A visit to the recently completed redevelopment of the Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, by Bligh Voller Nield and Troppo Architects, is strange in more ways than one.
Forget lush green canyons and waterfalls complete with birdsong, Townsville defies any stereotypical image of what constitutes the tropical north. Built on an ancient seabed, it is in a rain shadow of the Great Dividing Range and the landscape bears more resemblance to those of central Australia depicted by Albert Namatjira. This otherworldliness is compounded by the oddities of army culture. Due to the strategic location of the port of Townsville, Lavarack is one of the largest military installations in northern Australia.
At the core of the redevelopment of the barracks is the mutation of the culture of a military institution. Soldiers are precious in the modern professional army and allegiance depends on the career opportunities and services the institution can provide. The existing prefabricated steel buildings, dating from the Vietnam War and designed by American army engineers, do not meet current performance requirements - acoustic and visual privacy, individual bathrooms and adequate environmental control to ensure comfort are all prerequisites for today’s defence accommodation. This improvement in housing standards is partly the result of a desire to reduce attrition rates and partly the result of women joining the armed forces.
Changes in defence housing also reflect changes in the practice of warfare - from large manoeuvres to those involving small highly trained and specialised units. The new single-occupancy dwellings of Lavarack are a far cry, for example, from nineteenth century army barracks, built on a prison model where one was always subject to view and self-policing was enforced through socialisation. Underlying the challenges facing the Lavarack redevelopment were the inherent contradictions in the relationship between individual and community in the context of a military institution. What role does the domestic play in the contemporary army and what forms is it taking?
The redevelopment program at Lavarack included masterplanning studies, followed by the construction of three major mess facilities and more than 1000 single-occupancy accommodation units. Somewhere between a tourism facility and a boarding school campus, the program was glibly described by the design team as an “adventure-eco village for x-treme sportsmen and sportswomen”. The approach implemented by Bligh Voller Nield and Troppo is typified by a considered response to place, climate and “culture”. The design team actively promoted passive climate control and the use of architectural strategies to reduce resource consumption. The formal language employed is steeped in the vernacular Queensland tradition of light-weight, additive construction.
Intent on challenging the existing models of defence accommodation - air-conditioned three-storey walk-ups with balcony access - the design team aimed to improve both climatic performance and the relationships between communal and private space. This process was facilitated by an informed and responsive client representative, whose support contributed positively to the success of the outcome.
Time constraints imposed by a fast-track design and build contract led the design team to work in an intensely collaborative structure. A site office was established with members from both Bligh Voller Nield and Troppo.Weekly design meetings were held to workshop ideas and the furious development of options ensued in close collaboration with the various consultants. Given the scale of the project, options were subject to detailed analysis in order to meet the performance and budgetary requirements of the brief. To avoid delays in the client approval process, a report in the form of a “pattern book” was established to obtain agreement on design principle in advance of the finalised scheme.
Lavarack Barracks is bound to the south by the imposing outcrop of Mt Stuart, with its range of foothills, and spreads northwards across a flat plain to the east-west axis of University Drive. An evolution in army practices and in the lifestyle expectations of defence personnel motivated the BVN/Troppo masterplan which sought to address some of the organisational difficulties in the existing barracks, induced by the overlapping of working and housing. With heavy artillery parade grounds directly adjacent to sleeping quarters, the site lacked functional hierarchy and a clearly legible visual structure. The existing axis of Robert Towns Boulevard, parallel to University Drive, was re-employed as the site’s major spine, with residential areas organised into three distinct precincts at the base of the foothills. The mess facilities, placed directly on the spine in the manner of a corner pub, identify the residential precincts and function as the social and community spaces of the barracks. The operational areas were restructured and contained to the north. By clearly separating the various functions of the site, the design team strove to create a semblance of “normal” urban life within a military compound in order for personnel to have a sense of entering “home” after a day’s “work” at the base.
The social hub provided by the mess facilities exemplifies the hierarchical structure of the institution. Separate entrances, facilities and car parking clearly denote the three major ranks, with servicing provided by a central kitchen and service court. In the army an officer is a gentleman and a soldier…is a worry. The large number of young recruits trained at Lavarack has led the army to provide facilities to contain their excesses within the base. Promotion signifies access to privileges and the subsequent expectations of behaviour are reflected in the architecture. This ranges from the type of entrance (open to the street as opposed to discreet), to the type of dining facility (from canteen to silver service), to the choice of materials and furnishings (from robust to refined).
Overall, the design team sought to minimise the use of mechanical ventilation in Townsville’s hot humid climate by paying careful attention to building orientation and by using breezeways and large covered outdoor living areas to generate cross-ventilation.
Built of blockwork and steel sheeting, each of the three mess facilities responds to the particularities of its site, located on the central spine, and each is given distinctive architectural treatment in terms of colour and masonry detailing. To emphasise the building’s presence and public function, the skillion roof of the single-storey mess is raised towards the street. Steel detailing is deliberately matter-of-fact in a tribute to the existing “heritage” of demountable buildings.
The siting of the three residential precincts maximises exposure to the cooling north-east to south-easterly breezes by avoiding topographic wind-shadows. Separating the precincts are the flood corridors of the generally dry creek-beds, which can receive more than one metre of rain in the space of a weekend during the triennial downpours of the summer wet-season. The design team endeavoured to make the best possible use of the existing vegetation, as growth is slow and watering impossible due to high soil salinity. Bikeways weave between the precincts and link the residential areas to the mess facilities. To engender a sense of community and to promote the team-building ethos of the army, the typical eighteen unit three-storey blocks are clustered as pairs around a courtyard providing access to the distinctive stairwells, storage and car accommodation. Stairwells serve two-units per floor, each with a shared laundry at balcony level. The advantage of this more individualised model over previous typologies with single balcony access is the privacy it affords both facades, enabling better use of cross-ventilation. Two variants of the thin planned model, one with individual balconies and the other with a larger twin-share balcony, provide some relief from the monotony of mass housing. Another distinct type is the loft-style, two-unit pavilions for officers.
Construction of the project was highly industrialised, and a “kit-of-parts” approach was developed to meet budget constraints and to provide a means of adapting the basic unit to each site. Roofs, stairwells, sun shading devices and bathrooms were all prefabricated before being clipped in place to tilt-slab walls and precast floors. This results in an interesting, though somewhat unstable, aesthetic of parts which seem only temporarily attached to the frame. The no-maintenance brief called for highly robust detailing and finishing. Painted surfaces are kept to a minimum and are reserved for accessible and visible areas such as the ply-faced balcony walls.
Projects of this scale and level of prefabrication are rarely seen in Australia and considerations of site-adaptive planning and individualisation demonstrate the progress made in attitudes to mass housing since the glory years of high modernism. Lavarack recalls, on a very different scale, the work of Clare Design in their 1996 Cotton Tree Housing in its attention to climatic and social concerns and demonstrates a hierarchy of formal treatment from ground to roofline. Some of the clusters work more successfully in their disposition than others due to existing site vegetation, topography and the proximity of buildings facing the “courtyard”. The “backside” spaces between the clusters are relatively uninspiring and as always, car parking remains a difficult issue to resolve convincingly. However, by concentrating their attention on the social spaces of the project, Bligh Voller Neild and Troppo have notably improved the conviviality of defence housing. Judging from the level of appropriation of the buildings, which ranges from inflatable pools on balconies to wrought-iron naming plaques, the project successfully provides a socially adapted housing environment for a very particular type of brief.
Bligh Voller Nield
Fortitude Valley , Brisbane, Qld, Australia
- Project Team
- Phillip Tait, Shane Thompson, Phil Harris, Jon Florence, Andrew Bock, Chris Bligh, Geoff Clark, Sonia Graham, Paul Baker, Grey James, Michael O'Brien, James Russell, Rob Vider, Sacha Cochran, Prue Langer, James Peet, Carolyn Biasi
- Troppo Architects
RFA Acoustic Design
BCA consultant Sunshine Coast Certification Group
Civil engineer Cardno MBK (Qld)
Communications and security Barry Webb & Associates
Electrical engineer Ashburner Francis (living in accommodation), GHD (messes)
FF&E consultant RGC Consulting
Fire engineering BHP Steel and Dr Ian Bennetts, VUT (living in accommodation)
Geotechnical consultants Maunsell McIntyre
Hydraulic engineer Parker Hydraulic Consulting Group
Kitchen consultant Bennett Design Group (messes)
Landscape architect Clouston, Lawrie Madden
Managing contractor Thiess Contractors
Mechanical engineer MGF Consultants
Project consultant Carson Group
Quantity surveyor Douglas Stark
Structural engineer MPN Consulting
Surveyor Brazier & Motti
- Site details
Category Commercial / public buildings
- Project Details
Department of Defence, Director General, Capital Infrastructure
Published online: 1 Mar 2002
Words: Louise Noble
Architecture Australia, March 2002