The Boilerhouse

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FOCUS sits down with Dr Kirsti Abbott and Lee-Anne McKinnon to learn more about the planned redevelopment of the Boilerhouse on UNE campus, which will be transformed into a Children’s Discovery Space and Community social hub, planned to open in 2022.

Tell us a little about the Boilerhouse and its history.

The Boilerhouse on the hill is actually one of four that were spread around campus, and it was built in three stages. Stage one was in the 1950s, and it was quite small and only served the few buildings. As the university expanded, they had to add to it, so stage two was built in the ‘60s in a minimalist, brutalist style; it’s a massive rectangular prism into which they put two French boilers.

They made provisions for three for when the university continued to expand, but by the time they needed the third boiler it was too big – so they simply knocked down part of stage one and built an even more brutalist geometric design; the one we know and love as the UNE Boilerhouse today.

In 1971 stage three was finished, and in 1974 it won an Australian Architectural Award, the same year that the Sydney Opera House got their award.

There are parts of stage three that are the only examples of conveyor belts, flues, hoppers, and other old coal-fired boiler technology anywhere in NSW, possibly even Australia.

What made you choose this building for such a project?

It was less about the university than the insightful philanthropist that we work with. Chris Abbott of the Abbott Foundation focuses his work on helping children in early childhood development. He was instrumental in establishing the Early Start Discovery Space at the University of Wollongong. He really wanted to start a movement of children’s museums and playscapes, especially in regional areas.

When it came down to choosing the building for the facility, we did have a little bit of a look around town and on campus to find a site that was appropriate for an iconic destination and when he saw the old boiler-house, he said, “That would be perfect”.

What sort of obstacles have you faced renovating such an old structure?

We’ve had obstacles, which are now being overcome. It’s a contaminated site, given its age and the type of building materials used at that time. We’ve found asbestos, lead paints, mercury, among other things, but we were lucky that the university was really committed into cleaning that all up. The Vice Chancellor, Professor Annabelle Duncan, had a remediation and demolition report commissioned to have all the environmental testing and contamination testing done, and we have since contracted Coffs Harbour Demolition to start the clean up work required from those reports.

The exciting part is looking at remediating and retaining a lot of the individual items within the building, so we can salvage and repurpose them for play and art projects around campus and town, for example.

Can you tell us about the development of plans for this space?

Originally it again grew out of our philanthropist’s idea of wanting to have a children’s discovery space in this area, which mirrors the idea of children’s museums in the United States. There are over 400 of them in the US, and they are popping up more and more rapidly around the world. Originally, these children’s museums arose due to high density populations, meaning kids had very few places to play. Over time, we’ve realised the huge cognitive behavioural/social/emotional benefits on unstructured play for kids, capitalising on families playing together to form connections and bolstering family dynamics. We know that kids learn through play; we all do!

Although the main part of redevelopment will be the children’s discovery space, we are also making a community space. The children’s discovery space will be a play based education focused area that will also include kids’ parties, workshops, and school holiday programs, and it will be paid entry. But there will also be the free community space, which will showcase our collections, have permanent exhibition space and offer performance space for live music with a café. It will still have play based opportunities there on a slightly smaller scale, for people who come and want a little taste of what else is inside.

We will have revolving experiences and encounters in the discovery space and although everything will be child focused, we believe that parents and grandparents will enjoy the interactive experience and be able to engage in play with the kids. Great for winter play options in Armidale and the region!

Is there anything the community can do to help?

We’re coming into the design stage – which is exciting, because there is plenty of time to hear from the community about what they want to see in a facility like this. We will have an online survey that can be filled in as a general form of contact; we are particularly interested in artists, educators and early childhood specialists. People can also sign up to our newsletter, which we will be putting out regularly, so they can keep up with what we are doing.

Community testing and prototyping will start in September, and the idea of that is to have pop-up play stations at the markets, for example. They will be ongoing for the next twelve to eighteen months, which allows us tons of opportunity for engagement with the community – so be on the look out for that!

We are also very keen for the community to own this building in a sense and are accepting donations through our website. We are currently in the community support and fundraising stage, and we encourage people who would like to be involved to consider donating to the project. No matter how big or small your donation is, you know that there is a brick or nail, or maybe something larger that is yours, and that you’ve helped shape the future of play and learning in our town!

Thanks guys.

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