53 Albert Street

September 16, 2009

Nettleton Tribe transform a bland city car park into a striking and eco-conscious development in central Brisbane.

Architect’s statement
For more than 30 years, the car park at the junction of Albert and Margaret Street sat unassuming, providing an important contribution to the workings of city life.

Rather than allow this structure to suffer the usual fate of similar utilitarian CBD buildings, Nettleton Tribe’s approach was to retain the existing nine-level car park and construct 13 levels of office above. While this approach resulted in a speedier approval process and reduced construction time, it placed additional constraints on the structural and operational layout of the entire development. New structure has been introduced in and around the existing form, while maintaining the current car park in operation, culminating in column-free office floor plates above. The unique challenges of inserting the new retail, service bays and office lobby under the existing ramps, together with a new lift core rising through the centre of the car park were resolved to achieve an open plan office floor that is both efficient and commercially viable.

Connecting the new with the existing was the primary objective within the design strategy. Demarcations have been carefully blended to create a coherent entity where these two functions are working in synergy. Conceived as a pair of interlocking planes, the roof plane wraps down the Margaret Street façade, overlapping the car park levels, stopping short of the ground to reveal new structure behind. Nettleton Tribe in conjunction with Urban Art Projects and artist Jennifer Marchant wrapped the car park in a multidimensional artwork screen, its sinuous curves in complement to the rigour of the horizontal and vertical office fenestration.

From project inception sustainability was a primary objective. Management, indoor environmental quality, energy, water, materials and emissions benchmarks were established consistent with four-star GBCA (Office Design v.2). Nettleton Tribe endeavoured to improve on these criteria incorporating additional measures, exemplified by the retention of the existing structure as the embodiment of recycling. While satisfying aesthetic demands the artwork screen is perforated to provide natural ventilation to the car park, balancing the need of openness for ventilation against the desire to conceal its function.

Nettleton Tribe has ensured 53 Albert Street is not only a commercially successful consolidation of existing and new structure with current technologies, but a building that will be both sustainable and responsive to the climate for many years to come.

Completed by Nettleton Tribe in early 2009 in Brisbane’s CBD, 53 Albert Street is an addition of some 13 floors of generic commercial office space to an existing six-storey commercial parking garage. It is by and large a fairly typical, yet elegant example of the type: central core, efficient column-free floor plates, roof plant, street-level foyer with café and so on. Its silhouette and volume is again true to type, being a product of the normative constraints of development economics and the external limits of form set by planning regulations, common in many downtown areas. It has, however, been designed and constructed to meet the ESD initiatives of the BCA attaining four Green Star stars and a 4.5-star rating from the Australian Building Greenhouse Rating scheme (ABGR), which according to the ABGR places it somewhere (in energy design terms at least) between ‘excellent’ and ‘exceptional’.

The practice of additions, often substantial, to domestic structures is something of a staple or even a high art in certain architectural circles. Discourse around this practice centres on a rich vein of ideas, which relate among other things to the need to preserve embodied energy in existing fabric and ameliorate the destructive environmental impacts of construction.

This is a practice less common with commercial buildings, which tend to endure, or should that be suffer, endless internal reconfigurations until they reach a kind of ‘shelf life’ and peter into dishevelled disregard, ready for eventual removal, subject to the vagaries of market forces. This cycle of erasure and replacement, inviting a wasteful depletion of energy, resources and the loss of continuity in the collective memory, is one of the key targets of the sustainability putsch. To seriously address the problems of climate change, there is little point in focusing attention on a few bespoke ‘deep green’ projects. These will only ever remain symbols of an urgent need for change rather than exemplars of action. When it comes to addressing the fundamental environmental deficiencies in the regulations and economics that shape our commercial and industrial building stock, changing mindsets is all.

One of the so-called practical initiatives of the struggle to change minds has seen the emergence of energy ratings, made enforceable by the parallel growth of planning policy culture. When it comes to articulating what the physical form of our cities could be, we appear to be drowning in bureaucracy and regulation, which is in turn mired by timid and aimless governance. Developers are no doubt seeing the Green Star more and more as part and parcel of the normative conditions of building control, much like the constantly evolving heights of balustrades for example. What is interesting in this regard when one examines 53 Albert Street is that the value of the project resides in its architectural resolution, and less in the attempt to break from the regulatory impasse through its green star appellation.

The challenge of adding to and retaining the existing and, to be fair, rude bare bones of the parking garage is central to much of the thinking around the project. Some deft judgment has been deployed in removing the inside parking bays of the generic scissor ramp garage to account for the new office core, in conjunction with a separate framework of structure outside the existing external line of the garage. The separation of structures, existing and new, sets up subtle interstitial volumes, which in various ways wrap up the existing fabric, favouring a new reading of this formerly mono-functional car park. For example, the low slung ramping parking slab over the street address to the south, whose edge is now held back from the ‘new’ external line, is wrapped in the new lobby’s ceiling design of coffered back-lit flush finishes. Elsewhere, the slippage of space between new and old allows for passive ‘venturi’ airflow to aide in the ventilation of the garage.

Further considerations of the ‘host’ parking garage as a key determinant of form see its dominance in the streetscape rearticulated as part of the tripartite formal language of the new tower, unifying it compositionally as a single element. This has been achieved by another ‘wrap’ of aluminium in the form of a major artwork screen coordinated by Urban Arts Projects, Landline (2008) by Jennifer Marchant, which is also used as a visual reference from several points in adjacent streets. The work, the source of which is Cunningham’s Gap in the Great Dividing Range, abstracts the graphic conventions of contours in cartography at a super scale. The sinuous flowing lines of aluminium successfully conceal the former parking garage’s undifferentiated bands of concrete barriers, marking a point in this part of Albert Street previously distinguished only by its forgettable blandness, brought on by several decades of some of the most lacklustre building in Brisbane.

The attention at street-level to the south is balanced by a resolution of the freestanding building frame on the east façade, where an aluminium and glass curtain wall is coordinated with a covering roof/rainwater collector at plant level. This combines to form a third ‘wrap’, providing a compositional balance with the predominately south facing art screen. Rainwater harvesting is one of the key elements rewarded with green stars along with several other notable engineered provisions for power, air handling, lighting, waste recycling, low VOC carpets and paints and a host of other specified initiatives that made it attractive to its single government tenant. Yet it is the incorporation of these elements as a constraint to an architectural response that make the project more worthy of discussion than numerous other commercially driven endeavours that seek to answer the regulatory demands of the day.

Douglas Neale is an architect and lectures in Design in the School of Architecture, the University of Queensland.

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