Hassell architects have revealed plans to give UNSW’s classic modernist Electrical Engineering Building (EEB) and adjacent Rex Vowels Theatre (RVT) a contemporary facelift.

Built in 1963, the EEB is located on one of the main thoroughfares of UNSW’s Kensington Campus and together with the RVT was pegged for refurbishment as part of the university’s masterplan strategy to improve pedestrian links, flow and experience throughout the campus.

The T-shaped EEB comprises a six level 18 x 86metre long ‘South Block’ facing University Mall with a perpendicular five level 18 x 66metre ‘North Block’ adjoining Basser Steps. RVT attaches to the Lower Ground floor foyer of EEB and forms part of the project scope.


The building’s 1960s Modernism-style was considered integral to the campus’ history and therefore much of its classic style will be retained and refurbished by Hassell including its vertical brickwork piers, ceramic tile spandrels, flat roof, ground plane undercroft and the concrete breezeblocks on the building’s stairwells.

View of existing conditions and photomontage of proposed design taken from the roof of Mechanical Engineering Building looking towards the South Facade of the South Block.

Hassell have proposed to holistically refurbish the buildings to extend the base building and service life by 30 years and to upgrade to regulatory compliance. Refurbishment to EEB is extensive and includes new facade elements, a new roof top plant level, an accessible roof for research and student experiments, replacement of all services and a new interior fit-out to provide contemporary research and learning facilities.  

The refurbishment scope of Rex Vowels Theatre is to include upgrades of existing services, improvements to existing amenities including accessibility connections to and around the theatre, a complete new fit-out of the interiors including new tiered seating, wall linings & audio visual systems to enhance performance.

Overall the majority of the existing building façade will be retained including all of the variegated face brickwork (refurbished where existing external services are removed), the concrete patterned ‘breeze’ block zones, most of the ceramic tile spandrels, the white painted profiled concrete soffits and parapets (primarily on the North Block) and the grey concrete window reveals.

Both the South and North blocks of the EEB will have their existing single glazed windows replaced by new double glazed aluminium framed windows. A portion of the South Block’s existing spandrels on Ground to Level 2 in the centre of the building will also be removed to enable full-height bay windows and perforated metal sun shade elements will be added to the southern façade to mitigate sunlight during the Summer months.

Close up of new proposed bay windows replacing spandrel panels.

The majority of the work however will be carried out on the North Block which will have a new roof plant level, some recladding of the façade and a new ground level openings to improve access and usability of the spaces.

Both the eastern and western elevations of the North block will have new sun shading devices protecting the new double-glazed windows from low Summer sun. Whilst the application of these sun shades will improve the building’s thermal performance, they also provide the building with a new expression.

View of existing conditions and proposed montage taken from Rex Vowels courtyard looking towards the entry of Western Facade of the North Block.

The major upgrade to the North Block will be the new roof plan which will house the mechanical plant for the now fully-conditioned EEB building. Hassell’s stategy to offset the added visual bulk is to locate the plant primarily on the North Block (90% of the total area) as it is less visually sensitive from nearby residential areas, minimises increased overshadowing of the University Mall to preserve the existing pedestrian amenity and is closer to services access for future replacement of mechanical equipment.

Hassell have proposed to clad the mechanical plant room in a translucent material such as a multi-wall polycarbonate panel system.

Broadly, the RVT will be retained and refurbished without major interventions. New glazing walls will replace the existing windows in the same location and the roof will be replaced by a new metal deck system. As part of the landscape design creation of a new contemplation space, the walls enclosing the existing gas storage and service area will be demolished. To simplify access and movement around the Theatre, the glazed facades and doors on the east and west between the Theatre and South Block will be removed. This space will remain under cover but become a breezeway, providing an east/west pedestrian connection from Engineering Road to the lift foyer.

Images: Hassell.