The shortlist for The Structural Awards 2015 was published in August, celebrating outstanding structural engineering projects from around the world. The winners will be announced during an Awards ceremony in London on 13 November.
David Law, a structural engineer for 12 years, worked on “The Malt Store” project in Melbourne, Australia - an entry to our “Structural Heritage” category. Here he discusses his career, the project, and the challenges of engineering new life into old buildings.
I always liked building as a kid. My friend’s dad was a house builder, and after visiting his site one day I decided I wanted to be a builder too. This interest in buildings stayed on, but I adapted it to where my skills were best suited – structural design. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a number of interesting projects during my career, including The Canada Water Library in London, Villaggio Vista in Ghana, and the temporary festival hubs I did for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival for three years running.
Melbourne is a patchwork of old and new architecture, but unlike many European cities there is much more of a culture of pulling down old structures and building anew. That makes the few remaining high-quality heritage buildings really valuable. Preserving them breaks up the glass and neon of our urban environment, and acts as a visual link to the past. The Malt Store in particular was important to preserve, as a connection for Melburnians with our proud brewing traditions – it’s the last building standing from what was a huge Carlton and United Brewery complex, which operated for 130 years. The remaining malt tanks, converted to meeting rooms, still smell of malt despite being empty for over 30 years.
Besides the heritage issue, rejuvenating old buildings can be a great environmental boon if done well. If we can reuse an older structure’s “skeleton” we can create an effectively new building using much less energy and material – which is a very sustainable choice.
I very much enjoyed working on the project, mainly for its unusual challenges. Unlike a new-build project, where everything is very neat and ordered and as you draw it on the page, a restoration is real and imperfect, and rarely as you expect it to be. As an engineer this requires you to think on your feet and adapt your designs constantly. Through this process you uncover the hidden secrets of a building, the little details and nuances that the public will never know, which is fascinating.
The Malt Store has been a real achievement. The building had been abandoned to face the ravages of weather, leaks, rot, fires, termites, squatters and vandalism, and was on the verge of being condemned. We’ve not only returned it to a functional state, but also, using clever and discreet design, highlighted original structural elements like the malt tank and timber roof and floor, which hopefully helps to bring engineering alive for those who use the building.