective piece on the experimental graduate program in Queensland.

Text: Charles Rowe
Above image: RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Jon Henzell, Camera Obscura

The Architectural Practice Academy (APA) was an experimental program for Queensland architectural graduates that ran from 2005 to 2012 with the support of the State Government. It provided an opportunity for graduates over two years to run their own practice under the guidance of an experienced practice manager.

Wayne Petrie had the initial vision for the APA during 2004 when he was coordinating the Queensland State Government Department of Public Works’ contribution to the Year of the Built Environment following his time as President of the Queensland Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects. Federal funding was allocated as part of the YBE for the advancement of the architectural profession through greater focus on regional Queensland and investing in upcoming graduates; Petrie saw an opportunity for some of this funding to be used for the establishment of an academy of practice, providing graduates with a separate stream of ongoing education to academia.

Despite changing circumstances and staff at the academy its core focus would be the fast-tracking of registration for graduates, made possible by actively teaching skills in problem solving issues of practice through a solid foundation of ‘first principles’.

Max Smith was Deputy Director-General of the Department of Public Works in Queensland at the time and saw the need for a graduate program that offered strong mentoring opportunities and was an advocate for the academy from the outset. Robert Schwarten was the Minister with the Department portfolio and had a background in education, with his support the idea was pitched to the Queensland Chapter of the AIA in late 2004.

While the APA could not have succeeded without its promotion by the local schools of architecture, the advocacy of the Queensland AIA was critical due to the potential for conflict with the wider profession as a result of its government patronage.

The APA initiative was understandably met with initial resistance from within the profession; not only was competition already fierce but the very need for such an academy highlighted gaps that were emerging in the current educational model and though not endemic by any means were seen as a problematic trend. Architects take great pride in maintaining a high standard of education, it is rightly regarded as a critical component of the profession and educational reform has a long history. Over the past century we have seen a move away from the apprenticeship system that was seen to lack consistency towards a more regulated tertiary model. But the APA represented a tacit admission that this trend had moved too far from teaching practical skills required in architectural practice.

Wayne Petrie observed the lack of experience in graduates through contact teaching at the Queensland University of Technology, those attending the AIA Practice of Architecture Learning Series (PALS) course and finally as an examiner with the Board of Architects. Rates of registration were declining; part of the issue identified by Petrie was that the current economic climate had diminished time spent by practice directors personally mentoring new graduates.

With the support of the Queensland Institute President at the time Paula Whitman, in late 2004 the APA was narrowly approved despite concerns it would be a source of unnecessary competition. Within six months the academy had its first crew of graduates working from the offices of the Department of Public Works. Later in 2005 the academy designed the fit-out for what would become their permanent home, below the National Trust in Brisbane CBD where it operated semi-autonomously from then on.

The original aspiration was to provide graduates with a workshop in which to cut their teeth on live projects with real consequences for their decisions, gaining an understanding of how to run a practice.

To realise such an ambitious goal a unique practice model was devised that consisted of twelve graduates, half fresh from a Queensland university and the other half in their second year working with the guidance of a practice manager, supported by an administration officer. The practice manager, like the graduates would cycle through the firm, moving on after a three-year period so as to provide some continuity – in 2011 a third year was introduced. The management of the practice was divided into key roles such as marketing, finance, resources and systems, which were each undertaken by the graduates for a period of time. This allowed gradual exposure to the management of an architectural firm; graduates could flex their skills in an area of particular interest but were forced to understand aspects they may not have chosen to focus on.

Graduates also received guidance from a network of mentors; these were project specific industry members, often architects with specialist knowledge of a particular project or typology but also drawn from aligned professions such as engineers (Bligh Tanner) and builders (Woollam Constructions). The mentors provided a review of a graduate’s work and were not always paid for their time. Mentoring graduates exposed the wider profession to the talent of graduates and was an implicit investment by private practice in the academy. Mentors, like clients, were for the majority drawn from the personal networking of the practice manager and included architects such as Rex Addison, Ian Mitchell, David Trott (Jackson Architecture), Michael Lavery (m3architecture) and Justin O’Neill. Regular board meetings were held to report on the progress of the academy and were attended by representatives from the profession, educators and government.

As an exemplar the APA initially set itself some ambitious standards, these included a balanced workforce based on gender neutrality and graduates being from an even spread of universities. Other ‘best practices’ included sustainability, research in practice, universal access, CPTED and quality assurance.

The office functioned like any small practice, with key differences being: the ratio of graduates, the explicit training and the institutional support that made it possible.  Professional development sessions were held by the Practice Manager or mentors, covering such areas as preparation of sustainable fee-proposals or the importance of a business plan and how one should be crafted and implemented. After learning these skills graduates had to immediately apply them to their current situation, judge the results and modify their approach as needed, working at a range of scales and across typologies and received a number of awards and commendations such as the Zilzie Sustainable Home at Emu Park.

Zilzie Sustainable Home, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Architectural Practice Academy

Zilzie Sustainable Home, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Architectural Practice Academy

A good relationship was nurtured with the Mt Isa area and a number of successful projects were completed, such as the Buchanan Park Multi-Events Stadium and RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment (recipient of Far North Queensland’s Walter and Oliver Tunbridge Award for Building of the Year, 2012).

RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Jon Henzell, Camera Obscura

RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Jon Henzell, Camera Obscura

The academy was uniquely positioned to showcase young talent and expose graduates to the potential of regional areas. The Queensland schools of architecture are clustered near Brisbane and, during his work with the Institute, Petrie had identified such regional areas as requiring the design talent an academy might produce. Ultimately the regional focus was intended to build momentum for regional schools of architecture. This intent was not without controversy and while projects were often procured through the State Government’s Project Services division there was an underlying friction with regional practitioners.

The Queensland State Government provided generous support but the practice had to maintain a level of financial sustainability; graduates were held accountable to their allocated fees for each project and gained an understanding of the cash flow requirements of a practice. The amount of training and the high expectation for quality of work often required graduates worked long hours to achieve the results the academy became known for.

Exposure to the financial ramifications of their decisions, in design, contract administration and business planning provided graduates with a perspective usually hidden. The model’s advantage was that it provided a controlled environment where graduates could make the essential mistakes in the process of learning how to be an architect. The role of the Practice Manager was essentially managing the risks taken by graduates as they progressed in complexity of work undertaken.

RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Jon Henzell, Camera Obscura

RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Jon Henzell, Camera Obscura

Wayne Petrie was chosen as the first Practice Manager, followed by John Clarke and Peter Roy all of whom are well respected in the Queensland architectural community. The Practice Manager needed to have a network of potential clients (often drawn from their own practice) and mentors as well as meeting the approval of the current graduates. Practice Managers had a variety of past experiences including work for large offices, private practice and local council but were all examiners for the Board of Architects in Queensland.

Being within State Government, higher wages were offered allowing the practice to choose graduates that demonstrated exceptional skills, exemplifying potential assets to a profession that can see such fresh recruits as a burden. Each year new members were chosen from a wide array of applicants who were judged by a panel that had representatives from the board for of the academy, current graduates and the Practice Manager.

In 2005 the first group of graduates were selected: Andrew Vikstrom, Jaime Weber, Katie Fairbrother, Josephine MacLeod, Marissa Linquist and Rachel Barnard.  Graduates chose to apply for the academy for a variety of reasons. Certainly the key priority was a desire to fast-track registration, avoiding a process which could take up to six or seven years in private practice. The range of projects and contact with industry mentors was also seen as a major benefit. Later after initial projects gained publicity there was a justified perception APA members enjoyed greater freedom to design and more authority interacting with builders, clients and consultants.

The first group of graduates at the APA in early 2005, from left: Josephine MacLeod, Katie Fairbrother, Andrew Vikstrom, Rachel Barnard, Ben Thomas (who left early and was replaced by Marissa Lindquist) and Jaime Weber; Source: The Architectural Practice Academy

The first group of graduates at the APA in early 2005, from left: Josephine MacLeod, Katie Fairbrother, Andrew Vikstrom, Rachel Barnard, Ben Thomas (who left early and was replaced by Marissa Lindquist) and Jaime Weber; Source: The Architectural Practice Academy

The two years at the academy was intended to be a “pressure cooker” in which graduates were expected to emerge as registered architects, having to adjust to a steep learning curve usually gradated over five or six years. The pressure exerted on academy members was daunting and a high degree of responsibility rested with the individual (rather than the office) from an early stage.

The first cohort was more heavily involved in formulating the practice objectives and the establishment of practice systems; 2005-07 remains arguably the most vibrant period. Following this was a period of consolidation when John Clarke was practice manager; during this time graduates were encouraged to question the objectives and systems in place but also to take responsibility for their resulting decisions.

Peter Roy’s appointment in 2010 saw the APA functioning at a commendable profit but had (perhaps inevitably) become an overly competitive environment. Roy saw his time – the final Practice Manager – as improving on the sustainability of the model and a more proactive facilitation of a collegiate environment. Such an atmosphere was understandably (if sadly) difficult to maintain. Graduates needed to be relatively headstrong and competitive to maintain control of sometimes large and complex projects and the regular turnover of staff had, over time, brought with it a perception that relationships formed were temporary.

In the final years the practice faced similar economic circumstances as other architecture offices in Queensland following the global economic downturn. While the support of the State Government was unwavering, the APA still had to adjust to increasingly difficult circumstances. Projects that had earlier been evenly distributed between private and public sector clients became more heavily reliant on government work.

RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Jon Henzell, Camera Obscura

RFDS Mt Isa Base Redevelopment, Architectural Practice Academy; Source: Jon Henzell, Camera Obscura

In early 2011 Minister Robert Schwarten retired from Anna Bligh’s Labour State Government and was replaced by Simon Finn. However, Finn was disposed in March 2012 as the Liberal National Party won the Queensland State Election in a landslide. Under the new LNP government, news of the ceased funding for the APA was dwarfed by news of broad cuts to the public service affecting approximately 14,000 positions.

Based on the quality of past members and built projects alone the return on investment was good but a significant component of the practice mission was to maximise its impact by promoting itself as an exemplar. Engagement with other graduates was intended to build a ripple effect, through social and educational functions such as the Capture photography exhibitions, involvement with Institute events and professional development seminars open to the wider profession. This ambition has made its impact more difficult to quantify.

The APA was one potential solution to a broader problem facing the architectural profession. The Practice Managers all shared the belief that the APA could resist the fragmentation of a profession in which both education and industry were increasingly seen to be accelerating specialization and the outsourcing of traditionally intrinsic tenets of being an architect.

The academy was always seen as an experiment and though potentially able to continue indefinitely or be emulated elsewhere, it required some government support to achieve its best results. Critically, the end of the APA came at a time when schools of architecture were eliminating requirements and opportunities for practical experience before graduation. It is evident in the hiring policies of most major practices that the industry has adapted to this lack of practical office experience and graduates are judged useful primarily for their CAD skills. Should industry alone be expected (or trusted) to finish the education of graduates, particularly in the current economic climate?

The ethos of the academy has not disappeared, past members now work in national or international architecture offices, teach or are undertaking further study. Some have become leaders in inter-disciplinary innovation such as Christian Duell (2006-2007) with the Asia-Pacific Design Library or Rachel Barnard (2005-2006) who after winning Columbia University’s Goodman Fellowship started a successful public art program in New York for young offenders as an alternative to criminal sentencing.

Ultimately the legacy of the APA is still unfolding. The success of its past members is testament to the benefits of a solid grounding in the practice of architecture and the potential for innovation held by emerging graduates. In an industry that can at times seem permeated with cynicism, the academy represents a unique moment; the result of a shared vision for the investment in positive outcomes for graduates and ultimately the profession.

Contributing online editorial assistant, Charles Rowe, was a member of the Architectural Practice Academy during its final year.

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