Presiding in unprecedented times

When Professor Helen Lochhead commenced her term as National President of the Australian Institute of Architects, there was no forewarning of the tumultuous events that would subsequently shape her tenure.

Catastrophic bushfires and the global coronavirus pandemic combined to require a degree of leadership that surpassed the already significant demands of the position as the Institute and the profession pivoted quickly to face the demands of these twin challenges.

Institute CEO Julia Cambage said Professor Lochhead’s cool, calm and collected approach was instrumental in navigating the crises.

“I have found working with Helen a tremendously rewarding experience,” Ms Cambage said.

“She is incredibly knowledgeable, endlessly patient and always the voice of sense and reason.

“Helen is so highly respected across the profession. Her leadership has been extremely valuable in helping to guide the Institute through difficult times including the situation created by Covid-19, but equally in more ‘business as usual’ matters from governance to advocacy and everything in between.

“Critically, amidst these events, Helen has successfully repositioned the Institute, taking it from an organisation that was very inwardly focused to one that is now outward-facing and positively engaged with a diverse external stakeholder group including government and industry partners.”

Keeping connected with the membership and supporting them through strong advocacy have been the hallmarks of the Institute’s response to the pandemic. Professor Lochhead has championed the weekly Lean In sessions which have so far engaged more than 12,000 members.

“Transforming the annual awards program from face-to-face judging by the jury to a fully digital delivery and celebration model was a huge undertaking,” Ms Cambage said. “Helen’s hard work and perseverance contributed to the outstanding success of the online model which has now attracted more than 30,000 views, up from 3,000 previously.

“Six months fee relief for members, new Covid-19 resources, joint initiatives with other built environment industry bodies and roundtables with the Federal Industry Minister and National Covid-19 Coordination Commission also formed a key part of the response Helen has led as we all learn to navigate the ‘new normal’.

“Most importantly though has been our economic stimulus suggestions to government which are focussed on a buy local approach to procurement.

“Not only can government provide a safety net through things like JobKeeper, they can be the source of tremendous stimulus by properly gearing their procurement processes and putting taxpayer funding to best use such as with investments in new social housing.

“We have advocated better support for local governments as well because their projects can often pay some of the biggest community dividends and it is vital that stimulus extends across the whole country, not just exist in a few concentrated pockets.”

Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the devastating 2019 summer bushfires were a brutal demonstration of the highly destructive impacts climate change is having. As National President, Professor Lochhead has been a driving force behind not only the profession’s immediate response to the devastation on the ground, but also a broader policy stance.

Architectural practices across the country stepped up to offer support for the most vulnerable bushfire victims as part of the Architects Assist initiative, while Architects Donate also provided a financial contribution. Education was prioritised with the provision of free advisory notes, CPD and online forums to members and non-members alike. The Building Back Better symposium, together with a submission to the Royal Commission into National Disaster Arrangements offered expert advice on the policy changes that are needed moving forward.

“Making the Architects Declare pledge, which now boasts signatures from more than 930 practices, and establishing our new Climate Action and Sustainability Taskforce were two incredibly significant milestones achieved during Helen’s tenure,” Ms Cambage said.

“These actions, together with the national and international roundtables we have convened, bring together other key built environment professionals and send the strongest possible signal about our stance on the climate crisis.

“Importantly, we are also walking the talk having now committed the Institute to being zero carbon in 2020.”

The emphasis on advocacy is part of what has been a strongly strategically focused year that included three lots of strategic planning with the National Council, Board and staff, together with an overhaul of the committee structure. Four significant submissions have been lodged with parliamentary inquiries and Royal Commissions as well as continued strong action in each state and territory on the critical issue of building quality and safety.

The widespread appreciation of Helen’s strength of leadership is attested to by her election as Chair of the Institute’s Board at the recent AGM.

“Looking back it is quite extraordinary just how much we have been able to achieve in this past year, the added complications of Covid over the past five months notwithstanding,” Ms Cambage said.

“We’ve ushered in a new constitution that better reflects modern corporate governance and importantly, also recognises our First Nations peoples. This is in addition to establishing a First Nations Advisory Group and progressing work on our Reconciliation Action Plan.

“While the pandemic has forced the delay of Venice Biennale to 2021, when it is celebrated the Australia Pavilion will profile cross-cultural connections and practice across Australasia.

“Throughout everything we have achieved, Helen has been unstintingly generous with her time. In fact I don’t believe anyone works harder for the profession. There have been countless occasions when I’ve looked at Helen and wondered, have you even slept?”

Ms Cambage said it had been a privilege to serve alongside such an eloquent, entertaining and courageous President during these unusual and trying times.

“Having someone you can rely on and trust, someone who is supportive of the organisation and embraces it as a single entity, has been invaluable. The last twelve months have been a period of great consolidation, where Institute staff are no longer divorced from the membership but working closely in partnership with them in what is an important step forward.

“I thank and commend the terrific team at the Institute for everything they have done to support Helen during her presidency. And, on behalf of the Institute and the membership, I thank Helen for all her efforts and inspiring legacy, the benefits of which will continue to be felt for many years to come.”

Looking ahead, Ms Cambage said the challenges thrown up by the coronavirus pandemic are likely to continue for some time, requiring the Institute and its members to remain agile in navigating their response.

“I see the Institute’s strong advocacy only growing in importance over the coming period,” Ms Cambage said.

“Our relationships with government, regulators and other policy makers will be more crucial than ever as we navigate the evolving changes that responding to the pandemic will require of practices both big and small.

“Keeping up the pressure for effective stimulus and better, buy local procurement practices is essential to help ensure a continued pipeline of work for the profession.

“As incoming National President, Alice Hampson’s energy and drive will help us to achieve this and deliver outstanding support to our members. Equally, I look forward to working closely with National President Elect Tony Giannone, whose passion and expertise will continue the strong leadership the Institute has been so fortunate to experience.”