GHDWoodhead's transformation of the 1970s Geelong headquarters of Victoria’s largest urban water corporation into a striking contemporary office is symbolic of the urban renewal at the regional city’s cultural and civic heart.
Standing on the rooftop of Barwon Water’s headquarters in the Victorian regional city of Geelong, by GHDWoodhead, you can see more than 180 degrees over the bay and city surrounds. Avalon Airport is twenty minutes away and will soon take international flights that will pass overhead. As Barwon Water workers gather for a barbecue in the rainwater-irrigated roof garden and terrace, they can easily contemplate the changing city around them in a space symbolic of the urban renewal of the city’s cultural and civic precinct.
Barwon Water is Victoria’s largest regional urban water corporation, covering an area of approximately 8,100 square kilometres, and has occupied this site since 1910. Adam Cunningham, project manager at Barwon Water, has guided the project from inception to completion and describes the organization’s goals as outlined in the brief: a modern workplace, greater connection with the public, support of local community and industry, and sustainability initiatives.
The decision to re-use the existing buildings by retaining the structures, refitting services and creating a new facade, rather than demolishing or relocating the headquarters, was made for cost and sustainability reasons, but has also allowed GHDWoodhead to play on the retro aesthetic of past decades. In places the architects have let the layers of history show through, such as the retained brick wall facing the plaza on Ryrie Street. The brick and bluestone buildings flanking the site were outdated as offices and so became shells either side of an infill structure that physically and visually connects the older blocks together, creating a central atrium space with a sculptural stair and dramatic skylights. This space is described as the heart and lungs of the project, letting light into the social spaces and meeting rooms and connecting the open-plan offices at all levels from ground to rooftop.
A large component of the repurposing work was to strip out and replace the mechanical and electrical s ervices that did not meet high sustainability targets. The building now has a five-star Green Star rating. A strategy of decentralized service points includes micro plants servicing each floor. The old plant rooms that were located at the core of the building have been turned into highly visible meeting rooms facing the atrium. GHDWoodhead considers this design approach, which involves an integrated architectural and engineering assessment of the merits of re-using the existing buildings, to be a precedent method for cost-effective site regeneration. The result is a design aesthetic with a basic, raw quality rather than a slick, high-tech one and this is very engaging as well as appropriate to the time and place.
From the surrounding streets anyone can enter the building through a generous, urban-scale plaza or travel through the foyer to a community cafe and through-site link. The cafe, which faces a street leading to Little Malop Street, a hip new hotspot in the city, belongs to Barwon Water and is run by a disability service provider. Other community partnerships are evident within the building. Indigenous themes have been incorporated into the development through local partnership and have influenced meeting room names, signage and artwork. A three-by-seven-metre mural commissioned in 1977 by Barwon Water, then the Geelong Waterworks and Sewerage Trust, by author and illustrator Robert Ingpen and illustrating water cycle management in the Geelong region has been taken out of the boardroom and rehoused in public view. It is included in the Open Doors for Mural Tours, part of the Open House Geelong program.
The most striking aspect of the project is the facade, which features a changeable water drop motif that is a repeated pattern and detail throughout the building. This was developed through software modelling in response to incident sun angles. The metal patterned layer stretches across the 1970s structure like a draped skin. Double-glazed and thermally isolated, the curtain wall/sunscreen is designed to respond specifically to sun angles on the building, unifying the ensemble of structures within a varied, intricate and articulated skin. Martin Palmer, director of architecture at GHDWoodhead, explains that the technology and its local fabrication are a reference to the city’s industrial past. With this new facade, the plaza is lit up as clearly new city fabric, drawing curiosity and inviting people to dwell in the public landscape created. A weathered Corten steel wall, lining part of the plaza, leads to an oversized Corten-clad stair that engaged local Geelong trades in its manufacture and gives access to the plaza from the civic and cultural precinct to the north.
As a contribution to urban renewal, the development is impressive and in good company, sitting alongside ARM’s extraordinary Geelong Library and Heritage Centre and the equally bold but much earlier brutalist State Government Offices building. Immediately to the east is the Geelong Performing Arts Centre, which will be redeveloped according to a masterplan, as will eventually the Barwon Health building. Evolution of the fast-growing regional city is now inevitable as Geelong looks past the demise or uncertain futures of the large manufacturing and resources giants such as Ford, Shell and Alcoa. Geelong has been a city looking for a new identity and it will find it as more people are drawn to live here and the catalyst projects that the government has instigated, such as this one, set the groundwork for a civic framework. The strong focus on reconnecting with Geelong’s history, industrial heritage and community, as evidenced in this project, is proving to be something solid on which to build.