Representation of Bondi Junction’s refurbished Boot Factory by Archer Office.

There seems to be an “innovation precinct” going into every suburb in a bid to attract the best and brightest minds. You might expect shiny new buildings kitted out with the latest video conferencing equipment, but the architects transforming Bondi Junction’s heritage boot factory into an innovation hub have other ideas.

Bondi Junction’s much-loved Boot Factory was built in 1892, and was once used to make high-end shoes to sell at David Jones. It’s one of few surviving industrial buildings from the Victorian era in Sydney.

According to Waverley’s Labor mayor Paula Masselos, the heritage-listed building fell into a “fairly sad state of disrepair” and in 2014 was slated for demolition but the community rallied to save it. It’s since been sitting vacant while the council worked out a better use for it.

After much community consultation and a piece of research that found the Waverley municipality densely populated with entrepreneurs, the council landed on a knowledge and innovation hub for the old factory.

“We want it to be a 21st century place for manufacturing of ideas, discourse and to be a beacon of ideas.”

The plan is to keep the boot factory and its surrounds “very much connected to the public” by providing a platform for the community to host lectures, exhibitions, presentations and workshops.

Designing for innovation is not about the latest technology

The design will see the former shoemaking factory at the rear of Norman Lee Place linked to the Mill Hill Community Centre and transformed into an “innovative community space”.

The architects on the project, Archer Office, won the bid with their light touch, adaptive reuse design that captured the true essence of innovation.

Archer Office director Tomek Archer wants to get another 100 years out of the boot factory. To do this, the building’s floorplate will be entirely flexible, made up of a series of spaces with no predetermined uses. That way, he says, the council won’t end up with specialist rooms that become redundant as times change.

“We want to avoid building in redundancy.”

In a bid to build a timeless facility that’s not locked into aging technologies, the boot factory will “borrow” the Mill Hill Community Centre’s lifts and amenities. Plastic joints, paints and other materials that need constant maintenance will also be avoided, with resilient low-maintenance materials such as exposed brick preferred.

The flexible design will ensure the building’s longevity but Archer also believes a blank canvas is what innovative minds really need to pollinate new ideas.

Rather than filling the space with “a bunch of video conferencing rooms and 3D printers printing out endless streams of plastic”, Archer and his team returned to first principles to design a space for innovation.

“To be a bit romantic about it, innovation is about constant change and streams of conversation.

“Our response to innovation was to make a building that’s empty.”

There will be no set offices or permanent fixtures – just a series of meeting rooms that can be used for community meetings, art exhibitions, corporate events, fundraisers, “messy” activities or whatever else the community dreams up.

Representation of Bondi Junction’s refurbished Boot Factory by Archer Office.

“We wanted to be suggestive rather than prescribing how it must be used.”

The spaces themselves vary in size and feel – with both intimate, enclosed rooms and bigger spaces, including a “sky” level at the top that’s “a bit aspirational”. The ground floor will spill out onto the courtyard at Norman Lee Place, which will also get a facelift.

Making the most of pre-electricity buildings

The light touch refurbishment will also make the most of the boot factory’s pre-electricity layout. Although it will have airconditioning the plan is to make the most of the high ceilings that allow hot air to rise and the building to ventilate naturally. The building is also flooded with natural light.

The design also includes a green wall to cool and green the space which is otherwise “pretty barren”, according to Waverley mayor Paula Masselos.

Bondi Junction’s new focal point

Masselos says the precinct will act as a focal point for the Bondi Junction area and serve as a “little urban oasis to draw the community in.”

The longterm vision for that part of Bondi Junction is for it to become a knowledge and innovation precinct. She expects natural flows between the boot factory precinct and the nearby library.

Masselos believes councils have a level of responsibility to drive the local economy, and act as thought leaders in the space.

She says that many innovators and startups are “crying out for support”.

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