Peter Lovell / Director and Founding Principal / Lovell Chen  / 
Heritage

story / Interview / September 24, 2018

My interests in construction, architecture and particularly heritage, really stemmed from some dear friends of mine when I was a boy growing up, who lived down the road, Warwick and Susie Forge. Warwick was the assistant administrator of the National Trust and lived in a historic house. I used to go around a do little bits of work on the house and in the garden, for pocket money. Warwick and Susie very much inspired me to take an interest in historic buildings.

I came out of school and typically didn’t know what I wanted to do post secondary school. I applied for both architecture and building and got into building at the University of Melbourne, but without really knowing what I was getting in for. Melbourne University at that time had some pretty inspirational people in the heritage and architectural history area, Miles Lewis and George Tibbits, both very focused on Melbourne’s heritage buildings. They were inspirational for me in my growing interest in older buildings, rather than new construction.

Initially my interests very much focused on the reuse of historic buildings, particularly the reuse of housing stock. This was at a time when Melbourne still had a Housing Commission and there were battles over demolition of areas of Carlton and Fitzroy. I was a part of a group of undergrads who got involved, particularly in Fitzroy, in giving advice to local residents, on how to look after their houses and repair and restore them.

In the evenings I would give advice to owners on housing repair. I would go to buildings and give advice on rising damp and crack repair. I became a director of the Fitzroy-Collingwood Rental Housing Association, which was one of the first housing associations formed. I was a property director, at a very young age, advising on how to maintain these buildings. It was a really interesting learning process.

I dabbled in working for a couple of architects for a moment. That didn’t last very long. During my post-grad work, I started to make a little bit of a name locally for being able to advise people on how to fix their buildings. I set up a practice basically soon after that, on building repair and maintenance. I went into a shared building in the city with a group of architects. They were running an architectural practice and I was running my building advisory practice. Basically that’s how the firm began, in the late 70s.

In 1981 I went into partnership with Richard Allom who was an architect in Brisbane. Richard and I formed a practice called Allom Lovell & Associates, and Richard had the practice in Brisbane, I in Melbourne and we became architectural heritage consultants at that time. We called ourselves heritage architects. The practice continues to this day, with a name change in that process.

Initially our work focused very much on pure restoration work and not so much on adaptive reuse with an undertaking of a lot of studies and research. The practice developed with an investigation arm and a doing arm. Gradually, over time, the research got bigger and bigger, as we did larger studies and more investigation. The doing arm became more architectural and looked at adaptive reuse and delivering projects.

In the nineties Kai Chen joined the business. A very highly regarded and well recognised contemporary architect, who had a very successful practice Robinson Chen. With that, we really moved significantly. We really saw that we were not just heritage architects, but we’re here as architects as well. I think as a practice now we’re seen as able to offer architectural work – new build and reuse, as well as still completing significant conservation work.

I think interestingly, Melbourne does conservation less well than we did in the eighties and nineties. Back then the construction industry responded significantly to the interest in applied conservation work. There were trades and general contractors that all realised they had to up-the-ante and deliver good applied conservation work. There was a greater awareness and skilling-up to deal with that. Sadly that has declined. The industry does not have that capacity anymore. When I started on the Melbourne Town Hall restoration of the stonework, which we did in the eighties, the contract required trades to have apprentices. There was a conscious training programme. The difficulty for a young person going into a heritage trade is, is there any longevity in the work? If the work isn’t there, the apprentices won’t be there.

The nature of contracting has changed. There’s been a shift in the place of consultants that has been significant. The role of architects has changed greatly in the last twenty years. I think on occasion this doesn’t deliver better outcomes. Too often the deliverables are compromised and the quality on what is delivered from a conservation perspective, is diminished. In the heritage trades schools aren’t training anymore. Apprenticeships aren’t offered.

The challenge for young women, is that issue of them being accepted in a room full of blokes. A young women from our office sitting in a room full of builders saying, ‘This is what I want you to do.’ I think watching how people react in that circumstance is interesting and it takes considerable confidence for a younger person, man or woman to command attention and obtain respect. I’m sure as a woman you develop your skills pretty quickly, as to how to manage that. I think there are varied styles that work for some people better than others. There are plenty of men who can’t walk into a room and command attention also.

There’s been a fundamental change in the building industry. When I started there wouldn’t be a person in management, who hadn’t come through the tools. You didn’t go to University. We were a rare breed; these kids going through and doing a construction course. So for us even, we were pretty odd and got treated in that way on building sites. They didn’t know quite what you were. There’s been a major shift now to professionalism.

I think the graduates who come into this office who are most successful, are the ones through their course who have been gone out and got experience. In my training practical experience was pivotal in understanding how buildings were built and you really began to get your head around what it was all about. The ones who have done the course, without being exposed, it’s that much harder. That practical applied experience is absolutely fundamental in you getting a leg up and moving forward. I would urge anyway to spend your breaks doing it.

 

Peter Lovell is a very well-respected figure who features heavily, along with his firm, in the built environment. It was an absolute pleasure for us to be able to spend some time with Peter in his office, getting a feel for how far the industry has come and how much has changed over the last couple of decades. Peter spoke with such candour and exceptional insight into how Melbourne has developed.  Peter and his peers forged the new path of construction industry professionals who have mad the profession what it is today. Wishing Peter and Lovell Chen all the best for the end of 2018! J & D

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