Creeds Farm Living and Learning Centre

November 10, 2011

Can design assist in catalysing community? Boasting warm natural materials and an embracing form, Tandem Design Studio’s new community centre in Melbourne’s north attempts to do just this.

The suburb of Epping in Melbourne’s outer north used to be what’s known as ‘the end of the line’. On the day that I visit, however, it’s clear that Epping’s claim to this slightly dubious distinction is under threat. As I step off the train, I’m confronted by a freshly excavated chasm. A long-planned extension of the line, further north, into the waiting maws of a Westfield shopping centre in South Morang is underway – evidence that despite government rhetoric to the contrary, the creeping sprawl that overwhelmed the village of Epping in the 1970s continues apace. The reason I’ve arrived in this far flung corner of Melbourne, in fact, is that I’m visiting a community centre set in the heart of a new project by the Victorian Government’s development arm, VicUrban, which depending on your point of view, is either a bold new model for sustainable suburban development, or a concession to the inevitability of sprawl and an attempt to ameliorate its negative social and environmental effects.

The VicUrban project is called Aurora, and while it is certainly ambitious, there is no doubt the agency is treading in very uncertain terrain – the mainline-to-the-mall was not the only railway extension planned. In addition to South Morang, it was also expected that the rail network would bifurcate just prior to Epping Station, to incorporate a new line to Epping North, taking in stops at Epping Plaza and, crucially, Aurora. Under much controversy, these plans have now been shelved, effectively leaving VicUrban’s ‘sustainable’ suburb car-bound.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying that an alternative to the typical model of suburban residential development is desperately needed. After fording the torrent of cars that is Epping Road on my way to Aurora from the station, the first thing I hit is not well-meaning, government-driven residential development, but the hard-nosed market-driven stuff that makes up the overwhelming majority of Melbourne’s new housing stock. Made up of block after block of rotund stucco McMansions, it makes for a gloomy bike ride en route to Aurora.

It’s not the building forms that bother so much about these new ‘neighbourhoods’, however, but rather the apparent lack of any of the infrastructure necessary to establish and sustain a community. It’s an oft-heard refrain in regards to greenfields development, but usually considered primarily from the context of a need for schools and healthcare, or hard infrastructure like roads and sewers. Cycling through these areas, though, it’s the ‘soft’ infrastructure that is most glaringly absent – the elements that those living in more established suburbs take for granted, such as a simple corner store or cafe, which you can walk to in the mornings to get your morning coffee and paper, perhaps to have a serendipitous catch-up with your neighbour on the way. In these new estates, where even something as simple as picking up the paper involves getting in a car, your best bet for a chance encounter with your neighbour is a weary glance through a windscreen while you both sit in the snarl of traffic on Epping Road, en route to the mall.

It is this dysfunctional context that makes the community centre that I’m visiting, and the Aurora estate it sits within, such vital and important work. The building, otherwise known as The Creeds Farm Living and Learning Centre has been designed by Tandem Design Studio with the dual objectives of facilitating community engagement and providing a demonstration of the practical benefits of green design. It was commissioned by a conglomerate – a group of non-profit and government organisations incorporating The Hornery Institute, VicUrban, The City of Whittlesea, Melbourne Citymission and The North East Neighbourhood House Network.

On approach, the centre’s low-slung form is unassuming. Careful attention has been paid to positioning within its surrounds, which in this instance are comprised of extant mature trees, tumbledown timber farmhouses and stone walling – the residual elements of the original Creeds Farm that once occupied the site. The southern elevation of the building is quite blunt, with fenestration formed by small punctures in a primary cladding of off-white and grey corrugated steel. This side of the building features the formal entry, and is also home to a small carpark. The northern side, however, is a different story altogether. Here, expansive double glazing, sheltered by deep eaves and operable brise-soleil of timber slats on metal runners, opens the building out to a generous courtyard surrounded by mature trees and garden beds – soon-to-be verdant, hope centre staff, with the veges of local community members. On the opposite side of this suntrap, a cafe and store can be found, which at the time of my visit was still under construction.

There are folding glass doors on this side of the centre, and it’s not hard to imagine it quickly asserting itself as the informal main entry point, as the area becomes more established and the courtyard and associated cafe likewise become more regularly frequented. The building’s design, in fact, encourages this – it’s an embracing form wrapping invitingly around this public space, directing foot traffic towards the doors, people trap to its sun trap. A greater emphasis too on warmer, natural materials here contributes to its human appeal – expressed glulam timber beams, stained timber screening, bluestone, even concrete blockwork in earthy tones.

When I arrive at the centre, it’s this informal entry in fact that I’m drawn to. Bypassing the ‘front’ door to park my bike in the courtyard, I find the centre manager, Rose Babic. Babic has a voluble and engaging personality – an invaluable trait for a manager of a new community centre, in a new and still formative community. She’s obviously energised by her work here, and excited by the new facility she’s been tasked with establishing. She’s not afraid either, though, to speak her mind when it comes to the things that have been niggling at her about it.

When I step into the centre, chilled by my bike ride in what has been an historically cold Melbourne autumn, the first thing I notice is the inviting temperature of the place – a product of both passive and active systems, with hydronic underfloor heating supplementing the warmth that is captured from the sun by the glazing and thermal mass of the blockwork. The second thing that’s immediately obvious is how un-institutional the space is. The building reads as a folded filament in plan, almost a ‘Z’ shape. At its core, along the spine of the Z, is an open plan kitchen and lounge area. This is the first room the visitor enters from the courtyard, and these informal qualities make it immediately welcoming. This domestic character is no happy accident, however.

Babic takes me on a quick tour of the premises, before Mary Robb, chairperson of The North East Neighbourhood House Network, arrives and we all gather in the office that opens out into the lounge/kitchen area. As Robb explains, the centre’s design is first and foremost the outcome of careful consultation. This is also something Timothy Hill of Tandem Design Studio was keen to stress when I first visited the project with him, pre-occupancy.

As Hill described, ‘As architects, we tend to do our own thing, but if you don’t go back to the community you end up with a huge amount of resistance. Community consultation needs to be managed really meticulously.’

Always challenging, this consultation process was made more so by the fact that the community in question was still formative – Hill was designing to a set of constraints and requirements that were largely projections. The knowledge and experience that The North East Neighbourhood House Network (the organisation that runs the centre and that was in essence the key client) brought to the equation was crucial in this regard.

The Network has long operated community centres around Melbourne’s north. Typically, these have been run out of repurposed government-owned buildings, in some cases even former houses. While Creeds Farm represents the first opportunity the Network has had to actually build a centre from scratch, its experience with these other centres has deeply informed both the design and program of the new facility. As Robb comments, the Network’s objectives with its centres is not service delivery, but community development – facilitating engagement and interaction among its community members. It is the Network’s experience that one of the best ways to do this is through food. The kitchen, then, is often the most important and heavily frequented room of a centre – which explains why one of the first things you see when entering Creeds Farm is an outsize kitchen bench.

That’s not to say design consultation occurred entirely without the input of locals, however. Early arrivals to the estate were involved, with The Hornery Institute managing much of this process. A non-profit community development organisation, the Institute sees its primary role as playing honest broker between developers, government and communities, and has a great deal of experience with the consultation process as a result. Which was just as well, as even with its expertise and experience, the consultation was still fraught with challenges. Sometimes three people would turn up, sometimes two, with a host of competing interests and agendas represented – some more eccentric than others. In one meeting, while Hill was presenting the vibrant green colour scheme for the kitchen cabinetry, he had a colour blind attendee complain ‘everything green to me looks like pus’.

But if there were challenges, Hill is adamant that the benefits of engagement and courting buy-in from the community far outweighed the disadvantages – Hill saw a lady who was initially the project’s most hostile opponent eventually become its biggest advocate.

The consultation process, and the experience of the North East Neighbourhood House Network, then, informed the design to an enormous degree. The Network’s second objective, however, to build a high performance, sustainable building that would serve as a demonstration of the benefits of environmentally friendly design, was achieved through a very different means.

The building boasts a number of green systems. In addition to the hydronic heating, it also features solar tubes that feed natural light down through the ceiling, solar panels that take care of the building’s hot water and other electricity requirements, recycled cork flooring and recycled water for its landscaping and gardens. The extensive use of timber both structurally and in terms of cladding has meant the project also has a very low embodied energy. It is in the timber structure, in fact, where the project’s real innovation, and true strength, lies. Despite its apparent spatial complexity, and its irregular plan, it is an extremely efficient building from the perspective of construction – the structural beams are standardised, creating consistency in the pitch of the skillion roof and in the building’s section. The structure is also highly flexible, freeing the floor plate from columns to maximise usable space, while also making it relatively easy to extend the building in future, should the community decide to do so.

This flexibility helped in the refinement of what are arguably the building’s most important environmentally sustainable features of all – its passive systems. These were developed in conjunction with staff from RMIT’s Centre for Design, who worked on the environmental modelling of the building. As a direct result of the modelling process, the building design went through a number of different iterations – its filament plan contracting to accommodate seasonal movements of the sun and the need to either shield from or capture its heat. Nevertheless, despite the high tech approach, from the reports of centre staff the passive systems are not without their problems. While I found the centre’s temperature to be warm and inviting on entry, staff members often find it too warm. Babic for one has been struggling with the hydronic system’s controls, which she finds too complex for a layperson to adjust easily. Meanwhile, in the summer season some of the building’s rooms are still penetrated by direct sun for part of the day, despite its deep eaves. The Network is now examining its options with regards to retrofitting external awnings to the kitchen and office windows.

Much like the estate it sits within then, while the centre was designed from sound and holistic sustainable design principles, it is not without its imperfections. This should not be read as a condemnation of either project, however, but rather points to the immensity of the challenge we face in crafting an urban and architectural address to what are fickle, complex systems. To address this requires a design strike an improbable balance – becoming a durable and efficient response to a turbulent climate, while still being flexible enough to cater to the contingent and mercurial demands of our societies.

The Creeds Farm Living and Learning Centre is a brave and innovative response to this intimidating task, and in this respect teething issues are to be expected. Ultimately, however, in regards to one crucial ambition it is an unmitigated success. As Robb describes, in commissioning the building the Network’s primary objective was to see if design could help catalyse formal contact among the members of its community. Judging from the attendance of the centre’s programs to date, the building is drawing people in, and together.

As Babic puts it, ‘It’s a very sexy building!’

Maitiú Ward is the managing editor of Architectural Review Australia.

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