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Behind the lines
with our Defence team

It’s no secret that Australia’s military is going through its most significant shift in decades. A major review of our national Defence strategy earlier this year found it needed an overhaul, or we risked falling behind in the “missile age”. 

In May, the push toward transformation made headlines again, when Treasury predicted that Defence spending would grow by $30 billion more than expected over the next decade.

While a clearer picture forms of Australia’s direction in Defence, we hear much less about who will help design that future. In our industry, the Defence sector is often misunderstood, if it’s even spoken about at all.  

That’s one of the reasons we’re going ‘behind the lines’ with our Defence experts at Architectus – a dedicated team that started with just a handful of people but now includes more than 60 designers and specialists following our merger with Conrad Gargett, a leader in the field. 

Conrad Gargett’s Managing Director, Lawrence Toaldo, is Group Director, Health, Defence, and Heritage at Architectus, bringing years of experience on sustainment and capability projects for the Air Force, Army, and Navy. He works shoulder-to-shoulder with our Sector Leader Defence, Ralph Williams, who has been behind some of the country’s most complex Defence projects. 

The team has seen an influx of new arrivals – accomplished professionals who bring specialist knowledge, skills, and commitment to the often-intriguing (and highly confidential) work they do.  

Two of our most recent appointments, Principal Peter McGregor in Adelaide and Associate Principal Michelle Addley in Sydney, joined Ralph for an informal chat, giving us a glimpse into their world.  

Q We have to start with the most recent news in Defence. How will the changing landscape impact your work?

Ralph: There’s been a recent shift away from sustainment-style projects towards new capability-supporting projects across the country, with the Defence Strategic Review highlighting focus areas such as longer-range strike capability, improved operations at northern bases, a faster transition to new technologies, and the recruitment and retention of personnel.

From a design point of view, what’s changing is how we approach projects. The scale of Defence work is increasing when you compare it to sectors like health, education, transport, aviation, residential, and commercial. We need to tackle things differently – question business as usual – to find solutions to big, complex challenges.

At Architectus, we’re focusing on how we draw in our other sector experience, bringing in different perspectives for a superior outcome.

“That’s one of the things that excites me most – that we can combine multiple, diverse sectors within one project.”

Q How did each of you get into designing for Defence?

Michelle: I moved into Defence consulting from commercial and workplace interiors nearly 20 years ago. My primary focus is strategic briefing in the initial stages of a project, from supporting business case feasibility studies to preparing user requirements briefs to fleshing out the scope. Then our team will start to translate that into design options.

I’m fascinated by the work, and by what people do serving in the Defence forces. It can be a bit humbling going into the environments where they work and live. I’m grateful there are so many skilled, intelligent people willing to do what they do.

Peter: Years ago, someone who was leaving my practice handed me their portfolio of refurbishment projects at the Defence Science and Technology Group site at Edinburgh in South Australia. Once I developed an understanding of the intricacies of Defence work, it evolved into much larger architectural projects, base redevelopments, and national capability rollouts. For the last 10 years I’ve been totally focused on the sector, leading the national team at my last practice.

Ralph: My father is a Vietnam veteran, and my grandfather was in the Navy. Those connections have made me think about the facilities provided for people in the Defence forces. These individuals make such a big commitment, moving from base to base, from role to role, often with families, and they deserve the right working and living accommodation.

It’s a huge benefit to have military personnel in our own team. One of our designers is architecturally trained but also in the Army, and one of our graduates recently went through soldier training at Kapooka. They give us even greater insight into what our clients need.

Werribee Police Complex, Victoria

Q What does the Conrad Gargett merger mean for your team, and for clients?

Ralph: Our sector team has been growing since the merger, and we’ve developed a truly national approach, with Lawrence heading up that broader portfolio covering Health and Heritage as well as Defence – all areas of strength for Conrad Gargett.

We’ve also got talented people looking after and working right across our regions – the southeast, east coast, and Western Australia. We’re well positioned for whatever’s coming out of the Defence Strategic Review, wherever the work emerges.

Q Is there a type of designer who fits best in Defence?

Peter: I often work with people who are good at and enjoy process – recording and tracking, writing reports, verifying work. I think there’s a lot of cross over with health and other government sectors where you’re used to ratifying briefs and proving up brief requirements.

Some commercial projects I’ve worked on have been a bit fluid. But in Defence we typically have 30%, 50%, 90% milestone deliverables. At each of those points we present to all key stakeholders, tracking and analysing feedback to finetune the design if required. We always have clear sign offs and deliverables as we develop the project.

Michelle: The first word that springs to mind is…pragmatic. That doesn’t mean we don’t think about making a space look good! It’s just that you have to get the functionality right. I’d say we’re analytical and systematic too.

“We justify every move so it stands up to scrutiny, developing a coherent approach and rationale – and clearly tying our work back to a brief or policy.”

Q Your sector tends to attract more men in design. Does that impact your process or relationships?

Michelle: On a personal level I’ve never really been that conscious of it, even though at times I’ve been one of just a few women in a large project group. It’s not been an obstacle by any means. As a client group, the Defence Forces have such a respectful culture – there’s a structure to it that I don’t think is impacted by gender. Everyone’s got a voice within that hierarchy, I believe.

New Intercity Fleet Maintenance Facility, New South Wales

Q What do you find most challenging and rewarding about working in this space?

Ralph: Our projects often have long horizons, but you build this great camaraderie with your team over that time – tight working relationships and often long-lasting friendships. For example, Michelle and I have worked together for more than 10 years now, all around Australia.

Everyone gets deep into the work together – in the trenches you might say. Completing a project is so satisfying, and always a great learning experience. I’ve been lucky to be on jobs where I was there at the initial briefing, right through to handing over the keys.

Peter: Most of my Defence jobs have been lengthy projects. It’s normal for five years to go by before you start to emerge out of a project to find the next opportunity.

This is a dynamic industry, so your initial work can evolve into a building or facility you didn’t even consider at project inception. Those changing requirements can be difficult but keep you on your toes. The key outcome has to be the best bang for your buck, but that doesn’t have to stifle our design opportunities.

“The draw for me is that every job is so different and brings new challenges.”

Defence isn’t about a standard building typology, rolling out something just like the one before. I’ve undertaken earth-covered buildings for ordnance, right through to facilities for large-scale drones. You’re learning something new each time.

Michelle: Because I mainly work at the front end of projects, we can be impacted by delays, so timeframes are tricky sometimes. The milestone date doesn’t move, but the start date does inevitably, and we’re the ones who can get pinched for time. But we understand the likelihood of changes and the effects of those changes on the program.

Variety is probably the most rewarding thing for me too – the wide variety of work we do.

“I could be designing bedrooms one day and hangars the next.”

Q Are there any projects that stand out during your career?

Michelle: My most recent work, the Riverina Redevelopment Project, has felt like a once-in-a lifetime project because of the scale of it. It was a huge learning curve. There were more than 40 work elements, thousands of beds in accommodation, gyms, mess halls, offices, and more. It was both challenging and memorable.

Peter: For me, a standout was the National Air Traffic Control project, which involved going to every RAAF base in the country, with most sites getting a new control tower and associated infrastructure. It was interesting work, with the bonus that several sites are shared with the domestic airport. For the first time, people outside the Defence space could see what we had designed and built – from the terminal or air – and take photos of one of our facilities. That’s extremely rare in our sector.

Ralph: I’d say a current favourite is a project Michelle and I are doing at HMAS Albatross, expanding on a facility we worked on together around 12 years ago. Going back to do ‘part two’ of a facility – a project that took so much of our time and focus – is so rewarding.

Land Warfare Training Centre, Victoria

Q What can the crystal ball tell us about the future of Defence in Australia?

Peter: The focus is on capability now, as mentioned, and the facilities we need to support that.

“In the future I think we’re going to see a greater emphasis on unmanned vehicles like drones, and a bigger shift towards missiles and long-range weapons – new capabilities for us here.”

There’s also clearly going to be a far bigger spend on unmanned bases, or forward-operating bases that don’t currently have permanent personnel.

I think we’re going to experience a shift to a more permanent workforce across the Top End. Some bases aren’t set up with the right spaces and accommodation for families who move with our military personnel. The townships and developments around those bases will need to grow in line with what the military needs. It’s about looking at the community facilities and other spaces that create the best environment for living and working.

*Top image: AirServices Australia Air Traffic Service Centre

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