When the previous tenants left Allens Linklaters’ new Melbourne HQ, they left nothing more behind than the grey carpet – the perfect clean slate. BVN architecture was appointed to develop a simple and sophisticated new workspace for the international law firm, which was relocating to a seven-storey space in the city’s landmark skyscraper, 101 Collins Street.
First off, a central stairwell was cut, connecting floors 35 to 40. Not only did this create a feeling of a building-within-a-building in the 57-storey skyscraper, it made for a more integrated, sociable space: “Otherwise, people on different floors do not see one other,” says Ninotschka Titchkosky, lead architect on the project.
“Mergers and acquisitions or tax lawyers will work together on the same deal, and come together to problem-solve,” Titchkosky continues, highlighting the need for a workspace that was custom-designed to accommodate a project-based working practice for the firm, in which teams are more closely connected. In its previous premises (at the other, more “corporate” end of Collins Street) offices were all sorts of sizes, ranging from 9sq m for a junior practitioner to 25sq m for a senior partner. “This meant that moving people around was problematic; there were hierarchy and status issues, and meetings tended to take place in people’s offices,” says Titchkosky.
The new space offered up the opportunity for a new format. Offices are now grouped into clusters around central secretarial workstations, and office sizes have been standardised, with two junior lawyers sharing an office of 12sq m, and all other lawyers occupying a standard office size of 10sq m. “The standardised model allows for really good breakout spaces and shared meeting areas, for the same total floor space,” says Titchkosky. “This is the trade-off.”
BVN worked closely with a design committee of eight group partners, mocking up different-sized offices to test, and undergoing a whole range of prototyping, to bring them on board. There was then was a “town hall” meeting with the rest of staff. “The consultation process was interesting,” says Titchkosky. “A lot of the time, firms have a desire to be more creative and want to be pushed, but they are also sophisticated strategic and logical thinkers and want to see the evidence that a new design works and makes sense.
“The majority were excited about the design concept, but some were used to creating a world within an office, hanging up ten shirts” – for privacy, presumably – “and holding all their meetings there.”
The artwork incorporated into the building also greatly lifts the space. “The concept of having an art-gallery feel to the offices came from the fact that the firm had an extensive collection of Australian art, and the feeling that this was a strong part of their brand, a differentiator,” says Titchkosky. “The idea of the workspace being a showcase made sense, as some of the collection hadn’t been seen in a long time.”
On the client floor, the concept has been ramped up; clients can come in and sit on benches to look at the art as if they have entered a gallery space, but the collection is also hung throughout the floors and within shared spaces. Managed by the firm’s own curator, it gives each floor a slightly different feel.
Talking about the inspiration for the rest of the fit out, Titchkosky says that “in the user-group interview, the term ‘clear thinking’ came up a lot. We wanted to come up with a space that was calm and uncluttered, where you can carefully think about solutions.” The team looked at a lot of art galleries, examining how they break up and manage space. Wide timber floorboards – inspired by Titchkosky’s stay at the Nimb Hotel, Copenhagen – help to add character to the space. Supplied by Dinesen, they are cut from Douglas fir with a lye and white soap finish, and along with the white walls, they have been used throughout to tie the project together. “They bring texture and warmth to the interior, without being busy, which is important,” says Titchkosky.
Manoeuvring 15m-long floorboards to the top of a skyscraper, and making them lie flat across large surface areas in the steel-and-concrete-slab building, was a complex element of the project. BVN looked at craning off part of the building’s facade to get them in, before it was sensibly decided to cut them and transport them in the goods lift instead.
“Since occupying the space, the design has filtered right through the organisation,” comments Titchkosky. “Employees have taken it seriously, and the space is maintained immaculately. The attention to detail in the finishing touches they have bought to the space have really set it off, right down to the hand-made grey Japanese teapots bought to complement the fit out.”
With the move, the firm also had a new part of the city to look forward to. The eastern end of Collins Street, Melbourne’s main boulevard, is known as the “Paris end” for the high-end mix of designer shops, restaurants, clubs and theatres that sit alongside office accommodation. The building also backs on to Flinders Lane, home of BVN’s studio as well as a plethora of after-work restaurant and bars.
As an added incentive towards teamwork, the architects made sure that the breakout spaces in each floor make the most of the building’s enticing views over Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens and Yarra River. Titchkosky confirms that it’s all going to plan: lawyers are being lured out of their offices, and into shared spaces and project-based working. “For younger team members especially, it has made the workplace a more interesting and dynamic place to be.”
Adaptive reuse is a term that has become a catchphrase of contemporary architecture. The warehouse apartments and shipping container refurbs of the last decade or two have paved the way for a whole new genre of innovative design. Heritage value is listed in ever more peculiar places and we find ourselves in situations where deserted and derelict shipping sheds are earmarked to house almost 500 employees, eight hours a day, five days a week.
The Goods Shed (bisected by one of Melbourne’s main streets in recent years) is one of four heritage buildings that remain standing in this historically-rich part of Australia’s second largest city. With good reason Goods Shed North is protected by stringent council restrictions on what can and cannot be done in the process of its rejuvenation. Situated in close proximity to the central business district (CBD), in a neighbourhood that has only recently enjoyed the focus of developers, it provides an essential depth to the setting, a richness that only a piece of history can bring among a skyline of shiny new towers.
The tenants, Vic Urban and the Building Commission and Plumbing Industry Commission (BC/PIC), are influential in the development and construction industry and saw this as an opportunity to lead by example. Tony Arnell from the BC/PIC, who also chairs Australia’s Green Building Council and the World Green Building Council, speaks of their eagerness to demonstrate sustainable outcomes within heritage buildings. “We know that the built environment is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” he outlines, “but equally we are aware that if built or refurbished sustainably, buildings can be a major part of the solution.” With new buildings only counting for two to three per cent of an average city, it is clear that we now need to focus on the remaining 98 per cent – the existing buildings. This is where the positive environmental impact can be greatest.
Ninotschka Titchkosky, principal at BVN Architecture, was instrumental in the development of this unprecedented project. “Over the last six years, the focus on environmental issues has changed dramatically [in Australia]; in commercial buildings this has been driven by tenant demand,” she explains. “Corporations realise that they need to be good corporate citizens with strong values as part of their brand. Tenants are demanding better environmental outcomes and the property industry has responded.”
Goods Shed North takes sustainability in its stride, but that didn’t come without a price – literally and figuratively. A 6,200 sq m floorplan was transformed into 11,000 sq m of commercial space by the installation of a mezzanine level along each side of the building – accommodating over 450 individual workpoints. Clerestory windows were individually removed and replaced, to retain the soft pools of light through the central gallery. One end of the shed, which had been demolished by a runaway train in the 1950s, was pulled apart and reassembled brick by brick with renewed structural integrity and a new roof slate was quarried and manufactured especially to match the project.
Elements and materials from the existing structure were chosen for reinterpretation in a contemporary way. “Taking existing structures and revitalising them means we are able to work within the existing building fabric rather than demolishing and rebuilding,” says Titchkosky. “Old doors we salvaged and hung on the wall of the atrium as a backdrop and two of them were turned into a very large communal table. We had to retrieve them from an old shed where they were stored with thousands of seagulls.”
Transparency was another key element in the re-development of the building. As Titchkosky explains, “you can stand at one end of the shed and see the trusses and roof line all the way to the other. The inter-tenancy wall is treated in this way, so it’s almost indistinguishable.” This lends a true sense of openness, which instantly allows you to feel at ease in the vast space, providing insight into the psyche of the tenant companies, and the lengths that were gone to in order to provide an exceptional home for their employees.
Titchkosky reiterates the importance Vic Urban and BC/PIC placed on fostering collaboration and innovation within the space. In order to achieve this, “the mezzanines have been built into the two wings with the large open spaces and bridges to the centre. This enables great visual and physical connection to the whole organisation. Everyone feels connected.” Quieter working zones are tucked to either side, on and below the mezzanine platform. “In the BC/PIC tenancy we inserted meeting towers into the central spaces. There are four towers – two made from timber and two from steel. They are wonderful to be in, and some of them, like The TreeHouse, are double storey so you can perch in the upper level amongst the steel trusses for a meeting.” Other quirks, like the “court-side” giant steps that provide a practical assembly area for presentations and meetings, also inform visitors of the company cultures at play.
However, at its core, this project is an ambitious and serious exercise in sustainability. Materials were selected based on eco-preferred content, low embodied energy, recycled components, minimised volatile compound content, and having minimal amounts of PVC content. Rubber and eco-vinyl flooring was selected over carpet. Chilled beams heat and cool the space, powered by a tri-generation plant that takes ‘waste’ energy and converts it into chilled or warm water, which is in turn pumped through the beams. The large roof area was capitalised upon with rainwater collection used for toilet flushing (also supplemented with a grey water treatment plant). Close to 3,000 pot plants are spread throughout the building, and this assists extensively with the improvement of air quality. In the VicUrban fitout new low energy computers and equipment were sourced – and in all cases, fittings, fixtures and finishes consume less electricity and water, and emit little or no carbon or harmful gases. Even intelligent lighting controls and energy metering systems fit into the long-term vision of this responsible business model.
The question remaining is, “Will there be a Goods Shed South?” The answer is a resounding yes from Titchkosky. “We are working on it right now,” she exclaims. “A tenant has just been secured and the project of revitalising the south side is now underway. We have learnt many lessons from the north side and so we can approach the south side with the ambition to take it a step further.”