Melbourne Convention Centre Development
Unconventional Wisdom: A new convention center introduces sustainability to a historically inefficient building type.
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Few convention centers are built or expanded in any given year, let alone developed as benchmarks for sustainable design and performance. Such buildings are also often loss leaders for cities—necessary to attract visitors and business, but not expected to turn massive profits. The Melbourne Convention Centre Development (MCCD), which opened in April 2009, turns this conventional wisdom on its head.
“We wanted to give this building a true civic nature,” says Nik Karalis, the design director on the project for architects Woods Bagot, which designed the building in a joint venture with NH Architecture. “And we wanted it to reflect the design culture of the city.” Melbourne is often considered Australia’s cultural capital, where architecture has long been a serious matter and, more recently, urban density and sustainability are given due attention by government.
The MCCD bolsters the up-and-coming cultural district of Southbank, so-called because it runs along the south bank of the Yarra River from the city’s Botanic Gardens on the east to the redeveloped Docklands on the west. A pedestrian bridge, designed by Grimshaw Architects and delivered as part of the MCCD project, connects the MCCD to the city’s urban core north of the river.
Like many public projects in Australia, the MCCD was developed as part of a public-private partnership led by the State Government of Victoria and a consortium including developer Plenary Group, contractor Brookfield Multiplex, the architects, and services consultants WSP Lincolne Scott and its sustainability consulting arm, Advanced Environmental Concepts (now called Built Ecology). In 2004, the consortium won the project, in part owing to its proposed sustainability strategy that included a formal green building rating with the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA).
“At the time the consortium won the competition, the state government didn’t have aspirations toward sustainability,” says Karalis, “but the private sector saw the benefits, since the developer would own and operate the building for 25 years, deriving the profits, before returning the building to the state.” Karalis says they were challenged to find existing convention centers with sustainability as a platform they could use for benchmarking. That’s changed in the last several years, with LEED ratings for the new convention centers in Vancouver and Pittsburgh, but Australia’s population and convention market is much smaller and Melbourne afforded a singular opportunity.
At the time, Green Star only addressed office buildings, so the team needed to create a new tool tailored for convention centers. Recognizing the limited application of the tool and the cost of its maintenance, it has since been withdrawn, which makes the MCCD distinctive and difficult to compare to similar projects. The GBCA is currently developing a public buildings tool to address a wider market.
The MCCD project brief called for a 5,000-seat plenary hall with full stage facilities, conference rooms, pre-function spaces, and full back-of-house support facilities such as a commercial kitchen and loading dock. The consortium’s bid also included a hotel, which was not part of the overall project’s sustainability rating. Locating the main entrance to the plenary hall on the ground level was one of the design team’s first key decisions, and it unleashed a torrent of design opportunities that required intense coordination and design integration to realize.
First, a ground level entrance meant people could enter off the street, walk directly into the hall, and proceed up or down to their seats. It also meant the building would need a basement for egress and services. “We put the ancillary spaces like the loading dock and plant rooms in the basement, which allowed the ground level to have 360-degree public access,” says Ian Steedman, senior design manager for design-and-construct contractor Brookfield Multiplex. Only 65 feet from the river, the basement needed significant waterproofing, which the contractors solved by excavating a 45-degree-sloped trench that was coated in bentonite slurry that swells upon contact with water. This proved an inexpensive and less materials-intensive approach than conventional concrete piled walls.
With the trench in place, the design team put it to use as a fresh air plenum to feed the basement plant room, which in turn feeds an underfloor ventilation system in the plenary hall. Underfloor air systems provide energy efficiency benefits, since the air delivered right at the occupied level can be warmer in cooling mode. An overhead system for such a large, open space would have used between 30 to 40 percent more energy because it must be colder or hotter to travel a farther distance to the audience, says Bernard Da Cruz, a mechanical engineer and the project leader for WSP Lincolne Scott. But solving this efficiency issue had knock-on effects, since the project brief called for a multi-purpose hall, able to turn a raked auditorium full of seats into a flat arena allowing truck access for other events.
To solve this coordination issue, the team installed a custom-designed Gala seating system, where jacks move the floor up and down and each seat is automatically hinged to be tucked under the floor into a plenum when not needed. “We had to use vegetable oil for the jacks because mineral oil would have caused odors in the ventilation system,” says Da Cruz. With different seating arrangements, however, the mechanical engineers needed to ensure the overall area of the openings in the floor that supplied air would remain unchanged in any arrangement. Da Cruz says that safety requirements stipulated the gap in the floor could not exceed approximately 0.15 inches, or just less than the heel of a woman’s stiletto. “If that gap isn’t constant, you would have air imbalances, temperature issues, and discomfort,” says Da Cruz. Flush seals slot into place in different seating configurations to ensure that the air volume remains consistent.
The project includes countless other sustainability initiatives, including rainwater collection systems, an on-site black water treatment plant, solar thermal hot water panels on the roof that provide the building’s public amenity hot water needs, bicycle facilities, and a significant use of FSC-certified timber. “We went through an entire procedure of helping our supplier achieve certification,” says Karalis. “We handpicked 58 Australian iron bark trees to use to ensure the forest wasn’t denuded.” The project team worked with Australian paint company Dulux to develop a low-VOC black paint used throughout the MCCD. Such strategies helped the building achieve a 6-Star Green Star rating, equivalent to a LEED Platinum rating.
Multiplex’s Steedman says the greatest lesson learned on a project like the MCCD is the management of complexity. Over four months, the contractors performed more than 1,700 completion tests, including a month of systems operation and crowd control exercises to test vibrations to ensure the project was fit for purpose. Fine-tuning is ongoing for Mutliplex, since they are also the building’s facility managers for the first 25 years of operation. “I won’t say there weren’t teething problems,” says Steedman, “but I’m proud to say we successfully delivered a half-billion-dollar project and our relationship with the government would hold us in good stead.”