Steele Associates is a Sydney-based design and construction group with an intense passion for sustainability in the built environment. Director Oliver Steele, who founded the company while he was still in university for architecture, began finding work through fellow architects as a builder shortly after receiving his degree. The business grew steadily through word-of-mouth referrals, and after educating himself through a variety of sources, Oliver expanded his team, and saw the company achieve a $12 million turnover in 2008. While the onset of the Global Financial Crisis brought with it numerous difficulties, Steele Associates was able to use the period as an opportunity to consolidate, restructure, and streamline its business. “Over the last few years, we’ve seen the benefit of those experiences, and we’re now really focusing on the work we want to be doing, and moving into our own development projects on the back of all the work we’ve done for other people,” Oliver says. “We plan to focus more on our turnkey sustainable development wing in the next few years, whilst maintaining the business we’ve developed in both design and construction.”
Oliver has always found himself perplexed by the professional chasm between the disciplines of architecture and construction. “My team and I have learned a lot about building from designing, and a lot about designing from building,” he says. “I’m really interested in the collaboration and cross-pollination opportunities there, so my organisation very much focuses on the mutual respect and understanding of the different disciplines within the industry.” In keeping with Mr Steele’s mentality, all Steele Associates onsite construction staff receive training in design principles, to enhance their appreciation of the importance of design in every project.
When tasked with a design project, Steele Associates begins with a strong understanding of the design’s feasibilities in the construction stage. “I see a lot of buildings that started with a great concept, which eroded during the realisation process due to an inadequate understanding of the realities of construction, so you end up with lots of compromises,” Oliver says. “What we design, we know can be built without sacrificing the architectural integrity. We have a unique understanding of both aspects of the process, which most firms can’t offer.”
Steele Associates operates under the firm belief that sustainability in the built environment should not have to be more expensive than conventional construction, and is currently in the process of realising its belief with projects such as 88 Angel Street in Newtown, and its upcoming apartment project in Redfern. “I’ve never met a client or stakeholder that actively does not want a sustainable project. It’s only when there are cost premiums involved that they have to make a decision about how passionate they are,” says Mr Steele. “To make that decision easier, we’re in the business of demonstrating that good passive sustainable design doesn’t have to cost more up front.” Oliver is also quick to note that while some active technologies often bring with them an initial cost, Steele Associates is able to demonstrate that with a fast payback period of approximately 4 years, clients will be making their money back in savings within a very short timeframe.
88 Angel Street is made up of 3 benchmark sustainable houses, one of which has been pre-sold, with the remainder to be auctioned upon completion this year. The homes serve as a benchmark because they are the first speculative development at their scale with an extensive green roof of native ground cover plants over the whole building. “They utilise extensive solar power, rainwater, incredibly energy efficient passive solar design, thermal mass and insulation, low VOC interiors, and many fundamental passive and active sustainable initiatives; which is highly unusual for a speculative development,” says Oliver. “The aim of the development, and the entire company overall, is to demonstrate to conventional developers that it’s a very sensible commercial proposition to be tapping into the green market in a meaningful way.” Steele Associates’ next project, The Fern, located at 7 Wyndham Street in Redfern, is a block of 11 apartments that will be built using the same principles currently in use at Angel Street. The apartments, which will be 1-bedroom units situated only 200 metres from Redfern Station, are oriented towards the first homebuyer and investor markets, and will feature cross ventilation and solar access, optimal thermal mass, double glazing, insulation, and an internal green wall in order to make them comfortable to live in, without the need for air conditioning.
Steele Associates are proud to have been recognised with HIA & MBA awards in 2011, 2012, 2013 & 2014, including the highly prestigious HIA NSW Home of the Year in 2014. “I find it a helpful mindset for quality control to inspect our construction projects every step of the way imagining I’m an HIA or MBA judge and picking out any imperfections to rectify”, says Oliver.
Steele Associates is a highly active member of the HIA, the Institute of Architects, and the MBA, with Oliver himself recently joining the HIA NSW Planning Committee, from which he looks forward to engaging with state and local government on upcoming planning changes. Oliver also emphasises the growing issues surrounding the undersupply of land, and the limitations on density imposed by local government . “Sydney has a housing supply issue, and with that comes the opportunity to resolve it in a way that will have a long-term benefit for the city, the state, and the wider environment. This is a particular passion of mine, and I’m very grateful to the HIA for giving me the opportunity to work with them on those issues over the next year,” he says.
The company has also built strong relationships with a number of suppliers throughout Sydney, including Hardware and General, with whom Oliver has maintained an account with for the past 15 years. “The most difficult thing about being a builder is that you are 100% accountable for, but not 100% in control of your subcontractors,” Mr Steele continues. “Ensuring a strong, trusting relationship with at least one subcontractor in each trade is incredibly important, and we have subcontractors in various trades that we have been working with for over 12 years now. While we’re always looking to meet new contractors to form relationships with, I suppose it’s the same as friends; ‘new subcontractors are silver, but old subcontractors are gold.’”
In the next two years, Mr Steele believes that and emissions trading scheme and the country’s greenhouse challenge, in which the building industry plays a significant part, will swiftly be returning to the forefront of the national agenda. “That’s really the elephant in the room that the industry can’t afford to ignore, and the sooner we deal with it, the less disruption to the industry will be caused,” he says. “The longer we keep our heads in the sand, the more destructive the adjustments that we will need to make will become.” He also believes that “Sydney’s latest boom offers the opportunity to maximise the long-term sustainability of our city, and really consider the footprint that we have beyond its boundaries. While it will be easy to ignore the more long-term issues that are inevitably created by development, we have an opportunity to take those seriously as a community and make the most of this next phase of urban growth.”
Oliver Steele’ strongest motivation for joining the industry was to have a positive impact on environmental sustainability in the built environment. “That’s where I’m firmly rooted;” he says, “I was very idealistic as a youth when I started out, but that is now tempered by a firm understanding of the political, economic, social, and industrial realities of the world in which we operate.” Mr Steele points out that the turbulent nature of the industry has been known to leave many jaded about what they are able to achieve. “I’m determined to stay positive, and remain focused on what’s important to me; and it’s very gratifying to finally see 88 Angel Street come to fruition after several years of hard work, and to feel that I can really start to make an impact in the ways I always intended to: with our own development projects, demonstrating to the industry that there is a better, more sensible, more sustainable way, that still fits within the conventional speculative development business model.”
Looking to the future, Oliver is excited to begin preparations to open an additional branch to the business, based around a newly developed visualisation technology for upcoming projects. “It’s basically a user-controlled walkthrough,” he says. “You can use your keyboard and mouse to walk through a building; it can be used both as a design tool and a presentation tool. Its kind of like playing a video in a building you might one day live in. Luckily in our version, there are no monsters on your tail.”