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Why design review panels deliver

The community wants good design outcomes and the property industry need clarity through the approvals process. Design review panels can deliver both, says Alasdair MacKerron from Wood & Grieve Engineers, now part of Stantec.

MacKerron, a structural project engineer and principal at WGE, was recently appointed to Western Australia’s first design review panel. He says the panel promises to enhance the development process and quality of design outcomes in Perth.

Chaired by government architect Geoff Warn, the panel will provide independent advice on the design quality of significant or strategic public works, infrastructure projects and other major development proposals.

WA’s panel follows the successful model established in the UK and replicated in Victoria and South Australia in 2011. New South Wales and the ACT followed suit in 2018.

“In a growing city like Perth, there’s real value in having independent experts check for consistency and quality, consider sustainability and ensure a design delivers great outcomes for the community,” MacKerron explains.

The “backbone” of the panel consists of 37 independent experts from the core disciplines of planning, architecture, urban design and landscape architecture, MacKerron explains. An additional 13 specialists – MacKerron among them – will offer their expertise in heritage, sustainability, engineering, public health and public art.

MacKerron moved to Perth in 2011 after many years running the Edinburgh office of a multi-disciplinary engineering firm. He was the first engineer to sit on Scotland’s equivalent design review panel and understands the “clear demonstrable value” that the process can bring.

“As a structural engineer, I understand what works and what doesn’t work. And while I don’t intend to talk about the size of beams and columns – that’s not what the panel is about – I do want to focus on pragmatic, well designed outcomes,” he says.

“We don’t want to see feedback affecting the viability of projects. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that must be carefully handled, but our focus is on the outcome delivered for the community and the city as a whole.”

Panels work best when the developer and design team “actively engage” with the design review process, MacKerron explains.

While it takes skill to bring everyone together on the same page, MacKerron says “constructive input can make the planning process much easier – and that’s a real benefit for the development industry”.

MacKerron points to several examples in Perth where “ambiguous” planning policy has left residential projects languishing for years.

“Despite these projects being inside the guidelines for good quality design, they’ve been knocked back, scaled back and knocked back again. The end result is we’ve seen projects sit stationery for four years in a market that needs residential apartments.”

MacKerron says the design review panel can help “distil” planning requirements, engage in collaborative discussion and negotiate better outcomes. And, ultimately, the panel’s endorsement “carries a lot of weight”.

“At the end of the day, the industry want certainty. They understand that not everything will get planning approval, but they need a degree of comfort that they are working within the right parameters.”

The community, meanwhile, wants to see well-designed buildings. “As someone who enjoys living in Perth, I want to see it get better – and a design review panel can help us do that.”

Article courtesy of Property Council of Australia; first published 11 June 2019.

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