The Elkhorn Building at The University of Queensland (UQ) is an exemplar for adaptive reuse and sustainability. The abandoned 1970’s structure has been transformed into a leading research and teaching facility, incorporating site-wide, sustainable infrastructure, and is now home to vital research into food production and agriculture.
Adaptive reuse is one of the best strategies that architects can employ for a sustainable future, retaining the embodied energy in an existing structure and reducing the need for new materials. At Elkhorn, the challenge was to think even further ahead. How could Elkhorn accommodate the current brief, whilst remaining adaptable to other functions in the future? And how could the building contribute to the sustainability and safety of the wider site and those who use it? m3architecture's ambition was to design for well beyond the immediate context and make a lasting contribution to the University and to the planet.
The reimagined building nestles into the landscape, whilst drawing users out into the natural environment, creating a distinctive character that enhances the precinct. Less visibly, the project services the wider University via a new and efficient chilled-water air-conditioning system that serves the entire campus. Likewise, communal water tanks meet the fire safety needs of the whole site. External servicing arrangements and perimeter-access platforms enable continuous maintenance without affecting internal use, now or in the future. The result is a safe, highly efficient building that responds to the natural environment, transforming a neglected corner of the Long Pocket campus.
The impact of this project includes: new, campus-wide, energy-efficient and life-safety services; a new and flexible research, teaching and cultural facility for native Australian foods; and, an adaptive reuse exemplar for sustainability. The original abandoned building is reinvented as state-of-the-art research and teaching facilities that allow the University to build on its reputation as a global leader in agricultural research. The project has delivered an excellent environmental outcome that provides short- and long-term benefits through resource use minimisation and site-wide efficiencies. The project has also repatriated the landscape and has improved the campus for all.
Reflecting its use and its users, Elkhorn explores the way we observe and interact with the natural world by linking science, art and architecture. The scientists who inhabit the building observe and amplify the characteristics of the plants they study using traditional research techniques. Similarly, artists in the 18th century observed and amplified the characteristics of the landscapes they painted by framing them using a hand-held, dark-coloured concave mirror (a ‘Claude glass’). Taking the ‘Claude glass’ as inspiration, Elkhorn uses convex, reflective cladding on its facade to heighten our perception of the building and its landscape. The cladding shifts the building between being the subject of our observation and an object for observing. The building houses the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and includes highly technical research laboratories. Uniquely Australian Foods, an organisation researching Indigenous and native foods, is also located within Elkhorn and has a commercial kitchen with blind tasting facilities. New learning spaces support First Nations students and their Elders. An externally located lift makes strong connections to the lush vegetation adjacent to the site, providing an experience of nature when moving between floors. Inside, colour and materials reflect and draw in the landscape.