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    “A bold example of adaptive re-use”: unpacking RMIT New Academic Street

    Melbourne CBD

    After two years in the making, RMIT’s enormous, $220-million New Academic Street project is finally complete.

    Lyons Architecture led a five-firm design consortium comprising NMBW, Maddison, MvS, and Harrison and White. Working closely with RMIT to achieve the university’s goals of achieving a future-looking building that has an unprecedented focus on students, this major project has transformed the scattered RMIT city campus into an interconnected, vibrant collection of buildings.

    Rather than not down the existing building and start from scratch, the design team embarked on a bold project of adaptive re-use. The previous 1960s buildings were transformed into an environmentally sustainable and functionally flexible building that drew from iconic Melbourne imagery and cutting-edge technology for its design. As well as serving students with its diversity of spaces, New Academic Street re-establishes a long-lost connection between RMIT and Melbourne CBD, incorporating a number of community areas intended for wider use.

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    “We’ve used an existing structure to make something new, instead of knocking it down and starting from scratch,” says RMIT on the effort of the architectural consortium.

    “In the entire 32,000-square-metre footprint of the project, the only teaching and learning spaces delivered are the TV studios and other associated facilities in the Media Precinct. Everything else within NAS is student-focused, and was delivered for students – to provide them with spaces to study, hang out and collaborate.

    “The building is also targeting a Green Building Council Green Star 5-star ‘interiors’ rating – and it will be one of the first educational facilities to be rated.”

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    As the much-anticipated project comes to a close (although New Academic Street was featured in the Open House Melbourne Weekend calendar this year, its official opening party is on 20 September 2017), we spoke to RMIT about how New Academic Street is setting the standard for educational architecture.

    What was the design brief for New Academic Street?

    The main aim in undertaking the New Academic Street (NAS) project was to improve the centre of the City campus by opening it up to the community, to engage with its CBD surroundings and update key facilities for students.

    These buildings – 8, 10, 12 and 14 – were built in the 1960s/70s, [were] turned away from Swanston Street and needed to be updated. A key element of the project was to bring more light and air into the heart of these buildings that housed critical student services, the cafe and the Swanston Library.

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    How long has this project been in the making, and how many stages did it comprise?

    In 2011 a team of RMIT staff, led by RMIT’s Property Services, met to discuss the ‘Swanston Street Activation’ project, which later became known as the ‘Knowledge Hub’ and finally morphed into ‘New Academic Street’.

    Construction of the project officially began in August 2015, and NAS was delivered in stages. Stage 1 was delivered in March 2016, with the completion of the Student Portals on levels 9 – 13 in Building 10.  Stage 2 was handed back in phases starting in February this year. This included two new stairways from Swanston Street straight up to RMIT Connect (manages student transactions like enrolments), new retail and student-facing services along level 4, the Swanston Library (refurbished spaces and two new in-fill buildings on Bowen Street), the Media Portal & Media Precinct TV studios (over levels 2 & 3 along Swanston Street) and new balconies and rooftop terraces.  Stage 3 included refurbishment of lower levels of Building 8, a new entry and portico on Swanston Street, and new retail spaces along Franklin Street. These spaces opened in mid-August.  The final piece of the project is the Garden Building in Bowen Street that will be completed very soon.

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    When was the project officially completed?

    The spaces are open now (except for the Garden Building, which is opening soon) and the official launch day is 20 September. There will be a street party across the precinct to celebrate the end of the project and RMIT’s 130th anniversary.

    What did the project entail, from a design standpoint?

    The precinct was designed by five leading architecture firms. Lyons Architecture led the design consortium that included Harrison and White, NMBW Architecture Studio, MvS Architects and Maddison Architects, all of whom are bound tightly to the RMIT Architecture School as either graduates, current academics or both.

    Working with RMIT, the consortium was selected by Lyons to produce spaces that were diverse and distinct from one other, but still complementary.

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    Their designs were guided by iconic Melbourne features, like city laneways and glass-covered arcades. Central to their design approach was the willingness to connect RMIT’s City campus to the Melbourne CBD and create a dialogue between the city and campus.

    What are some of the main design features of the building?

    • Adaptive re-use is a feature of the build, knocking through concrete slabs to create new spaces such as the Media Portal on the corner of Swanston and Franklin Streets
    • Buildings 8-14 have been connected by ‘Academic Street’, which allows seamless passage through the campus for staff, students and visitors
    • Rooftop garden terraces and balconies
    • Beautiful skylights in the RMIT Connect area and atrium stairs leading to the library, both of which bring natural light into the centre of these once-dark spaces
    • New Swanston Street entrances feature wide staircases that take visitors straight to the centre of the precinct on level 4
    • Old lecture theatres have been transformed into study spaces. Where once there were concrete walls, there are now full-height windows looking over the Exhibition Buildings
    • The Student Portals are across three levels of study space carved out of old lecture theatres. The ‘Lower Portal’ has enclosed, hive-like booths inspired by the design of the Forum Theatre. The ‘Middle Portal’ features a sprawling green floor, similar to the lawn of the State Library, and the ‘Upper Portal’ was designed to mirror an architect’s design studio
    • Purpose-built furniture has been installed across the precinct, each piece designed to facilitate different modes of study (solo, duo, collaborative, group work etc.)
    • The three-level ‘birdcage balcony’ on Swanston Street has created open-air study spaces with views across the road to RMIT’s Building 80

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    How is it different from RMIT’s existing buildings? What gap does it fill, if any?

    In the entire 32,000-square-metre footprint of the project, the only teaching and learning spaces delivered are the TV studios and other associated facilities in the Media Precinct. Everything else within NAS is student-focused, and was delivered for students – to provide them with spaces to study, hang out and collaborate. All up, there 4,600 student seats within the precinct.

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    The revamped library has increased in size by 40 percent, with 1,920 seats and spaces for every type of student (e.g. traditional desks and chairs, collaborative study pods, rocking chairs and bean bag spaces bordered by wall nooks and booths for solo study). Both levels of the library open out onto balconies with power points, deck chairs, lounge chairs, desks and study booths.

    Could you talk us through some of the sustainability features? Why was it important to incorporate sustainability into this project?

    The build itself is a bold example of "adaptive re-use". We’ve used an existing structure to make something new, instead of knocking it down and starting from scratch. The climate of the campus is controlled through a mixed-mode ventilation system, which harnesses fresh air and roof censors to ensure optimum comfort with minimal environmental impact.

    NAS has also utilised low-impact materials, particularly within the Garden Building. The structure of the Garden Building is made from Glulam timber – a fabricated, glue-laminated timber that has lower embodied energy than concrete and steel, a greater strength than traditional timber, and is safer for construction workers to handle.

    The building is also targeting a Green Building Council Green Star 5-star ‘interiors’ rating – and it will be one of the first educational facilities to be rated. So consideration was given in the procurement of building materials during construction to comply with these requirements.

    Key Info

    Architect: Lyons, NMBW, Maddison, MvS, Harrison and White

    Builder: Lendlease

    Project Size: 32,000sqm

    Completed: 2017

    Photography: Various

    Words: Kirsty Sier

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