Case Study 4: The State Buildings Perth

The State Buildings

How to master adaptive reuse.

From the 1870’s through to the early 1900’s the site of The Central Government Offices in Perth developed starting with The Treasury Building and later The General Post Office. Today, these structures are collectively known as The State Buildings; they are known well as a lively hospitality hub within the heart of the city. These buildings underwent a major facelift that was completed in 2016 where the buildings on the site were subject to a successful adaptive reuse restoration scheme designed by Kerry Hill Architects and Palassis Architects.

The State Buildings looking South down Barrack Street. Photo By Charlotte Pyle

Adaptive reuse in this case was a great success! It provided the city with environmental, social and economic benefits and has set the standard for adaptive reuse projects on heritage buildings in the future. When looking at heritage buildings nearing the end of their life within their current function; could it be the solution we should be applying to more heritage buildings around Perth?

The environmental benefits are quite clear; statistics show you can save up to ‘95% of the embodied energy’ when reusing the existing structure for adaptive reuse projects. It is also a far more sustainable method of building when you reuse old or existing materials on the site so no additional material production is required.

The favourable outcome of The State Buildings adaptive reuse project can be strongly attributed to its respect for heritage in the new design. When approaching the building from the street, you are greeted with a lovely heritage façade that is strongly distinguishable from the buildings adjacent and is a strong reflection of the original architects (George Temple Poole) style. Upon entering, you can sense a shift from old to new; there is a slick, modern and clean materiality attributed to the new parts of the building; as you traverse through the building you are offered little parcels of historic joy ranging from original pulley window details seen in The COMO  Treasury Hotel, right through to delicate cornice details found in the old General Post Office hall. The project displays great balance where it provides updated additions where relevant while still paying tribute to its historic roots by preserving specific elements.

Ceiling and cornice details in the Print Hall. Photo By Charlotte Pyle

One of the greater challenges of adaptive reuse is retaining social value from its old function and injecting it into a new space. The new function of The State Buildings has retained its historic significance while also offering stronger social value by opening it up to the city; the building has access points from multiple sides which encourages the public to permeate through the buildings and engage with all the venues on the interior. The new uses assigned to this project have been chosen well and with great care; each venue space retains some of the essence of its old function while also housing a completely new one.

Long Chim restaurant and courtyard housed in the old mail sorting room of the General Post Office. Photo By Charlotte Pyle

Although adaptive reuse can be prosperous, it is also heavily reliant on substantial funding to produce a refined outcome like The State Buildings. Heritage buildings need to be handled with great finesse and architects/builders who are equipped with the skills required to deliver a project like The State Buildings come at a cost ($90 million to be exact). For this project, the projected profits made this investment justifiable; it was going to produce revenue from the multiple venues within while also helping Perth’s economy through providing new jobs and income to the area.

In some heritage projects dealing with a restoration and adaptively reusing the building the finances tend to make the project more limiting and less desirable to take on. It is also one of the bigger reasons some heritage buildings are left in disrepair; when weighing up the costs and benefits of restoring a structure along with retrofitting it for a new use it can prove to be too costly to rationalise. This could be why we see structures such as The South Fremantle Power Station left to slowly decay; it proves to be too costly to restore and finding an appropriate compatible use that would also make a profit is extremely challenging.

One of the entries into The State Buildings precinct along Barrack Street. Photo By Charlotte Pyle

The State Buildings project is a very well executed example of how adaptive reuse can sustain and even enhance the environmental, historical, social and economic value of a heritage place. It is also a good precedent for how to select a compatible use that is in harmony with the existing building and its history while also providing spaces that people in contemporary culture would like to engage with. The financial constraints of working with heritage places is an ongoing drawback that may need to be addressed. An initiative similar to the ‘Heritage Adaptive Reuse Grants’ which were rolled out between 2018-2019 could encourage greater interest in heritage projects that are good candidates for adaptive reuse.

References:

“State Buildings.” Heritage Perth, August 21, 2017. https://heritageperth.com.au/properties/state-buildings/#:~:text=It%20was%20not%20until%201890,the%20French%20Second%20Empire%20Style.

“We Do Things Differently.” Built Holdings Pty Ltd. Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.built.com.au/projects/old-treasury-buildings-wa.

“Heritage Adaptive Reuse Grants 18-19.” Heritage Adaptive Reuse Grants 18-19 – City of Perth. Accessed April 12, 2021. https://perth.smartygrants.com.au/HeritageAdaptive.

Department of The Environment and Heritage. “Adaptive Reuse.” Canberra: Australian Government – Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2004.

Heritage Council. “Adaptive Reuse – How State Heritage Have Been Successfully Adapted for New Uses .” Perth: Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, July 2019.

Heritage Council of Western Australia. “Register of Heritage Places – Assessment Documentation.” South Fremantle: Heritage Council of Western Australia, 1997.

State Buildings Perth. State Buildings, August 4, 2020. https://statebuildings.com/venues/state-buildings/.

Australia ICOMOS Incorporated. “The Burra Charter.” Canberra: Australia ICOMOS Incorporated, 2013.

Heritage Council of Western Australia. “Register of Heritage Places – Central Government Offices.” Perth: Heritage Council of Western Australia, 1999.