Philip Pollard’s Phd thesis, Campus as Place, details the the transformation of Newcastle University into one of the world’s leading sustainability exemplars.

  • See Chapter One here.

Chapter 2: A collaborative approach to delivering the built environment – Design and Art Gallery precinct

In October 1991 I travelled to Melbourne for a conference hosted by RMIT University which was focused upon urban spaces. Peter Stevens, who was then still in private architectural practice, also attended. One of the Keynote speakers was artist and architect Alison Sky, whose work with SITE[1] I had admired over many years. Sky was a co-founder of SITE, and in addition to providing a highly stimulating presentation which drew in some of her more resent work, her presentation encouraged me to consider the works we were undertaking in the physical environment of the UoN’s campuses in the context of land art.

Sky had been a contemporary of US land artist, the late Robert Smithson, whom she interviewed just prior to his untimely death in an aeroplane accident. (Smithson 1973). Her work was of particular interest to me not only for its quality, but also because it straddled the contexts of landscape and architecture as well as being squarely put forward as works of art. She differed in this regard from Smithson and the US and UK based land artists of the time, whose work was regarded essentially exclusively as an artwork, though this work too was generally constructed using the earth and robust materials to create large scaled sculptural works, generally in a ‘natural’ setting.

Sky’s work was also very often collaborative, a process that I was drawn to following my positive experiences in Sydney with the Darling Harbour projects and Sky Garden. It was clear that the work at hand for the UoN would necessarily be of a collaborative nature because of the complexities involved. Even if approached in a completely conventional manner, many experts and trades people would necessarily be involved in the delivery of the planned projects. The manner in which the upcoming collaborations were to be facilitated and applied would be key to the success or otherwise of the projects.

I had previously developed an approach to applying a collaborative process to the creation of art works and integrating these with a constructed environment (building or landscape). I felt this creative approach to collaboration could be readily applied to works involving the UoN’s campuses. This was also a means of revisiting the issues of design quality, functionality, environmental performance and the integration of the built environment with its natural surrounds.

Although I was not yet fully aware of it at the time, this creative / collaborative approach offered the opportunity for an enhanced engagement in which the project users – staff and students – could be drawn more meaningfully into the briefing and design process in order to produce more stimulating educational environments. Thus an opportunity was nurtured for exploring the pedagogical influences upon building brief formulation, as well as the impacts that were emerging in regard to changes in teaching and learning brought about by new technologies.

A Project Advisory Committee (PAC) with a mandate to deliver new accommodation for the school of Art and Design, was established in 1992 by UoN Council and was chaired by DVC (Admin) Lance Hennessy. Two UoN Council members who were members of the Planning and Building Committee of Council were appointed to the committee, along with the Head of School Professor Graham Gilchrist (a sculptor), a nominee of the Dean of the School of Architecture , the Head of the Design Department Ms Chris Sanders and several staff representatives from the School.

I was appointed as the representative of PPE on the Committee. At that time capital projects were individually allocated by the Federal Department of Education Employment and Training (DEET), and universities seeking capital funding for projects lodged an annual application spelling out the proposal and providing justification for the requested allocation.[2] The Department of Design was a relatively new academic area to the UoN, which included Industrial Design, Graphic Design and Wildlife Illustration.

The department had been temporarily accommodated across several locations, generally in sub-standard accommodation, including several demountable classrooms that had been arranged haphazardly between car park No6 and the Art Building. The UoN had not previously had a gallery space, and Graham Gilchrist’s vision was for a teaching gallery, with an emphasis on post-graduate student and staff works, rather than as a showpiece for travelling exhibitions.

I prepared a draft design brief on the basis of the needs spelled out by the academic staff representing each of the disciplines, which was refined in accordance with ongoing communication with discipline representatives, who signed off on this brief following ongoing discussions. In response to my suggestion of a limited design competition for the project, it was agreed to invite two proposals by way of a competition, with the two largest Newcastle practices (Suters and EJE in association with Peter Stutchbury) being invited to submit a design in response to the brief. A small contribution ($5000) was offered towards the costs borne by each competitor.[3]

Both consortia consulted the academic staff representatives widely during their schematic design process, and the PAC subsequently received presentations by the architects who had prepared the competing designs. While each proposal was considered to have considerable merit, unanimous agreement was ultimately reached by the committee that the EJE/Stutchbury proposal was the preferred design. A contractual agreement was entered into, between the UoN and Stutchbury/EJE for their services, using the published RAIA fee guide as a reference. [4]

The UoN Council had recently considered project delivery options as advocated by the previous Head of Buildings and Grounds and the University Architect (Pollard). The former advocated a continuation of the use of a project management model, as applied in the delivery of the Chancellery Stage 1. [5]

I advocated the traditional delivery method involving the architects being engaged as the lead and coordinating consultant, and for contract administration. The contract I proposed was the well tested and balanced lump sum Australian Standards contract AS2124. [6] The form of project delivery and the contract used are important in many regards, including design quality, construction quality, transparency in process, risk management and cost.

The winning Stutchbury Pape/EJE proposal for the Design Building and Gallery included a landscape proposal by Phoebe Pape for the precinct, which created a central new courtyard with the intent of spatially ‘pulling together’ both the existing buildings which previously had not related to each other in any way, reinforced by the two new buildings – the Gallery/Graduate Studios and the Design building. As the project developed, Phoebe Pape worked collaboratively with the team, including landscape designers Peter Stevens and Mim Woodland who also integrated stormwater management and retention and detention ponds for roof water, into the design.

Sculptor and Landscape Architect Richard Stutchbury (brother of Peter) was later engaged by the UoN’s Art Committee to prepare a site specific sculptural work in carved sandstone which was installed in a smaller courtyard of the Design Building. This work and later changes to it are described in Appendix 2.

Throughout the design process, it was intended to retain a very large Eucalyptus maculata (spotted gum) tree on the site and this had been carefully taken into consideration by the consultant team. The tree was very old and had formed a buttress root system that was (it was discovered later) some five or six metres across. This situation was complicated further by the fact that the land survey did not clearly designate the exact location and unusual shape of the tree or its lean. The excavation for the lower ground floor of the Design building came within a few metres of the base of the tree, and concern was raised once the excavations were dug that the tree may in the future become unstable because of the loss of a proportion of its root system. Being such an enormous tree, the risks arising if it were to fall were severe – as it would almost certainly have caused major damage and possibly injury, if it ever should blow down in a storm.

Consequently, much to the sorrow and distress of all concerned, I reluctantly decided that the tree had to be removed for safety reasons. This was a low point for the project, and was a test to the collaborative process. However, the collaboration survived and went on to thrive.

Design interior
As the buildings progressed, excitement grew at the emerging forms of each of the buildings. One of the issues that had arisen during the briefing process was how each of the three disciplines that made up the Design Department would interact when they were brought for the first time under one roof. The three components were quite diverse – Wildlife Illustration, Graphic Design and Industrial Design. The needs of each group were quite different, but it was Professor Gilchrist’s vision that they should integrate to form one cohesive department, with the activities of students in each discipline being evident as a stimulus to their peers in the other two streams.

The building with its central atrium offered the opportunity of seeing the work of the industrial designers progressively taking form at lower ground level in the centre of the building. It was intended that these students would generally use scaled models of their designs, rather than full sized prototypes that would take up considerably more space. The issues of potential noise conflicts between spaces and uses – especially given the open nature of the central space – were discussed at great length during the design phase. Ultimately it was unanimously agreed by the academic members of the PAC that any minor inconvenience that would arise from noise transfer, was more than justified by the benefits of bringing the disciplines together in one shared space.

Well into the design process for the Gallery, which was also documented for tender by Stutchbury’s office, an additional small budget became available to extend the brief to allow the infill of the lower floor with habitable space. The design had anticipated a possible future extension into this space, but at that stage this requirement had not been included within the current brief. With the small injection of additional funds, this area could be extended to provide office space for the school and its head, as well as six large studios (now used as academic offices) and a large store room for works.

By the time the buildings were completed in 1994 there had already been some changes in the academic staff heading up each of the Design disciplines and Lance Hennessy had retired. However each of the current three discipline heads as well as the academics who had held the positions earlier in the design phase, was highly enthused about the completed project. Lotars Ginters, the then Design Department Head wrote to me outlining his delight with the building, and referred glowingly to how it represented a highly appropriate symbol of the design aspirations of his academic department. Prof Graham Gilchrist was similarly delighted with both buildings.

By the time the Design building commenced its use with the first intake of students, numbers in the Design courses had increased well beyond all predictions that had informed the planning of the project – especially in the discipline of Graphic Design. Soon after occupation, a room which had been fitted out at considerable expense as a wet darkroom had to be converted to house computes to accommodate graphic design students. Sometime later, further computer laboratory spaces were created in the formerly open space originally intended as workspace for the industrial design students.

The latter were assigned the full use of woodwork and metal work rooms in the Hunter Building, which offered greater space to the increased numbers of industrial designers as well as providing a good range of equipment. This also solved some concerns that had arisen over noise issues in the Design Building – where the brief for shared space proved to be somewhat problematic. It is worth noting that this flaw was not the making of the designers – but rather it lay with the formation of the design brief – a responsibility collectively shared by the PAC (of which I was a member).
The Design and Gallery/Post-Graduate Studios buildings and their surrounding landscape received wide ranging positive critical responses and a number of awards.[7] They were delivered on time and on budget – and represented excellent value for money – at a completed cost in the order of only $860 per square metre.

The buildings also performed quite well environmentally, although the upper mezzanine floor of the Design building did become fairly hot during summer months. With the experience of now having delivered other projects with similar design briefs and which benefited from thermal modelling, the space would have benefited from more extensive sun shading of its east-facing windows, as well as greater areas of openings for ventilation near the peak of the saw tooth truss roof. These elements could be retro-fitted without great cost, and the UoN’s Energy Manager has put forward a proposal in the past to undertake these modifications under minor works funding.

I believe that in our enthusiasm for the environmental aspects of the building – its demonstrated low energy use, ‘passive solar’ design, sheep-wool insulation, recycled steel components, storm water harvesting and use of thermal buoyancy for summer ventilation – we may have inadvertently reinforced an expectation in the university community that such a building can provide comfort conditions during extreme weather events, that are equivalent to a fully air-conditioned building[8]. As building professionals, we were well aware that there were limits to the performance of even the most optimally designed naturally ventilated building – and we mistakenly thought that non-industry building users would intuitively understand and accept this limitation. I believe with the benefit of hindsight, that we could have been much clearer in our communication that ESD buildings have limits to their performance, and can’t for example, perform ‘miracles’ on a 40 degree day.

The Design building and the Graduate Studios/Gallery have positively demonstrated their capacity for physical adaption to meet changing academic needs over time – and there has been significant change both in organisational structure and personnel since the project’s completion. This capacity to be modified without incurring great cost and without destroying the design integrity of the buildings (providing a competent architect oversees the changes) formed part of the initial design brief for this and all subsequent UoN projects. In spite of their very modest cost, and significant changes to their functional use – which is likely to continue over time – the buildings remain pleasant and uplifting spaces to be in, and readily offer themselves to further adaptation to meet new functional briefs.

[1] SITE—an acronym for Sculpture in the Environment, was founded in 1970 by James Wines and Alison Sky. They were soon after joined by Michelle Stone and Emilio Sousa.
[2] Lance Hennessy had previously been employed as a senior officer of DEET, and had a good understanding of federal government educational priorities. These particularly involved the fostering of post graduate studies, and I believe this insight contributed to the UoN’s successful application.
[3] EJE Director Doug White had attended the Architecture school at the UoN with Peter Stutchbury, who was then gaining national recognition as an excellent young (under 40 years of age) designer, and Stutchbury undertook to work in association with EJE for this possible commission. The basis for this collaboration was, as I understood it, that EJE would lend their experience with medium to large scale projects, their well developed skills in documentation and project administration, and Stutchbury would lead the conceptual design process.
[4] The fee was set at approximately three quarters of the RAIA recommended percentage, representing a reasonable reimbursement for input to the consultants, but good value to the UoN. Prior to the consideration of the competing designs, the UoN’s consultant quantity surveyor assessed the probable cost of both competition entries, and it was deemed that both fell acceptably close to the available budget (which was quite modest in relation to the spatial brief’s requirements).
[5] In this mode the contractor provides a so-called ‘warranted maximum price’ for the project, and engages all consultants, as all well as sub contractors. On the Chancellery project, the contractor’s own legal agreement (Leighton PMA3 contract) was used, which in my view left the principal exposed and which did not lend itself to design excellence or for that matter, to value for money. For the Chancellery Stage1, the combined consultants’ fees (including architects and engineers) had been initially set at just 2% – which is so low that it was inevitable that it would stimulate numerous claims for variations (increases) in professional fees. There was little surprise then that contract variations on the Chancellery job flowed fast – for such basic requirements as the designing of built-in bookshelves and cupboards in the VC and DVC suites.
[6] UoN Council was advised on this matter by Professor Denny McGeorge, who was the inaugural Professor in Building, and a key expert witness to two Royal Commissions. Prof McGeorge supported my argument, and Council enacted that all projects from that time forward should be delivered by this means unless specific UoN Council approval was granted for an alternate delivery approach for a specific project.

[7] 1995 – Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) National Award
– Access Citation (disabled)
– Environment Citation
1995 – NSW Chapter, Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA)
– Merit Award – Open Category
1994 – Lower Hunter Civic Design Awards
– Dangar Award – Excellence in the Design of a Non-Residential Development (Open Category)
1994 – Lower Hunter Civic Design Awards
Landscape design by Phoebe Pape and the UoN Physical Planning and Estates staff, in association
– Alfred Sharp Merit Award – Excellence in the Design of a Development Incorporating Outstanding Landscape and Urban Design in the Open Category
1994 – Local Government and Shires Association of NSW
Energy Efficiency Competition
– Winner – Category 4 Recreation/Other Building/Complex and
– Overall Award for Energy Efficiency
1994 – (National) Metal Industries Association
– Commendation – Significant and Noteworthy use of Metal in a Building
1994 – Newcastle City Council Environmental Achievement Award -Winner – Site Enhancement Category

[8] This assumes of course that air conditioning continues to operate under extreme conditions. In practice, a significant minority of conventional air conditioning systems fail to cope with very high temperatures, and at times fail completely during extremely hot weather. Added to this is the growing risk of loss of power supply from the grid during periods of extreme demand.