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Burwood Brickworks gives more than it takes

In a new era of climate consciousness, what does it mean to be sustainable? Burwood Brickworks puts forward a proposal for development and design that gives more than it takes, environmentally and socially.

Retail centres don’t typically come to mind when we talk about sustainability. But the new mixed-use development in Melbourne’s Burwood East could be changing that. Burwood Brickworks is on its way to being the most sustainable retail centre in the world: self-sufficient, not exceeding the resources of its location, and containing socially equitable, culturally rich and ecologically restorative spaces that connect people to light, air, food and community.

These measures come from the Living Building Challenge (LBC), the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment and the framework Frasers Property applied to the centre. It requires a building to produce 105% of its operational energy, dedicate 20% of the site to agricultural use, and have a net-zero carbon footprint. It also calls for social sustainability, creating an environment that optimises the health and happiness of those who use it.

The roof area of Burwood Brickworks is utilised as an urban farm and eatery that helps to connect people to the environment and their food, photo: Peter Bennetts.

For developers known for their progressive approach to sustainability, it’s an appealing challenge. As Frasers Property Executive Living Building Challenge Manager, Stephen Choi says, “it asks a fundamental question: what if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?” But for their vision for the centre to be the heart of the community, the logic – ethical, social, economic – is all there too. It just meant abandoning all conventional thinking. “The project team set out to break the paradigm of traditional retail centres and make Burwood Brickworks not only engaging, but educational, uplifting and healthy, and most of all, make a difference to people’s lives,” says Roger Nelson, Managing Director of NH Architecture.

Every aspect was driven by sustainability. Spaces increasing quality of experience have primacy of place; the roof area (which shopping centres are usually poor at utilising) is an urban farm and eatery, connecting people to fresh air and food; tenants overhauled business models to comply; salvaged materials are abundant; all water runoff is captured, treated and recycled – among many more initiatives. “Usually the aim is to minimise negative environmental impact. In this case it was maximising regenerative and positive sustainable potential,” says Nelson.

The roof area of Burwood Brickworks is utilised as an urban farm and eatery that helps to connect people to the environment and their food, photo: Peter Bennetts.

In terms of architecture and design, NH Architecture took a pared back approach, stripping away old ideas and applying greatcare to each element with the aim of maximising design impact and sustainable output potential. Compressed on a smaller footprint,the overall design is honest: open, generous spaces, dramatic roofscapes, and a presence that feels unique – bold yet familiar. Details such as incorporating bricks from the former brickworks site into concrete on the western fac?ade play a role in this.

Hitting both environmental and social notes is the strong connection between outside and inside. “It’s easy to lose touch with the physical and natural environment when you are in a shopping centre. Our work seeks to bring this back,” says Nelson.Designed around a green square, it utilises four frontages (where typically there’s a front and back), inviting people in at every aspect. Ventilated windows and skylights flood all spaces with fresh air and light; a feature staircase provides views out and in; on the eastern frontage the building projects in and out, creating promontories and a promenade that bring the landscape in.

Suspended above the travelator is an installation of re-used ply that creates an immersive experience for the visitor, photo: Peter Bennetts.

Interiors also make a significant contribution to the sustainability agenda. “Not just environmental sustainability, dealing with materiality and embodied energy,” says Director of Russell & George, Byron George, “but social and cultural sustainability.” Open, light and full of plants, the interiors also have warmth and textuality, designed along the lines of place and stimulating the senses.

There are large panels of recycled timber and a black-and-white mural commissioned by Indigenous design studio Balarinji and created by Wurundjeri, Dja Dja Wurrung and Ngurai Illum Wurrung artist Mandy Nicholson that speaks of Country. Entrances are designed as sensory portals, with fragrances and sounds encouraging “a suspense of disbelief” and connection,while a travelator adorned with suspended pieces of re-used ply, scent and dampened acoustic creates an immersive experience within a cathedral of timber.

Such unique elements are not usual for retail, but connecting people to place and giving them something to remember is key to Burwood Brickworks’ success. It offers a different way of imagining public spaces. As George says, “This centre is designed to be the heart of the community, and that means capturing the hearts and minds of people who live here.”

Overall, the space is “transformative” and people like being in it. It’s open, healthy and culturally enriching, and with various regenerative sustainability initiatives, gives back to the environment. Being good enough has been surpassed.

Photography by Peter Bennetts, Dianna Snape and Griffin Simm

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