Internationally acclaimed performance artists Circus Oz recently joined forces with award-winning architects Lovell Chen to produce a sustainable and bespoke creative space for the nation’s home-grown circus. In delivering a new headquarters for Circus Oz, the $15 million Arts Victoria project has created the largest purpose-built circus facility in the southern hemisphere. As signatories to CitySwitch, Australia’s flagship Green Office program, a key design imperative for the new building was maximising energy efficiency.
Renowned for their exuberant, spectacular and multi-skilled performances, Circus Oz had based their operations for a number of years in the former post office and adjoining navy drill hall in Port Melbourne. Although the nature of the performance artist is to be intuitively and creatively adaptable, the spatial, environmental and heritage limitations of these two buildings gradually impacted on the Circus' ability to expand their core activities and effectively rehearse key components of their act, including trapeze work.
Circus Oz spokesperson Annie Stephens explained: “We had outgrown the space, both physically and philosophically. The Circus is committed to sustainability, yet the environmental performance of the existing premises was poor and could not be easily addressed. It was time to find a new home.”
Arts Victoria led a search for a new location, which identified the former Collingwood Technical College as vacant and ready to be adapted into a new arts complex.
With more than 30 years’ experience in design and heritage projects, architects Lovell Chen were engaged by Arts Victoria to redevelop a portion of the Technical College site as the new headquarters for Circus Oz. Central to their selection was the firm’s environmental credentials and their shared commitment to sustainability.
Lovell Chen consulted closely with Circus management and performers to determine their needs and expectations for a new creative space.
“It was clear from the outset we were not dealing with a typical arts organisation, but rather a living, breathing circus,” said Lovell Chen Associate Director, Anne-Marie Treweeke. “This required us to think laterally to meet a number of unusual architectural challenges.”
The design brief called for the creation of a bespoke circus facility that could cater for the Circus’ administration, costume development and props workshop, considerably expand their training and educational activities, and also accommodate their rehearsals, which typically include physical theatre and aerial performances.
In creative terms, two rehearsal spaces were needed to allow the artistic team to devise and develop new shows under performance-like conditions. The main rehearsal space needed to extend the full height of the three storey building – 15 metres – in order to simulate the ‘big top’ for the trapeze artists and other aerial performers.
The brief further called for a fluid design that would cater for the changing needs of the Circus as it continued to evolve and also reflect the egalitarian rather hierarchical nature of the organisation. The building was to capture a sense of community, delivering spaces that treat all users – troupe members, the public, school children and visiting artists – equally.
In addition, the new premises needed to respond to the Circus’ broader social responsibility agenda. As a signatory to CitySwitch, Circus Oz was keen to improve the environmental performance of their headquarters through the creation of a sustainable, energy efficient building that would reduce carbon impacts and minimise operating costs.
Long life, loose fit
In response, Lovell Chen formulated an inventive design that has cleverly transformed former workshops and classrooms into a dynamic arts facility. Based on a concept of ‘long life, loose fit’, the design selectively removed portions of the original buildings from the centre of the site, constructing only what could not be accommodated by the existing forms.
By roofing over the in-between spaces that link the old and new, a central ‘street’ was created that loosely stitches together a series of functional spaces. In this way, the design allows Circus Oz to organically colonise the existing spaces and enables further alteration and adaptation of the site as new needs arise. Visible from all aspects of the building, the towering main rehearsal space provides the literal and figurative heart of the Circus.
“The design is entirely in tune with the creative larrikinism of Circus Oz,” said Anne-Marie from Lovell Chen. “As an organisation, they operate in an organic and flexible way. For performance artists, inventiveness is a necessity, so it is only fitting that the space they inhabit supports creativity and change.”
Circus Oz moved into their new premises at the beginning of 2014. Visually stunning, light-filled, dynamic and contemporary, the building perfectly captures the verve of its resident company, nurturing and supporting its creative processes. The sense of delight in inhabiting such a beautiful and responsive space is palpable.
“It’s phenomenal…just such a fantastic space,” said Annie from Circus Oz. “It’s double the size of our old premises, so it allows us to breathe out quite literally. We can now rehearse at the same time as conducting our public, school and corporate programs, which simply wasn’t possible before.
“Also, it may seem like a small thing, but it’s such a comfortable space to work in. In our old premises, our acrobats used to freeze when rehearsing in winter. With the new building, we are warm in winter and cool in summer, which is great.”
Focus on sustainability
The ‘long life, loose fit’ concept embraced a proactive and integrated response to sustainability. Environmental considerations were embedded in all aspects of the design, enabling the building to maximise its environmental performance.
“We believe architecture plays a significant role in determining the environmental sustainability of our lifestyles,” said Anne-Marie from Lovell Chen. “Our company worked with Circus Oz to explore ways in which design and conservation practice could be applied to reduce energy use and resource consumption.”
One of the key environmental challenges facing the project was the heating and cooling of the new building’s disparate spaces. According to Anne-Marie, a multifaceted strategy was required:
“To achieve energy efficiency, we incorporated passive ventilation in the major rehearsal, public and administration spaces, while a night-purge summer cooling ventilation system was installed in the high volume rehearsal spaces. In winter, this system reverses and acts as a recirculating air system to push the heated air at high levels down into the spaces.”
In addition, hydronic panels fired by a high efficiency 90 per cent condensing gas-fired boiler were used to achieve additional heating throughout the building and measures were taken to improve its thermal performance. High performance glazing was fitted to the original windows, thermal insulation was installed throughout the existing roofs and high performance, thermally insulated cladding was chosen for the new rehearsal spaces.
Another key environmental challenge for the new premises was keeping coal-fired electricity usage and the associated carbon footprint to a minimum. Given that Circus Oz is a non-profit organisation, it was also essential to keep electricity costs down.
Solar energy was considered the best solution. The redevelopment features an 11KW photovoltaic array that converts solar energy into electrical energy for use within the building. The roof mounted solar panels supply 50 per cent of the domestic hot water for the premises, with the balance delivered by the high-performance gas-fired system. Lighting throughout the building is operated via motion sensors, which serve to significantly reduce energy consumption.
The use of photovoltaic energy is expected to supply up to 25 per cent of the new building’s total electricity usage, delivering Circus Oz annual savings of approximately $4,000 per annum, with an estimated payback period of about 8.5 years.
Support from CitySwitch Green Office
Circus Oz is delighted with the environmental outcomes afforded by their new premises.
“We are thrilled to have the opportunity to inhabit a building consistent with our philosophy and future needs,” said Annie from Circus Oz. “With the project underway when we joined CitySwitch in 2012, we were able to gain invaluable assistance from the program throughout the design, construction and relocation phases.
“Notably, CitySwitch facilitated a peer assessment process during design development which saw the plans assessed for environmental sustainability and this process was repeated again half-way through the construction to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.”
While a high-performing building has provided Circus Oz with an excellent foundation, their Green Team appreciates that the pursuit of sustainability cannot rely solely on design considerations. The company is committed to following through with environmental management and monitoring to ensure the ongoing energy efficiency of their operations.
CitySwitch has provided Circus Oz with support to help build internal capabilities and engage staff. Their Green Team has attended the program’s energy efficiency and behaviour change workshops and participated in CitySwitch’s RMIT student project, which saw free resource audits carried out with practical recommendations provided on green procurement.
“The wealth of assistance and advice provided by CitySwitch has not only informed the new building design and ensured the actual move was as sustainable as possible – it continues to improve the energy efficiency of our day-to-day operations,” said Annie.
CitySwitch Program Manager, Jeff Elliott, said it was gratifying to see program signatories Circus Oz and Lovell Chen translate their environmental commitment into such positive environmental outcomes.
“Circus Oz was in a unique position of working with a like-minded partner, Lovell Chen, to make a real difference to the environmental performance of its new headquarters,” said Jeff. “While it is too early to formally audit their new premises, we anticipate a vast improvement in their NABERS energy rating.”