Olivia Hyde of GANSW. Image Credit: Salty Dog.

Olivia Hyde of GANSW. Image Credit: Salty Dog.

This week, to learn a little bit more about Design Excellence, I caught up with Olivia Hyde of GANSW.

Olivia is the State’s Acting Deputy Government Architect, and Director of Design Excellence. She’s part of a team at the Government Architect NSW (GANSW) office who provide independent, professional and impartial strategic advice and thought leadership across design, planning, and development to support good policy, programs, projects, and public spaces throughout NSW.

The idea of Design Excellence is making big waves in the NSW property development business. It’s super important, and is shaping the sorts of buildings we will see lining Sydney’s skyline for many years to come.

These policies currently play a significant role in any major NSW development, but one thing that’s often overlooked is public art. Olivia and I discuss how public art should be implemented in the planning stages of a development, as well as the idea of the “Baugruppen” model (a very fun word to say, and a very interesting concept), and the importance of sustainability in design.

In layman’s terms, what is “design excellence”?

Design Excellence is often described as “the highest standard of architectural, urban and landscape design”. We believe all projects should be well-designed so, for us, design excellence is a cut above that. Not just good – the best. To get that outcome you usually need a rigorous process, so design excellence and design competitions often go together.  

For a more technical explanation, the resources page on our website – Government Architect New South Wales – has an advisory note on “Good design and design excellence in the planning system”   

What’s included in your role at Government Architect NSW (GANSW)?

I lead a team that manages the State Design Review Panel, and other review and project advice processes. We look at all sorts of projects, lots of schools, but also precincts, cultural projects, hospitals and infrastructure. To support the front end of projects we develop guidance, such as the Design Guide for Schools, and advisory notes and case studies, to help clients and project teams deliver better design. Across the office we all participate in developing research and new knowledge. All these work areas are informed first and foremost by listening and engaging with a wide range of stakeholders. Our primary role is to raise awareness of the value of good design and to develop resources in collaboration with our stakeholders to support good design.


What are some key examples of design excellence in Sydney?

The Sydney Opera House is the ultimate example of “design excellence” in Sydney. It was the result of an open international design competition. The project not only put Sydney on the map internationally, it was immensely innovative, it led to the development of new industries, skills, and technologies. The resolution of the structural shells by Ove Arup is just one of a series of major achievements by this project that changed the way we work.

“The Sydney Opera House is the ultimate example of “design excellence” in Sydney.” says Olivia Hyde. Image Credit: Hamilton Lund.

“The Sydney Opera House is the ultimate example of “design excellence” in Sydney.” says Olivia Hyde. Image Credit: Hamilton Lund.

But you don’t have to be an Opera House to be “excellent”. We have been developing a range of case studies that showcase projects we believe demonstrate excellence, and there are more on the way. But an example I love is Restoring the Waters in Fairfield. The project started with a vision to improve water quality and biodiversity of urban waterways and incrementally restore urban river corridors as a sustainable network in our cities. It involved the replacement of an existing concrete-lined stormwater channel in St Johns Park with a naturalised creek system. The process adapted existing best practice to local conditions, involved a range of experts and was partly delivered by a local Skillshare group.

Central Park is another great example. This project started with a design competition and was guided by a masterplan focused on the public domain. Central Park is well known for the large green open space at its heart, but also for intimate alleys and laneways, strong connections to surrounding streets and neighbours, adaptive reuse of heritage buildings and spaces, and a precinct-wide approach to sustainability.

Our website includes a number of examples of best practice that could be considered design excellence. Bankstown Library and Knowledge Centre and the Juanita Nielsen Community Centre are both examples of multi award-winning public-sector projects included in our list of case studies.

Central Park. Image Credit:  GANSW .

Central Park. Image Credit: GANSW.

Central Park. Image Credit:  GANSW .

Central Park. Image Credit: GANSW.

Central Park. Image Credit:  GANSW .

Central Park. Image Credit: GANSW.

What about overseas?

We are very interested at GANSW in how different development models can drive design excellence. A great example is the Baugruppen model, from Germany. This is where a group of people get together to build an apartment building that they will all live in. Because they are developing it themselves, rather than purchasing from a developer, they can make decisions about designs that are specific to them – such as on environmental performance, or how spaces are arranged to suit the way they want to live. Many of the buildings developed in this way demonstrate greater diversity of housing and innovative uses of materials and technologies. They also act to lift the bar for more conventional development.


Another example of design excellence is the approach to community engagement, public space and building quality demonstrated in a series of recent public housing estate renewal projects by Karakusevic Carson Architects, notably the Kings Crescent and Colville Estate masterplans. In both cases, the architects worked directly with the local council and very closely with the communities to shape the final development, leading to results that have changed public perceptions and expectations about public housing.

Artist impression of  Baugruppe  at WGV, the first of it’s kind in Australia.

Artist impression of Baugruppe at WGV, the first of it’s kind in Australia.

Artist impression of  Baugruppe  at WGV, the first of it’s kind in Australia.

Artist impression of Baugruppe at WGV, the first of it’s kind in Australia.

What can Sydney, and Australia in general, learn from these overseas examples?

There is so much to learn! But two things I would highlight would be the opportunities for innovation, diversity and better design that different development models can present, and that positioning public space as the heart and defining element of new, larger-scale developments is the key to creating great places that people will cherish.

What role does art, in particular public art, play in design excellence? Should it be playing a bigger role?

Public art can be transformative when it is done well, but it is often thought of as an add-on rather than an integrated element. The best public art is developed alongside the project from the early stages, in this way it can play a very important role in design excellence. A beautiful recent example of this is the Anzac Centennial Project in Hyde Park where the architects JPW worked very closely with artist Fiona Hall to ensure the art and the architecture worked together seamlessly.

Within the Hall of Service looking out through the Oculus to the original Memorial. Image Credit: Peter Bennetts, courtesy of the Anzac Memorial.

Within the Hall of Service looking out through the Oculus to the original Memorial. Image Credit: Peter Bennetts, courtesy of the Anzac Memorial.

What role does design excellence have in creating and nurturing communities, and how do we make it feel authentic rather than artificial or forced?

Good design isn’t just about how things look, it’s very much about how they work. A few years ago, GANSW launched Better Placed – an integrated design policy for NSW. Better Placed creates a shared language for good design summarised in seven objectives. These talk to the many ways good design operates, for example the importance of relating to local character, and of creating environments that feel safe and can be accessed by all. Good design brings these many elements together to create spaces and buildings that are welcoming. To really work, to really create places that are cherished, we have to start with genuine conversations with local communities about what they value.

How do we maintain design excellence after the development and community, is constructed?

In planning terms, design excellence is often satisfied by running a process such as a design competition before planning approval is granted. This works very well to lift the quality of proposals but, in our experience, it needs to be followed up with regular checks to ensure the aspects of the successful design that are integral to achieving that extra high level of design quality don’t get eroded away through cost cuts and the like. We call this “design integrity” and it’s becoming a standard way to help ensure the built project remains consistent in quality with earlier designs.


What role does sustainability have in design excellence?

In our view, a project must be ambitious in terms of sustainability to earn the title of “design excellence”. You can’t have business-as-usual environmental performance and claim to be the best.  

Can you run us through the competitive design process/design competition that we have in NSW? What are the benefits of having a competitive process?

There are a range of competition types in NSW. The best known is the City of Sydney’s competition process. This has been running for more than 15 years now and has markedly improved the quality of projects, particularly apartment buildings. But, there are many others.

The NSW Government has design competition guidelines. GANSW is in the process of revising these to provide clearer guidance to teams and proponents to ensure competitions are run well and fairly. And many other local government areas regularly run competitions to their own or the State Government’s guidelines, notably City of Parramatta. There are also non-statutory competitions run by the private and public sector. These can include ideas competitions.

We all understand that competition lifts the game in sport and business – it does the same in design – which is why design competitions and design excellence so often go hand in hand. Design competitions are the only real means to demonstrate that you have not just a good option, but the best one, by providing a unique opportunity to comparatively evaluate a range of design responses to the same brief.

Can you run us through Better Placed?

GANSW’s Better Placed is an integrated design policy for the built environment of NSW. It outlines what the NSW government means by Good Design and establishes a baseline of what is expected to be achieved in terms of good design process and outcomes for all projects in NSW. It provides a definition for a well-designed environment and provides seven simple objectives to consider in the design of our built environment to ensure it will be healthy, responsive, integrated, equitable and resilient. It establishes a shared language to talk about and consider good design and better places.

We are delighted the policy now has the backing of legislation with the inclusion of a new object in the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act to “promote good design and amenity”. We see Better Placed as more than a policy. We see it as an ongoing campaign to grow a culture of good design and establish champions for better places.

What's the state of policies that relate to Design Excellence in NSW, but also across Australia? How do the states stand up against each other across the country?

NSW is relatively advanced compared to other states in terms of design excellence, especially as it relates to design competitions. Through the City of Sydney Council’s competitions policy and, more recently, that of City of Parramatta Council, we now have an industry culture that understands and can see value in competitive processes.

Reach out with some great examples of design excellence in Sydney, and let us know if there’s anything happening interstate, or even overseas, that you think we could learn from here. As Olivia said, it’s important for public art to be developed alongside a project from the early stages. So if you have a project about to bloom, get in touch sooner rather than later, we’d be happy to help.