Vic Govhub Ballarat

Government buildings are usually like Fort Knox – a maze of pokey, high-security rooms, each with strict access rules, and even with separate buildings for each department. But one architecture firm wanted to turn ideas about what a government building should be on its head. 

Part of the Victorian government’s move to decentralise its public sector workforce and move them into regional areas, the official launch of Ballarat’s $100 million GovHub building was held in mid-2021. Government employees are now moving into the building, which will house up to 1000 staff including up to 600 relocated from Melbourne.

Now this mass-engineered timber building, led by award-winning design firm John Wardle Architects, has been shortlisted for the Victorian Architecture Awards, alongside 124 other projects including ANZ Breathe, the Deakin Law School Building, and the Victorian Pride Centre. The building was delivered by Kane Nicholson Joint Venture, with engineering consultants AECOM, and landscape architects Aspect.

Part of the reason it was shortlisted is because of the sustainable design and integration with the historic Civic Hall site. To create a link with the public, it incorporates a glass conservatory, a shared gallery/venue space and ground floor spaces for the public to access government services. The building also features five storeys of office space with large distinctive windows facing north and south, end-of-trip facilities to encourage walking, cycling, and EV use. 

But the most innovative feature, according to architect Luke Jarvis, is the change in interior layout. 

How to shake up public sector workspaces

It was workplace specialists consultants Geyer Design who worked with the architects on the interior component of the building. 

The range of government activities and functions that are being moved into the building include: Consumer Affairs Victoria, Regional Development Victoria, Department of Education and Training, Department of Justice and Community Safety (Working with Children Check), State Revenue Office, VicRoads and Service Victoria.

That’s a lot of different departments to amalgamate into one building. 

“We didn’t want it to be like Fort Knox,” Mr Jarvis said.

“Workplaces are constantly evolving and changing, and Covid has shown us that it’s not just about a desk in an office space.”

But designing a government building isn’t the same as designing for businesses.

“There’s a lot of sensitive government departments in here, which require strict access … Child protection, bomb threats, sensitive matters … But also they need to be accessible to the public.”

“The brief was to bring a thousand public workers together that historically didn’t come together.” 

How did the architects achieve this? 

The result is a large central area with lots of open space, rather than smaller “Fort Knox”-style rooms. That doesn’t mean it has compromised on security, though. On the contrary, the building houses a series of gathering spaces, from large conference rooms to smaller private meeting rooms, and a glazed conservatory indoor-outdoor space, that create a range of rooms “from informal and open to private and formal”.

“It’s a more agile and flexible workplace.”

Large breakout spaces inside create room for various departments to come together and “foster community”. 

It creates “grander spaces that people can share”. 

Just make sure you don’t accidentally leave that top-secret paperwork lying around in a communal area.

Balancing natural light for lower energy demands

The design feature that first jumps out when looking at the Ballarat Govhub is the distinctive window elements. According to Mr Jarvis, the rationale was to provide the benefit of natural daylight and its impact on energy usage while still meeting client expectations. 

While many clients expect panoramic views from a glass tower, the architects chose to limit the amount of glass used in order to lower the operational energy needs of the building. 

“A lot of commercial clients expect panoramic views … Office buildings are typically glass. But we can’t build glass buildings any more, because it’s not sustainable and drains so much energy to cool and heat.” 

“We know where the sweet point is … it’s 60 per cent solid wall and 40 per cent glazing.” 

The floor is 24 metres wide in order to achieve 12 metres of natural light on each side of the office floor and minimise electric lighting needs. With 60 percent solid wall and 40 per cent triple glazed glass, the exterior features a full length glass facade with striking “picture windows” on the sides. 

“The windows might look small from outside, but actually they are really big and frame fantastic views. It creates a smaller domestic feel while still enabling an ample amount of natural daylight. 

“Just walking through the floors, no view is the same. Yes, the windows are playful but it’s designed to a rigorous grid which required a lot of 3D modelling to get right. 

“We did a lot of analysis to ensure we would get enough lighting, but it significantly reduced the glazing needed and the energy needed to heat and cool the building.” 

Further sustainability considerations include timber as a primary structural system. Timber was calculated to reduce embodied emissions by 54 per cent compared to a similar concrete plan put to tender. 

“We love timber for its biophilic nature. It improves mental health, wellbeing, and reduces sick days.” 

The building’s passive design, 100 per cent certified recycled timber usage, water efficiency, and 92 per cent local material content, have earned it a 4.5 NABERS energy and water rating and a 5-Star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia. The building also uses 125 kilowatt of power generation on the roof from photovoltaic units, and end of trip facilities including bike parking and electric car chargers. This has led to a 47 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, according to engineer consultants AECOM.

“From the outset we wanted this building to have a sustainability focus,” Mr Jarvis said. 

“As architects and designers we have the most power from the outset [to influence sustainability outcomes]”.

Historic integration

Part of the site is a historic Civic Hall building, which while not heritage listed, has cultural significance to the local community. It was part of what used to be a bustling hub of Ballarat – AC/DC played there once – but over the years the site became less used and eventually was boarded up.

A big problem in the planning stage came when the designers realised that part of this historic building was in poor repair and would need to be demolished. Taking in concern from the community, the architects put forward a proposal to demolish and rebuild the lower hall and provide a public space for galleries and events. The building has now been renamed Catobeen after Wadawurrung Ancestor Catobeen. 

“It was a rich urban fabric that we drew upon,” Mr Jarvis said.

A local brick manufacturer designed a custom brick for the building “in the autumn colours of Ballarat”, and the glass conservatory followed the design of the local Ballarat Botanical Gardens. 

To complete this building, the architects “drew inspiration from the local area, history and natural environment.” 

“We are thrilled that Ballarat GovHub has made the Victorian Architecture Awards shortlist announced by the Australian Institute of Architects.

“We are quite proud of this project and all who contributed to it, so we are delighted that it is being considered across three award categories – Commercial Architecture, Sustainable Architecture and the Regional Prize.”

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