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RMIT: from grey ghosts to stylish green

It’s been five years, but the transformation of RMIT’s “grey ghost” 1960s buildings into sustainable state-of-the-art and uber-stylish spaces is now complete. The revamped facilities, part of the wider New Academic Street (NAS) project, have officially opened.

Director of Lyons Architecture Carey Lyon, who was project director for the NAS redevelopment, says the re-use of the “grey ghosts” was one of the projects fundamental sustainability aspects.

Cary Lyon. Image: Okay Photo

“It was an interesting brief to find ways to creatively re-use those buildings,” he told The Fifth Estate.

The project delivered 32,000 square metres of new and refurbished space across the lower levels of four buildings and the new Garden Building. It converted 6000 sq m of existing back-of-house space into activated and permeable space fronting Swanston Street, including the Media Precinct.

The NAS project saw Mr Lyon recruit four other architecture practices to collaborate on the project and deliver key parts of the overall design – MvS Architects, NMBW Architects, Harrison White and Maddison Architects – in addition to landscape architects Taylor Cullity Leathlen.

All of the architecture firms are RMIT alumni, Mr Lyon said.

It was also RMIT industrial design graduates who designed and oversaw the manufacture of some of the new furnishings in the project.

“That’s a fantastic virtuous cycle for a university to have,” he said.

As well as rehabilitating the ghosts, the project addressed major issues with the city campus, including entry, access and way finding.

It was carried out in parallel with another major undertaking, the Sustainable Urban Precincts Project (SUPP).

The $128 million energy and water conservation overhaul of three campuses including the City campus has already been generating substantial savings in energy use, water use and carbon emissions, according to SUPP project director, Murray Walls.

“The program has been a significant success with RMIT beating emissions reduction targets set by the Australian Technology Network of universities, ahead of schedule with more still to come,” he said.

“Once all works are complete this year, RMIT will realise a reduction in emissions of over 35 per cent compared to business as usual.

“And as part of all this, we’ve delivered a step change in the quality of our infrastructure, replacing many ageing systems and giving our students and staff what will be best-in-class for years to come.”

Upgrade works carried out across a total of 77 buildings and carried out by Honeywell and Siemens have included LED retrofits, chiller and boiler upgrades and upgrades to BMS and automation systems.

Centralised thermal plant has been installed, along with a high voltage ring main at Bundoora West and City campuses. HVAC has been upgraded, and a combined total of 400 solar panels installed.

Mr Lyon said the parallel SUPP project meant the NAS team did not have to consider mechanical plant on a building by building level, as the mechanical services are now precinct-scale, not building scale.

Some of the design moves that contribute to sustainability include introducing laneways and arcades through the 1960s buildings, which opened up opportunities for a mixed mode ventilation design.

When the weather is clement, some of these can be opened up and operated as entirely naturally ventilated spaces – and not just for spaces near the perimeters of the buildings, but deep within them.

“That improves the overall energy footprint, but it also means a lot of the spaces designed for students have fresh air. We are creating a healthy environment.”

Rooftop gardens have been created and planted with species able to survive in urban and shaded environments.

The revamp has already earned a 5 Star Green Star Interiors Design rating from the Green Building Council of Australia under a pilot tool, with the design team involved in the development of the tool.

Obtaining an Interiors As Built rating is the next objective.

According to Mr Lyon, Lendlease, which managed the construction, ensured sustainable materials were used throughout.

“Everything is done through that [sustainability] lens.”

AECOM’s sustainability team was also a key collaborator on the project.

Sustainability was preferenced in the nature of materials but also through minimising their quantity.

Mr Lyons said a large proportion of the overall project is “very raw” in terms of finishes.

In the 20 per cent of the overall project area that comprises new buildings, and where demolition was undertaken in old ones, a choice was made not to have ceilings installed as part of the rebuild.

Some acoustics treatments have been applied, but this design choice otherwise removed the cost of ceiling linings from the budget and takes away the future issue of needing to deal with ceiling tile waste or similar.

A similar decision was made in terms of floors, with a substantial proportion comprising simply polished concrete without carpet or other coverings.

Waste was also minimised in elements of the furniture designs. Harrison White designed the “learning pods” in a way that enabled them to be manufactured using digital technology from sheets of plywood.

Overall, Mr Lyon says the project has “radically transformed the student experience at the centre of the campus”.

It has created spaces that “feel healthy”, so students feel encouraged to “stick on campus”, Mr Lyon says.

RMIT will also be gathering data about the performance of the NAS buildings and spaces, Mr Lyon says. There are also digital screens installed in key circulation spaces that show how the building is performing.

As part of the new BMS and automation systems, a demand-driven approach has been put in place for energy use.

In teaching and learning spaces, when they are booked by a staff member, the HVAC only turns on 10 minutes before the allotted time, Mr Lyon said.

But there are also sensors on the doors that ensure if no-one turns up within 10 minutes of the specified time, the HVAC and lighting is automatically switched off.

“There is a tighter fit between use of space and actual energy use.”

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