Docklands – Code failure or success?

Early Tuesday morning, a large residential apartment building caught fire in Melbourne. The building was safely evacuated and no serious injuries or fatalities occurred. But a 30+ meter vertical column of flame is a terrifying sight, and somewhat unexpected in a new (3-5 year old) building. So does the Docklands fire represent a success or failure of building codes?

The question, like all matters regulatory, is not as cut and dried as you might expect. To fully answer this question, you need to understand what building codes and regulations set out to do.

There are 3 main priorities when it comes to fire in buildings. First: keep people alive and get them out. This means early warning systems to alert occupants to the presence of fire and maintaining structural integrity and tenable conditions for as long as it takes to get people out. In simple terms, you should know there’s a fire before it’s unsurvivable and the building shouldn’t kill you faster than you can get out.

Second, a building fire should not endanger other property. This is why when you build close to boundaries, building codes make you use fire resisting materials and protect your openings. This is a legacy of truly horrific city wide conflagrations in earlier centuries. Burning down on your own footprint is vastly preferable to setting your neighborhood alight. It’s similar for units in a building: fire should be limited in how it can spread through the building.

Third (and it’s a distant third, a nice to have from a regulatory perspective) is property protection. The first two objectives indirectly provide some degree of property protection, even though this is not their focus.

So, how’d we do?
In this fire, the building has been successfully evacuated without fatalities. That’s the most important thing and a big success. At 2.30am in a residential building, the majority of occupants are going to be asleep and require waking through an audible signal – just about the worst scenario for fire in a high rise residential building.

There are reports that some residents were woken by fire fighters rather than alarms or sprinkler activation. That’s not necessarily evidence of a problem. Depending on the system design, occupant warning and alarm systems may not sound simultaneously through out the building in a fire event (unlike drills, which usually are simultaneous). There are valid reasons to do this, including to prevent exits from being overwhelmed. In any case, once fire fighters arrive at an incident, they typically take control of all active fire safety systems (which includes alarms and intercoms). Having said that, the operation and activation of the systems will clearly be subject to further scrutiny in coming days.

Another thing that will be looked at is ignition sources. It’s fairly clear at this stage that the fire started accidentally on a balcont. The use of an area is not something regulators can control post occupation. Australian building codes do not traditionally consider balconies to be a fire source feature and don’t require alarms to be fitted on them, or a high degree of protection for openings. That means that the fire or smoke presumably had to enter an apartment and then set off a detector. Which takes time. Which means more fire.

The biggest question from a code point of view is the facade. In Australia a residential building over 4 storeys in height must be of Type A construction. Under the deemed to satisfy provisions, that means external walls must be non-combustible (ie tested to AS1530.1). Typical non-combustible materials are masonry and concrete. A wall of flame spreading up your facade and breaching fire compartments? Not good, and not how I’d expect a non combustible element to behave.

So one of the big questions will be what material was used in the facade, followed by what path was used to approve the building (DTS or Alternative Solution). In both cases, the evidence that was relied upon to demonstrate non-combustibility for the wall system will be critical in figuring out if the Docklands fire was a freak one-off due to unique geometry, construction, conditions and bad luck, or evidence of a wider problem, such as a flawed code requirement or a misinterpretation to permit the installation of inappropriate material.

At this stage I’d say it’s a mixed outcome code-wise, but we won’t know for sure for a while. Importantly, everyone has survived, but there are likely to be many lessons for building and fire professionals as a result of this fire.


New year, new things…

I like the beginnings of things. A new note book, a new blog post, new car smell… So perhaps it’s no surprise that I also like new year resolutions. I don’t make many, but I do tend to keep them. This year, I’ve decided on a new approach. This year, I’m not making any resolutions. 

And I’m not alone. Bob Borson, over at LifeofanArchitect did a neat blog on goals vs resolutions recently. Likewise, the ThesisWhisperer posted about having a theme instead of a resolution in 2013. There’s also a Scientific American article by Melanie Tannenbaum on why sharing your resolutions isn’t the best way to keep them. And finally, to round out the topic, Fast. Co got in on the action by suggesting you reframe resolutions as questions. 

So, just quietly, I’m moving my resolutions into goal questions, gathered around a theme. I’m going to share a trivial one here, my bigger ones will be staying private.

The traditional resolution to “get fitter” has become the question “How can I design exercise into my daily life?”. And it turns out there are lots of things I can change to increase the amount of exercise in my life. I can plan and undertake asymmetrical commuting (ride/run to work, bus home, then the reverse. Bonus: Sydney traffic and public transport is so bad that it’s often comparable timewise). I can pre-make bigger meals, so when I come home sweaty and starving I can eat healthy leftovers, instead of waiting to cook something. I can change my running route to include a body of water so I can’t take short cuts. I can choose to turn chores into opportunities, for example, running to the far store for juice instead of a short walk to the near one. I like tangible progress, so plotting my increasing speed/distance with Excel is rewarding for me. I know I do best with routines and some social aspects to my fitness, so I’m really looking forward to three months of AFL preseason (one week to go!) starting up next week.

Here’s to success!

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Flawed systems and forgetting keys

Generic photo of keys. You've seen one bunch, you've seen 'em all. Every time I return to the house, I place my keys in a designated zone. Every time I leave the house, I pick up my keys and check that I’m carrying my wallet, keys and phone using the ‘three pocket pat down’.  I’ve been doing this for many years, in many houses. But this year, my system has repeatedly failed me and I’ve locked myself out on several occasions. It’s a new trend and it’s very annoying.

But I’m convinced it’s a flaw in my system that can be iterated out.

First iteration

Incident: I discover during my pat down that I am lacking keys AND phone. Sadly, I have already shut the door behind me.

Problem: Right system, wrong place. Pat down occurs too close to door. Normal motion carries me out the door before I have confirmed I am carrying keys.

Reason previously avoided: In previous accommodation, key zone was located in bedroom, not hallway. Pat down occurred on way to front door, not during exit.

Solution: Move key zone further away from door.

Second Iteration

Incident:  I grabbed my thumb drive from the key zone – and left my keys behind.

Problem: Right place, wrong item. Too many items can be stored in the key zone.

Reason previously avoided: Key zone was a table too small to store other items. New key zone is on a low boy, which has other items on it.

Solution: Redefine key zone boundary – a bowl on the low boy, rather than an area.

Third Iteration

Incident: During my pat down, I mistook my car key for my house keys, and believing myself to be carrying my house key, I left. 

Problem: Car key and house keys have a similar weight/tactile feel through clothing layers.

Reason previously avoided: car keys and house keys were on same key ring.

Solution: add distinctive item to car key ring.

So there you have it folks. For me, keys need to be stored in a small, distinctive location not too close to the door and have distinctive key rings. Fingers crossed I’ve designed out getting locked out!

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Some most excellent links on being an ally.

Keep calm and be an Ally

Tips for allies

101 Everyday Ways for Men to Be Allies to Women by Michael Urbina. I don’t agree with all of Urbina’s points, but there’s enough there to chew over.  The comments are worth a quick skim, and give you an idea of how complicated and contested some ideas can be.

How to be an ally if you are a person with privilege by Frances Kendell.

Tools for White Guys who are Working for Social Change (and other people socialized in a society based on domination)

How to be a (male) feminist ally by Elizabeth Pickett of Feminist Current.

What is a feminist ally? by A Lynn of Nerdy Feminist.

Feminist Allies..?
Resources for Allies over on Geek Feminism Wiki

Don’t be That Guy: by Synecdochic over on LJ.

Critiques of Allie-dom

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Labels That Mean Nothing to Me) by Spectra Speaks

No more “Allies” by Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous

And a good response to it by Jamie Utt: So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know at Everyday Feminism.

and The Trouble with Male Allies by Meghan Murphy over on Feminist Current.

The problems with white allies and white privilege written by Tanya Golash-Boza.

For Whites Who Consider Being Allies But Find it Much too Tuff from the ever excellent Crunk Feminist Collective

For white privilege, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh is a classic in the genre, but even better is this critique of it by Jessie-Lane Metz over at the Toast: Ally-phobia: On the Trayvon Martin Ruling, White Feminism, and the Worst of Best Intentions. I especially recommend following ALL the links in that piece – your mind will thank you.

And inspired by McIntosh’s article, this one compiled by Barry Deutsch on male privilege.

And here’s another one on why we’re not “genderblind” yet.

On being a good ally.

Hanging out on the feminist-y bit of the twitterverse as I do, there are opportunities every so often to shut up, listen and learn. Lately, I’ve been learning more about some of the critiques of white mainstream feminism, particularly from women of colour. Among many of the fantastic resources and posts, I found some tips for white and feminist allies to be very helpful, both in making concrete suggestions and crystallizing some of the issues. I’ve put together some general points here. I’ve also pulled together a bumper crop of amazing links on another post, many of which are much better than this offering, although often targeted at a different audience.

To make sense of this post, it’s useful to understand the term ‘privilege’. ‘Privilege’ is the term given to characteristics that usually confer benefits on those who hold them. White, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered [having your biological sex matching personal gender identity; opposite of transgendered], middle class, and able-bodied are common categories of privilege. That means that the world is set up in a way that those with those attributes will broadly do better than those without, often without those who benefit realising. Privilege is dynamic: in some situations, your privilege in one category can override disadvantage in another. For those who cross multiple categories of disadvantage, the term ‘intersectional’ is sometimes used to discuss the unique problems faced. For a range of historical and cultural reasons, intersectional experiences are often distinctly different to other experiences.

Simple Rules to Follow to be a Good Ally

1. Be an asset. Listen.

Your job as a good ally is to improve the experience of the target group. That’s it. That is your sole role. In an online or social space, that very, very often means listening. Listening without interrupting, without disagreeing, without interjecting, without defending. Arguing with someone you “support” is a giant waste of everyone’s time. If you are struggling with what you hear, ask yourself why. If someone tells you ‘yes, this happens’ and you want to say ‘yes, but…’ or explain why they are wrong or misunderstood something, think about why you feel entitled to override their experience. [Hint: if your impulse is to interrupt or correct someone, there’s a really good chance you’re coming from a place of privilege. In feminist spaces, this is practice is called ‘mansplaining‘ and it’s really annoying as well as being incredibly rude and patronising.]

2. Just listen. Really.

Avoid false equivalences motivated by empathy. You’re human. You want to connect. Resist the urge to interrupt and say “That’s just like…”. That one time a gay guy hit on you? Not the same as being a woman. The substitute teacher mistook you for a boy and you pretended all day? Doesn’t give you unique insight into the trans* experience. Going to Bali and being the only white person on the bus? Not even remotely similar to being a person of colour in Australia.  If you have some bizarre medical condition that makes it impossible for you to listen with a still tongue, at least have the sense to acknowledge the impossibility of truly sharing that experience: “Wow, our experiences have been really different. I’m going to go away and quietly reflect”.

3. Acknowledge your own privilege

Accept that you are probably blind to some or even most of the consequences of your own privilege. I’m a white woman. A few years ago, I was late for the bus and had to chase it to the next stop(s) in order to catch it. I was pretty proud of my athleticism and told the story to a friend, Yousef. Who pointed out that I was lucky I was white, because when brown men wearing backpacks bolt out of a store and run like crazy people assume they are a thief or terrorist and they get stopped. Yep, sometimes privilege means being allowed to run for the bus. Or able to safely hold your partner’s hand in public. Or only being asked where you’re “from” once (funny YouTube on that here) . Or counting on being able to get the ingredients for your favorite childhood dish at the supermarket. Or not being talked over in a meeting.

Sometimes you might feel tired, like maybe you don’t want to point out to your co-worker that their joke was sexist? That’s a privilege. You’re choosing whether or not to put on your ally hat. If only less privileged people could choose to remove their skin colour/sexuality/disability/gender…

4. Privilege is slippery

Most people judge themselves on their intentions and others on their behaviour. Calling out behaviour and not labelling the person can be one way give people a way to save face and move forward [ie “That sounded racist.” vs “You’re racist”.] BUT you need to be aware of whose feelings you’re *really* protecting with this tactic: the perpetrators. Yep, that sneaky ol’ privilege rears its head again. In trying to address an issue, you’ve potentially made more work, because we’re now trying to minimise hurt feelings and discomfort and educate. There’s no easy out for this. Remember: good allies improve the situation for the target group, and create less work for that group. Bad allies make it all about them. Accept that you might have to hurt some privileged feelings, including your own. Especially watch out for derailing tactics.

5. Ally is verb, not a noun

It’s not anyone else’s responsibility to educate you. It’s YOUR responsibility to get educated. Google the stuff you’re interested in. Trace links on wikipedia. Read key theorists (the first two steps will help with this). Read commentaries. Read critiques. Read blogs and counter-blogs. Watch YouTube videos. Read the comments on YouTube videos. Talk to your friends.

Accept that you’re going to f*ck up. You’re going to hurt feelings. You’re going to wade on in with the best of intentions and find out sometimes you’re neither wanted or needed. People are fully capable of fighting on their own behalf, thank you very much. Don’t be an ally for the warm fuzzy feels. Don’t do it because you think it makes you ‘nicer’. Do it because living in a racist, sexist, homophobic, able-ist society is actually kinda crappy for everyone and we all deserve better.

6. Work on your peers

Don’t wander into a new theoretical and experiential space and assume that you can ‘fix it’, or point out something they “haven’t thought of” or explain how ” the real world works”. Chances are, they haven’t misunderstood anything. Your job is not to lead the fight. Your job is to help others like you. You can use your privilege for good here: it’s a sad fact that people are more likely to listen and hear criticism from those who share aspects of their privilege than those who do not. This is especially powerful when you don’t personally gain from it.

You can point out to your boss that there’s room for some more ethnic diversity in the next pile of CVs. You can notice when someone uses their privilege to interrupt and point out that you’d like to hear the rest of what the interrupted person had to say. You can point out that your firm’s parental leave could be improved, even though at 65 you won’t be using it. You can stop someone telling a racist joke. It might feel uncomfortable to interrupt Joe from accounting, but you get to choose your battles. Hello, my old friend privilege!

7. …And sometimes step away from the ‘action’.

Yep, sometimes you’re going to run up against a situation when your eager ally ass is going to be rejected. And you’re going to put on your grown up pants and say “Yeah, I’ll bet it’s going to be amazing to spend a whole night with your community! Have a blast and call me for brunch next week.” Because, once again, this is not about you.

In which I come out as a YA SF reader…

I’m an adult fan of young adult (YA) fiction, in particular YA fantasy and science fiction. To those who would suggest I’m enjoying a prolonged adolescence, indulging in nostalgia or yearning to return to my teenage years I will simply point you towards the famous words of one Cher Horowitz.


In the words of Cher Horowitz…

There’s been quite a bit written about the reasons adults read YA fiction and paegns to the rising quality of genre. I just like it. I love the intensity and urgency of YA fiction. The slow emergence of moral grey from a sea of black and white. The understanding that good people can do bad things. That your family shapes but does not define who you are. That sex and attraction and romance can be both scary and wonderful, sometimes simultaneously. That choices have consequences, sometimes large, life-changing ones. That bad things can happen. That life is complicated and messy and glorious and filled with great things, just waiting for you.

But one of the main reasons I like YA fiction is that it deals with identity formation in a way that more ‘adult’ books often do not. An adult novel can rely on job descriptions for cultural short hand (perky NYC publicist, West Coast computer programmer, etc). In contrast, YA novels have high school, a physical location that almost everyone attends, where the major differences are social.  Because of this ‘blank slate’, there may be cross-cultural friendships and relationships that are skipped in works targeted at older readers or Taken Very Seriously. In YA, the tension and challenges faced by first generation migrants, emerging awareness of gender discrimination, teens struggling to reconcile bicultural identities and unconventional sexualities are fair game for discussion (although some characters are only granted minority feisty status).

Sadly, incorporating diversity not universally done well. Crimes range from using using ‘almond shaped eyes’ as a ‘subtle’ code for Asian ethnicity, (read this hilarious take down on the practice) to the horrific and lazy practice of describing skin colour in ‘Starbucks’ terms (read another awesome take down on why describing people as chocolate/mocha/caramel/cinnamon/nutmeg is a really bad idea). But sometimes it is done astoundingly well, in ways that challenge and enrich the reader.

Even though I have some major problems with current approaches to diversity in YA literature as a whole, I have never forgotten the jolt that Ursula Le Guin gave me around age 11 when I realized that Ged, the wizard of Earthsea was not white. From memory, the realisation hit around book 3 or 4. I felt mad. That wasn’t how Ged was supposed to be. She tricked me. But she hadn’t. Tracing back, I was confronted by the fact that despite the clear description of Ged’s red-brown skin, I had assigned whiteness to Ged. Because… why exactly? Because that way he was more like me. Because that’s the default in our culture. Because he was the hero and heroes are white, aren’t they? (The fact that my edition had been whitewashed by putting Ged in silhouette on the cover did not help). I had read at least two books from the perspective an ‘other’, without noticing, because it that world, it wasn’t a big deal. Probably because we’re all human in a world filled with wizards and demons. But realizing that you carry some racial baggage  is an uncomfortable moment. And one that I’m glad I got to have in the privacy of my home as an kid. Because good YA fiction helps you grow and confront your prejudices, without having to hurt anyone in the process (or look like a dumb-ass).

I think my fascination with identity is why I also enjoy supernatural and fantasy themes. My theory is that the rise in popularity of supernatural themes can be traced back  to two underlying reasons.

Firstly, emerging supernatural identities act as a coded way of exploring the tension of multiple-identity formation and maintenance that so many people experience through external social pressure (ie anyone who has a prefix or hyphen in front of an aspect of their identity eg Arab-Australian, female architect, Australian-born Chinese) . The vampire/werewolf/witch both knows our ways and yet is inexplicably alien. The newly “doubled” identity gives them the alternatives of ‘passing as human’ or completely withdrawal into a smaller social circle. The supernatural society is frequently presented as one in which the initiate must be groomed to understand new rules, rituals and norms, often by a romantic partner or social group. This group will often become a ‘family of choice‘. This echoes the experience of enculturation in a new identity as well as paralleling the teenage experience of faux pas through incomplete understanding and the gradual supplementing or replacing of family of origin through new peer and romantic relationships.

Secondly, fantasy allows us to deal with socially institutionalised fears. In particular, the current penchant for creatures of conversion (vampires, werewolves) clearly act as a stand in fears relating to sleeper agents/terrorists/religious converts. Spec fiction allowing us to explore the anxiety that someone who was one of us, who looks like us and knows what we value could turn out to be  unalterably, inexplicably, potentially voluntarily otherIn writing these social anxieties into a supernatural (and therefore fictional and controllable) world, there is the chance for every individual vampire/werewolf/terrorist etc to be redeemed by choosing to respect the sanctity of human life and love. This serves a double purpose: subduing fear of the other while simultaneously championing the cultural myths of individual exceptionalism, self-determination and free will.

Taken together, these underlying principles allow the reader to simultaneously transgress cultural norms (you are not wholly human/one of us) while reinforcing individual agency as the path to acceptance (but through making the ‘right’ choices we may accept you anyway).

[Incidentally, the appeal of teen dystopian fiction is much less complicated. Taken objectively, most teenage lives are dystopian: school is represented by arbitrary rules imposed by authority figures, parents  either condone or are complicit in the control apparatus of the society, there are limited forms of democratic representation, the protagonist is forced to reliance on an external agent for basic food and shelter, dissent can be punished ruthlessly. The much more interesting part of dystopian fiction is the history of them. Are they based on scientific advances, resource scarcity, political chaos, population explosion, alien invasion, artificial intelligence gone wild, intelligence services out of control, corporate takeover of the functions of government, natural disasters, post-war apocalypse, ruthless militarisation of a society… What each of these look like and the unique challenges they present are awesome.]

Laser tag, architecture and urban warfare.

Lego Laser Darth [technically a lightsaber]

I got this from the interwebz. If it’s yours, happy to add attribution/remove.

Every so often, I like to go and get my nerd on. This impulse manifests in a variety of ways, but of late, I’ve been getting my laser tagging butt handed to me by teenagers on the regular. Being a geek and a nerd means that I like to spend the time while I wait for reanimation thinking about the spatial implications of laser tag, architectural theory and military strategy. Because I’m cool like that.

I’ve been to a range of laser tag venues, and they tend to have common features. Arenas are often in spaces that are effectively a secondary enclosure in a larger building (such as a shed or shopping centre). As a result, they are usually completely internal (no external aperatures or light) and can be sunk into semi-darkness at will. In addition to the the hard boundaries that this secondary enclosure represents, there are often a range of smaller insertions. These take a range of forms and include fixed insertions such as columns and walls, (usually slit to provide apertures through which you can shoot and be shot); enclosures (areas bounded by a perimeter hard wall, an insertion wall and usually incorporating overhead horizontal elements); movable cover (such as inflatable opaque balls) and ramps to access elevated areas (anywhere between a full story above or a mere half meter).

Less tangibly, the ambient noise of electronic music and the artificial ‘explosions’ and updates that issue from your equipment distract you from the faint smell of sweat (or if you’re particularly unlucky, Lynx deodorant) of your equipment. Some venues will also pump smoke machines periodically, which allow you to follow the line of your laser rather rely on the small dot it makes on your target [nerd fact: most indoor laser tag games are actually infrared with laser targeting systems]. Due to the health and safety concerns innate in an activity that require you to move around in a gloomy obstacle strewn room, glowing tape and padding are used liberally. This covers the physical elements of the arena.

The second element of laser tag is the strategic element. The characteristics of the laser tag encounter are usually negotiated between participants prior to commencement. Options include dividing into equal two groups (A vs B, a symmetrical warfare scenario in which friendly fire is impossible), dividing into small teams (A v B v C…, multiple opponent mode, usually symmetrical and friendly fire is impossible), or simple ‘every man for themselves’ scenarios (where shifting alliances may emerge, but all fire is hostile). ‘Base protect’ versions of the team games are also popular. Further variations are possible to ensure that players of different skill levels can play together (eg more skilled players may need to shoot a beginner several times to deactivate them), while higher skill level players may have a reduced number of ‘lives’. The type of match selected (as well as personal game play preferences) can have a profound effect on the use of space in the arena.

Eyal Weizman has written extensively on the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) concept on “walking through walls”, the result of the rather unlikely union of architectural theory and modern urban warfare. This approach includes several elements, but in particular relies on drastically reconfiguring the concepts of movement. Soldiers avoid open spaces such as roads and paths instead travelling by erupting into private apartments through walls and roofs and emerging unexpectedly through party walls and floors. For example, it is possible for the IDF to subvert a planned ambush by literally cutting through a building to emerge behind a group located around a corner, rather than following conventional paths.

While the goals of laser tag players are often geared around maximising the number of encounters (and thereby points) rather than systematically and physically advancing through and occupying territory to assert control, the basic premise that abandoning preconceptions about how space can be used or occupied and replacing it with a creative approach holds.

Despite the fact that laser battles take place in small, purpose built arenas where there is either arbitrary or no territory to defend and there are no pre-existing assumptions regarding thoroughfares or public/private spaces to disrupt, a lifetime of expectations and conditioning on how to use space and evade physical projectiles is still evident. You cannot lob a laser ‘over’ or around something and walls can obstruct as much as they protect. Skilled laser tag players quickly learn that proximity can provide safety by making shot angles too tight, while distance offers no protection from a light beam. A deactivated player can be used as a physical shield (thank you Ender Wiggin) or use the temporary increase in stealth and mobility that a darkened vest offers to relocate. Everywhere hides a potential enemy – and every enemy is a potential target. In a multiple opponent game, your side is someone else’s front and you can never be sure whether you’re ‘behind’ a column – or if someone else is behind you.

Since playing laser tag, my understanding of what role simple architectural elements like narrow windows, sill heights, ramps, corridors, balustrade walls, tapered columns and zigzagged corners has rapidly expanded. An enclosure with two exits may be easier to escape – but harder to defend. Ramps and doors are natural constriction points and are thus easier to defend single handedly. A change of direction or a zigzag can offer safe haven and elevation is almost always your friend. And just as important are the abstract lessons. Doing the simple things well can be the difference between triumph and disaster. Switching between two ideas half way through because you got ‘bored’ will only result in chaos. There’s a time to be creative and a time to learn from history. And so on. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to a dark room to point glowing sticks at people. I’ll be the one walking through walls.

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October 13 event review: Architecture talk: Adaptive Reuse and High Density Housing-MR at Marrickville library

Location: Marrickville library for the AIA On Show talk series

Speakers: Guy Lake from Bates Smart and Philip Thalis from Hill Thalis, curated by Michael Zanardo and Kieran McInerney.

Topic: high density adaptive re-use in Marrickville

Due to conflicting demands (read: football training), this was the first of this series of talks I’ve managed to make it to this year, and I’m glad I did. I hear that numbers have fallen slightly, but the turnout was still about 30 people, which for a Wednesday night event in Marrickville is pretty decent. I was eager to hear the presentations as I’m really interested in both Marrickville (where I live) and the adaptive re-use of industrial heritage. The format of the night was two single project presentations followed by a short question and answer section.

The first presentation was given by Guy Lake and focused on a recent (ongoing?) project by Bates Smart, The Gantry. Located in the block bounded by Parramatta road, Australia street and Denison street, The Gantry has repurposed an existing industrial site (the Fowler Pottery works) for residential use. From the project description on the Bates Smart website, the redevelopment included the retention of 2 heritage buildings, the construction of three new buildings for a total of 191 new apartments across several building plus landscaping and commercial and retail space.

Final photos aren’t readily locatable, but it looks like an really interesting precinct coming together. From my scribbled notes:

  • Whole site is prone to flooding, so massive engineering required at ground level.
  • Where existing heritage facades were kept, the paint on the brickwork was removed, then apartments pulled back from edge to get more light in and bonus heritage features.
  • Cuts made based on existing geometry – three apartments per ‘bay’.
  • Existing trusses have been refurbished and retained, but with the roofing peeled back to make an arcade for the public.
  • Verandahs are glassed in – this effectively provides an option for indoor/outdoor use and when fully closed acts as an double glazing for acoustic control.
  • Heritage walls were much more ‘defensive’ at ground level than is usually encountered – but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
  • Interiors featured mirrored glass splash backs and lots of sliding doors, especially to bedrooms.
  • New building mimics form of the older one [this may be incorrect – my notes are not great]

The second presentation was by Phillip Thalis, of Hill Thalis. In his introduction, Thalis mentioned that he grew up in an apartment and along with most of his practice continues to live in one. Having established his multi-residential bona fides, he proceeded to present an informative and insightful look at the on the Majestic project, the adaptation of the old Petersham theatre/roller rink into residential apartments. The project has been profiled on ArchDaily (with plans) and I swear I read about it in a dead tree magazine, although I cannot now find the reference.

The site was originally a large theatre, which was morphed into a roller skating rink. I was one of  many in the audience who has fond memories of the space as a roller rink (the image of a 50 year old ‘bear’ in a pink tutu doing a skating cartwheel does tend to sear itself rather permanently in one’s mind).

Most interesting to me was the discussion about the constraints around the New Canterbury road facade, which caused some of the earlier reservations I had about the project to slide into a new focus.  The facade needed to be kept for heritage reasons and the brief called for the ground floor to be commercial/retail (and if I’m honest, at least part of my reservation is from the current ground floor tenant’s hideous advertising choices). These two factors explain to some extent why the residential entry has been pushed to one side. Further constraints included a requirement that the existing form be kept, which at 22m deep was a challenge for providing amenity (Thalis acknowledges that for the first time they have created internal bed rooms). As well, the influence that the far too often unacknowledged stakeholders such as the client, builder and financier can play in executing a project was also mentioned.

It was interesting to see the parallels between the projects. Both stripped paint to expose existing brickwork, both pulled new insertions back from the edge of the building, both made efforts to retain existing trusses, both used balconies to act as additional noise buffering to deal with traffic noise.  Both used similar tactics on the apartments themselves: extensive sliding doors, mirrored splash backs and internal  insertions (this last trend seems to be everywhere in residential and repurposing projects at the moment, to my utter delight).

For both projects, there was a focus on retaining fabric and form rather than space. While I understand this approach, there is a delight in the retention of former industrial spaces that residential retrofitting can rarely accommodate.

All in all, an interesting night of thoughtful presentations. Thanks again to Michael Zarnardo and Kieran McInerney for organising.

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Swanston Academic Building (SAB) by Lyons, Melbourne. Visited May 2013

SAB RMIT. Accessed from BrookfieldMultiplex.

Like many architectural folk around Australia, the last week saw me descend on Melbourne for the annual AIA conference Material (which I intend to review in a later post) and the fringe event Transform (review also forthcoming). Like any dutiful interstate visitor, I managed to work some additional perks into my visit, inculding the new Swanston Academic Building by Lyons.

I approached and entered the building from Swanston St, where it sits in dialogue with RMIT’s iconic Building 8 by Edmond and Corrigan (1993) and ARM’s Storey Hall. Firstly, it feels extremely welcoming and very porous. I wandered in directly from the street – there’s no swipe entry here, folks. The first thing I noticed was the cacophony of materials on every surface. Within about 10 square meters of floor there’s paving, polished concrete, floor boards and bright green carpet. This seems partially a way to distinguish zones (entry, circulation, threshold, gathering), but it’s not strictly followed, so the result is a bit chaotic. But the building appears well thought through, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a hidden logic. (It also occurs to me that it would be an easy building to ‘patch’: a bold fix job would blend in to the general exuberance.) On the walls there’s pressed metal, panels of cast and burnished metal, paint in every colour and shade (one imagines the twist on Henry Fords’s words: “any colour, as long as it’s bright!”), patterned wallpaper and a carpet like material. In addition to materials not already mentioned, that weird rubberised play ground material makes a cameo, as do timber sheets, glass, lino and folded metal sheeting. This is not an exhaustive list, it’s just what I can remember.

I strode confidently towards the escalators which whisked me up, up, up! (Hot tip for sneaky reviewers of any building – be confident near the entry and lost and confused once you’re safely in). The use of escalators recalls commercial spaces more than educational – the parallel is to the Melbourne Central escalators to the food court (*cough, cough*) is rather than the grand sandstone staircase of public and education buildings past. This is interesting: our public buildings are now embracing the commercial language and attributes of semi-privatised public spaces, rather than the more traditional reverse (think of large malls installing fountains to create interior ‘plazas’). It’s strange how easily the transition occurs – university is now where we come to consume ‘education’. But back to the escalators.

Glowing numeral atop escalator. From

As you travel up the escalators, a glowing numeral on the ceiling alerts you to which level you are arriving on. Once you are there, life-size male and female figures point towards their respective facilities. Throughout the project signage (or “environmental graphic design” for you purists) is both clear and cheerful. While I wasn’t trying to find a specific location, I always knew where I was and what was around me, and was confident that I could quickly move to my destination.  At level 7 (which isn’t as high as it sounds – the Swanston St entry is level 3 from memory), the escalators are replaced by ordinary staircases. This acts as a subtle cue that the upper levels are slightly less public and indeed, they appear to contain more permanently assigned spaces (such as offices, post-grad computer labs and scheduled classrooms rather than informal student hubs).

For obvious reasons I did not enter the classrooms, but a surreptitious look seemed to indicate a range of unique rather than cookie cutter spaces, many of which appeared to designed to accomodate both lecture and group work modes (a lectorial, anyone?). The larger lecture theatres seemed to accommodate the more tradiational ‘eyes front’ model of teaching.

While the initial impression is of a cheerful chaos, the building is a delight to move through and it’s well occupied interior indicated it was popular with students (although to be fair I visited shortly prior to exams, when space is traditionally at a premium). There’s also a ton of subtle rich detail, which can be lost in the dominant impression of colour. For instance, some bannisters are shaped to double as a comfortable place to lean against while waiting to access a space and the continuous large round timber benches are both comfortable to sit on and unobtrusive when not in use. The benches also provide a buffer zone for students exiting a classroom, avoiding the traditional log jam.

Stair atrium. Flickr.

Each floor plate is unique, which adds texture and interest to the central stair atrium (and makes me wonder just how much fire engineering was involved in this project). The building also paid more attention to the roof plane than most others that I’ve been in lately. For example, in addition to the aforementioned numerals, there were sheathes of undulating folded metal, exposed black service trays and riots of colour.

The building is connected to both the city and the other parts of RMIT campus. Lyons hired architectural photographer Dianna Snape and a forklift to help her get shots of the surrounds at each floor level, help to ensure that each student space that punctured the facade framed beautiful views of the city and campus buildings.

Overall, I LOVED this building. It’s FUN, it’s for people, it’s interesting and delightful to be in. It could have benefited from a paring back of the material palette, but I have no doubt that it’s going to end up a truly beloved building with generations of memories made in it. It’s unapologetic and a good fit for the client and users firstly, but the city more broadly. Bravo!

I steered clear of any other reviews prior to writing this up, but there’s no reason for you to do the same. In no particular order:

Books for small children

Being read to was a daily event in my life from in utero until well after I achieved independent literacy. As I got older, roles switched and I would practice reading aloud. I suspect my dyslexic tendencies and spelling would be much worse had I not been immersed in a reading culture so thoroughly. Shared reading is also a subtle  way in which written and visual culture is taught – without exposure to reading, it’s entirely possible for children to enter kindergarten lacking knowledge in how to hold a book, which direction words are read from and the difference between upper and lower case letters.  Aside from the educational benefits, reading aloud is a lovely ritual and a nice way to wind down.

I’m a proud PANK (Professional Aunt, No Kids) and one of my favorite gifts for the dear nephews are books. Here’s a list of some favourites for the under threes.

Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins.  The hen Rosie goes for a walk. Especially fun to read aloud without commenting on the hilarious fox being foiled in the background of all the illustrations. Expect disbelieving looks if using this approach.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. A tiger with an insatiable appetite comes to tea, leaving nothing for dinner – so a trip to a restaurant is required.

The Mog series by Judith Kerr (including Mog the Forgetful Cat, Mog and the V.E.T, Mog in the Dark, Mog’s Christmas). Mog is a slightly dimwitted cat who is well-loved by her people all the same.

Hairy Maclairy series by Lynley Dodd. A series of stories a range of dogs (and one cat, Slinky Malinki) told in rhyme. Funny and fun to read aloud.

Burgler Bill by Allan Ahlberg. Burgler Bill gets more than he bargains for when he accidentally burgles a baby, and he decides to reform, returning the helmets and cakes he has stolen. It’s a bit longer than others in the list, but there’s lots to talk about in the illustrations.

Dogger by Shirley Hughes: A much beloved toy dog goes missing, and an older sister saves the day. A nice one if there’s a favourite soft toy in the family.

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson. A rat with a sweet tooth is foiled by a clever scheme and his own greed. Great rhythm and rhymes for reading aloud.