A new hotel sitting atop six storeys of commercial office space in Melbourne’s CBD may not look that different from the neighbouring glass-encased development, but is in fact hailed one of the largest timber projects in the world. 

The 10-storey 14,000sqm commercial tower built out of cross laminated timber sourced entirely from Forest Stewardship Council certified suppliers was completed in August, with only a few COVID-19 hiccups. 

More than 5300 tonnes of cross laminated timber were shipped from Austria, with sources from Australia largely non-existent when the project first started (but anticipated to take off shortly).

The $50 million, 220-room serviced apartment hotel was built like Lego over a working office space. 

The thing about constructing with timber, Bates Smart architectural firm director Julian Anderson says, is it’s “a very quiet process” compared to steel and concrete. 

“Which means the impact on adjacent residents and then also the tenants within the commercial building was pretty minimal.” 

The building now operates as a “carbon sink”, as described by the building’s owner Hume Partner’s managing director Scott Davies, offsetting about 4200 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

To drive down energy consumption, the design has incorporated high performance insulation and glazing on the facade, high performance chillers and timers to switch off airconditioning. The timber’s thermal mass also reduces cooling and heating loads. 

A rainwater tank has been installed to supply water to the cooling towers and the swimming pool, and the site, Southbank Boulevard, is close to public transport, a bike share station and car share pod.

Demolishing the office building was not an option

Surrounded by a string of high-rises, it was abundantly clear to the owners of the existing building it was “grossly underdeveloped”, Mr Davies said. 

But the office building was close to fully occupied, and demolishing it was out of the question, posing no financial or environmental gains. 

The steel and concrete structure was designed to withstand six new concrete levels, but further investigation unveiled 10 levels of timber could be added because it is lighter. 

“There is a functional aspect that just couldn’t have been delivered using any other type of construction technology,” Mr Anderson said. 

Much of the building was manufactured off-site, including the bathrooms, cutting construction time, costs and material wastage. In terms of the number of crane lifts, if precast concrete panels had been used, that would have required five times the number of panels and five times the number of cranes. 

“Another thing that is important particularly in this current COVID-19 world is this idea of re-use of existing buildings,” Mr Anderson said. 

“Rather than contemplating demolishing we’ve adapted… the office tenants stayed in place.” 

This is only the beginning for timber

And despite Melbourne’s strict planning controls, Mr Anderson says there is plenty of untapped potential for timber extensions, which lead to sustainable outcomes. 

The timber hotel, known as Adina Melbourne Southbank, is not Bates Smart’s first foray into the material.

The studio also designed Australia’s tallest timber office building, 25 King in Brisbane. Opened in late 2018, the building is one metre shy of the world’s tallest timber building, Brock Commons in Vancouver. 

The 52-metre-tall Brisbane tower set a global precedent for larger structures that pushed the boundaries beyond steel and concrete by leaving the timber frame exposed. 

“In the case of [Adina Melbourne Southbank], unfortunately it is cladding, fire rated plaster board… so you do kind of miss out on that sense of timber,” Mr Anderson said. 

“It is not a building which is about wearing its credentials on its sleeve, it is actually using the timber as a way of delivering a functional outcome.

“Using timber doesn’t mean the building has to look like timber… that kind of opens up a new world of opportunity where developers can use timber as a way of dealing with challenging constraints.” 

The future of timber is bright. While materials were shipped thousands of kilometres from Europe for this project, contributing significantly to the carbon footprint, cross laminated timber plant XLam is now operating in Wodonga, NSW. 

“I think that is one thing that will contribute to a greater awareness and opportunity for these buildings being made out of timber,” Mr Anderson said. 

The other aspect is the growing demand for biophilic designs, defined as the “innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world” according to the Oxford Dictionary. 

“What our developers and tenants are saying to us is that they want to be working in buildings that are naturally ventilated, have access to direct sunlight and have greenery in them,” Mr Anderson said. 

“[Biophilia] is a concept that there is noticeable and acknowledged benefits for people working in environments that are connected to nature, and whether that’s in the building fabric through it being made from timber or some greenery or access to fresh air and sunlight,” Mr Anderson said. 

A future where timber hasn’t taken off is hard to believe, he said. “The benefits of working in environments and living in environments that have visible elements of greenery or timber are documented.”

He says it has shown to reduce stress and increase productivity. 

“There is going to be an acceleration of people’s expectation they are given the best living and working environments, and one way to deliver that is this idea of biophilia, where we are drawn to places which have a greater connection to nature.”

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