Hidden Treasures Connected to Melbourne's Past

Written by Leigh Swords

The cities that surround us offer a connection to our past. They are defined by historic buildings that, over time, have moulded the identity of these cities and make up the rich tapestry of architectural influences throughout history.

Having had the opportunity to refurbish a number of Melbourne's heritage structures over the years, the sheer impact these buildings have on our communities is clear. For this reason, the preservation of heritage buildings is imperative to the future of our cities as they play an essential part in connecting our communities, promoting sustainable practices through adaptive reuse, and creating an enriched landscape for our future generations.

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Sustainable preservation


When adaptively reused, heritage buildings have a significant role to play in the sustainability of our communities. Much like the idea these buildings create a sense of belonging, heritage preservation has benefits to the environmental, social, and economic viability of a city. For the most part, preservation reduces landfill waste, demolition energy use, and the need for new construction.

In 2017, the Australian construction industry generated approximately 20million tonnes of construction waste, and as the industry continues to grow, so does the amount of waste. While slightly ominous, this figure has the potential to be reduced through the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings.

During the construction of Melbourne’s iconic Garden State Hotel, we actively reused as much of the existing building as possible. With direction from the owner and architect, we repurposed the existing internal steel beams and timber rafters to create feature wall cladding and decorative overhead structures.

By taking simple measures such as this, we can positively contribute to the broader sustainability of our built environment.

Garden State Hotel White Exterior Building Facade Flinders Lane Melbourne

Inherent challenges


While the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings is a step in the right direction, these old structures come with inherent challenges. Latent conditions often present difficult obstacles that directly affect efficiencies from project conception to completion – and although ‘unknown’ by definition, they come to be expected during the planning process.

The inclusion of contingency in programme and budgets is a must. Through assessment of an existing building’s age, location, construction, and materials, a skilled builder can create a list of possible latent conditions and formulate strategies to overcome the challenges ahead.

In addition to veiled challenges, heritage buildings come with old design elements and fabrics. Materials can be hard to find, and while it would be convenient to be able to drop into a hardware store to pick up matching supplies off the shelf, the reality of this idea can be hard to swallow.

The iconic Clocks at Flinders Street Station was revitalised to its 1920’s glory in 2017. The establishment’s existing pressed metal ceilings were badly damaged, and large sections required replacement. To preserve the integrity of the space, we hand-pressed aluminium sheets to recreate the pattern.

In essence, patience and creativity are vital to the successful preservation of a heritage building. Without this, the history embedded in our cities doesn’t have the chance to inspire our communities into the future.

Clocks fitout flinders restaurant bar diner banquette seating lamp

Construction for the community


Understanding a heritage building’s significance is critical when viewed not only through an architectural lens but also a cultural one. If a building is deemed heritage, then the influence it has on its community is paramount.

As such, formulating a construction management plan that considers this is essential. From the outset, consultation with heritage stakeholders is required to identify the heritage components of a building, as well as the conservation practices needed to fulfil the refurbishment.

Given these developments are inherently guarded by the communities in which they stand, any refurbishment works can generate a sense of anxiety amongst the public. To alleviate concerns throughout the build, it is imperative to provide information to communities through transparent and consistent communication.

RMIT Oxford Scholar Patrons

Preserving our past to build our future


Heritage refurbishment and preservation opens up a world of possibilities. From the adaptive reuse of old structures, to the ingrained environmental, social, and economic benefits; heritage buildings hold the connection to our past.

When combined with creativity, patience, and a well-formulated management approach, these buildings can continue to add to the rich layered fabric of our cities for years to come.