Photographer: Elizabeth Campbell

Soil, water and sweet peas.

I’ve always been curious about materials, fascinated by their origin and intrigued by how things are made. When I was young, my parents built a mud brick garage. Mum pressed each brick from a mixture of soil dug from our backyard and water straight out of the garden hose. Dad laid each one along a string line. Once built, Mum grew sweet peas on the outside walls and Dad tinkered on his motorcycles inside over the weekends. All this came from using what was already around us.

Local materials tell us a lot about a place, just look around. The bricks that line Melbourne’s streets tell us stories about local geology, industry and history. They provide a window both to the past and through to brighter ways forward. Local economies and character also win when we consider local materials first, as does the environment worldwide.

One of the obvious ways to start to address the environmental impact the architecture and construction industry has is to attempt to break, or at least slow, the unsustainable cycle of build fast, demolish, rebuild fast, demolish. The construction industry is the largest carbon emissions contributor in the world. According to the UNEP report in 2021, 37% of global emissions are from the construction industry alone.

There is also growing concern in the industry that many buildings constructed today are not made to last. They are “throw away buildings” inconsiderate of embodied carbon, unsupportive of local trades, supply and craft. As Rem Koolhaas put it, they are “a one-sized fits all approach to the development of our cities that prioritises efficiency and profit over human experience and cultural identity.” In other words, they all look the same and are not built with robust quality or with the future in mind.

One way to avoid this homogenous future is to look at what’s right in front of us. Prioritise local materials, work with local suppliers and manufacturers to understand how a building product is made.

Highlighting local people, craft and techniques that make everyday fabric celebrates the slow action of observing, thinking, considering, creating and making.

As architects, artists, craftspeople, builders, designers and makers, we know how to think about material. We understand our resources are finite. We know to consider where a product comes from, its composition and how to specify it in our projects. By repurposing what exists, adaptively retrofitting and thinking creatively about existing buildings, we create responsive and critical solutions to reducing the industry’s footprint.

Kerstin Thompson, in her Gold Medal A.S. Hook address, posed questions of re-use, rather than re-building. Kerstin’s studio, KTA, has a long track record of adaptive re-use within their practice; Sacred Heart, Abbotsford Convent and The Stables, VCA, University of Melbourne are just two celebrated examples in Melbourne. She asked, “will a new building really be better than what exists? Can it match the quality, life expectancy and material longevity?” Similar concerns are coming to the forefront worldwide. In July, 2023, Marks & Spencer were refused permission to demolish and re-build their Oxford Street store in London. One of the reasons being because it would “fail to support the transition to a low carbon future, and would overall fail to encourage re-use of existing resources…” – that includes existing buildings.

Since 2020, the construction industry boom, supply chain disruptions and sustainability concerns fuelled an inward facing assessment, evaluation and demand of readily available local materials and craft in the industry. Many architects openly welcome this analysis as a catalyst to question and educate our ways of working. Advocating for local has been an on-going mantra in the field. Not only because architects are well versed thinking about material and options, but also because the use of local materials helps support local artists, craftspeople, builders, manufacturers and fabricators. Working with this network also promotes knowledge sharing and creating a deeper connection to place. And supports a simpler supply chain where the economic flow has the capacity to support local business and entrepreneurs.

Already, several positive steps are in place. The Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) has launched a climate action campaign, tools like CarbonTrace assess up-front carbon in residential buildings, and many architectural practices are now carbon neutral in operation.

This practice needs to be supported by larger economic systems to foster the continuation of local crafts and industries. One such system exists in Japan, where a Traditional Crafts designation is conferred to craftspeople by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry with subsidies and additional support. To earn the designation, crafts must meet strict criteria: they must be used in daily life, be made mainly by hand, by traditional skill, or technique, be practiced over years and, finally, be made from traditional materials.

The final criterion is important because craft, like material, is often directly connected to a specific place. Anecdotally, this process also illustrates the intrinsic value in the power of human touch in making versus mechanised mass production.

It's an often overlooked consideration, yet one that’s immediately around us. Many of the bricks that make Melbourne are from clay deposits in Brunswick, Northcote or Hawthorn and they cement together local geology, economy and character. Sydney’s Hawkesbury Sandstone displays the same local provenance. Along with London’s Portland Stone, Marrakesh’s terracotta and Portugal’s ceramic tiles and cork. Furthermore, many local materials are robust enough to last for centuries, be re-used or be recycled to assist carbon footprint reduction. They also invite our industries to discover and create the stories of place from broader perspectives.

Reflecting back to watching my parents build that backyard garage, they started by mixing materials that were immediately around us. 30 years later, the garage still stands - exactly like it was built. When I look at it today, I don’t simply see soil and water mixed together. What’s embedded and intertwined are memories of Mum tending to her sweet peas before the flowers were ready to be picked and Dad obsessing over every tiny detail of his motorcycles until they were humming; along with all the stories that were told through crafting something useful from materials that were closest to us.

Elizabeth's mum (Kaye) and sister (Rosie) in front of mud brick garage and sweet pea wall. Photographer Elizabeth Campbell (aged 10)
Elizabeth Campbell courtesy Kennedy Nolan Architects. Photographer: Sean Fennessey.

Elizabeth Kaye Campbell is a Naarm (Melbourne)-based architect, freelance writer and photographer. She works as a senior architect at The City of Melbourne, is contributing editor of the Australian Institute of Architects, Victorian Chapter publication; Architect Victoria, and has a passion for good design that encompasses people and place.