Forward Thinking with Alexander &CO.
For Jeremy Bull, the bigger picture has always loomed large. The founder of architecture and interior design studio Alexander &CO. has an expansive worldview that discerns the long-reaching impact of the simplest design decision. We spoke to Jeremy and marketing director Tess Glasson, about the social and environmental considerations that have shaped their practice and why it was so important to undergo certification as a B Corp.
Portrait by Alicia Taylor. Project photography by Anson Smart.
How has your design philosophy evolved over the years? And in what ways has it remained the same?
Jeremy Bull: I think there are some philosophical pillars which have remained constant whilst the details and their application have continued to evolve as I have grown and the practice has too. The principles of creating ‘valuable’ work, or ‘timeless’ work, or architecturally ‘challenging’ work have been with me for quite some time.
How we do it, the technology, or the people and culture are continuously changing, and this influences our philosophy little by little. Philosophically then, I think we change, and we don’t change too. Perhaps we deepen or widen. There is a quote I love which might describe it better: “The sea gets deeper the further you walk in.”
What prompted you to go down the path of becoming a B Corp?
Jeremy: We have an interest in participation; in fact, I love the idea that when we get to shore we “burn the boats”. For me this looks like becoming part of the authoring of any system which we chose to take part in – it’s an ‘all-in’ philosophy.
I believe that B Corp certification is a development of the theme of participation into a wider economic circularity; this interests me a lot. I like the idea that B to B [business to business] could eventually take the place of ‘big’ bureaucracy in the governance systems required to bring circularity, be it ecological or social circularity. Historically these big bureaucracies are slow move, lacking in transparency and are agenda-lead. Perhaps I don’t trust them as much as I trust my own intention to create a better place for my own children.
Did your own personal and professional journey impact the decision in any way?
Jeremy: Of course. We like to live from one experiment to another, from one evolution to the next. Our personal journey is one of ownership, it is equal parts responsibility and lack of boundary.
How did you find the certification process?
Tess Glasson: It was a rigorous, long-term process and commitment with several of our team members leading the charge. It raised various issues within our practice which we needed to address, [and] various opportunities to develop our systems. It also continues to raise the challenge of educating a system or being aware that the best intention of the system only works when it finds itself in the hands of the people at the coal face. This separation between intent or intellectual property at an organizational level and the minutia of decision-making at a practice level need to be closer intertwined.
Give us a little insight into your team’s design process, and how Alexander &CO. weaves in environmental and social considerations along the way.
Jeremy: I think there are two pillars here – practice management and design management. We do practice better than we do projects with regards to the demands of B Corp. I think this is linked to the fact that we have been a DDO, or Deliberately Developmental Organisation, for some years, but are only new to B Corp and ecological rigor.
In a DDO, people’s growth, transparency, feedback, responsibility and opportunity are all well-documented processes, which we operate via a Notion wiki. For a practice of our age and size, we run this very well, and after 11 years of development have reached a point where there is enough cultural momentum that open feedback, for example, is becoming a more normal and healthy thing, albeit not without strains from time to time.
We are more early in implementing ecological frameworks into our practice, including bringing on the deep expertise needed to do this at a globally relevant level. It is well-intended at the moment, and foundational ideas are in place, but really, we need to get much better to bring a global leadership to this space.
Is it challenging to steer clients towards ethical design decisions, or do you find them receptive?
Jeremy: It is still mostly a question of ROI for many clients. I think we all like ethics until they prohibit us ‘getting what we want’. Cost is a barrier to entry and technology is not yet so prevalent that there is buying power in this area for many domestic developments. Little by little.
I probably believe that outside of fundamentally ‘good design’ long-established – [such as] cross-ventilation, solar access, thermal mass, solar, geothermal, etc. – there are various other intentions which underpin how we work. Materials will start and end somewhere before and after we use them. I like to make sure we simply ask this question of ourselves –What is the impact of where these resources come from and where they will eventually go? Will they create landfill or compost, can they be reused, or do we need to make new each time? What impact do our decisions have within a continuum which reaches far before us and will end far after us?
At Armadillo, we are advocates of the slow design movement. What considerations do you think should be front of mind to ensure that a home will endure and evolve over time?
Jeremy: Make it real and well the first time. It doesn’t take much intellect to see that the old solid timber butcher block table looks just as good a hundred years later whilst the vinyl floor doesn’t. Prioritise realness, quality, substantiality, longevity.
Are you finding that clients are starting to seek you out now because of your B Corp status?
Tess: From a client perspective I’m not sure yet. People are curious as to what it means; however, it wasn’t our motivator. From a supplier perspective, however, we’re shifting our relationships to be more cognizant of those manufacturers and suppliers that have similar intention.
What are your immediate priorities and longer-term goals for Alexander &CO.?
Jeremy: Just get better. We are always just trying to get better at what we do – our work, our social impact, our ecological responsibility. I love infinite games; hence, we are just playing to play. Like I say “burn the boats”, I’ve got nowhere else I want to be.
What do you hope for the future of Australian architecture and design?
Jeremy: I hope a lot. I hope we can see our common goal, our connected common interests. I hope we can help to get better together, to heal and mend and repatriate together. I hope we can do important work together.