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Building the future

Volume 8 Number 11 November 12 - December 9 2012

For the University’s architects, designers and urban planners, the Parkville Campus is a living laboratory. It’s a hub for design research, experimentation and innovation. This month, building works begin on a new home for these design leaders, who are using the demolition of their old building and design of its replacement as an opportunity to add to the campus’ history of research through practice. Zoe Nikakis surveys the terrain. 

The University of Melbourne is home to all kinds of research activity and researchers, who work in all kinds of buildings: from cutting-edge medical laboratories and engineering workshops to specialised computing facilities, from fine arts studios to concert halls. These spaces in which the University’s research endeavours take place shape the work being performed. 

For the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning (ABP), the ties between research, teaching and the building in which it occurs are even more pronounced due to the nature of the discipline. The entire campus serves as a living laboratory for faculty researchers, in which to experiment with new ideas and forms, different materials and concepts. They perform research through practise and push the boundaries of what is possible in architectural design to better share those ideas with the national and international community.

Dean of ABP Professor Tom Kvan says the new building will be a platform for research into each of the faculty’s areas of focus.

“We’ve looked at the building as a vehicle to carry our research into design, construction, delivery and habitation,” he says. 

The planning process for the new building began many years before Professor Kvan arrived at the University. 

“The current building was put together on what was, at the time, a distant corner of the campus, without sufficient resources or adequate backing to create what was needed,” he says.

“The team did a remarkable job of stretching the budget through donations, support from the community and other cost-saving measures to create a larger facility than the budget would allow.

“There were tradeoffs though, which have manifested as the building aged: the plumbing systems didn’t stand up to demands, the heating system collapsed completely and the electrical system was struggling. It was a clear example of how a great outcome was achieved by stretching resources. But buildings have to be resourced properly to survive.”

The need to replace the building presented a unique opportunity for the faculty to engage in action research.

“There has been incredible engagement with the replacement process and a lot of innovation,” Professor Kvan says.

One research project focused on the new building will see ABP researchers measure and account for the carbon intensity associated with each building component, fabrication process or supply chain, to see if mitigating carbon emissions through sustainable design will outweigh the carbon emissions produced in construction supply chains.

Another project will see a cutting-edge heating and cooling system using geothermal energy technology installed.

Such a system, rarely used in Australia, sees fluid-filled pipes installed in the building’s foundations connected to heat pumps to transfer relatively large quantities of heat from the ground to the building in colder weather, and from building to the ground in hotter weather.

Geothermal energy is efficient, cost-effective and fully sustainable because it uses renewable solar energy. And because it uses only a small percentage of the electricity needed for equivalent conventional systems, it represents a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

These research activities began with a competition to select an architectural team to work with faculty members on the new building’s design.

The competition, which received 134 entries from 15 countries, was not to select a design, but rather to choose research partners for the development of the new facility. A combined team of John Wardle Architects and NADAAA was chosen.

Professor Kvan said the team’s design submission illustrated their approach; it was not a proposition for what they would build.

“We were looking for collaboration in the building process, because though we are the client and they are the consultant and we didn’t want to interfere in that process, we’re a knowledgeable client and we could guide the process by asking the right questions,” he says.

This collaborative, research-based approach is part of a long history of such research in practice at the University. University engineer J L Van De Molen designed the Underground Car Park, which at the time was the only car park in Australia fully enclosed and concealed beneath a designed landscape. 

Chair of Architecture Professor Philip Goad says the car park “was one of the University’s fabulous experiments in engineering in terms of landscape and the provision of public space”.

“I think that’s where the University can show itself to be a good citizen in terms of the built environment: it should be taking a risk and setting an example,” he says.

Professor Goad says the new building is an opportunity to showcase design excellence and continue the University’s tradition of research innovation through design and construction.

“It’s important we source expertise from within, because the University has an enormous body of talent, and the design of buildings and spaces can help us put those talents on display.”

Professor Goad said architects today can and should use historical buildings cleverly.

“Everyone wins when the outcome is skilful, often difficult, and there is no reason new buildings can’t sit next to, accommodate and work alongside existing structures,” he says.

Professor Goad says the University is peppered with heritage-listed buildings, which were the product of experimentation and innovation during earlier decades. 

“The University has heritage-listed buildings from many periods, from its inception to the post-war period. If you want to see examples of heritage buildings from different decades, the University is the place to come.

“Historic buildings are laden with memory, and indicate particular moments in time. They add a level of complexity. People intuitively understand that buildings become heritage with time, and we either become attached to them, or conversely are happy to see them go.”

Though the University community is indeed glad to see the old ABP home go, the current building has several heritage aspects which have been incorporated in the new design, namely the façade of the old Bank of New South Wales, which, Professor Kvan says, has stood on campus, “glued unceremoniously and ungraciously to the old commerce building for almost as long as it stood on Collins Street.

“We’ve accommodated the façade and incorporated it in the design. It will frame the new gallery and the inside of the building from the west, and will moderate the intense sunlight from the west to make the building more liveable,” he says.

Another key heritage feature which will have a home in the new building is the faculty’s Japanese Room, created in the 1960s and funded by the Australian Japanese business community to articulate a renewed respect between Japan and Australia after the World War II.

“At that time there was still incredible antagonism towards the Japanese, and that physical manifestation of respect was a very important step in Australian history, not just for the faculty or the University,” Professor Kvan says.

To create the original Japanese Room, appropriate materials were donated and a Japanese architect retained. The room was built adhering as much as possible to Japanese standards, given the building’s limitations.

“We took the room apart very carefully, steamed off the wallpaper, and have dismantled and stored it all very carefully,” Professor Kvan says.

“We’ve also adapted its design in the new building so we’re not just replicating it. We’re enhancing it with a purpose-designed space.”

Professor Kvan says heritage is about life today, not about packaging up the life of the past.

“Heritage is about the way we think and the way we work. We’ve developed a very strong engagement profile through exhibitions and public lectures, and have been constantly inviting the community into the University and the faculty.

“We take that culture of engagement and transport it into the new building, including the heritage of respect for the values we have developed in this faculty over many years.”

Professor Kvan says this culture of engagement has guided every aspect of the design. 

“The building creates a series of outside rooms into which we can invite students, the public and colleagues. The design was driven by the desire to create amenity for everybody, and the building does that by creating outdoor rooms, opening the building up so it will be visually attractive.

“Anyone walking past or through the building will be attracted to it, they’ll be able to watch activities which are central to our mission through windows to a ground floor workshop, which is about discovery of knowledge through doing, and core to our way of learning.”

The building is also part of the University’s strategy to open the Parkville campus up to the public. 

Professor Kvan says universities typically think in very long-term horizons.

“The University celebrates its 160th anniversary next year, and anticipates the next 160 years. We see our contributions to the Melbourne community in the long term, and investments in building need to be framed that way.

“The lesson we’ve learned is that if we build expediently, we fail to realise our obligation to think in the broader context of society’s needs.

“This building is designed with that understanding. It will be a sustainable building which fuels research, teaching, learning and engagement for the foreseeable future.”