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Flexibility and fearlessness in a time of flux

Like many industries, architecture is being disrupted by changing technology – and tastes – at a pace never experienced before. Ignite Architects' managing director Jeremy Whelan shares what he’s learned in the three decades since the company started – and what it needs to do to stick around for another three.

Miniature models, table-sized sheets of paper and enough pencils and protractors to fill an aircraft hangar may have been what defined architecture in the past. 

But those images are quickly becoming anachronistic as new technologies completely change the way buildings are conceived and created. 

Jeremy Whelan

Ignite Architects’ managing director Jeremy Whelan has been with the company since the beginning, 30 years ago. And he’s seen a lot of those changes first hand.

“I think the principal thing is changing technology and the impact on architecture and the business of architecture.”

For instance, Whelan says the days of architects huddled around drawings are long past. Instead, they’ve been replaced by high-tech computer programmes, which can do everything from creating 3D models, renderings, crunch data, and more. 

“It really allows you to explore options and opportunities,” he says. “It’s huge.”

Whelan adds that changing technology also helps architects adapt more easily to the changing needs and wishes of clients – and allows them to create something together that they’re both happy with. Virtual reality, for example, allows clients to experience what a building might feel like – and it allows architects to test things out and see what works.

“It’s about being adaptable,” he says. “It’s about attention [to the client]. You have to really work with the client.”

The pace of change also drives home a simple fact: 30 years is a long time. So how do you design something that is not only beautiful and efficient now, but remains so three decades in the future? 

Whelan says that’s one of the biggest challenges for any firm. But, he adds, it’s something Ignite has a bit of experience with. He points to Chancery Lane in the centre of Auckland’s CBD as an example. What has made it so timeless, Whelan says, is that it combined a pedestrian walkway with boutique shop space – a “lifestyle centre” before such spaces were in vogue.

“Retail is all about the experience now,” he says. “30 years ago that was really revolutionary, but now people are looking for more than just shops, they’re looking for a social experience they can’t get online.”

This is something that’s helped Chancery Lane stand the test of time.

“Generic spaces that allow social interaction are always going to be huge, no matter what they are.”

In fact, Ignite has replicated this success across the Tasman.

“The Oracle on the Gold Coast really builds on Chancery Lane,” says Whelan. 

“We took the principles of that and applied it on a larger scale. It’s created a real energy, a real vibrancy.”

While Whelan is understandably proud of the company’s achievements so far, he also understands that technology is going to continue to change architecture in ways that can barely be imagined. And that means it’s “going to have to think differently”. Artificial intelligence, he says, is going to affect every level of the business. This could include basic rendering and calculations, or simulations showing how people might react to and interact with a building, structure or other design. 

“You can use that artificial intelligence to do a lot of your core business. It’s a very interesting time for us.”

A good team is one thing that can help amid such interesting times, Whelan says. And a lot of it also comes down to mindset.

“One thing we’re really proud of is our culture,” he says. “It’s about being adaptable, flexible. It’s about being boundaryless and being prepared to take on challenges. We believe we’re flexible enough to take a risk and take a chance.”

To see what Ignite Architects can create for you, visit ignitearchitects.com

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