Built in 1963, the University of NSW Electrical Engineering Building is located on one of the main thoroughfares on the Randwick campus and was included in the masterplan strategy to improve the pedestrian links throughout the campus. The building is home to the School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications (EE&T), which holds its own against the facilities of the most esteemed Electrical Engineering schools in the world.
Hassell Design Studio was engaged to offer a contemporary facelift to the six level south block and five level north block buildings, ensuring a world-class teaching, learning and research facility. As the head contractor, AW Edwards completed this $104m refurbishment, which included new façade elements, an accessible roof for the students, replacement of all services and a new modern interior fit-out, offering improved access and usability of the spaces.
CSM’s Renee Opperman spoke with Hassell’s design lead on this project, Nathan Humphries, about the design considerations for this project.
How did you incorporate the original elements of the building into the Contemporary design?
It was a really unique challenge as the building itself dates back to the 1960s and was largely in its original condition. The first walks were quite inspiring and we really tried to work with the original features, including timber floors, beautiful fluted glass administration areas, articulated angled concrete soffits and the building itself having a variegated blonde brick facade. These features are quite iconic and nostalgic.
The project itself was very technical. We tried to keep and retain a lot of the original building fabric and we tried to do that where possible, so the palette of materials that we worked with is empathetic with the base building palette. Anything connected to the facade or the outside building was retained. We then treated lift cores and key circulation points with a black textured cladding as a way finding device, to orientate yourself through the building and then all of the informal spaces, lab spaces, teaching spaces and workplaces were treated as a new insertion.
Due to the linear nature of the building, we wanted users of the building to experience a journey through Electrical Engineering and we conceptualised this arcade of ‘discovery’. So a user to the building could come and see robotics experiments or electrical engineering 101, each discipline has its own character or its own articulation. We tried to keep the language consistent with sympathetic materials and not to compete with the original base build. It is a paired back aesthetic that really reflects engineering, rubber plywood, expanded metal mesh and raw materials to maintain its authenticity.
What were the main drivers for the project in regards to meeting the clients brief?
The brief by the School of Electrical Engineering was very clear. Firstly, they wanted to increase the connectivity both within the university and also to industry, which is a very important part of the way universities are changing. The School has a very strong engineering reputation and is well recognised internationally. So the building then became a mechanism to start to attract and really enhance their offer, as well. Engineering traditionally is a very male driven discipline and they want to open it up.
The second driver for the school was that they wanted a building which would enable them to respond to 21st century research and also to teaching. The teaching of electrical engineering itself hasn’t really changed much since the 1960s but they now want to incorporate a digital overlay to enhance how the subjects are taught. There are about four or five spaces at different ends of the building, which can all be interconnected digitally, so up to can be 150 students can be participating in the same lecture simultaneously but in different locations.
Using technology, they can then connect with Partnering Universities in other countries and certainly nationally, as well. So you can have these super cohorts of say 300 students all online, which is a really unique offer.
Finally, they wanted more visibility on the university campus. Apart from the sign at the front of the building, it didn’t really communicate what ‘Electrical Engineering’ is about. So it was important that the fit-out was driving the architecture and it gave Electrical Engineering its own identity on campus.
So what Innovative Design elements were you proud of in this project?
As an interior designer, I was really proud about the holistic way the design was conceived. So the interior design actually drove a lot of the architectural functions. In terms of innovation, we took a 1960s building and provided an upgrade to the building fabric, to provide a 40-year building life. Sustainable compliance is really quite tricky, especially to retrofitting an existing building. So getting natural light in, getting the thermal performance right, and getting energy right. There are some really great full-height punched bay windows on the south facade that they do two things:
They allow the user internally to actually physically be protruded and cantilevered out over the University Mall, which gives a different dialogue into the public realm. The engineering on those is actually quite cool; it’s a 20mm aluminium plate and a really complex construction methodology. From a building systems point of view as well, the building didn’t have any mechanical ventilation. It required a huge new plant on the top so getting all of the services to work in an extremely low floor to floor space (only 2.9 metres), was incredibly challenging. Co-ordination of the mechanical data, power and other infrastructure was also really challenging.
As the building was dating back to the 1960s, it obviously wasn’t earthquake proof either and since this time, the building codes have changed. So upgrading the building to meet those standards was difficult as it required large reinforcement and structural strengthening.
New innovative ways of approaching teaching were incorporated into the project design, aswell. One of the course requirements is to spend a certain amount of hours working outside timetabled fundamental courses. We were able to unlock this concept with a skills lab, which can be accessed outside of these hours. This allows students to work on projects, develop skills, come to the classes and actually apply a skill base in class.
From a storage point of view, what were the main factors of consideration when allocating storage for this project and how did CSM products respond to these considerations?
The school has been storing items since the 1960s so we were going into professors’ labs which were full of motherboard circuit boards, old computers and these guys hadn’t actually changed the way they work since this time. So the project presented a great challenge in understanding firstly what they needed to store and how they were going to store it.
The project was, however, a real enabler since they had to move out during occupation, which forced them to think about storage in a different way, possibly with a more flexible and agile mindset.
We looked at a number of storage products from CSM, which gave us flexibility including mobile solutions for the lab spaces, where the technical staff could wheel in and out experiments. Students could also wheel tools during classes, which gave them the flexibility and mobility to move and reconfigure things around as required. There were also various custom storage solutions in the workplace, integrating planters and greenspace to help soften the hard space, with CSM products key to allowing this to happen.
There’s also a hierarchy in the academic circles in terms of the level of privacy, so customised CSM products to provide semi-private acoustic and screening, as well, including higher storage units that allow privacy when you’re sitting down and also when you stand up but still feel connected.
The offices themselves were designed with a very modular approach. We used CSM’s standardised shelving units, which could be interchangeable, so they can adapt from a single person office to a dual office. So apart from offering flexibility, it also supports a move to sustainability, using products that meet the sustainability requirements of the project.