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Alumni Stories

Designing for changing times

It’s been an eventful first few months of the year in Australia and beyond - bushfires and smoke haze, flooding, hailstorms - and now the COVID-19 pandemic changing the way people all over the world live their daily lives.

University of Canberra alumnus and award-winning Canberra architect, Rob Henry, believes these events have the potential to alter our thinking when it comes to design.

“The bushfires, extreme high temperatures and the hailstorm will have an impact on how people think about the environment,” says Rob. “People are becoming more aware of high quality design that is better-suited to the environment and ever-changing conditions.”

Rob is well-versed in the philosophy of sustainable design. His upbringing in rural Victoria influenced him from an early age, leading him to constantly consider the relationships between built environments and natural settings. It was a mindset that drove him to complete a Bachelor of Applied Science in Environmental Design and a Bachelor of Architecture (Honours) at UC.

Upon graduating in 2006, Rob moved to Christchurch, New Zealand and worked on educational, commercial and residential developer-driven projects.

“I then returned to Canberra and worked on single and multi-residential projects,” he says.

“My time in those offices gave me a broad overview of a cross-section of various scales of architecture. I learned that I wanted to focus on projects where I had a strong relationship with the end-user and an ability to customise the design to suit their individual needs, while also ensuring the design was flexible enough to accommodate future users.”

This led him to establish his own company, Rob Henry Architects, seven years ago. It was a significant move after a relatively short time in the industry after graduation.

“It was an ambitious thing to do,” he said. “I felt as though I had reached a point in my career where I needed to develop my architecture with the things I am passionate about, foremost in the design process.”

Rob’s UC connection remains strong, even in the office – his team comprises UC graduates Samuel Lorkin (Bachelor of Arts in Architecture, Master of Architecture); Holly Caton (Bachelor of Arts in Architecture, Bachelor of Arts and Design (Honours), Master of Architecture); and UC student Chloe Yin, who has a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture and will complete her Master of Architecture degree in mid-2020.

“I like employing locals, people who have an appreciation of Canberra and its design history,” says Rob.

And it would appear all are driven by the same ethos.

“Every project we do is focused on making sure the design is sustainable, is created with an awareness of the environment, and that the construction method fits in with that focus as well,” Rob says.

Named the 2014 ACT Emerging Architect of the Year by the Australian Institute of Architects, Rob is already playing a leading role in this city.

The Box House, Concrete House and Loft House exemplify Rob’s combining of natural materials with constructed form to sit seamlessly within the environment. And these works have been recognised more broadly, with the Concrete House receiving the Australian Institute of Architects, ACT Chapter, Malcolm Moir and Heather Sutherland Award for Residential Architecture in 2019.

The Loft House won the Master Builders Association 2018 Renovation/Extension Award, and the Box House won the Australian Institute of Architects, ACT Chapter, 2015 Award for Residential Architecture.

These are uniquely diverse buildings, yet all sit beautifully within the environment while also being responsive to owners’ and residents’ needs.

“My style draws inspiration from my client to create a unique outcome. Our work is generally contemporary in nature, with warmth added through the use of natural materials,” Rob says.

He adds that his projects are very much collaborative: “I’ve never understood why we try and link a person with a project as if to establish who they are. I’m not the type of architect that is trying to design something for anyone other than the owner, so they aren’t really statements about me.”

As to what may emerge, architecture-wise, from recent crises, Rob hopes to see positive change on many levels.

“I feel that the construction world is out of control. There is too much excess, and too high an expectation on the material things rather than how well-designed buildings can lift quality of life,” he says.

Rob has responded to this through his intelligent and sustainable use of resources, clever use of space, and commitment to providing functionality in a practical and thoughtful manner.

“Big isn’t always better, and this is a good time to reflect on consumerism,” he says.

“We need to focus on quality over quantity, and architecture has a big role to play in that.”

And he is encouraged to see the public becoming more aware of the need for change.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic we could potentially see houses designed with more emphasis on working from home,” reflects Rob.

“At the moment, we have large office buildings with people working at rows of desks. Looking forward, we might become more flexible in our working arrangements and if so, buildings will need to adapt to that.”

As a tutor at UC, Rob is looking to encourage, mentor and motivate the next generation of architects. And he says that the current transition to a virtual campus with remote learning and teaching could also prove a catalyst for change.

“It may lead to more classes being held remotely or online in the future – leading to less demand for transportation, and a corresponding improvement in air quality, among other things,” he says.

Time will tell as to whether this year’s events will lead to sustained change – what is certain is that talented, forward-thinking architects like Rob will ensure that complementarity with the environment is at the forefront of responsive design for better living.

Words by Tim Gavel, Photos: Rob Henry and LightStudies

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