Northern Gramipans Shire Council: Monash Steps / Stawell Steps

Mar 11, 2013 by     Comments Off    Posted under: Capital Works Projects Under $1M

Monash Steps / Stawell Steps was borne from floods and wrought from concrete, wood and brick, creating an architectural feature on the banks of Cato Lake that doubles as a practical solution to a water management problem.

The steps are in essence a risk mitigation project – two flood spillways that will ensure neighbouring properties are not again flooded as they were in January 2011.

But the steps became so much more than grey concrete spillways when a unique partnership between 11 organisations, including the Council, a brick manufacturer, a Japanese architect and 20 Monash University architecture students, was established.

Description of the project

Project objectives and outcomes

Stawell in western Victoria was impacted greatly by the January 2011 floods. During torrential rain over one weekend, the low-lying Cato Lake, fed by surrounding drains, overflowed with water causing massive damage to the adjacent bowling club, neighbouring houses and businesses.

To mitigate the flood risk, Northern Grampians Shire Council needed to build a spillway at the lake. Monash Steps / Stawell Steps provided a solution to the flooding problem, but it took a unique approach to what was essentially a risk-mitigation project. The steps solved the flood problem while adding a very special piece of architecture to a much-loved community space.

Innovative features of the project

The project could have seen a flat, grey concrete spillway gouge holes in the banks of the picturesque Cato Lake. However, after Monash University’s School of Architecture approached the Council for a project to work on, the spillway became so much more.

Every year, Monash’s fourth-year architecture students complete a Design / Make Studio where they design a structure and then get their hands dirty and build it. The studio teaches students the practicalities of constructing their designs. The students chose bricks from Stawell’s Krause Bricks, and designed the steps to fit around the two spillways. The students worked on the design with Japanese architect Hiroshi Nakao, providing an international flavour.

The 25-metre-long steps meld into the banks of Cato Lake using bricks to create different textures, layers and levels. The spillways are lined in brick to the water’s edge and between them, different levels create spaces for sitting, relaxing or fishing. The fully accessible walking path around the lake continues via two timber boardwalks that span the spillways.

The project was a collaboration between 11 organisations and individuals from the private, public and education sector, another innovative aspect of the project that helped it achieve excellence.

The steps were completed in November 2012 and are now a feature of a much-loved community space, a practical and necessary piece of infrastructure that has been transformed into something much more.

Distinguishing features of the project highlighting best practice engineering principles and technologies.

The project integrates a significant outflow, designed to allow for outflow of a 100 Year Annual Recurrence Interval Event, as happened in 2011.

During construction, onsite engineering skills were supported by advice from specialist consultants. Architecture students were intimately involved in the construction, which meant they learnt the practical application of their course work and construction terminology from experienced people. Tradespeople involved were very keen to pass on knowledge to maximise the future practicality of the students’ architectural practice and as a result, many students became skilled bricklayers and concreters. The laying of brick to match coursework and three dimensional effects integrated into the design meant that students learnt the methodology of onsite horizontal and vertical measurement.

The structure’s vertical faces were laid as brick on edge in a stack bond to provide the right aesthetic. This relatively weak construction methodology was offset by the increased use of brick ties and brick reinforcement. Laying of all horizontal surfaces with brick on edge increased the total quantity of bricks by 40%. Many of the bricks used included a

three-dimensional pyramid patterning and combined with overlaying provided a pre-orchestrated tessellated effect.

Significant sections of the complex, three-dimensional structure were voided by use of waffle pods and concrete to minimise the quantities of brick work. These were laid over a base of articulated footing slabs and concrete and brick retaining walls.

The footbridges are principally made from cypress pine over a base of sugar gum beams and joists. Connections are hot dipped galvanised steel.

Benefit to the community

The community of Stawell has directly benefited with spillways that will prevent future flooding of properties neighbouring Cato Park. But the community has also gained an amazing piece of public architecture that the Council would not have been able to afford otherwise. The picturesque Cato Park is a very popular community space – the spillway project was necessary but instead of adulterating the park’s beauty with a harsh concrete structure, the spillway has become a beautiful new feature.

Public infrastructure like this supports community building, and the steps structure lends itself to a natural amphitheatre and stage that can be used for events. The fully accessible path around the lake and through the steps via the boardwalks encourages healthy activity for all abilities.

Program and project management

Finalised design work was not complete when the project began. The final design of the underlying structural concrete was only received on the day of setting up for the pour, but on-ground engineering staff interpreted this, limiting hold ups for the students arriving three days later. Much of the design work needed for the ordering of materials continued in parallel with the build and delayed the ordering of some time-critical componentry. Delivery time to the rural area increased time pressures.

The students allowed just eight weeks for the construction of a very large and complex structure integrating concrete, three-dimensional brickwork, galvanised steel work and a long timber footbridge. As the “design/build” philosophy intended students to learn on the job – including multiple construction techniques – the program was further stressed. It proved to be overly ambitious but the students’ significant contributions compensated for this to a degree. Many students contributed above and beyond allotted time and allowed the steps to be completed.

The fact that the design team was based in Melbourne and Japan had the potential to further delay the project but with on-site supervision by engineering staff and the Architect Team Leader, coupled with excellent communication and teamwork, solutions were found.

Construction techniques, such as the use of voiding using waffle pods, were adapted to suit the relatively unskilled labour force of architecture students, whose perseverance and a willingness to learn was above commendation. The tradespeople involved came with a wealth of knowledge but were very impressed by the students’ determination to get the job finished at a high quality.

Costs associated with the project

The project cost was put at $220,000, funded by flood recovery grants from the Ron Walker Foundation and the Victorian Government’s Department of Planning and Community Development, and aided by the students’ voluntary labour.

Specific contribution made by the team.

The engineering team at Northern Grampians Shire Council was integral in the success of the Monash Steps / Stawell Steps project. Not only were they hands-on with the building of the structure, the engineers were the ones who ascertained that melding the spillways with an architectural structure was not only possible from a design perspective, but that it could also be physically built.

In the wake of the floods, Council engineers designed flood mitigation solutions for Cato Lake. Once the engineering requirements were established, the engineers then set about working with Monash students to design a functional structure that would not only meet the risk mitigation need but leave the community with an infrastructure legacy. The strong commitment of the engineers made it easy to commit resources and funds, and seek extra funding as the community benefits became apparent.

The project plan was complex because of the many participants, the skill levels needed and the capacity of people to work together to meet critical stages. It was this plan, based on the engineering design and with the commitment of all stakeholders, that indicated the project would not only be possible but also a success.

With so many partners, a large shift in collaborative thinking was needed to ensure the project ran smoothly from start to finish. It was no mean feat organising so many groups from a wide range of sectors to work together, ensuring their many different processes and systems worked harmoniously.

Council engineers were responsible for the design of the spillway components and were required to shift their thinking to incorporate the architectural aspect into their designs. Once they knew the project was possible, they then had to engage their creative sides. This is not something usually required from a Council engineer but they handled the challenge with flair and creativity and were a large part of the project’s success.

General comments

The Council feels the project has not only delivered a unique piece of infrastructure to the community of Stawell, it has also created a lasting legacy through the ongoing relationships forged with all the partners. These relationships (some existing, some brand new) can be used in future on other infrastructure projects.

The integration of brick in the structure was a feature as it showcased a locally manufactured product as a structural and architectural element. Krause Bricks are highly sought after by architects for their colour, beauty and artisan properties.

The involvement or Hiroshi Nakao from Japan was a unique input into the design, bringing an international flavour to the construction.

Monash Steps / Stawell Steps is no ordinary spillway – it is an innovative approach to a practical problem that has created something very unique.


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