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Global architectural and design firm Woods Bagot has devised an innovative new Jenga-style approach to the adaptive reuse of ageing urban office buildings, the future of which is under threat as owners struggle to maintain the buildings through lack of capital.
Property Council of Australia data confirms that older, lower-grade office buildings offering less amenity and low Environmental, Social and Governance standards in the Sydney and Melbourne CBDs are shedding tenants at an unsustainable pace.
PCA office occupancy data provided by Cushman & Wakefield reveals that B-grade office vacancy rates in Melbourne reached 17.4 per cent in July of 2022, significantly higher than that of premium buildings.
The gap is widening in both cities as businesses trade up to better quality premises, lured by generous rental incentives, in a bid to attract their employees back to the office after the workplace disruptions caused by COVID-19.
Woods Bagot Cassandra Fahey and Wuff Keeble, set about disrupting the current workplace thinking, bringing their diverse backgrounds and experiences to the fore.
Cassandra Fahey, Interior Design Leader, Woods Bagot
Fahey says the amenity of older buildings must be improved to ensure they are attractive to tenants and remain commercially competitive.
“It is also important that our cities maintain a mixed scale of building types not only small Victorian towers. Our buildings and our city must be healthy,” says Fahey, who is the interior design leader of Woods Bagot’s Melbourne studio.
“Increased amenity is an answer to a post-pandemic workplace problem across all building grades. Adaptive reuse of underutilised modern and mid-century blocks is essential to ensure they are relevant in the modern workplace environment.”
There are also government environmental building hurdles to consider with City of Melbourne pushing to retrofit 77 CBD sites a year for apartments and offices.
“It’s a moment that should force a reckoning with how we determine property value,” says Fahey
“Can we move beyond the real estate agent’s perception of lettable square meters and inspire building owners to embrace the new mode? A fresh air index, a public amenity index?”
To enable this, Woods Bagot has devised what she calls the ‘Jenga approach’ to adaptive reuse.
Crucially, this ‘Programmatic Mix’ must be a fundamental reworking of the existing office mode, predicated on elevating the user experience through a blend of live, work, rest and play, in a layered, non-conforming layout.
For this, Fahey describes ‘Fairy Jenga’ as an adaptive re-use proposition that gives “more than a make-over” to these buildings, allowing their souls to shine.
As a prototype, Woods Bagot looked to Melbourne’s Queen Street where there is an abundance of buildings in need of this love.
In a case study using an unnamed building in the Queen Street precinct, the Jenga approach can be applied to great effect.
In the ‘Jenga-approach’ volume is extracted which creates the opportunity for a novel programmatic mix.
A focus on engaging the public realm sees the ground floor open, creating fluidity and encouraging movement throughout space.
It’s a reference to the popular game where a tower is created from 54 wooden blocks, three per level, and removed one-by-one by the players.
Imagining older buildings as the stack of blocks, and their regeneration about a clever, meticulous pulling out pieces in key locations, letting light and social space in.
“If we considered existing buildings as a Jenga tower, the process of eliminating each block is a process of revelation,” says Fahey.
“We extract volume which reveals a space where division can occur both horizontally and vertically. By taking massing away through incisions, the opportunity for a novel ‘Programmatic Mix’ becomes possible.”
An enticing ground floor feeds into the engagement with other zones and the rooftop becomes activated.
Smoothing off corners and sharp urban edges, encourages movement and connectivity, new pathways for exploration.
The design utilizes the edge of building – chipping it off to create a more organic curved passage that also leads through building, strengthening the cohesion between the public realm and private space.
There’s also sharp increase in what Fahey terms “commercial pause buttons”, these are places that exist beyond the bounds of productivity but are so often the reprieve needed for inspiration.
These are places for coffee, for stopping and looking at art, plush sofas to sit with a colleague or meet up a friend also working in the CBD.
A cross-pollination occurs between work/life and formerly disparate sectors merge in one ‘club like’ offering.
“Walls dissolve to allow the sunshine in,” Fahey says. “Floors dissolve to allow the love in. Old material is shed. Old mechanics are shed. Old thoughts are shed,” Fahey says.
“Melbourne City is injected. To make our city healthy. To make our city shine.”
To bring such a vision of our underutilized stock to life, Woods Bagot proposes a fluid marriage between an owner and an operator and the creative power of architects to seal the deal and witness the vows.
Content and Communications (Australia & New Zealand)
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