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    John Wardle Architects receives approval for benevolent office tower

    Kirsty Sier

    It’s not often that one collates commercial buildings with a social conscience. The two are implicitly linked, however, in John Wardle Architects’ impending Melbourne project, Northumberland.

    The 13-storey office building, planned for the existing site of the Telephone Exchange in the inner-northern suburb of Collingwood, has been given the go-ahead by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). Originally, the project was opposed by local residents on the grounds of its height. VCAT eventually granted John Wardle Architects permission for Northumberland after the City of Yarra council failed to return their verdict within the prescribed application period.

    Initial designs for the building reveal high levels of sensitivity to context and the “fine grain” of the suburb. John Wardle Architects has confirmed that they intend to keep the original brick structure of the Telephone Exchange, and that the building will retain its function as a Telephone Exchange; a decision that the architects have said poses extreme technical challenges, “as the operational exchange is a maze of complexly layered infrastructure”.

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    In addition to the 13-storey commercial building, John Wardle Architects has also designed an accompanying five-storey building that will wrap around the existing building. This smaller space will contain a cafe on the ground floor and retail space. A laneway will also be added to the area, and connect Wellington and Northumberland Streets. This latter decision resulted from the architect’s commitment to preserving the heritage typology of the area.

    “Each building is periodised by its architectural style and stylistic details,” says John Wardle Architects in a design statement.

    “The proposed assembly of new built forms within the site have a distinct variance in height, materiality and form that contribute to and recall the aggregated set of building types which exist in-situ.

    “A new laneway connects Wellington to Northumberland streets, an extension of Derby Street – ‘Little Derby Street’, as it were. This intervention is a part of the revitalization strategy of what would otherwise be an inactive site. A laneway is made possible by setting the primary building back from Wellington Street in the order of 20 meters. The south-west corner of the site is held by the lower scale Companion Building which in turn frames the lane way and figures it within the site.

    “The laneway is a considered urban response, as so many smaller sites within the area have been and are continually consolidated into larger parcels and the fine grain of the area is being eroded. This development reinstates a new laneway and, in a way, refers back to the original scale of the area.”

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    The architecture and urban development aspects of the Northumberland project aren’t the only means by which it will contribute to the area. When complete, Northumberland will be one of the first projects to contribute to the Homes for Homes initiative, a program established by The Big Issue in 2013 to fund affordable housing and support the homeless population.

    In off-peak office hours, the end-of-trip amenities within Northumberland will be managed by homeless support service, Launch Housing. During these times, the showers and change room facilities will be opened up to local homeless people as safe, clean spaces to occupy.

    The project’s developer, Grocon, has also pledged their commitment to donating 0.1 percent of all rents collected to the Homes for Homes fund.

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    When VCAT granted approval to Northumberland earlier this week, they ruled against the City of Yarra council’s prior requirement that John Wardle Architects reduce the height of the proposed office component from 13 to 10 storeys. In support of their decision, VCAT cited other buildings of similar size in the area.

    “The proposal is consistent with [the] emerging pattern of development,” they determined. “We have not been persuaded that the reduction in height sought by the council in this instance is justified.

    “Overall, we have reached the conclusion that the proposed built form is an acceptable response to the site’s physical and strategic context and achieves an acceptable level of compliance with the relevant policies and provisions of the planning scheme.”

    Originally, Northumberland’s construction had been planned to commence early this year. Considering the unexpected delays to the approval process, it is now unclear when building will begin.

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