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Embedded in the bushland: Elkhorn Building by m3architecture

Purposefully engaged with its surrounding landscape, this University of Queensland precinct by m3architecture ensures plants are always the focus.

Embedded in the bushland: Elkhorn Building by m3architecture

A project such as the Elkhorn Building at the University of Queensland doesn’t come along every day for an architect. Suffice to say, it is a one-off for the complexity of the design, the type of users that inhabit the building and the contribution they make to our health and wellbeing. The design is also intimately connected to its surroundings and incorporates the natural landscape both physically and visually. For this important project m3architecture has created an outstanding home for science and, in time, we will all be the beneficiaries.

The Elkhorn Building is situated on a site of great natural beauty and lush bushland at the Long Pocket Campus of the University of Queensland, just around the river from the main campus of St Lucia. Once a centre for The Department of Primary Industries scientific research, the site was eventually abandoned, buildings fell into disrepair before being acquired by the University of Queensland.

This article first appeared in Indesign magazine, purchase your copy here.

Recognising that adapting and reusing a building is a most sustainable option, the university appointed m3architecture to design the new Elkhorn Building and create a facility whose primary objectives are training and the research of plants, in particular, Australian native foods. The project was complex with many stakeholders, however, m3architecture directors, Michael Christensen and Michael Lavery, and their team, have literally worked wonders in bringing this project to a glorious fruition.

“Having worked collaboratively with The University of Queensland for the past 20-plus years, together we have developed ways of refining their user groups briefs, and repurposing their aging building stock. We see this project as an excellent example of the value of long-term client/architect relationships,” says Christensen.

As an adaptive reuse project certain aspects of the building could be retained, such as the concrete frame and some cast walls, however this was to be a major refurbishment and every aspect of the new build was considered. Not only was the building to be a place of science and training, supporting a number of user groups with multiple needs, but to add to the design complexities, it would provide a central location for such amenities as chilled water for the entire site and this required meticulous planning for new infrastructure services.

“Adaptive reuse is one of our most important strategies for a sustainable future. And that links directly into health and wellbeing for everyone. If you take that a step further, and you look at this building’s strategies for adapting laboratory services from externally accessible ducts, retaining those strategies, and enhancing them, makes this building even more flexible and adaptable into the future,” comments Lavery.

While the original 1970s building was a four-storey walk-up with no lift, the new iteration of 2490 square metres over five levels includes a lower floor for utilities as well as a new rooftop plant. An imperative for the design was the connection to the surrounding bushland and this has been achieved by positioning a covered lift and small meeting rooms outside the walls of the building. Through this exterior access area and the addition of large picture windows on every level, natural light and the views of landscape are brought into the interior and provide the important connection to place.

Another advantage of working with the original structure was the existing external services arrangement which features large air gaps between the façade and interior walls. These horizontal run service gaps with vertical risers encourage a thermal action to occur and help to insulate the building.

Facilities within Elkhorn are many and varied with the main focus of the workplace to train and research for organisations such as the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and Uniquely Australian Foods, an organisation researching Indigenous and native plant foods with First Nations students and their Elders. There is a commercial kitchen, a blind tasting laboratory, traditional teaching facilities, office environments, and state-of-the-art research laboratories incorporating growth rooms and tissue culture facilities, as well as upgrades for DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliance and the on-site infrastructure services. As Lavery explains, “It was really a number of complex projects within a project.”

Although the laboratories are conducting traditional research the outcome of that research is indeed forward-thinking. Ever mindful of health and wellbeing, the scientists and researchers are examining all types of plants and foods for their content and developing applications for future use.

Reflecting on the research focus of plant and food observations, m3architecture was inspired to use the idea of Claude glass (or black mirror) on the façade of the building. Claude glass was a British invention circa-1700 that was a slightly convex, dark coloured mirror used by tourists and painters to distil the landscape. Utilising this concept, Elkhorn is clad with convex stainless steel infill cladding that heightens the perception of the building. As such, the exterior is ever-changing throughout the day and season to either merge into the landscape or sit proud within it.

While the Elkhorn Building is now contemporary and sleek with all the amenity that technology can furnish, the interior is pared back with a clean modern aesthetic. Influenced by the materiality of landscape, the colour palette is dark, with blacks, browns, greens, terracotta and light timber colours in the foyers, lounges and meeting rooms, while the labs are simple, white and bright.

“I think the relationship with the landscape is the most interesting and exciting aspect of the work,” says Lavery. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re inside or moving through and around the building, in every way you experience the building, there is landscape and a secondary experience in the observation of landscape. Being able to deliver architecture that creates a link between observing the natural world and the plant research that occurs within, is something we are pleased with.”

While the research and learning that is carried out at the Elkhorn Building is exciting and innovative, investigating plants and food through science with First Nations people, the building that has been created by m3architecture and the University of Queensland is more than impressive.

Of course, there is every amenity, however adapting and reusing an existing structure and making it new again helps sustain our environment and the result is singular. In this project, architecture becomes the ultimate conduit to enable best practice and, through m3architecture’s design, this has been achieved on every level.

This article first appeared in Indesign magazine, purchase your copy here.


Christopher Frederick Jones

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