Building The Future

Government offices of the past were far from beautiful things. Their slab concrete and inglorious brick facades seemed to evoke drudgery and hour upon hour of repetitive paperwork. Even when something more designed has been attempted, when architects and builders have sought to push the boundaries of what an office building is or could be, the results have tended more towards an ugly beauty rather than an aesthetic of soaring inspiration.

We have seen this in Geelong time and again, with one of the rare standouts being the brutalist 1970s cantilevered concrete upside down building – designed by the Geelong firm of Buchan Laird & Bawden and home to the state government offices in Little Malop Street – which is an exemplar of the ugly beauty that defines the brutalist movement in architecture.

But all of that is set to change. Two neighbouring government office buildings are taking shape in central Geelong, and when the scaffolding, rooftop cranes and chorus of heavy machinery have gone, what will emerge are two new landmark buildings that promise to bring a sharper edge and some serious design to the city’s skyline.

Set to sprout from the old-world charm of the Dalgety & Co Ltd building at 1 Malop Street is the new 14-storey future home of WorkSafe, being built by Melbourne-based property fund managers Quintessential Equity. Just down the road, at 21 Malop Street the new home of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and the Federal Department of Human Services (DHS) is taking shape in a project that will meld a sky-reflecting glazed tower with the curved façade of the art deco Carlton Hotel.

This is story about a small local development team breaking into what has previously been an exclusive club of large-scale commercial developers. With a $120 million price tag, this is big.

There is a lot to like about both buildings, but this isn’t a story about architecture and design, although I suspect that will be the legacy of both of these projects. This is story about a small development team breaking into what has previously been an exclusive club of large-scale commercial developers. With a $120 million price tag, this is big. And there are lessons to be learnt in this around the capacity of local businesses and suppliers to tender for big government projects.

From the beginning, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been breaking with convention and doing things differently. That has certainly been the case with the disability agency’s requirements of the national headquarters on the Carlton Hotel site.

When completed, the building should be a model of accessible design, giving workers rare access to sweeping views over the bay, all housed in a sustainable Green Star building that has as almost as many bike parks as it does car parks, changing rooms for staff and a rooftop terrace. Due to be completed towards the end of 2018, this promises to be everything government offices as we know them are not.


Artist's impression of the rooftop garden, part of the joint NDIS and DHS headquarters currently under construction (supplied)

The Carlton Project is being developed by Geelong-based, Techne Group of Companies; the development group started by Michael Vickers-Willis and recently transitioned, at least in the day-to-day sense, to his son and now Techne managing director, Scott Vickers-Willis.

The building will be co-habited by 450 NDIA staff and contractors and up to 400 Department of Human Services (DHS) staff. It is the first time the national headquarters of a major government department has been based outside of Canberra and with figures around the $120 million mark being bandied around contract, it all adds up to a very big deal for a local family business.

Michael Vickers-Willis started Techne in 1978 and the company has been a prolific developer in Geelong and other regional areas. Having a solid portfolio of government projects, including having redeveloped the ATO/Centrelink Geelong offices in Little Ryrie Street around five years ago, meant that Techne were well aware of what it takes to work in the government tendering space, however the size of this project was new ground for the Geelong-based company. Scott said that putting together a tender that was ‘proudly Geelong’ was central to the project bid and, coming as it did as part of the government response to the announced shutdown of Ford and Alcoa’s Geelong manufacturing operations, probably played a part in the tender win.

“When the opportunity presented we recognised that it was important to have Geelong content in the bid but at the same time recognised that we needed some global leadership as well,” he said. “We appointed Woods Bagot, a really well-known global architect to manage the architectural design.”

The expectation was that around 80 per cent of the jobs associated with the project would be based in Geelong, and that meant bringing together a range of contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers operating out of the region.

The awarding of the tender for a national headquarters to a regional firm signalled a new direction from the Commonwealth to not only be seen to be including local content in major tenders, but to actually do it.

Project Manager for the build is Johnstaff, who have opened a new office in Brougham Street. The firm has project-managed major health sector developments in Geelong, has previously worked with Techne on the ATO/Centrelink offices, as well as having a strong portfolio of projects across Australia.

On the cranes looming over the site is the now-familiar Kane Constructions logo, with the company having built Geelong Hospital, RACV Torquay, the new Geelong Library and Heritage Centre, the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases, Simonds Stadium and the list goes on.

The expectation was that around 80 per cent of the jobs associated with the project would be based in Geelong, and that meant bringing together a range of contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers operating out of the region.

TGM Group are managing the civil engineering on the project. Formed in 1995 from the merger of three engineering and surveying consultancies, the firm operates out of Geelong and Ballarat, and expanded into the Melbourne market in 2007 with the acquisition of Parry Fraser & Jones.

Spiire are also in on the project, and the company has offices in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo, Shepparton and Albury. And landscape architects, town planning and urban design firm, Tract Consultants are another amongst the list of contractor with a strong presence in Geelong.

“We really wanted our bid to scream Geelong and we’re thrilled that the NDIA, having made Geelong their home, selected us. That decision wasn’t just about the Geelong-focus, it was about the whole package, and it’s been terrific for our group,” Scott said.

Techne was built on building offices – and there are examples of their work all over the city. There are the buildings at the corner of Ryrie and Bellarine Streets, on the Brougham and Gheringhap corner, office redevelopments at 265, 255 and 245 Ryrie Street and another at 16-18 Brougham, “Lexen” at 200 Malop Street and the Ford and Charles Brownlow Stands for the Geelong Football Club. There have been projects at Warrnambool, Ballarat, Bendigo, Hamilton, Colac, Glenroy, Melbourne CBD, Sydney CBD Sunshine, Brunswick, Heidelberg, Shepparton, Kyabram, Byron Bay, Toronto NSW, Cessnock, Nambucca Heads and Wagga Wagga. Their projects history charts the progression from commercial office refurbs and new builds to State and Federal Government departments, and then came the more recent shift into the social services and medical sectors.

Alongside The Carlton Geelong project, the firm is developing the $32million Wyndham Medical and Services Centre in Werribee – a State Government office alongside a new women’s primary health clinic.

I asked Scott if the shift into social services and healthcare had been a deliberate one.

“Having seen how well serviced Geelong is in healthcare, and then seeing that Werribee was getting close to having a similar population but just a lack of services – meaning people were having to drive over the West Gate into the city to see a specialist – we developed a large medical services building and that has been very well supported by the Wyndham community. Our group also operates a 50-bed private mental health hospital and day surgery in Wyndham, all within the burgeoning health precinct.

“One of the fulfilling things for us, as a developer, is that as part of doing commercial projects, a lot of the end users we are finding an understanding with are in the social services sector. We have great experience in medical development and now the NDIS, as well as the state government instrumentality that is in a similar vein to where the NDIS is in terms of being a new social initiative. So it’s quite exciting for us to not just be doing government offices, but to be building for such great social return.”

The projected view of the new building from Corio Street (supplied)

In the data age, we know more about where the need for services is going to be far better than we ever have before. Guesswork and gut feel in state and federal capitals have been replaced with not infallible, but certainly rigorously tested projections through data modelling. Where there is a need there is a market, and projects follow population growth.

“Our business is still largely commercial development,” Scott said, “but we’ve expanded into the healthcare sector and that in itself brings experience on the ground around the design of buildings that are required to have a more clinical nature to them. For example, if you’re building courts or a justice precinct, there are particular requirements for the architects to meet around security. When you’re managing projects in a hospital setting those design requirements are very important.

“Geelong is poised for enormous growth, we believe, and WorkSafe and the NDIS and the Australian Bureau of Statistics are just the start of what I think is going to be happening in Geelong. There is a lot of interest in Geelong, and with ongoing support from the government and additional population growth based on our attractive and amazing value for money living options compared to Melbourne, there is going to be terrific growth over the next ten to twenty years.”

Companies, like cities and regions, tend to grow incrementally and in response to demand. Where they end up is rarely where they think they’ll be and I was curious to hear about what some of the steps were and the skills that had to be developed or brought in for Techne to get to this point where they could successfully tender for a project like the NDIA national headquarters.

Development, Scott says, is very much a team game and a project of this scale requires a range of specialised skills coming together. The team behind The Carlton Project includes 20 to 30 consultants contracted across the past three years of the project.

“We’ve had people who have been on the whole journey with us that understand the site, the specifications from the Commonwealth, and we’ve contracted most of those skills in.”

Norman Disney Young (NDY) are the project’s service engineers and environmentally sustainable design (ESD) consultants. Architecture and Access are specialist disability consultants and are charged with ensuring this is an exemplar building for disability access.
“This expertise you don’t necessarily have in-house and our model isn’t to employ lots of people, but to sub-contract experts, which generates a lot of opportunity for other businesses to be involved in a project of this nature,” Scott said.

In the data age, we know more about where the need for services is going to be far better than we ever have before... Where there is a need there is a market, and projects follow population growth.

The ability to draw in a range of skills and experience to successfully compete against entrenched players in the market is a fascinating example of how government procurement is beginning to open up to smaller businesses, particularly in regional Australia.

Scott said that process of thinking big and building a team capable of competing at the larger end of government tendering had been an exciting one.

There are a few interesting things going on here. One is that regional Australia is largely underdeveloped and the appetite for decentralising is growing, particularly for Federal and State Governments.

Until recently, large infrastructure projects in regional areas were heralded as great investments in local communities, but it was often metro-based contractors that benefited from those projects. We are starting to see governments attempting to break the stranglehold of the big firms when it comes to awarding regional project tenders. There is more scrutiny around just how genuinely local the local procurement elements of publicly funded projects are, and that is good news for businesses and organisations looking to break into this type of work.

“I think that what often happens is that particularly in non-CBD areas, local investors own the best sites,” Scott said. “Local people might have the best access to land because they know who owns what on the ground and, really, the site is the key differentiator when people are looking to build offices. NDIS and WorkSafe were both quite specific about their preferred location and there was a benefit there for us.”

The company has a clear strategy to target further development sites in the city.

“It’s about trying to identify the locations and the pre-commitments from government or business for those sites. Us and other landowners will be looking to procure other prospective tenants, and typically that is through a tender process, and we are certainly keen to identify and develop more property in Geelong.”

Succession planning is one of, if not the most critical determinant of future success of family businesses, so it was interesting to speak to Scott about how that process worked for him and his father.

Having founded Techne and developed many of the inner city’s office buildings over the years, Michael Vickers-Willis is a well-known figure in the local business community. Like so many others in this region, his became a family business with his son Scott taking up a role in the company around seven years ago and in a process Scott described as ‘an organic transition’, there has been a gradual handing over of the reins. Today, it is Scott’s role to manage the day-to-day operations of the company, while Michael maintains an active role as Chairman.

L- R: Michael Vickers-Willis (Chairman Techne), Louise Glanville (Deputy CEO NDIS), Sarah Henderson (Federal Member for Corangamite), Scott Vickers-Willis (MD Techne), Richard Frisina (MD Kane Constructions)

But history is less and less likely to pay the bills and, in the development game, you are only as successful as your last project. So getting this build right for the NDIS/DHS headquarters is critical for everyone involved, and most of all for Techne. And there is no more important element to the new national headquarters of the National Disability Insurance Scheme than accessibility. This building will have to model what is required of all new office buildings in Australia.

In 2010, then Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, established a set of standards known as an Access Code to provide equitable access to buildings and enshrined those standards in Australian federal law under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1992.

What that meant was that it wasn’t enough for building certifiers, developers and building managers to nod to disability access with a ramp or two, but were required, by law, to provide dignified and reasonable access for people with disabilities when constructing new buildings. Symbols and signage, lighting, access ways, toilets, lifts, controls, stairways, surfaces, handrails, passing areas, manoeuvring areas, hearing augmentation systems, emergency warning systems and exits and, yes ramps, are design elements requiring compliance under the Access Code.

In the development world, acronyms like ESD – or environmentally sustainable design to the punters – and DDA – referring to the accessibility requirements under the Disability Discrimination Act – are everyday vernacular, as they have become a key component of building design and construction. And while there is nothing particularly new or world-changing about environmental or accessible design features, the way that these features are being integrated seamlessly into building design today is exciting, and is a precursor to how we will build all of our spaces in the years ahead.

When we talk about seamlessness we are talking about features that are intrinsic to the spaces we inhabit, not in a way that demands that we think about them or that crave our attention, but that simply make those spaces better places to be. And, of course, when we are talking about design, we also want them to be beautiful. This was what was required of the new home for the NDIS.

... while there is nothing particularly new or world-changing about environmental or accessible design features, the way that these features are being integrated seamlessly into building design today is exciting, and is a precursor to how we will build all of our spaces in the years ahead.

Technology will play a major role in achieving this vision of a beautiful, accessible, sustainable building on the site, right down to how doors open and close and what materials are used on the varying surfaces to, for instance, alert people within the building to changes in the floors such as gradients, stairs or ramps.

“The requirement from the Commonwealth were that [this building] comply with 5-star NABERS energy rating and aspire to a 6-star Green Star building, which will be up there with any regional office building. It’s largely about energy efficiency,” Scott said. “Efficient design of the façade and all of the services within it can really help to drive the overall efficiency of the building envelope.”

Green Star rating is a voluntary national certification system operated by the Green Building Council Australia that champions sustainable building design, while NABERS, otherwise known as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System, is a national system designed to measure the environmental performance and impact of buildings.

For the Carlton Project, high-tech glazing systems, photovoltaics, thermal and demanding engineering specifications are all options that will feed into the overall environmental performance of the building.

“We are installing Organic Response in the building, which is a lighting system that has the ability for every single lumen [that’s building-speak for light] to be programmed. What that means, is that if you’re sitting near a window and it’s a beautiful day, the lumen above you will be able to read the level of natural light in that localised area and won’t turn on; but if it is a darker day or you’re sitting in the middle of the building, away from natural light, then that light [lumen] will be on full. During winter, for instance, the lights will individually adjust. This is a Victorian invention and it’s something that we are going to incorporate into the building and this is something that will also help to reduce electricity usage,” Scott said.

We will wait, with more than a little anticipation, to see how this project will take shape and how it and others around it shape the future of our city centre.

Feature Image Courtesy: Tract Consulting
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