Princes Pier, adjacent to Station Pier in Port Phillip Bay, is one of Melbourne’s most important cultural assets both as an exemplar of a pre-containerised shipping facility and as a place rich in Australia’s wartime, maritime and multicultural history. Words by Steve Brown, design director, NDYLIGHT.

Princes Pier gatehouse. Photo by Peter Glenane courtesy of MPV

Built between 1912 and 1915, it was constructed by the Melbourne Harbour Trust as a second railway pier in Port Melbourne, The pier was designed to handle both cargo and passengers, and also boasted office accommodation for customs officers and shipping companies as well as waiting room for passengers with moveable gangways making it safer and more comfortable to board or disembark.

Princes Pier gatehouse. Photo by Simmonds courtesy of MPV1

Originally known as 'New Railway Pier', it was renamed Princes Pier in 1921 in honour of the royal visit by the Prince of Wales. The pier’s iconic two-level timber Gatehouse was added in 1935 to enable better monitoring of cargo and traffic on to and off of the pier.

Princes Pier is a heritage listed structure, and was the departure point for Australian troops during the First and Second World Wars, and also the arrival point for American troops during the Second World War. In a significant peacetime role, it was the first landing point in Australia for post-war migrants — more than one million between 1947 and 1969.

Princes Pier forest of timber piles. Photo by Peter Glenane courtesy of MPV1

After the containerization boom and the last of the migrant ships in 1969 the pier became run-down and was decommissioned in 1985. It suffered severe deterioration over the next two decades, until in 2006 the Victorian Government decided Princes Pier would not be left to rot and committed $34 million to its restoration.

The works would involve construction of 196 metres of new deck, removal of the original decking beyond that point to create of a ‘forest of piles’ as an architectural centrepiece, and refurbishment and servicing of the gatehouse building to meet modern standards.

Norman Disney & Young (NDY) was appointed services engineering consultants by Robert Bird Group (structural engineers) on behalf of Major Projects Victoria (MPV) in late 2009, under the guidance of NDY project coordinator Joseph Steele. “I had never undertaken a pier project previously,” Steele said in interview, “and approached this project considering it like a commercial building on stilts. But I soon realised there were many more complexities than at first sight.

For a start, as the pier is positioned over water, most of the services had to be designed to be installed, and maintained, from boats and barges. Mix in the fact that the pier is almost one hundred years old and actually sways due to tidal movement, and that some existing structural elements didn’t allow us to support infrastructure from the deck, made for some quite complex solutions. MPV also wanted to ensure there was spare infrastructure capacity for future requirements, including provisions for tall ships, which of course had to be hidden and not impinge on the heritage aspects.”

For Steele, the challenges of this project extended beyond engineering design. Other hurdles included dealing with authorities — all the traditional land-bound bodies for services to the shoreline, and then a second set for works carried out over the water. This made for some confusion in ownership as some services — such as sewage — passed from water-side to dry land. Authorities implicit in the over-water design included the Port of Melbourne Authority and the EPA, particularly where impact on wildlife might be an issue.

“The mechanical design for the gatehouse uses sea-water as a cooling medium, so there is some heat rejection to the bay,” Steele said. “We had to engage with the EPA on this matter, but were able to demonstrate that any heating effects were extremely localised and minor. However we felt that sea-water cooling was vastly preferable to exposed plant on or around the historic gatehouse, particularly given the risks of corrosion.”

Photo by Peter Glenane courtesy of MPV1

Exposure to the elements was a major consideration in the design. Princes Pier is more exposed than nearby Station Pier, so the effects of salt spray, strong winds and constant dampness had to be carefully considered.

Also important was tempering the reaction of nearby neighbours, many living in properties at the upper end of the residential price-bracket, however the completed pier seems to have been favourably received; after all, this jewel on the foreshore is infinitely preferable to the eyesore that existed for so many years.

Asked about NDY’s relationship with client and builder, Steele said “Major Projects Victoria is a valued client. I found their project manager Andrew McKinley to be engaged, collaborative, and always receptive to new ideas - he gave this project real drive.

I had not worked with Fitzgerald Constructions (Builder) before, but they showed they are clearly specialists at this type of work and delivered the project right on time. One aspect of their work — the temporary lifting of the historic gatehouse whilst they built the new deck under it before dropping it back into position — is a remarkable achievement.”

Project architects Lovell Chen clearly relished the challenge of recreating a landmark, re-imagined for the twenty-first century. The project has been entered in the Heritage category of this year’s Victorian Architecture Awards.

The Pier was also an interesting test case for Building Information Modelling (BIM), a value-add service that NDY brought to the project from the outset. In what was a test case for Major Projects Victoria, they appointed NDY to use BIM heirloom-fashion, capturing artefact and repair data for the more than 1000 timber piles in a manner that can be accessed and interrogated by future generations. This was done in addition to the more ‘traditional’ BIM function of conveying detailed design data to the builder who can then augment the dataset with as-built information for the end user.

In addition to mechanical, electrical and hydraulics services, NDY also provided communications and security services. Specialist division NDYLIGHT designed the lighting scheme for the new pier, including the dual-output Cosmopolis lighting system — allowing different intensities for normal and event uses — and the marine navigation lighting system.

Asked how he would like to remember the project, Steele replied without hesitation: “Princes Pier is in my top ten projects, definitely. To work on an iconic Melbourne project so rich in history, and with difficult technical challenges requiring creative approaches was an immensely satisfying experience.”