Max Walker and Glenn Murcutt. Photography: Ian Cleland

On Thursday night, 18th June I attended the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Architecture Awards, hosted by the ebullient Max Walker. To say that the awards were inspiring would be an understatment. The quality and diversity of the projects submitted was truly exceptional with the jury awarding not one, but five commendations and five winners in the Residential Architecture/Houses – New category.

Early in the evening I was privileged to speak with Australia’s own Glenn Murcutt. Glenn rarely gives interviews but I was lucky enough to have a few minutes with him. When I asked him if I could set up a formal interview he replied that he was too busy with some 16 projects in various stages of production and development and that the global recession was something of a “godsend” to him right now! At 73 years of age and looking many years younger, Murcutt, along with wife and colleague Wendy Lewin is involved in some exciting projects including a Mosque in Melbourne an opal fossil centre in Lightening Ridge (which he said was “one of our best projects ever”) a house in Western Australia, a house in South Australia, one in Tasmania, one in Queensland and one in New South Wales. He said they were even “doing houses for other architects”! Murcutt still draws by hand and avoids Email, sites like Facebook and mobile phones and yet still manages to run a thriving practice.

Born in London, while his Australian-born parents were in Europe for the Berlin Olympics, Murcutt’s father was a builder and it was he that instilled in his son the desire to be an architect and this is something that in turn he has passed on to his own son, Nick Murcutt. Nick Murcutt, along with his partner Rachael Neeson (Neeson Murcutt Architects) were the winners of the prestigious 2009 Wilkinson Award for the Whale Beach House, a spectacular residence sited on a bushy hillside overlooking the ocean on Sydney beautiful Northern Peninsula.

Sam Marshall, the 2009 Awards Jury chair gave the Jury Report and commented that the awards recognised projects where architects have made the most of their clients’ briefs, sites and climatic conditions as well as budget and buildability – all in the face of trying to save the planet. He also said “It is a miracle when a superlative piece of architecture is completed considering the challenges faced. These awards celebrate such achievements and particularly the people who created them”.

There were a record number of entries this year with 200 received and 50 being shortlisted, each of which the Jury visited, travelling from Lake Eucumbene in the south to the Gold Coast. “We saw great work by the known greats and great work by the unknown”. Said Marshall.

“From the entries visited, the quality of houses was particularly strong, while heritage, apart from the winners, was poorly represented” he commented. “It was encouraging to see that environmentally sustainable design is no longer an add-on, but is fundamental to design excellence and seems to be driven by both client and architect.”

Another outstanding entry was The Snowy Mountains House by James Stockwell Architect. This unique design uses BlueScopesteel throughout the exterior and interior, a material selected for its strength, lightness of section and capacity for complex shapes. The Jury commented that the simple elegance of this structure has been achieved in part because of the qualities of the materials selected, in combination with masterful detailing. It is an appropriately beautiful and stark structure for a remarkably striking site. The Snowy Mountains House won not only the Colorbond Award for Steel Architecture but also the Blacket Prize as well as the Residential Architecture/Houses – New Award.

It is interesting to note that in New South Wales, most residential housing is still designed by non-architects. This has resulted in many buildings favouring quantity over quality, especially in the project home market. Finding solutions to affordable but sustainable housing has not been easy, which means that many home buyers have not been able to access innovative, sustainable design. One company working to deliver a compromise is Environa Studio, run by Tone Wheeler. The Logic was designed to offer a better compromise between cost per square metre and quality, sustainable design and this awarded the entry the Special Jury Prize. The jury was enthused by the potential of this home’s approach to delivery better designed and more sustainalbe homes to a broader market – which has to be a good outcome.

The projects I have singled out here are just three of the many entered and with so many awards, it is not possible for me to mention or show all of them here. However, in the coming months we will be publishing many of the winning residential entries in Luxury Home Design, Contemporary Home Design and Renovate & Extend magazines.

In conclusion, I am very inspired by the quality of the work that I saw and I can only say that the future of the built environment in Australia is in great hands.