Clare Kennedy creates sustainable architecture

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Five Mile Radius

12 February, 2019

“it’s interesting that word ‘alternative’ because any building that exists outside of mainstream architecture is seen as being ‘alternative construction’. To us, these buildings are not alternative, they are usually just common sense.”

Clare Kennedy

Clare Kennedy is the founding director of Brisbane architectural studio Five Mile Radius, a research and design consultancy fostering the use of Australian materials in construction.   Responding to the growing need to move away from globalised supply chains to more self-sufficient models, Five Mile Radius is working on a future where Australians can feasibly build using ethical resources from their own shores.

So Clare, how would you describe Five Mile Radius?

Five Mile Radius is a design studio focused on the use of local materials in construction and we explore this through design, making, teaching, and research. We’re really interested in self-sufficient ways of building and more localised distribution systems. Our current construction industry operates on a kind of redundant model so at Five Mile we are looking at the future.  In Australia, we are pretty isolated from other countries, and although we have a relatively small population and reasonably abundant resources, most of our mainstream construction materials come from offshore. We’re not prepped. 

I direct Five Mile alongside a team of young architects and students who have a passion for sustainable design, horticultural practices, social issues, and of making things with their hands. We are currently doing a whole bunch of things in Brisbane such as public buildings, a few residential projects, and we have collaborated on some art projects. We also do a lot of public engagement, like, hosting workshops and events here at our office or teaching classes at universities. These are great opportunities for us to open up a dialogue with the community and have a good time.

Yeah fantastic, that’s great that Five Mile Radius has that foot in the community. So, how did Five Mile Radius come to fruition? What’s the story?

It’s about a three-year-long story, I guess. The whole team have different backgrounds and reasons for joining Five Mile. For me personally, I was working with big architectural practices in Brisbane, London, India, and in the Middle East and I suppose I became really overwhelmed by the number of foreign materials we were working with. There seemed to be no questioning of this, which I found concerning, and I got the sense my peers felt the same way. I became kind of disillusioned with design and got to a point where I needed something else.

So, I did something quite cliqued and went to India. At this point, I was quite drawn to making things with my hands. I was really inspired by practices like Studio Mumbai that prototype in their offices. In India, I became very interested in earth as a building material. You know, people just dug it up and used it to build their homes because they knew how to do it. It’s an interesting material because it’s so connected to its environment, there is a kind of spiritual connection between a place and its people. I traveled around India and documented mud and any local materials I came across. This was pretty foundational for me as I had never been exposed to these techniques and ideas of building. So yeah, I started to think about what it might be like to try something similar back in Australia. That’s how Five Mile began. 

That’s incredible. It sounds like Five Mile, as a concept and a community, grew so naturally. So Clare, what inspired you from the beginning to become an architect? Was it something you always felt drawn to?

I don’t know actually [laughs]. I mean I’m one of those people who was exposed to architecture at a young age as my father is an architect. Half the architects I know had a parent that was also one. [laughs]. Dad never really told me to follow in his footsteps, but I guess being around that kind of way of thinking about buildings informed my choice. I’ve always been somewhere between scientific and arty, so yeah, it was a good way of marrying the two together. I didn’t really get architecture for the first few years of study. It wasn’t until one of my university teachers showed me how architecture can impact society in meaningful ways that I really started to change my view on it. Lots of my uni work became about searching for processes for a better society. How a building can be a catalyst for change. 

I totally agree, I really think it’s time to start moving away from these stock standard pop up homes we are so often seeing being built in housing developments. It really leaves no room for creativity or alternative ways of living.

Yeah, I agree but it’s interesting that word ‘alternative’ because any building that exists outside of mainstream architecture is seen as being ‘alternative construction’. To us, these buildings are not alternative, they are usually just common sense. Sustainability is the new ‘normal’, so they say. We’d love to work with project home developers to see what the local model might look like.

That’s very true. So, tell me, what sort of projects has Five Mile Radius done in the past? Have there been any personal favourites for you?

[Laughs] Every project is very fun, and you always wish you had done more or done it differently, but we are constantly learning. Each is different, when we built our head office here in Brisbane it was a really good opportunity to get building and tap into demolition waste streams in Brisbane! There are other projects that Five Mile are engaged with that are more centered around research and collaboration – we will often collaborate with soil scientists, universities, and art galleries on public works in these cases.  We constructed a building in India last year which was a really great example of understanding the culture of the place and attempting to embody that spirit in a building. Every little project we do is a test of an idea and we seem to have limitless ideas. 

I can imagine that here in Australia, and in many western societies around the world, there would be many policies in place which may make building with these sorts of natural materials harder? Do these conditions impact or restrict the nature of the projects you can do?

That’s a good question and I think that’s one aim of our organisation – to really look at these restrictions and understand how they can be good in some situations and sometimes really prohibiting.  In Australia, a lot of our building code is designed to build things that are durable and safe, these are all good guidelines to work towards. However, the issue with standardising sustainability, is that we have really diverse climates here in Australia and our thermal guidelines – as in how to keep a building hot and cool – really limit the exploration of some great ideas.

That’s a really interesting point hey, the balance that is needed to both, create something durable and safe without compromising on sustainability.

Exactly. It’s a balance. You do need these guidelines and legalisations to restrict low-quality and unsafe practices in the industry, however, we shouldn’t be compromising on creative and practical ideas.

It’s a great message to share and it’s great that Five Mile is helping people to learn about these building techniques. I wanted to ask you whether it is difficult to always find suitable materials within a five-mile radius, particularly when building in suburbia?

Well, the name Five Mile Radius isn’t necessarily literal, it was a term coined by Gandhi and it is more about the intention to find resources locally, or as locally as you can. At Five Mile we don’t necessarily find our materials within a strict five-mile radius, it might be 50 miles or 500 miles, but it certainly isn’t the other side of the world. Every project we have done is a sort of exploration of this premise, for example, we worked on a project in the Sunshine Coast, and the emphasis of this project became the local timber industry. We collaborated with Private Forestry Service Queensland who privately manages a lot of the local forests in Australia and we learnt so much about native timbers, plantations, legislation and the environment. Every project is an exploration into a place, and we are slowly building a pretty good catalogue of what is actually around.

So Clare, what would you say is the most inspiring and challenging part of your work at Five Mile?

Well, I think our inspiration comes in waves, but fairly consistent waves. I think we really do get inspired daily when we meet like-minded people and collaborate with others in innovative ways.  We get a lot of pretty nice feedback and we really believe in what we are doing, it makes inspiration easy – there is a kind of honesty to the things we are doing.I guess, this sort of work is challenging because we are really questioning some pretty big construction trends. We have to stand our ground. It’s also just quite a confusing and rigid industry in Australia, there are so many laws and codes and that can be daunting at times. We just remind ourselves that the studio is about a question, not a solution and keep doing what we do.
Absolutely, I think what you are doing at Five Mile is incredible because, at least for the younger generations, if offers new, exciting and of course, cheaper, ways of thinking about design. For architects as well, it offers a new platform for these professions to evolve.

So, I have to ask you a trivial question, but for interests’ sake, what is your favourite building material to use and why?

[Laughs] Well a lot of people expect me to say earth because I’m obsessed with brick making and ceramics and earth is just a great material in so many different ways, but I’d probably have to say timber. Timber is renewable, breathable, and reusable, and it can be used in a lot of different ways plus we can access it locally. It’s also a healthy material to use for building and it allows you to work it in beautiful ways, so you can really get quite hands-on with it. But yeah, I also have a thing for dirt [laughs].

Yeah cool, and the two can work together so well also!

Yeah well, it depends where you are, I suppose. I probably should have started with that, like my favorite materials are the ones that I can find locally of course [Laughs] It’s really important to think about what materials are going to be appropriate for the environment and climate you are building for.

So Clare, what do you hope Five Mile Radius will inspire people to do, or change about their perceptions of design and construction?

Well, I really hope it could inspire young architects or designers to kind of think twice about what they are doing and to question whether it is actually serving them – creatively and environmentally. There are so many different ways of practicing architecture, so many ideas to pursue, and new models to explore. Materials might not be your thing but still, it’d be cool if Five Mile could just show people that it’s possible to pursue your interests and do what you think is right.

Interested to learn more about what Five Mile Radius get up to? Head to Five Mile Radius to read more and indulge your architectural taste buds in some of their project photography.

Also, see their Facebook page for upcoming events. 


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