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Feature article

Conserving Modern Industrial Heritage

Victorians are renowned for having embraced adaptive reuse as a desirable option for creating new and contemporary spaces. However, the current emphasis on medium density housing translates to projects such as warehouse conversions as being considered boutique developments. In addition, sites which might once have been prime candidates for small to medium scale adaptive reuse are more commonly being bought by developers who see greater financial benefit in demolishing an existing structure rather than retaining it for conversion. This is especially true for industrial sites around the city fringe, particularly Docklands, Fishermans Bend and Footscray. These areas have experienced, or are currently experiencing rapid rates of commercial and residential development. But at what cost does this come to our industrial heritage, and especially the less iconic but equally significant modern industrial structures?

The region around Footscray and Yarraville contains some of the earliest industrial landscapes in Victoria’s post-colonial contact history, with industries being set up along the Maribyrnong River as early as the 1850s. By the mid 1900s the vista along the Maribyrnong River was one of thriving industry with some of Victoria’s most striking railway bridges, red brick factories and steam boats transporting supplies across to Melbourne and the outer regions of Werribee and Geelong.

While industrial landscapes of red brick warehouses and coal chimneys were a common sight in Footscray, notable modern industrial buildings were being erected too. Take the former Davis Coop/Bradmill Factory site in Yarraville for example, which contains an iconic boiler house and large conveyor which can be seen from the West Gate Freeway. These are obvious structures which contribute to the interpretation of the place as a former industrial site and the boiler house and conveyor have thus been retained. However, the site also contained a small worker’s canteen designed in the modernist style. According to the heritage citation for the site:

“the canteen building [was] of Modernist design featuring many facets of contemporary styling. The structural design elements include[d] lozenge-shaped fascias, north facing aluminium window wall and vertical louvres for sun control on the western end. The interior contain[ed] superior quality fittings and fixtures for the period and type.” 1

The small canteen was demolished in 2013 to make way for 3-6 storey apartment buildings.

Tonsley Park structure, 2012,

Photograph: Stuart Harrison

ETA Factory, Ballarat Road Facade c.1960.

Photograph: Wolfgang Sievers.

Former Bradmill Canteen (now demolished).

Photograph: Peter Bennetts.

On a larger scale, the former ETA Factory at 254 Ballarat Road, Braybrook was designed in 1957 by Grounds, Romberg and Boyd with Frederick Romberg as the head architect. Completed in 1961 the building was the only Australian building featured in the German Institute for Industry’s influential international text on industrial design, Industriebau in 1962. The building’s Featurist facade, photographed by Wolfgang Sievers in 1960 had a dynamic presentation to Ballarat Road created by a long, horizontal glass curtain wall, banded black vitrolite panels, and gold tinted ‘K’ bracing. At night a steel and timber staircase was showcased from beyond clear glazing and the factory was renowned for the Christmas decorations it displayed on the daringly suspended canopy over the eastern courtyard. Landscaping was designed by prominent landscape architect John Stevens2 and a Teisutis Zikaras sculpture was commissioned for the courtyard.  Though included on the Victorian Heritage Register since 20013, the building fell victim to decay. Over a 15 year period ownership of the site changed hands between a number of developers who perhaps underestimated the challenge of taking on a former industrial site.

Aside from potential cultural heritage issues other factors which make working on industrial sites challenging include planning procedures associated with rezoning, difficulties in securing bank finances due to the high risk nature of such sites, the fact that contamination is almost a given, and the task of selling the project to the community and prospective investors, especially if the neighbourhood is still in the early phases of gentrification. Thus with each change of hands, and each developer carrying out a little more demolition but no restoration work, the ETA Factory stood stripped, decaying and exposed to vandalism for 10 years and Victoria lost one of its most internationally recognised Modern buildings.

Today, Pelligra Holdings Construction are working to restore elements of the building and its associated gardens for reuse as a multipurpose business zone (supermarket, gym, restaurant and office spaces). Materials have been sourced locally and internationally to ensure elements such as the façade, industrial staircase and window frames are restored ‘like for like’. One of Australia’s few remaining Teisutis Zikaras sculptures is being restored for reinstatement in the garden, which is also being carefully restored to reflect Stevens’ original design. There are elements to the ETA Factory which have been lost forever, and the reconstruction of the site is not 100% true to the building which caused so much excitement in the early 1960’s.  However, given how close Victoria was to losing one of its highest quality modern buildings, the outcome is to be celebrated.

There are many benefits and complexities in industrial reuse projects and making these clear to clients and stakeholders is essential. The benefits around embracing heritage and achieving authenticity (and the resulting place-making) are well understood, but the reality is that the more surprises (and thus cost variations) arise in a project, the less likely best practice outcomes are to be achieved. Almost universally the clear message from those who have worked on reuse projects is around getting good quality existing condition information. This includes preferably expert external and internal surveying, obtaining original working drawings and detailed inspections of existing fabric, including destructive testing if possible. Convincing a client to spend money on existing condition information is essential. Issues during construction are predominantly the results of latent conditions, and defining as much early will reduce cost variations and provide potential design strategies for approaching the project. The clear message to clients is to spend some money early, rather than more money later.

Perhaps the largest single issue with industrial adaptive reuse is contamination, with almost all sites needing some form of remediation. This is of course reason for testing, both in ground and within the building fabric. There exists some potential for creative solutions in dealing with contamination, notably with in-ground contamination, where comprehensive (three dimensional) testing can result in targeted treatment works. Landscape architects have a lot to offer in this area, where creative responses to treatment and interpretation of contaminated sites has been researched thoroughly, and exciting graduate work is being developed in this area.4

Large industrial sites, those beyond a single building, present further opportunities, and potentially a diversity of new uses. Carrriageworks in Sydney (Tonkin Zulaikha Greer) is an excellent example. The possibility of intervention, reinvention and hybrid construction are perhaps greater with these sites. A very large site such as Tonsley Park in Adelaide, home to an 11 ha former car factory, presents these opportunities with areas of retention of the original structure, removal of hazardous materials, capturing of in-ground contamination, demolition of some areas to allow for whole new buildings, and the insertion of new smaller elements with the existing structure.

Very large structures such as this are often sheds, where the reuse of them as sealed buildings is questionable. A blurry state of inside and outside can be a better fit. This approach, where the new ‘inside’ does not necessarily align with the envelope of the original structure, can also present a strategy for dealing with BCA/NCC Section J requirements which typically call for a more thermally sealed perimeter and the loss of ‘thinner’ industrial heritage skins.

More traditional masonry based (pre-war) industrial sites are often associated with housing, and in Melbourne a recent example is the Studio Nine development in Richmond. Here, the 19th Century elements, originally the Wertheim Piano Factory, were converted into dwellings designed by Kerstin Thompson. This project has a double industrial history, both as factory and then TV studios. The design strategy here was of removal and reinstatement of the original factory urban form, with the clearly defined steel interventions, including on facades, where the layering of history and architecture is evident.

It is fully acknowledged that adapting an existing industrial site is hard work and potentially expensive. However as designers and literally as the architects of Victoria’s future building stock, we must ask ourselves what legacy are we leaving for future generations? What stories will our building stock tell? If the architectural profession doesn’t go the extra mile to ensure significant industrial sites and structures are retained (whether they are formally protected or not), who will ensure our industrial heritage isn’t lost to a debatably less exciting story of questionable quick fix housing?