VCA, University of Melbourne, Student break-out spaces created in quirky corners
By Virginia Ross, Williams Ross Architects
Most universities alter and adapt existing buildings for new uses rather than undertake expensive new construction. Campus sites are often limited, consent processes take time and major construction is financially risky.
However, adaptive reuse of existing buildings can also be risky due to the unknown state of the underlying building. Cost rates for renovation are higher than new builds — and risk allowances are often double: typically, 5% on a new build project versus 10% for renovation, especially with older buildings.
Regulatory upgrades on older buildings are increasingly onerous, with issues around disability and universal access, fire protection, egress requirements, health and safety and sometimes heritage constraints all impacting on not only the cost, but the functional benefit that can be achieved in the reworked building.
So when and how should one decide to adapt, instead of demolishing and building anew?
Early planning, investigation and analysis, weighing up pros and cons of redevelopment options is fundamental to informing these decisions. The key questions are:
- Can the new uses be effectively housed in the building in ways that support teaching and learning mission and values without major functional compromise?
- Can regulatory upgrades be effectively achieved without limiting use, occupancy, etc?
- How does redevelopment cost compare with a new build project delivering optimum functionality and objectives?
- Sometimes: what benefit would re-use bring, such as contributing to sustainability, heritage preservation and so on, that might offset other limitations?
In simple cases, once the project brief has been defined, concept planning options showing how the new uses could be accommodated, informed by early cost plans will quickly show whether renovation stacks up against a new build, assuming this is a viable alternative.
On ‘tricky’ buildings this analysis may need to dig further into potential limitations that could have significant usage or cost implications. Sometimes the most limiting factors are not immediately obvious and surprising.
For the Victorian College of the Arts (University of Melbourne), we were asked to investigate the Theatres Building to increase its occupancy enabling more programs, staff and students to be housed. Its permitted occupancy was quite low and there were rumours of structural floor loading limits. Built in 2004, expensive ground conditions soaked up funds, with last-minute reductions in scope during construction — and these came back to bite.
It’s a quirky building with an eccentric layout, multi-storey voids and poor functionality: teaching studios with the greatest use are on the top level, forcing people up and down constantly. Designed by Edmond and Corrigan architects, the university was concerned about making modifications to a building by such respected architects.
Investigation required thoughtful regulatory assessment, structural and fire engineering to define the actual constraints. Structural limits were confirmed, mostly in the studios’ roof structure, limiting the weight of theatrical technology that could be inserted to modernise their T&L capabilities.
But the main occupancy limit were the few paths and widths of evacuation revealed by regulatory and fire engineering analysis. Once understood, the team could develop strategies to improve egress pathways (widen or shorten existing routes, add new routes) in concept designs that also integrated the new functional program objectives.
VCA, University of Melbourne, New costume workshops in a former unused student common
The approved plans accommodated new uses freeing up other buildings, renovated T&L, student and staff spaces and retained expansion opportunities in a three-stage renovation built over consecutive summers while keeping the building operational for most of the academic year.
The complex $6m renovation significantly expanded use and occupancy, preserved architectural heritage, gave it a new lease of life, and cost substantially less than a potentially controversial redevelopment.
Win-win — after a fair bit of head-scratching.