Until a few years ago, two industrial heritage buildings in the middle of Sydney’s CBD sat unused for 20 years because no developer was brave enough to touch the tricky infill site.

Building and construction company Built has risen to the challenge, on Wednesday topping out an eye-catching glass “bubble” atop the two existing buildings, which will serve as its new headquarters.   

Company founder and executive chairman Marco Rossi admitted that the site was indeed intimidating but that made it the perfect opportunity to prove that his company wasn’t afraid of a challenge.

“This was a difficult, difficult job,” Rossi said at the topping out event on Wednesday attended by Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

“It would have been a difficult job on an open site, but it was even trickier in the city with the cars and activity of the CBD.”

Rossi said the company saw the site as a rare development opportunity to repurpose history-laden heritage buildings into modern workspace, asking architect on the project, Richard Francis-Jones from fjmt, to “design a jewel above these heritage buildings that touches them lightly and that is so beautiful that it will be one day heritage listed”.

It sounded crazy but Francis-Jones has managed to do just that, designing an orb-shaped seven storey extension to perch atop the two buildings.

Refurbishing existing buildings is a winning strategy to cut waste, reduce demand on dwindling raw materials and curb emissions, which is what attracted developer Nuveen Real Estate, which acquired the 7867 square metre A-grade office tower development as part of its Asia Pacific Cities Fund for $180 million, just before construction started two years ago.

The 183 Clarence Street building was the seed property of the fund that Nuveen head of real estate Nick Evans said is designed to offer investors access to “future proof resilient cities in this exciting and growing Asia Pacific region.”

“These are cities that are best placed to manage demographic and structural changes.”

For Evans, what really sets the building apart is its sustainability credentials.

More than just the façades of the 1909 wine and spirit warehouse and neighbouring 1930 substation on Clarence Street have been kept. The developers have also maintained the original brickwork, warehouse floors (which will be a feature of the new ceilings), windows and original features such as the early hydraulic lift, as well as the reimagined substation “Machine Hall” with 12-metre-high ceilings that will be used as an event space.

As well as keeping its embodied carbon down through reuse, the building also has an energy efficient design – including high performance glass for the bubble-like façade on the extension – and is targeting 5 star Green Star and 5 star NABERS Energy ratings.

It also has expanded end of trip facilities for 66 tenants and 33 visitors to encourage people to walk and ride.

“We recognise that the physical impact of climate change will effect real estate values into the future,” Evans said at the event.

Evans said the property aligns with his company’s commitment to delivering a net zero real estate portfolio by 2050.

The ideal headquarters post-pandemic

Jono Cottee, development director at Built, told The Fifth Estate that the out-there building is a fitting spot for the company to headquarter itself to show off its capabilities as an innovative builder.

Its reputation is already set to be put to the test with the company contracted for the Atlassian headquarters job in Tech Central – a 40-storey hybrid timber building – in a joint venture with fellow builder Obayashi Corporation with which it formed a partnership to manage bigger projects in 2016.

While Built is currently the only tenant, Cottee expects the smaller floorplates of the boutique tower will suit employees looking to downsize their floorplate as more employees work remotely. According to recent analysis from global workplace experts Unispace, people will return to the office following the worst of pandemic but 10-30 per cent of office space will remain unoccupied.

The developers also made last minute pandemic-safe alterations, including contactless automatic doors and sanitary fixtures to bathrooms, access control lifts and space for temperature checking in office lobbies. Expanded end of trip facilities are also a response to Covid for people who feel safer avoiding public transport.

Cottee expects these sorts of features to be fairly standard in new builds going forward but are typically pretty expensive to retrofit.

With only around 10 leases signed in the whole Sydney CBD since Covid hit Australian shores, Cottee expects the market to show more interest once the building is complete and prospective tenants can get a good feel for what the space will look like.

Built managing director Brett Mason said that the new office space will meets the changing needs of businesses in an altered COVID-19 world.

“COVID-19 has shifted how we think about workplaces and what we are hearing from the market is that mid-tier businesses in tech, professional and financial services are now more interested in moving to a unique boutique tower where they can still command full floors and make a statement about their brand, rather than taking part-floors or subleasing in larger office buildings,” Mason said.

The two floors set aside for Built in the heritage section are slated for Platinum WELL certification for the office fitout.

The development also offers landscaped outdoor terrace spaces for enjoying Sydney’s temperate weather.

Lots to work with to refurbish

Architect on the project, Richard Francis-Jones from fjmt, told The Fifth Estate that project offered an unusual opportunity to meld the old with the new in the heart of the CBD.

The old booze warehouse was built for wine and spirit merchant Shelley Warehouse at 185 Clarence Street, and was one of the early warehouse developments in the area.

The neighbouring Electrical Substation No 164 at 183 Clarence Street was built as one of five substations to support DC current conversion from the Pyrmont Powerhouse to the city.

Much of its industrial charm will still persist, including the original substation Machine Hall on the ground level.

Fortunately, Cottee said that the existing buildings were in good nick for their age, with a bit of remedial work required but nothing serious.

While the extension is clearly part of the aesthetic, the top seven floors also helped the developer meet requirements for A grade or above classification for commercial property.

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