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This design studio proves the architecture of the future won’t make waste, it’ll create from it

Photography By Dan Mulheran

Seven decades on and Mahatma Gandhi, the revolutionary nonviolent resistance leader, politician and social activist, is still inspiring millions with his lifework – including Australian architect Clare Kennedy.

The correlation between an architect and an ethicist is not immediately obvious (unless Gandhi spent time with a T-square at a drafting board in between fighting for India’s freedom from British colonial rule). But as Kennedy explains, his principles towards socioeconomics and the environment influenced her approach to architecture and construction, even inspiring the name of her design studio, Five Mile Radius.

“It came from a statement Gandhi made after the Second World War,” Kennedy says. “He was asking people to build using materials found within a five-mile radius of their homes. By naming our studio that, we are constantly reminded of what we are all about.” 

From a 130-year-old foundry in central Brisbane, Five Mile Radius collaborates with architects, tradespeople and educators to explore material sustainability and circularity, testing new frontiers in architecture and the construction industry for the benefit of Australia’s built future.

Architects have long married beauty with practicality in their work, but there’s always been an unwanted third party in the bed: waste. Australia alone generates over 20 million tonnes of construction waste every year, a figure spurred by growing rates of property development, public transport expansion and new infrastructure. When Kennedy founded Five Mile in 2016, her credo was “build with what you’ve got”, a motto she’s since applied to projects with a focus on circularity, upcycling, waste reduction and bioclimatic design.

We first discovered Five Mile through a modest concrete table. Lo-fi yet sleek in design, their Waste Terrazzo Coffee Tables are made entirely of construction waste salvaged from building sites across Brisbane. “Many builders have no choice but to dump their excess concrete on site or into landfill,” Kennedy says. So Five Mile swooped in with a savvy alternative: designing a time-sensitive system to intercept the wet concrete and construct side tables or custom slabs, complete with colourful specks of miscellaneous construction waste.

Dan Mulheran

Dan Mulheran

Dan Mulheran

The design is reflective of the studio’s tendency to begin each project with material-based questions, seeking solutions to waste and always looking for ways to repurpose or recycle what has already been made. This was again the case when damaged telegraph poles crossed their creative radar.

Six million telegraph poles are in use across Australia and every year, 200,000 are replaced due to ground line failure (what happens when a small section of the pole becomes waterlogged). Eighty per cent of these damaged poles end up in landfill, but Five Mile Radius’ dexterity has transformed them into unique, stackable Telegraph Stools. Just like the Terrazzo tables, the stools have a versatile aesthetic, as suited to an open outdoor setting as they are a modish interior. 

Dan Mulheran

Whether designing furnishings, housing developments, public pavilions or shop fit-outs, Kennedy admits she finds it more challenging to work with new materials than she does waste. “That’s partly because I don’t feel good about it and because there’s no drive there, just a whole lot of questioning,” she says. While she doesn’t plan to eradicate the use of new materials altogether, it’s clear innovation and repurposing waste is where Kennedy’s creativity finds its highest frequency.  

Looking ahead, Kennedy says the team are about to start work with a development company to harvest usable materials from a large building site prior to demolition. They will then rework the rescued materials into elements of the building once new construction starts. In Kennedy’s view, these are the kinds of projects helping the studio make noise and scale solutions: “Interest drives change. Construction is like a slow-moving beast, but when there’s incentive there, businesses will catch up.”

Five Mile Studio plan to keep driving interest across all industries that architecture and design is involved in – literally. Their dream is to one day operate the studio from a bus, travelling around Australia to educate communities and help businesses and individuals unlock the potential of materials around them. “We want to be the home of material experimentation in Australia,” Kennedy says. Keeping things close to home – which Gandhi would no doubt approve of.

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