New interview series to provide insights from the expert minds behind our business

Today we launch an exclusive interview series with the ThomsonAdsett team. The ‘Conversations with….’ series will highlight the incredible and collective knowledge of our people as well as their experience and diverse skills.

The expert minds behind our business are instrumental in driving the future of design across health, seniors living, retail, education and commercial sectors.

Our talented seniors living team are the first to be featured. Led by Group Director Simon Drysdale, the seniors living team’s infectious passion for their work is driven by a belief in enriching people’s lives and this series aims to share their experiences linking practical and theoretical forms of knowledge.

In part one, we interview new consulting partner David Lane about his architectural learnings and breadth of projects.

In part two, we interview ThomsonAdsett’s other consulting partner, Chris Straw.

Conversations with……

David Lane – Consulting Partner

How many years have you been at ThomsonAdsett?

The records are a bit vague now, but I believe I started towards the end of 1985, which would mean that I have been with the company 35 years.

How many years as an architect?

I was a registered architect before I joined ThomsonAdsett and ran my own practice for six years as David Lane Architects.

ThomsonAdsett has a long history of project ‘firsts’ within the industry. Can you give some examples?

There have been many ‘firsts’ and the company has always prided itself on being an innovator in both its work practices and its specialist disciplines.

As far as work practices are concerned, we were one of the first companies in Queensland to get a fax machine, and it sat in the office for quite some time before we worked out how to use it. We were also one of the first to get a mobile phone and we had to carry it around in a suitcase as it was so big and bulky.

Our founding partner Rob Adsett famously took it to meeting of the Board of Architects and asked us to call him so that he could show it off to the other members in the middle of the meeting.

And following along the technology stakes, through the guidance of one of our partners, John Negus, we became the first company in Queensland to look at developing computer-aided drawing practices using PCs rather than larger mainframe equipment thereby saving us thousands of dollars and becoming an early market leader in the development of CAD.

With respect to the specialist aged care/seniors living discipline I headed up for many years, we collectively pioneered many firsts in the industry.

Probably, most famously, we were commissioned by Centres for Retirement Living in Queensland – a subset of Blue Care – to design what became the first Frail Aged Hostel in Australia. This was built at the Iona site at Brookfield on the outskirts of Brisbane’s western suburbs.

This project was interesting in that one of the Federal Government departmental heads, John Want, was on the briefing committee because although the government had instigated the new policy no one was actually sure what the regulations allowed and so John became a member of our design advisory panel.

For another project we were commissioned for in Caloundra, we sought to overturn the conventional wisdom around Australia during that period which held that all nursing homes were to have four-bedroom or at best two-bedroom ‘wards’ with the odd single room for isolation and treatment of palliation.

I personally thought this to be fundamentally wrong and believed individuals of that age both deserved and ought to have the privacy of their own room by choice. This required the changing of elements of the health department guidelines and the Building Act of Queensland.

Up until then it was a legislated requirement for nursing homes to be developed in the old institutional format. This ultimately became the first nursing home, or at least one of the first in Australia, to provide single rooms in nursing homes.

We followed this up with another campaign to develop more appropriate facilities for people with dementia and as a result were one of the first in Australia to develop a small dementia unit again with individual rooms their own ensuites.

These three early initiatives gave the momentum to a series of initiatives including multi-rise facilities, small house clusters and down to more pragmatic considerations as the extensive use of sunlight and cross ventilation to control the common but unpleasant smells associated with urine in such facilities.

In offshore markets this pioneering approach and challenging of the brief to develop new products became well-known and culminated with the first fully-integrated high-rise seniors living product in the world in Hong Kong which received the prestigious Quality Building of the Year award in Hong Kong in 2004.

Throughout Asia, I spent a lot of time on behalf of the company advocating for changes to community perceptions of aged care and ageing, advocated for more enlightened approaches to accommodating people within their homes or alternatively in non-institutional settings within the community. Because there was little, if any, development of this style in Asia, many of the projects we were commissioned for in Hong Kong China, Korea, Japan and Singapore were firsts.

This included the first seniors living facility (nursing home) built in Japan by foreign architect.  This was Heiseien in Saitama Prefecture. It was completed around 1995 and we then subsequently were commissioned to do a 210-bed dementia unit in Singapore called Apex Harmony Lodge which is still regarded by many as one of the better facilities in Singapore. At the time, the construction of an aged care facility specialising in dementia of this size was considered impossible.

Many of these firsts required the changing or influencing of the changes of legislation within the building act, the planning acts and even the health act.

What makes ThomsonAdsett capable of achieving these firsts?

During the early years of the development of the seniors living portfolio, and the company more broadly, there was enormous enthusiasm driven by many of the young people who we employed.

We grew rapidly and success was infectious. People wanted to challenge conventional thinking and there was an environment within the company that encouraged that. It also took personal leadership.

This is something that I have been most proud to have driven, along with the agenda to reshape the solutions around a person-centred care model rather than an institutional model.

What have been the significant projects you have worked on and what has made them significant?

A number of the projects I have mentioned were seminal projects, but there have been many.

Probably far too many to mention specifically, but domestically a number of the early projects for the Uniting Church in Brisbane and then subsequently the regional projects for the Sisters of Mercy in Central Queensland were seminal projects for me and for forming my early directions and design approach.

For the international market I think the Hong Kong Housing Society projects from 1995 through to 2004 and the work commissioned by Swire Properties in Hong Kong during that period were critical and very enjoyable as was the Heiseien project in Japan and then the Apex project in Singapore.

My memories and fondness for certain projects are as much remembered by the relationship that I enjoyed with my professional peers, other consultants and importantly the clients that we work so closely with, as they were for the building designs themselves.

All of these particular projects were both challenging and rewarding but have been recognised for the lasting influence they have had within their community.

From when you started to now, what fundamental changes – good and bad – have you seen in the seniors living sector?

There have been significant changes in the industry from when I first started in aged care – and I was involved in the design of my first nursing home for the Queensland government at Sandgate called Eventide around 1978/1979.

In fact, because the industry is largely subsidised by the Federal Government it is almost inevitable that changes occur about every 10 years. Many of these changes have been philosophically based around policy changes – for example the picking up the pieces program around dementia in the 1990s and before that the frail aged hostel program in the late 1980s. Some have been initiated almost by default through the tightening up of the regulatory and economic funding framework of the industry.

However, the single biggest change has been the prominent rise and focus of older people being given a greater level of respect and recognition as individuals with both the care delivery programs, services and facilities being designed around their special requirements.

The earlier notions of institutionalisation of people was abandoned and although we are still struggling with the de-institutionalisation of systems and programs there is a universal recognition of person-centred care and a celebration of the individuals capabilities – encouraging people to be as active and engaging as they are able – rather than protecting and restricting them under the guise of what can only be termed paternalistic care.

In the early period of the company’s development I remember, along with some of my work colleagues, coining the term ‘social architecture’ to help to define our approach to the design ethos we were pursuing. This became a well-known term in the industry, as did the terms ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ that we started using to define the relationship between the services offered within our buildings and the buildings themselves – borrowing the term from the computer industry which was in its infancy at the time.

You are a passionate advocate for social and corporate responsibility internationally, particularly relating to issues impacting the elderly and their built environment. Can you tell us more about this?

I grew up in a family actively involved in the Christian faith and my parents and grandparents were great role models in teaching the importance of compassion, dignity, respect and inclusion. When I joined ThomsonAdsett, in the early years the firm shared those values and I was encouraged to question how an architectural practice could provide leadership in the discipline of Seniors Living – the area I was developing a specialty in. I saw this as a social responsibility and a corporate one as well. Much of the work I embarked on through advocacy, public speaking, roles within boards and peak bodies, involved challenging people to offer services and facilities that reflected those values.

It was this fundamental value of social and corporate responsibility that drove many of the firsts ThomsonAdsett became well-known for and indeed was something that created our unique reputation in the industry.

What does your current work with ThomsonAdsett involve?

My current work largely involves high-level client related work and the development of new markets both domestically and overseas. I maintain strong linkages with other leaders within the industry and commit a lot of time to ensuring that our clients get the value of my experience particularly in the early reformulation and master planning elements of the project.

The balance of my time is involved with mentoring and training with our key younger staff.

You are also helping to grow ThomsonAdsett’s international endeavors. What have been some of the initiatives undertaken so far?

From the late 1980s I have was involved in growing ThomsonAdsett’s international involvement. I was heavily involved in the early development of our offices in Malaysia and Indonesia and then subsequently I was responsible for opening our offices in Japan and Hong Kong.

I think I have recently calculated more than 400 international trips to virtually every country in Asia and a number in Europe and North America. Along with Judy Martin, I initiated the development of the SAGE study tour program as part of our contribution to professional development and business marketing within the industry.

Currently, one activity which takes up my time is co-chairing of the Australian Silver Industry Group which is a consortium of businesses who, with the support of the Trade Investment Queensland, provides a one-stop shop for professional advisory and consulting services to countries throughout Asia.

The company’s reputation throughout Asia, particularly in the seniors living/aged care and retirement living sectors, is very strong and greatly respected and something I am both humbled and proud to have been involved with.

What are you looking forward to in your new consulting role?

In my new role as a Consulting Partner, as the name implies, I take the opportunity to step back from some of the business and management responsibilities to focus more on contributing and advising from my nearly 40 years of experience in the sector.

I am happy and comfortable to be involved in advisory roles and providing my opinion to both government, the private sector and in particular the not-for-profit sector in Australia, and increasingly for the private sector and various governments throughout Asia. I hope that I can continue to participate in this way and see it as the best way that I can contribute back to the industry.

What will the new role see you doing within the seniors living team at ThomsonAdsett?

I’m very keen to create a regeneration of younger enthusiastic principals who have the skills and the knowledge to continue to strengthen ThomsonAdsett’s role in the industry and more importantly to be able to build upon the enormous history of more than 5000 projects completed throughout Australia and overseas.

To the best of my knowledge there is no other practice in Australia that has anywhere near these credentials and it is our responsibility to try to perpetuate and strengthen this commitment. In 2017/18 we were ranked number one in the world by World Architecture News for design in the seniors living space and that is something I want to see our company continued to be recognised for.

Did you always want to become an architect?

To be honest I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished school, and I think I applied for university entrance in engineering, surveying and architecture because I liked technical drawing, but also had a stint at becoming an air traffic controller at one stage.  Thank God I wasn’t successful at that endeavour.

What drew you to the profession?

I think my parents would say that have always been a bit willful and pushed the boundaries on perhaps too many occasions. I certainly found that in architecture you are encouraged to be creative, think differently, challenge perceptions but best of all learn to do things with a sense of quality and aesthetic. I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist and I’m very tenacious and stubborn qualities that I think are important if you wish to pursue excellence in such a demanding profession.

What do you consider the responsibility of an architect?

From a professional standpoint the architect has enormous responsibilities, and the duplicate role of being responsible to the community at large for the built forms that he or she imposes on the community as well as the responsibility to our clients to act in their best interests as though we were them.

Sadly, I see a significant erosion of the standing of the profession and time is the enemy of design and documentation standards – certainly of the remuneration and respect the industry used to enjoy is not what it was 40 years ago. It seems to me that the community at large demands greater levels of responsibility and equal level reduction in remuneration. Nevertheless, architects still have a great level of respect within the community and coming with that respect is quite an odorous level of responsibility.

How would you describe your time at ThomsonAdsett?

Coming to a point where I am changing my role and reflecting back, I can only say it has been a fantastic journey and one which was greatly benefited by the comradery and support of many of my colleagues and peers along the way.

When I first joined the company, and we could consider it to be in its infancy, there was such a youthful enthusiasm, vitality and inquisitiveness for new things. As the company matured we started to realise that along with the enthusiasm of youth comes the responsibility of growing up and the professional responsibilities started to weigh more heavily, as did a realisation of the responsibility of our reputation. As we are starting to transition into different roles now, the company is recognising the importance of returning to the days of youthful enthusiasm and it’s something I’m looking forward to seeing how the company can adapt to that change.

How do you continue to innovate and avoid similar designs?

I don’t think that issue is particularly difficult, and I think innovation is a state of mind and largely is driven by an inquisitive nature and desire to do things better.

There are many different ways to interpret innovation within the profession and over the years I’ve met people with fantastic skills to continue to amaze me with their enthusiasm and innovation.  What I have recognised however is the importance of experience, and the value for young people in learning from that experience early and then being able to adapt off the back of that experience their own directions and perspectives. This is where I think the depth of real innovation can happen and will happen organically.

Having said that, in a design profession, I’ve also learned that nothing replaces talent.

Finally, what are your future predictions for the seniors living sector?

This is a passionate theme of mine, and I believe the industry is at a crucial transition point. We have to move away from the industry being seen as an enclave of buildings or services built around a somewhat reclusive almost ‘fort like’ model where older people are not seen or heard and view it quite differently.

I believe the industry must start learning to co-exist as an integrated part of the community at large.  We should be designing facilities and services within the community and finding ways of continuing to engage older people in meaningful activities where they can and provide services to those who are unable to participate in things that they might like to but remain visible within their local community.

Broadly speaking, this may involve multi-use buildings in the future and residential care homes and retirement communities could in future be seen as part of university campuses, schools, commercial precincts shopping centres, and within industrial estates or permanently on a cruise ships or time-shared products based around themes any ware around the world.

Given the significant ageing of our community over the next 30 to 40 years, governments and peak bodies have a responsibility to take ageing seriously and recognise the importance of harnessing the experience of older people and finding solutions to keep them actively and productively involved and seeking ways to have them contribute back.