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Architects who Build – Interview with Oliver Steele

Oliver Steele is the founder of Sydney based Architecture & building practice Steele Associates. As both a registered Architect and licensed Builder, Oliver does not separate Architecture or design from the craft of building.

I recently interviewed Oliver who contributed to an article entitled ‘Why Architects Need To Get Back Onto The Construction Site’. Below is my full interview with Oliver who talks about his experience of working within the dual industries of Architecture and building.

An interview with Clinton Cole founder of CplusC, also a successful Architect and Builder can be found here. Both Clinton and Oliver raise a number of interesting questions, themes, opportunities, advantages and liabilities that exist when operating in his unique position.

LB: Rather than separating the two trades, why do you practice as both an Architect and Builder? 

OS: By the end of high school I knew I wanted to do something around design and sustainability. I’d written off architecture because I was terrible at maths (in my last test I answered every question and got zero…) but I now realize this was because it was taught in such an abstract way, I couldn’t pin the concepts to anything. I have quite strong views on mathematics education, but that’s another story.

About two hours after my last HSC exam, a friend called me and said his Mums friends son was building a house and wanted a labourer for a day tomorrow. Was I interested? I had nothing better to do and turned up the next morning to do 12 hours of hard work which I loved. Dan, my boss had studied three years of architecture and was building this pair of houses he’d designed for his eccentric parents in Vine St, Chippendale. He didn’t know much about building, so over the next year, we figured it out together. I still can’t believe I survived that year. Hanging one handed from a tree I was cutting down with a circular saw (with the guard tied back because it annoyed Dan) buzzing furiously in the other hand, installing 60kg lintels on milk crates balancing on a 200mm wide wall with a 3 story drop below us, and having Dan drop a sheet of formply three stories about a foot from my head were some of the highlights.

During those heady times I decided I wanted to design, build and develop benchmark sustainable properties to demonstrate to the development industry that environmental and economic prerogatives can co-exist, even complement each other. The dream hasn’t changed, its just taken a lot longer than I had anticipated with various distractions along the way.

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Architect: Utz Sanby Architects, Builder: Steele AssociatesImage Source

LB: Can you describe your work and the most rewarding aspect operating in both Architecture and building?

OS: My work can be loosely divided into 4 categories. Design, construction, people, and money. What I enjoy most about each is:

Design: This is the creative stimulation I feel so lucky t have as part of my job. Architects tend to bemoan their lot, but how much fun is this? Construction: Such a joy to be a part of making something so tangible, especially when you’re pushing boundaries and it works beautifully. People: work will never be dull when they’re involved. I really value many of the relationships I’ve formed through work. Money: To me, it’s a tool, a means not an end. Money is distilled energy that can be released in almost any form (except love, of course) and I enjoy doing things I believe in with money.

My favourite project is 88 Angel St Newtown. This is my first development project we’ve designed and will build and market. It’s a manifestation of my original dream – 18 years on…

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88 Angel Street, Exterior Rendering

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88 Angel Street, Interior Rendering

LB: What are the advantages and disadvantages of both designing and building? 

OS: It has always seemed unusual to me that its considered unusual to do both. I’ve learned a lot about building from designing, and a lot about designing from building. Having someone else build something I’ve designed would feel like giving a baby up for adoption.

LB. In what way do you hope your work contributes to the practice and perception of Architecture?

OS: Ultimately, I’d like to have a positive impact on the way the development industry approaches sustainability. We’re seeing a growing focus on ‘sustainable’ (must be careful how we use this word) office space because of the financial premium the market is offering. This comes for a recognition of the value of healthier spaces to work in. The residential sector is still largely compliance driven. I’d like to help turn this around to see developers (who pull architects and builders’ strings) pushing for real sustainability in planning and design. The industry is driven by money (dislike it or hate it), so recognition by the market of the value of good environmental design will make it economically sustainable. Wonderful things like a price on carbon are crucial for this process to gain momentum.

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Architect: Utz Sanby Architects, Builder: Steele Associates. Image Source

LB. Given your unique position, how do you think Steele Associates is perceived in the industry both in Architecture and building? 

OS: I’m not sure I can really say. I suppose it’s a bit of a half-caste scenario. Architects see me more as a builder, and builders see me more as an architect. I’ve never been one to fit in, though, so no surprises here.

LB. How do you see the future for the education of Architecture?

The trend of the last 20 years has been to put greater and greater emphasis on the students initiative by reducing contact hours rather than ‘spoon-feeding’ with frequent lectures and tutorials. Of course the motivation for this is financial, not educational. However, there’s a strong argument that technology such as online videos of lectures etc. does render the physical institution less relevant. I reckon physical meetings of students and staff will be reduced to direct interactive sessions such as group discussions, juries and social events as physical proximity becomes more and more about body language than effective dissemination of information.

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Architect: Bureau SRH, Builder: Steele AssociatesImage Source

LB. You currently operate primarily in the realm of residential works. With the understanding that your buildings inform your Architecture and your Architecture informs your building where do you hope to take Steele Associates? 

OS: I’d love to do a rammed earth shopping centre, naturally lit and self-sufficient in energy and water. Ando and Calatrava can join the design team if they like.

LB. Where do you see the architectural industry heading in Australia?

OS: I see the industry as at risk of being increasingly marginalised and focussed on designing the project as a series of digital ‘artists impression’ style models and images for the purpose of approval by authorities and other stakeholders. There’s every chance that architects’ involvement with construction documentation and detailing will continue to decline, and an architects’ involvement with the actual construction process will be a rarity.There’s also a growing place for architects as the ‘GPs’ of design being the node for care of the patient (building), referring to specialists (engineers, project managers and other consultants) for more detailed work.But who can say what the future holds? Perhaps trends will change and architecture will be able to successfully build a stronger role in bringing quality to a greater proportion of buildings.

I’d like to thank Oliver for participating in the interview. If you’re interested in getting in touch or finding out more about Steele Associates, visit their website

If you are interested in being interviewed and featured on archi-ninja, please contact me.

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