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SPARCHI Thoughts...


How we think about design and where our values come from has a lot to do with the way we approach our work. From the place a building is to be located and the people its made for, to the materials it is made from and every detail, everything we do has meaning based on experiences, looking, learning and listening.

Here are a few of our thoughts and some insight into what we are about....

WHAT'S IN OUR NAME? 

Progressive Architecture: It's in our practice name: SPARCHI (Studio of Progressive Architecture) so it has to mean something special!

PROGRESSIVE ARCHITECTURE

Since SPARCHI has Progressive Architecture in its name, what does it actually mean?

Architectural academics discuss Progressive Architecture in many ways. It can seem to be a bit obscure in its definition due to geographical location, cultural background or political environments and influences. But mostly Progressive Architecture involves the idea of design and Architecture breaking away from the normal or expected, moving boundaries and seeking better creative ideas and ways of doing things.. This process of moving away from the normal in different or new directions in design is a dynamic, changing and constantly developing way of thinking, and when applied to the design of the built environment, it can have a dramatic effect on people and how they presonally live, interact and engage with their future world. Challenging the norms and constantly improving the way built-environment affects living quality place-by-place, simply makes our cities better places to be overall. But that involves change, moving forward, learning, revising, refining and often building upon tradition, creating new possibilities but responding to the ways people and communities feel, their needs and importantly, their dreams.

Progressive Architecture is not necessarily about rejecting tradition. Respecting tradition is often necessary, but new ideas, and even radical new ones can respect their roots while offering vastly fresher and more promising horizons for our towns, cities and communities, acknowledging and even embracing history, but creatng and adapting for a new and very bright future. 

The built environment is Architecture, and that is why the work of Architects is vitally important but should always begin with a clear meaning and a purpose, a place to start the designing and making process. We like the idea of Progressive Architecture being ground-zero, as a bench-mark and philosophy to work with, and that is why its in our name.

CONTEXT

Context is a term often referred to in Architecture. To put it simply, it's the situation where the building exists or happens. Context is very important to consider when designing a building because it pretty much sets out the basic parameters and the intention of how it is going to look, how it will sit amongst its neighbours, what its form will comunicate and the meaning behind it all. This is what drives the 'Form' part of 'Form and Function' and those are the two key basic ingredient parts in building design. The other part 'Function' refers to how it is used, how it works and how it feeds back to the user. 

'Form' can be described as a particular way in which a thing exists or appears, and that talks directly to 'Context' or the Place. That place can be a busy urban street, a quiet neighbourghood or even an open country field or mountainside. So when designing a building, the way it will sit within its environment makes a statement such as: I am blending-in? I am standing out? I am being loud or soft? I am being decorative or minimal? This is the 'intention' of the design and this is the part that should be the most satisfying for the owner in as many ways as possible while also being the character that engages everyone who sees the building over it's entire life span. That suggests that the way the building will eventually sit in its place is essential to get right. 

The process we follow at the very beginning of design always involves spending quality time in and around the place where the building we are designing is to be located. From that we develop the conceptual dialogue between the site, the intention of the building and the building form itself.... ....and once that is im place, the magic begins!

EMPATHY & DESIGN

On a personal level, Architecture is a visual, spatial and tactile dialogue, a conversation with you, always inviting and somethimes, even demanding a response. But to actually exist, architecture always starts with an actual human conversation about needs, thoughts, feelings and dreams. The Architects' work is to interperet, translate and transform those things through design, knowledge and technology into built form.

As a boutique Architect's firm we do like to design spectacular buildings, pushing the boundaries and creating innovative and new approaches, but we also don't forget that what we design is not for us; it is for you, our client. We like to put ourselves in the client's shoes, to look at the project from where the client sits. Our job is to listen, understand and add real value, taking ideas to original and unique places, and surprise with unique outcomes. Whether a spectacular building or a modest brief, we like to consider our design work is more a response to sharing thoughts and working from a position of emapthy and understanding to achieve an outcome that fits.

Design doesn't just stop at the idea. From the personalised creative design process it then goes through hundreds of steps to make it a buildable reality. That is where the specific combination of art, technology and science in what we do as Architects, joins up. Beyond making great ideas, we consider Architecture to be about balancing intentions and practical things, attending to technical matters and creating and resolving the way a building is constructed and finished well before construction begins. A builder builds from the plans, drawings and instructions that are given, therefore the more thought-through, technically resolved and comprehensive they are, the better the prospects of a great outcome.

Buildings always require an enormous amount of technical work to be carried out to transfer design intent into a finished building. The Architectural component is always very large but for each project we also gather an energetic team of highly skilled consultants that do specific technical parts we don't do. The quality of the skills, relationships, communication and trust within the consultancy team ensures that when the actual construction starts, and with a competent builder, the whole project can successfully go together exactly as it is intended.

Good architecture is always at its best when there is a partnership, when everyone gets together to do their best, have a satisfying time doing it and all people involved remain focussed on the outcome. A building always feels better when the people who make it have a love and passion for their work, and that immense and unique quality stays forever.

URBAN HOUSE ARCHITECTURE

Size does matter! Small can be really good!

In these times of rapidly growing populations and cities, a big house is not necessarily the right answer. As Architects, we do like designing big houses, especially country houses, however in the city, smaller is often better. A well designed small house can be designed to feel quite large, and honestly, how much space do you really need? We encourage our urban clients to seek quality over quantity. For a given budget, a smaller building size allows for the best quality core materials, beautiful finishes and more durable construction that will give a longer and more satisfying life.

A space-efficient urban house can be a little more intense to design than big spread-out houses, but the result can be really exciting. Smart spatial and ergonomic design around human dimensions and careful three dimensional thinking about volume and internal views can give a sense of adventure, variety and space in a small package.

When we work with concrete (as we usually do), we love to put a roof terrace on top. Roof terraces always provide extra external views and outlook but also release the building footprint as outdoor space for anything from entertaining space to even a kitchen garden. The intimate outdoors are also very important, with courtyards expanding the internal spaces. We like the idea of courtyard dining (food always finds its way into our work), outdoor fireplaces at night with a good wine and friends at close quarters. Extending architecture beyond the building with hard elements, trees, gardens and ponds laid out as part of the building composition adds further meaning to form and space. We also like to create spatial identities and character, private, public, quiet or energetic. Special places, fun places. The small urban house can often have it all....

In the street, great architecture defines a place, an identity, and a position.  A good architect understands the context, and can read the street. A successful built statement cares for the street; it makes a place for the owners and respects the neighbours. If it is really good, it might even inspire the neighbours to do better. We consider it a proven fact; a good looking street makes people feel a whole lot better about the world.

(Images below illustrate excellent examples of small Urban House Architecture)

WABI SABI

Wabi – Sabi is a Japanese concept for understanding things as they are, ‘finding beauty in imperfection’, or finding beauty and tranquillity in a sense that nothing is ‘perfect’ and that authentic things or materials have a special inherent individual character of their own.

We often design from a position of Wabi–Sabi. Although it cannot readily be defined as a particular thing, Wabi–Sabi in the background of all aspects of our design thinking and approach to space, texture, light, finish and experience really challenges and enlivens what we are doing. We believe that this factor is what sets our design work apart in that every line that is drawn, component that is placed or space that is conceived is tested on the basis of how it feels, how it can be experienced and how it can feed the soul. This may sound a little out-there, but ultimately when we design buildings for living in, they need to just feel good in as many ways as possible when they are built.

This is one reason we like site-formed concrete and high-mass materials. For example, when concrete is formed the resulting wall or other element has all the textures and blemishes from the formwork, small defects and unexpected textures that are created the moment the concrete is placed, frozen in that moment in time. This adds to the story and character of a building. When this is combined in a carefully balanced way with more engineered and accurately made things, the combined effect is always totally unique, and always much greater than the sum of its parts.

For example, one concrete house project we designed had off-form walls cast using plywood faced formwork shutters that had arrived in the country directly from a building site in Dubai. The plywood had areas of minor damage from hammer marks and rough treatment when the formwork was erected in Dubai, and it was re-used just as it arrived on site. When the concrete was placed it moulded to the formwork, faithfully reproducing the same marks and defects in the new walls as the ones in the Middle-East. The lumps and dents in the concrete represent another culture, place and people, and the result of the hands of the unknown construction workers.

In the new house the defects can be seen and touched and tell the story. At night they are expressed by lighting washing the walls, casting shadows and highlighting the texture. This character cannot be bought at a shop, and is in our opinion far more interesting than a perfect finish in so many ways. This is Wabi-Sabi in action..!

CONCRETE & STEEL

Slap a concrete wall, wow! It feels good. Run your hand over raw concrete, velvety smooth, rough, hard, robust. Step back and see the texture, the direct inverse of the material within which it was cast. Concrete moulds to whatever forms it, revealing imagination.

Concrete has mass; it doesn’t get too cold or too hot. It can help your living environment be comfortable just by itself, sitting passively within the building form. A few tweaks here and there and it can be manipulated to give even higher levels of comfort and performance. Concrete is very quiet to live with too, comfort is also about what we can hear.

Concrete is originally from the earth; rock, water, limestone and sand. Very simple ingredients with very low levels of processing in comparison to most other construction materials. Concrete can also be recycled and used to make new concrete, even the reinforcing steel can be reborn as new reinforcing steel.

Structural Steel is also from the earth, heavy, strong and flexible, it integrates with concrete like a hand in a glove. Steel is engineered, it can be fabricated to the millimetre, made beautiful, and it is hard working. Steel’s strength can be exposed or hidden away, but either way, when combined with concrete structure it helps us create things that really are truly unique for our clients.

Concrete and steel in structure can be considered relatively low-impact materials on the overall resource environment. When used thoughtfully in buildings, they replace and do the work of many complex layers of traditional lightweight or processed materials. Over time more use of recycling will additonally reduce the raw material volume requirements for concrete and steel and that can mean even less impact on the future environment.

Remember, concrete has also been around for a couple of thousand years, it has an enormous track record. Concrete structures are proven to last a very long time, and that means you get something pretty authentic and substantial for your investment.

We love concrete and steel and have many years’ experience designing houses and buildings in concrete in a variety of forms and using multiple techniques. For true High-Performance houses and for the energy and cost-conscious, we also like ICF construction. ICF is EPS moulded reinforced concrete. Google ‘ICF’ if you can, it's a pretty cool way to build with concrete.

ICF & MAXMASS

At SPARCHI we have become experts at designing buildings constructed using Insulating Concrete Formwork (ICF) methods of moulding concrete on site for the entire structures of houses. Insulating Concrete Formwork is permanent formwork that stays in place after the concrete for a house or building is placed and remains as insulation and the base for finishes. Our expertise has come from years of using all methods of traditional and concrete construction in the houses and buildings we design and has been followed up with extensive technical, performance and environmental research of EPS moulded concrete architecture on a global scale. We know we are at the forefront in design of buildings using this technology in New Zealand and Australia and we have plenty of built examples illustrating successful outcomes we have achieved for our clients.

Houses usually have some measure of concrete, mainly in foundations and floors, and this is often referred to as ‘Mass’. Mass is frequently discussed for its thermal benefits in passive solar design but we have found that increasing the amount of ‘mass’ can dramatically improve the quality of a house overall, making it a remarkably better, stronger and healthier place to live. We have expanded the use of concrete mass in our work to the level of creating the entire building envelope out of insulated reinforced concrete. We have found this produces real and authentic high-performance residential buildings in all aspects including thermal efficiency, reduced energy use, positive ecological and environmental advantages, structural integrity and strength, and most importantly, a healthy warm, dry and non-toxic human environment.

Virtually all our houses are designed from the bottom-up to be constructed in this way, so we have taken the step to help with understanding our approach by describing it as MaxMass. Because we are so serious about our particular way of designing these types of authentic high-performance reinforced concrete houses for our clients, we have even trademarked the name.

SPARCH Architects is the only place where a MAXMASS® House can be designed, and with that branding you know exactly what you are getting; a highly durable, comfortable, high quality, efficient and safe environment, and what we believe is a far superior investment. We work closely with builders familiar with aspects of this construction method to perfect the building delivery, and assist those new to it with guidance, contacts and resources to get up to speed very quickly.

We are passionate about our work and the way we do it, but there is real benefit for the client and owner. Before making any building decision, we recommend cleints talk with us about our specific design services for MAXMASS and the opportunity to add that to a well-informed building choice.

SUSTAINABILITY

What is ‘Sustainability’?

Despite what is often said, there is actually no clear answer. Sustainability has wildly different meanings depending on what economic, ecological or social agenda a person has, or how ‘green’ a point of view is. Whether a thing, or activity is ‘sustainable’ or not, is actually entirely open to interpretation, and even one persons ‘sustainability’ can be another’s environmental terrorism. The growth of the concept has created such an intellectual labyrinth, and assumed an almost religious position to a point where it is impossible to fully define or achieve in any practical sense. Competing factions challenging and attacking one another, often based on loose facts, beliefs or political correctness, reveals an enormous amount of made-up or misleading statements in many ‘sustainability’ claims. These claims can ultimately become very confusing to consumers hoping to make well-intentioned and thoughtful purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, the term ‘sustainability’ has ended up as a means of simply branding and selling many unnecessary and ineffective things in a ‘feel good’ way but making little or no real difference.

This is of particular significance in designing and constructing buildings. Take timber vs. concrete construction for example; real and honest research demonstrates that concrete can be considered considerably more ‘sustainable’ than timber and certainly more ‘green’, particularly on an ecological level. While many things are even labelled ‘renewable’ such as forestry timber for building as an example, that does not necessarily mean ‘sustainable’ or even authentically appropriate for use other than convenient. Independant fact-checking can reveal a lot.

In the design process, we consider two things; ecological context and building performance to be better benchmarks. Understanding these things when seeking real-life sustainability oriented activities requires a different and much deeper analytical approach. Time, cost, ecology and human health deal much more with the real world, as does the ability to responsibly source and authentically recycle materials in sensible achievable ways.

For those interested in this stuff, a combination of Resilience Thinking and Material Flow Analysis is our method for understanding and achieving more ‘sustainable’ activities and solutions, and deals with much wider issues for sensibly utilising resources. Resilience Thinking, based on ecological theory, understands dynamically operating ‘complex adaptive systems’ throughout the human and natural environment, and accepts and anticipates change, as opposed to simply sustaining or reducing activities. Designing and building from an understanding of resilience theory can give real results that benefit both humans and the environment in ways that many sustainability arguments can only dream of.

And we consider that is a more intelligent approach to material selection in design.

If this is of interest, Google ‘Resilience’, ‘Urban Resilience’ and 'Stockholm Resilience Center', it’s a really big subject, but you may be quite surprised.

DISASTER RESILIENCE

We work in a location still recovering from a massively destructive earthquake event. The damage and destruction of buildings, land and infrastructure that occur in major natural events such as extreme wind, earthquakes, floods and busfires are commonly described as ‘natural disasters’. However, they are in reality not that at all. Much of the damage can be attributed to historical human decisions made in the processes of legislating, designing and constructing the built environment. These decisions directly contribute to how the built environment performs during and following disaster, and the characteristic damage and loss when nature simply does its thing.

Housing is the most prolific and personal of all buildings. In its sheer numbers, housing presents the largest numbers of individual buildings damaged, and often the greatest challenge for reconstruction and resourcing following a natural event.

Disaster events leave an indelible mark in time and unavoidably impose a re-evaluation of the design and construction processes, materials, methods and the purpose of building things. These are brief but extremely valuable moments in time, so how these re-evaluations are responded to and actioned has the power to truly define the built environment for future generations, and the well-being of future generations is supposed to be what we are all to be thinking about.

Resilience Thinking suggests that the future built environment needs to respond to not only the realities of nature and the historical evidence that plays out time after time, but also the need to work alongside and in anticipation of natural forces. Nature will always be more powerful and surprising than human activities will ever allude to be. Actively 'building-in' resilience in an engineering sense is essential, however so is thinking about the environmental implications of demolition and rebuilding, resources and waste, urban planning, infrastructure and communities within a dynamic natural ecological system.

Working alongside and respecting the dynamic characteristics of nature is essential, but not fearing nature. Humans as a part of nature have always proven to be adaptable so it would seem logical to actually think about and build-in 'adaptive capacity' to what we build.

The quality of the future places we all live is precisely determined by what we design and build from now, not by repeating what we had in the past

URBAN RESILIENCE DESIGN THINKING

The word ‘Resilience’ is mentioned a lot but is typically considered as simply an ability to ‘bounce back’ following a force or shock. However that is just one very small part of the meaning of Resilience, particularly in ecology, and specifically within urban ecology and urban environments.
In modern ecolgically-based Resilience Theory, buildings themselves can be regarded as ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ and so are the ecological environments they are placed in. Understanding and acting on the meaning of this in design, is the essence of Urban Resilience. The process of ‘building-in’ resilience across the board from a building's physical strength to its ecological footprint is one that requires a different mind-set and approach to design from the outset. If it is integral to the design process it ends up integrated into the constructed building.

With Resilience Thinking applied to design, buildings are made robust and durable and they are also safe, healthy and ecologically inert. On a functional human level, buildings are able to be easily maintained and capable of change and adaptability over the years. Buildings constructed from this thinking use local materials and recycled materials and are able to be recyclable at the end of their long life. They are efficient in their construction, and designed at the outset to be effective in providing a comfortable environment, they will keep you warm, keep you cool, use energy efficiently, and all in an entirely passive way.

Buildings designed from Resilience Thinking respond to their environment, they are resilient in earthquakes, cyclones, storms, winds, floods, fires and Resilient to natures desire to consume them as food. Buildings should and do assert themselves on the landscape, but they should also integrate with both nature and social systems in ways that do not threaten adaptive capacities. Good development adds more than it takes away, adding strength, health and resilience to all systems. Healthy and Resilient cities are always as much about their social and ecological systems as they are about physical function.

Buildings designed with Ecologically-based Resilience characteristics throughout as a fundamental set of values have a quality like no other, and can help provide the framework for expanding a truely sustainable community, environment and economy.

Sound good? Absolutely!

GREEN BUILDING

What is Green Building?

When you think about it, it is difficult to make sense of the term 'Green Building'. Is it about promoting and protecting the green treed wilderness, forests and natural (green) environments? It should be....but not so much it seems!

Although the phrase 'Green Building' is common, it is too often used to sell a lot of stuff that usually isnt really 'green' or even ecologically responsible. 

Take timber for example, often held up as being the only real 'green' building material, and promoted for its 'renewable' characteristics and therefore 'green'. But to make a timber house work, the timber itself is cut from forests, stripped, sawn, processed, transported many times, and is typically impregnated with chemicals to temporarily protect it. When arriving at the building site, many highly processed and potentially toxic materials are added for insulation, building wrap, flashings, cladding and linings, most of which are not able to be successfully recycled and are in fact treated as toxic waste. And even then most of the additional materials are only in place to reduce the inherent fragility and vulnerability of timber.

Earthquake, fire, flood, wind, moisture, and termites are all natural enemies of timber houses, and we ceaselessly try to make them warm, cool, dry, healthy and safe, at great cost, with the main objective only to sustain a particular industry.

That is why we are interested in other ways of building houses, and in particular adopting commercial and industrial building techniques and materials such as concrete and steel. They are robust, physically resilient and sourced, processed and transported within strict environmentally controlled methods. They perfom in-use, have a long life-span and are totally recyclable at end-of-life for use in future buildings.

A radical position we take is describing the only True Green Building is that which leaves the forests and their delicate ecosystems exactly where they are, caring for the planet and people.

Concrete and steel does just that!

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