Transformation complete? The problem with repurposing

by FM Media
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Facility Management speaks to the director of The Substation, JEREMY GADEN about the challenges a disconnection between original design purpose and actual use has created concerning The Substation’s functionality and day-to-day management, and how he is dealing with these challenges.

The repurposing of buildings from one use to another results in a number of operational problems. The Substation – an old Victorian Railways electrical substation that has been converted into an arts centre – is a good example of this trend. The disconnection between the building’s original design purpose and its present day use has created a number of challenges concerning the facility’s functionality and day-to-day management. Jeremy Gaden, director of The Substation, talks to us about these challenges and how he is dealing with them.

Once a substation, now an arts centre, The Substation formed part of a grassroots urban renewal project started by two Newport residents in the ’90s, according to Gaden. “These residents took the initiative to reclaim The Substation in an effort to instigate urban renewal and economic revitalisation in Newport. That was the core purpose. They wanted the local community to have something it could be proud of and they understood that good social outcomes would come out of it.

“However, the focus was on restoring the ‘bricks and mortar’ rather than on developing a model of an operational arts centre or understanding where it might fit in the broader ecology of the Victorian arts sector. And, although those recreating the space recognised the power of the arts, they didn’t have an arts background,” Gaden notes.

He states that for some years it was a grassroots project involving community members cleaning up the site on weekends, but then work-for-the-dole programs and a partnership with Victoria University enabled a number of on-site jobs to be delivered by people undergoing skills training in infrastructure development. “This enabled them to tackle some of the bigger infrastructure projects. There was no large pool of money. The project relied on a combination of fundraising, in-kind support and donations. So, the implementation of building improvements was dependent on availability of resources at the time and done on a project-by-project basis.

“Then, in the mid to late 2000s, they landed about $1.2 million in funding – half through the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and half through Arts Victoria. Around the same time, they got a community support grant for a lift, as well as significant support from Hobsons Bay City Council. This took it up a level, but their operational plan hadn’t evolved,” Gaden explains.

Gaden came on board at the start of 2010 as the first director and the first full-time employee. He notes, “At the time, there was a grassroots approach to activating the space. It was hard to see how it would work financially, and it became apparent that there was no financial model. There was little overall design consultation within the sector, and that’s resulted in some real issues in terms of operations that could have been solved early on if they had the time and resources to do more industry consultation.

“Very little of the organisation’s energy had gone into operational thinking and developing a financial model to keep the building open. There was little data or research done on the cost of operating a public facility. And, it’s an expensive building to operate in. Operational costs are multiplied by the repurpose nature of the building.”

The Substation 3

Gaden and The Substation’s Committee of Management realised they had to start making some strategic decisions. “We need to undergo a second stage infrastructure project that is a combination of retrofitting some capital improvements and further developing some infrastructure opportunities.”

Due to the facility’s maintenance being beyond their capacity and to help them make these strategic decisions, The Substation has formed a partnership with Urban Maintenance Systems (UMS). “As an organisation, we don’t have a facilities management background. Working with a facilities management company is going to help us develop a safer environment for the public,” Gaden explains.

“We’re not passing over all the operations. It is more of a partnership approach in that there are some key infrastructure issues that we’ve identified that UMS will be able to help us with. The arrangement is an in-kind sponsorship. We are still responsible for the maintenance. What I think is the exciting thing is the access to the intellectual framework that a large company that specialises in facilities maintenance will be able to provide. They will be able to help us put some structure around our base level compliance, so that while we happily go forward as an arts centre, we know that there is a safety compliance framework being built around it through this partnership.

“There are also long-term issues that UMS will be able to, if not fix, at least advise what the best route to take is. As a not-for-profit organisation we rely on other organisations to help identify and cost solutions, and then we seek funding. So, access to skills and knowledge is vital for us.”

Gaden adds that prioritising issues is tricky because within the lease with VicTrack they’re responsible for maintenance; however, the definition of what is maintenance and what are ongoing concerns is a curious one. “We’re in a 100-year-old building that survived 30 years of dereliction. We’re starting to see some cracks in the external walls. Working with UMS and Victrack, we can at least put in place a monitoring process where we’re measuring cracks and we can learn what the structural implications of the cracking are. It means we can become much more proactive.”

Bret Butler, general manager of facilities services for UMS, comments that as an existing provider of services in the area through Hobson’s Bay City Council, the ability to assist The Substation to better contribute to local community development and culture is a logical and natural fit for UMS. “UMS is pleased to be able to collaborate with The Substation in the provision of selected facilities management related advice and services. The opportunity to work on a property such as this is positive from a number of aspects. It provides us with professional challenges beyond the everyday, which is good for the ongoing development of our technical staff, which in turn creates a wider, shared knowledge from the experience,” he states.

The Substation 1

Concerning his strategy going forward, Gaden explains, “We don’t have a budget for rectifying unforeseen issues. We’ve only been fully operational for two years. As we grow as an organisation and our cash reserve grows, then we will be able to portion out money for infrastructure works. The next five to 10 years are going to be a tricky time for us. As we increase usage of the facility, we don’t know how the building will respond. Hopefully we will be able to rectify these issues as we go because, if there are any major issues, it will be a big problem for us.

“Operational issues are being built into the business plan. We need to be able to not only investigate how we should do this correctly, but also how to fund it, because we will not be able to cover major work with our reserves in the timeframe that it needs to be done.”

In terms of managing partnerships like these, Gaden notes, “We need to manage these kinds of partnerships by identifying where our needs are. There are a lot of organisations who could or want to contribute in one way or another, but the more partnerships we have, the more time they take to maintain. We need to prioritise the key things we need, not the key things people want to give us, and build partnerships around that. That’s where we came to facilities management. It’s a big issue for us and we don’t have the skills base, so that’s a partnership we want to invest in.”

“What’s interesting is that there is an international network of repurposed industrial art spaces and they all face similar issues – sound, heating, cooling and how to have multiple activities within the one structure,” Gaden notes. He shares the issues he is facing at The Substation and how they are planning to overcome them below.

“We definitely have access issues. The front door is the biggest entry point and the lift is small – we can’t bring any large artworks into the building. There was provision for a goods elevator that would come up behind the performance floor, but due to cost implications, it was struck from the plan. Every time we do an event, we have to move equipment up and down floors, and that means crew costs. In addition, our performance floor has the capacity for around 350 people, but our foyer only has the capacity for about 100,” Gaden states.

He notes that this is a big problem and the only solution is a retrofitted solution, which would cost a lot.

A proper soundproofing and separation strategy was beyond the scope of the initial project. “You can hear people talking in the foyer in the studio on the top floor. So, we could have a café within the building, but then we couldn’t do anything else,” Gaden states. “And, the performance floor is noisy and will need to be replaced – another expensive retrofit.”

The Substation 2

Heating and cooling
According to Gaden, the facility’s heating and cooling is expensive due to the compartmentalised nature of the building. “The operational aspect of being an arts centre, and the physical requirements of heating a cathedral-like space is a real issue for us.

Putting in massive air-conditioning units is not a good solution for us as a performance space and we couldn’t afford to run it. We need to come up with a cooling mechanism that is silent and non-visual. Fans on the roof also won’t work due to the theatrical lighting systems, rigging and trussing,” he explains.

He has consulted with a sustainable cooling company around a passive system, but he says the costs are huge. “It’s not as easy as putting some wind catchers on the roof, as we have no incoming airflow. The ceiling is concrete. To be able to increase ventilation flow through the ceiling, we are going to have to cut the concrete roof at some point. Cutting a century-old concrete roof has some serious structural and operational implications. If we install a passive system, it needs to be married with increased airflow through the space. How do we do that when the walls are 18 or 24 inches of brick or glass?”

Gaden is now looking at various venting options. “We’re looking at very simple systems at the moment, such as mechanised venting in some of the windows, or at least a manual system to enable venting of the windows, and a mechanised method of venting the roof to get air movement into the space, releasing hot air and purging the building.

“There is capacity to capture wind. I’m interested in what kind of wind-driven cooling solutions or ventilation solutions we might be able to put in place. And, there is money around sustainable energy solutions that we might be able to gain from a funding perspective. While a sustainable solution is expensive up front, the long-term pay-off would be much better for us.”

In terms of heating, a hydronic system has been installed at The Substation. “In an ideal world, we might have looked at heat pumps or a geothermic response, but we had a very limited budget and the hydronic system seems to work well, particularly with the brick,” Gaden comments.

Access to diversity of trades
“We’re a small organisation and none of us are tradesman or from an operational background – we’re all arts or events focused. We have relationships with local tradies, but ultimately we need to develop a better plan and build better relationships,” Gaden states.

“Again, regarding our partnership with UMS, they have access to all the trades we might need, and to be able to not only call them for advice or in-kind support, but to put some planning in place to make sure that we’re not running up against those issues in the first place is invaluable.” Gaden adds that another useful relationship is with Hobson’s Bay City Council. “There may be an opportunity to work in an in-kind capacity with them, for example they may be able to do our grounds once a month.”

As The Substation is situated in a large edifice in a railway grey zone, it is a prime target for graffiti. However, according to Gaden, the facility is rarely vandalised. “We don’t get a lot of graffiti as there is respect for the building. Building community pride at the beginning was a good step. But, if the building was vandalised, UMS has the contract for graffiti removal in the area, so they would be able to take care of any graffiti removal for us. In the longer term, we need to look at better prevention mechanism, such as external cameras monitoring the space and increased external lighting,” he notes.

“Storage is becoming more and more of an issue for us. We have a zero tolerance policy for space that doesn’t generate income, so carving off large portions of the building to store equipment is not acceptable. We have to be really clever about how we store equipment,” Gaden states. “We will eventually need to look at external storage, but it is vital that we don’t hang on to anything we’re not using and, if we haven’t used it in a year, we chuck it out. We are brutal about that.”

The grassroots community-driven nature of the project meant it attracted a lot of donations of goods over a long period of time – most of them now outdated. While welcome at the time, Gaden states that it has created its own issues.

“As a resource-poor organisation, we were keen to accept anything people would give us. However, people were discarding these items for a reason. We now say no to donations of goods and equipment unless they have some direct cost benefit to us.”

The Substation 4

“I’m a huge fan of urban revitalisation and repurposing old buildings, but my advice is to ensure there is ongoing consultation – whatever the end purpose is, bring it up at the start. Be strategic about what you need to resource the end point from a building perspective, and have the ability to change as the original vision and the end vision may change over time. If the vision for a facility is transforming, the resource and infrastructure needs transform with it. You have to make sure they move together,” Gaden warns.

He states that a good example of where vision and practicality disconnect is the vision for a community garden outside The Substation. “We would love to have a community garden attached to The Substation, but practically, even though the building has a public occupancy permit, we can’t be sure that there is no residual presence of heavy metals and that the grounds aren’t contaminated.”

Another example he provides of this disconnection was the one between the visioning of the use of space and the financial imperative of running The Substation. “The building is made up of a large space, which we use for both arts, and private and commercial events, and a number of smaller spaces that were envisioned as studios for individual artists. The average rental that an artist might pay would be somewhere around $50 to $70 a week, so we would get around $630 a week. The building costs much more than that to run, so all of a sudden we had to re-imagine what the space usage would be.

“We expanded and changed the nature of the gallery from being a small gallery, with artist studios attached to it, to being the largest gallery in the western suburbs to increase the number of people engaging with the building. The more people you attract to the building, the more currency you have with funders and stakeholders, and the more people coming through the gallery means more people who might want to hold an event here or buy a ticket to a show. We have about 35,000 people coming through the building at the moment. We want to double that in the next three years.”

He adds that the spaces that don’t have public access also need to have an economic impact; for example, a tenant has been moved into one space. “We may also look at other tenancies that are arts aligned and can pay a proper rental. We need to question how each room is contributing to the bottom line. And, if it’s not, we need to ask if it is building our profile or increasing our arts impact. If it is not doing any of those, we have to rethink it. Each space is tied to either lifting our arts profile or the bottom line,” Gaden emphasises.

He commends those who have been involved in the repurposing process, saying, “The community effort to save and reactivate this building cannot be underestimated. Those responsible have created a unique facility that will have long-term benefits for not only the local community, but also the western region of Melbourne.”

Gaden’s final words of advice? “Put the checks and balances in place to make sure that the infrastructure needs of the facility are responding to the vision of the facility. Else you end up with this disconnection and you have to go back and retrofit – something everyone wants to avoid.”

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