Situated in Sydney’s inner west, Benson McCormack Architects (BMA) was established in January of 2008 by David Benson and Glenn McCormack. Despite the modest age of the business, BMA has over 55 years of combined local and international experience in architecture and urban design shared between the founding partners. “David and I worked in separate businesses before starting BMA; larger architectural firms in which we were employed, as well as our own.” The two founders met in 1994 while working in a large commercial practice, and 6 years ago, decided to join forces. “When we established BMA, it coincided with the lowest point of the GFC, but despite the difficult market, it was a period in which to establish our roots,” says Glenn. “We stayed small and lean, and managed to grow through a difficult period.” While the company’s initial portfolio of works comprised of mainly residential work, BMA is now undertaking a steadily increasing number of commercial projects as well.
Despite BMA’s early success in the residential sector, David and Glenn have chosen not to focus on one particular segment of the industry. “We’ve endeavoured to set ourselves apart from a large number of architectural firms operating in this part of Sydney, many of whom focus on small-scale residential projects,” Glenn explains. “Although we enjoy small scale projects, the skill set of David and I points BMA more towards multi-unit developments, rather than projects for individuals.” One of BMA’s recently completed commercial projects was the adaptive re-use of a Marrickville warehouse that now serves as the new headquarters of a local dry-cleaning company. Another significant aspect of the business is the master planning and urban design of a number of significantly sized sites in the Sydney metropolitan area, regional areas of New South Wales, and even interstate with BMA being instrumental in steering the state government towards a unified approach to the redevelopment of the foreshore land within the Bays Precinct of Sydney.
“Simple design principles underlie our design approach to all tasks,” McCormack says, “simple principals that establish a foundation for a network of more complex ideas and considerations which are pertinent to the unique conditions each site presents.” Two fundamental yet simple principles come before all others: generous natural light and ventilation…the key aspects of an inviting and comfortable work or home environment. “These principles are the basis of all design decisions we take,” says Glenn. “It may sound overly basic, but what follows these decisions is invariably the establishment of passive design that contributes to the highest possible outcomes for all projects, whether they are large or small.” To extract the best out of such projects, Benson McCormack relies on their close ties and partnerships with industry groups, such as the Green Building Council of Australia, as well as key professional organisations.
Glenn and David have found that the greatest challenges facing their business is the protracted nature of the approval process. “We’re seeing an ever increasing level of bureaucracy and government interference in all projects, particularly the approval stage of any development,” Glenn explains. “We’re finding an increasing number of projects requiring an exhaustive amount of time and cost to achieve approval through local government or other means, such as the Land and Environment Court.” In a recently completed project, BMA deliberately chose a design solution for a site that was far more sympathetic and modest in scale and typology to the immediate residential context than the zoning permitted. As such, the construction of 5 terrace houses was proposed in lieu of a residential flat building or multi-storey boarding house because it was a more contextual outcome. “Although everyone agreed that this was the better outcome, the project still required consent through the Land and Environment Court in order for the project to come to fruition. It’s deeply distressing that a good architectural and urban design solution requires such unnecessary effort and cost to be realised.”
Although BMA is engaged in a variety of projects, the firm is presently in charge of over 500 new residential dwellings with many of the projects taking place in the inner west of Sydney in local government areas such as Marrickville and Canterbury. The company has had recent success with some master planning projects also, most notably in Campbelltown on a Maryfields site at which BMA is representing the Franciscan Friars. ”What’s encouraging about that project is we’re attempting a re-zoning of a site, which many other designers have attempted without success for the last 30 years,” Glenn says. “Although planning proposal approval is still pending, we’re in the final stages of realising a favourable outcome for the establishment of a much broader business and education precinct in south western Sydney.”
One of the most significant award-winning projects for BMA is the King’s Apartments development in Roseville. Completed in 2012, the project was entered into the NSW and National Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) urban design awards. The project subsequently received an award for design excellence in the medium density residential category for New South Wales, and upon winning in that category, won the national award for the same category, as well as the President’s Award, the highest honour that the organisation can bestow. “We were joined in that awards ceremony with our client Hone Constructions;” explains Glenn, “Hone were happy to include us in the awards because they see BMA as an instrumental part of the development process; not just as architects but rather a partner in achieving the best design outcome for the development.” Within the same awards ceremony, the company also received a commendation for the Rockpool Terraces at Little Bay. BMA has also been a finalist for a number of local government awards, including a commendation for the Heritage and Conservation Awards at Randwick and Marrickville Councils last year.
The industry’s frequent changes in regulation have made it increasingly difficult for architects and planners like BMA to remain current without assistance. The company has found such assistance in the form of a number of industry associations, including the Australian Institute of Architects, the UDIA, the Green Building Council of Australia, and the Association of Consulting Architects. “BMA is also engaged in assisting those groups to potentially make positive changes in the sector,” McCormack says. “Naturally these groups also assist us, and we rely on those resources to perform at our best.”
The energy and the cost associated with procuring any project, from the first pen stroke to hammering of the final nail, is both enormous and ever increasing. “What’s particularly challenging for us, and where our clients see the greatest value in our service, is actually getting the projects approved,” says Glenn. “We’re sympathetic to the financial pressure of purchasing a development site and naturally the value is only realised after approval is achieved. Our clients therefore rely heavily on us to achieve the highest and best outcomes for each site. Naturally the architectural solution will always be at the centre of all BMA’s developments, not only in terms of responsibilities to the natural and built environment, but also in terms of optimising the marketability of the project. The streamlining of the development process would go a long way to reducing such pressures, not only on our clients but the affordability crisis confronting our cities.”
BMA’s goal in its nascent years was simply to establish its ‘roots’. “It’s like planting a tree in winter;” McCormack says, “finally when the favourable weather conditions arrive it’s then the roots become established and growth is assured. The weather ahead of BMA is now ‘warm’ which puts our business in a good position for steady growth. Our systems are in place, and we’re now making the most of the opportunities coming our way. We’re very busy at the moment for which we are grateful but our highest priority is to ensure that our clients are well managed and serviced. We pride ourselves on providing our clients the absolute best service and product possible despite the many and varied challenges each development faces throughout each design stage of the project’s procurement.” Looking to the future, David and Glenn’s immediate goals focus on the diversification of their project catalogue. “The majority of our work in recent times has been multi-residential, and we’ve had a fair amount of urban design and master planning work, but we are now looking to broaden our base in terms of clients and the type of work that we do,” says Glenn. “We’re looking to broaden our involvement in the commercial sector and put to use the design skills we’ve gained through our early days working on commercial projects in Australia and overseas.”