Putting the science in the shed

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  • Published 20130305
  • ISBN: 9781922079961
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THE INSTITUTE FOR Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), which has brought together scientific leaders from a variety of fields at the University of Tasmania (UTAS), will soon have a new headquarters on Hobart’s waterfront. Although the foundations were only laid in late 2012, the $45 million building is scheduled to be completed by September 2013.

The 7,130 square metre building will accommodate nearly 300 academics and researchers from the University of Tasmania (including the current IMAS site), CSIRO, the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACECRC), and the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). This range of user groups is currently dispersed across the Sandy Bay campus of UTAS – and beyond. The proposed colocation of these groups in the new building also created an imperative to build a more collaborative culture between them. Hobart-based design practice Liminal Architecture was commissioned in 2010 by the University of Tasmania to facilitate this process, and to help translate the complex needs of the different users into a cohesive brief that would be presented to architects bidding for the project.

‘We ran a series of workshops with representatives of each user group,’ says Liminal Architecture director Elvio Brianese. ‘In particular, we explored the potential to enhance or create research links through the design of the physical spaces,’ he explains, ‘Interestingly through that very workshopping process, a collaborative cultural shift began to occur.’

More of that later. The next stage in the evolution of the new IMAS building was the submission of design proposals by eighteen architectural teams. The winning practice was John Wardle Architects. Melbourne-based Wardle – who also owns an impressive rural property on Bruny Island – is an adjunct professor at the University of Melbourne and the University of South Australia. Winner of countless awards, including three Australian Institute of Architecture Awards in 2012, Wardle is internationally recognised as an architect who understands both the detail of human occupation and the big picture of civic ideals.

He was most recently awarded the 2012 Robin Boyd Award by the Australian Institute of Architects for the Shearers’ Quarters on his Bruny Island property. Wardle explains the IMAS building and the quarters were conceived about the same time. ‘They commenced life together,’ he says. ‘In some ways the ideas bounced off each other, such as the roof forms with their pure gables. Also all good buildings have a very strong appreciation of their surrounds, so the sight lines from deep within both of these structures draw the views right back into themselves.’


UTILISING THE SITE of the Prince of Wales Shed Number Two, Wardle’s team understood the historical importance of maintaining the essence of the original building. The brief Wardle’s team wrote describing their vision of the project states: Located on Hobart’s heritage listed waterfront, aligned the water’s edge and following the rhythm and scale of traditional wharf buildings, our central idea is putting the science in the shed.

‘The design evolved through many stages before the final one was chosen, we originally tried to maintain the original shed,’ Wardle says. ‘Then we thought of building a parallel shed beside it, but it just wasn’t possible considering the specialist activities in the laboratories. So we integrated the region’s heritage by referencing the industrial environment and translating that into a research and education facility. It still retains elements of the industrial qualities, like the metal cladding, the gable forms and the extruded format of the steel-framed edges. There is a nice play between the high-technology, cutting-edge science into the rudimentary nature of this rather finely tuned, articulate shed.’

Wardle’s team researched the history of Sullivans Cove to understand how that larger site has changed since European settlement; and, from an urban design point of view, how the new IMAS structure could best continue that evolution.

‘We must understand that buildings are momentary, even though it may be a long moment,’ Wardle says. ‘Understanding what has gone on before is absolutely present on the footprint of this site. It’s not just the physical history that needs to be considered but also its social history.’

IMAS executive director Professor Mike Coffin began his tenure after the fundamental design of the building was selected. Nonetheless, he has played an instrumental role in the dialogue with Wardle about its execution. ‘John very much played off the shed motif in designing the building,’ Coffin says. ‘It’s kind of a transparent shed that looks a little like an iceberg floating on top of the wharf. I like his succinct moniker for the building, being “the science in the shed”. This new building evokes the architecture of old, there is a sense of play that has come through this process.’

The building has been designed with three interconnecting strands stretching its length. On the western side, fronting Castray Esplanade, there are teaching spaces on the ground floor and laboratories on the second and third floors. The centre strand of all three floors is what’s called collaborative space, with a breakout area with sofas and comfortable little nooks and crannies where people can converse. On the side facing the waterfront will be offices and open-plan work spaces. The building will also have an exhibition space and theatre. Glass windows and thoroughfares will slice open the building to reveal the inner workings of IMAS, symbolically exposing it to the public domain.

‘It’s been choreographed so the western end of the building reveals the lively internal working character of the building,’ Wardle says. ‘We also effectively removed the end of the building looking back at Salamanca and the city. We were immediately aware that this could have become a very inward-looking building, insulated from the outside world. But because of the importance of the surroundings, we decided this building had to give something back to the civil realm. Also in the nature of transparency and openness, it is all about our emphasis on making this a very public research building.’

‘I think transparency is important,’ Coffin says. ‘People may think science is a dark mystery, so opening up the building is a metaphor of how we want science to be more approachable. It’s so remarkable to compare this building with the CSIRO building next door that’s several decades old. Compared to the philosophy that’s gone into this building design, the CSIRO building is compartmentalised inside and doesn’t evoke the same feeling of inspiration. I would like to think that there is a close relationship between architecture and fostering human curiosity and endeavour, and I think this building will offer that opportunity.’

Liminal Architecture’s Elvio Brianeseexplains that the desire for the building to promote this cultural and philosophical shift, towards better connecting science with the people, was fundamental to the initial design briefing requirements. ‘Essentially, IMAS wanted to get away from an egg-crate office type scenario, to a building that was more inclusive and interactive,’ Brianese says, ‘At the same time it’s important to have those quiet private spaces.’

Wardle amplifies the point. ‘Scientists from different institutions, different disciplines and with different levels of expertise, needed a building which considers these different variants, allowing them to jump together and rub off each other, from the workplace to the workbench,’ he says. ‘Some spaces will actually contain the activities, where people can be inward looking in their focus, whilst others, like some of the laboratories, will have glass walls allowing people to look in and out. All of this will have quite deliberate effects on the way people work.’

Coffin appreciates this sentiment. ‘The design really fosters a sense of collaboration by creating comfortable spaces where people can sit and chat about science,’ he says. ‘On the top floor there is a catering area that will, of course, have a deluxe cappuccino machine. So many chance conversations happen to and from the coffee machine.’

One of the central tenets of this building’s design is its Green Star rating. UTAS has embraced a five star design rating for any new building over $5 million and the IMAS building, as well as UTAS’s Medical Science Building 2 (MS2), are the only two educational facilities in Tasmania to attain this level of Australian building practice excellence.

The Green Star rating certification was established in 2002 with the formation of the Green Building Council of Australia, which aims to transform building practices towards sustainability and integration, by promoting green technologies, green building practices and holistic design. As expected, the IMAS building will harness natural light and aspect, but one of the building’s most interesting features will be one of its strategies to reduce energy consumption. It will draw water from the Derwent River to help regulate ambient internal temperatures.

‘It’s wonderfully metaphoric and symbolic to have our life blood, which is the ocean, help maintain the building’s temperature,’ Coffin says.

The building’s location on the city’s waterfront is also metaphoric of its role as a gateway.

‘We often talk about places being a gateway site, well this a gateway in its purist sense, between the city and the Southern Ocean, as well as a gateway between the science and the community,’ Wardle says. ‘It will be a convergence point and a very public affirmation of the work being done there.’

Coffin thinks the synergy of the building being located next to the CSIRO will invigorate both institutions. He, too, believes the waterfront location will act as a gateway, to both the huge international influx of scientists heading to Antarctica, as well as between the science the building will foster and the general public. ‘We want to draw people into our science,’ he says. ‘As people are lured to the water’s edge, they will walk right past our exhibition space that will have rotating installations involving all the major science players, TMAG (the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery), the Maritime Museum as well as hopefully getting MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) on board. All these groups are brainstorming how they can use this public space.’

Has this project posed special challenges in terms of finding common ground between the commissioned architect and the scientist-client? With more than 100 published papers, 2000 citations and academic positions on four continents, Coffin’s scientific career has resulted in him undertaking a myriad of different projects in different disciplines. But Coffin admits delivering the IMAS building was a process he had not previously encountered. ‘I’ve never worked closely with an architect on a commercial level before. It’s been really fascinating to hear the language he used and to gain an understanding of it,’ Coffin says. ‘It was a foreign language at the start of this process, but now I feel pretty well versed in it.’

This is not the first time Wardle has worked with institutions centred around science – both the pure research form and associated educational pursuits. ‘Every time we met with IMAS there was a person or group of persons to assist in the translation of conveying specific principles of architectural research or conversely the specific areas of educational or scientific requirements of our client,’ Wardle says. ‘We then intuitively translated that dialogue into the building design. Much of what scientists do is similar to architects, with routine repetition and process. But often it’s the moments that spark which leads to our greatest successes. Those creative moments are shared by both scientists and architects.’

Coffin agrees. ‘It’s just a different way of expressing things, marine science is one area that has its own lingo and architecture is another, but they are both creative.’

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About the author

Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith is a freelance journalist and author of two books. He is a regular contributor to Australian Geographic Magazine.Aaron has a Master's Degree...

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