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Some of the construction methods that Lee identified as desirable included water towers on roofs, fire resisting compartments and, most of all, the use of fire-resistant structural construction. Lee concluded that any required height could be built safely, once adequate provisions for fire safety were made. The debate on building taller in Melbourne was reignited in , with Barlow claiming that the current outdated regulations were constraining the prospects of growth for the city.

The UBR administered building construction, design, activity and processes of approval throughout Victoria, including in the City of Melbourne. Matters that were regulated by the UBR included building height, built form controls and fire-safe construction. The UBR also regulated building design and light access, with measures that affected built form. For example, building height was controlled by several restrictive instructions.

The most important of these stated that:. In effect, the UBR reaffirmed the traditional ladder-height limitations of feet, apparently ignoring proposals for reform advocated 20 years earlier by architects such as Barlow. The limit of feet was absolute. Figure 4: Uniform Building Regulations of Victoria, , building height limit diagram based on clause , drawn by author. Notwithstanding restrictions for building height, the regulations had an embedded mechanism of general amendment, which allowed that any of its prescriptions could be modified.


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Requests for amendment were subject to consideration and subsequent approval or refusal by a governmental committee of referees based at the Victorian State Public Works Department, known as the Building Regulations Committee. In an ambivalent context of prescriptive regulation on the one hand, and opportunities to modify the regulations on an ad hoc basis on the other, discussion about building height limits began at meetings of the Town Planning Special Committee of the City of Melbourne soon after the release of the UBR in Such discussion was prompted by plans to redevelop a public block of land in the area bounded by Collins Street, Market Street, Flinders Lane and William Street, known as the Western Market site.

In , following a request of the RVIA, the City of Melbourne launched a competition to appoint an architect for the redevelopment of the site. The suggestion was aimed at allowing a tall building proposal for the site, but the Town Planning Special Committee rejected the proposal. At around the same time, an internal report prepared by the engineer of the City of Melbourne reached the Town Planning Special Committee, recommending consideration of a planning principle based on site density for the entire inner city.

According to the principle, new buildings in the Hoddle Grid would be exempted from the UBR height limit of feet on the condition that they would be set back from main streets, thus providing more light, public space and amenity at ground level, and without exceeding the floor area of an equivalent building designed with the maximum height allowed by the UBR.

The Western Market project, subsequently renamed Hume Square, was delayed for several years due to financial problems caused by rising building costs. The question of height controls in the UBR resurfaced in response to private interests.

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BSM justified the requested amendment of the UBR on the basis of the benefits that would derive from conforming with modern principles of design, thus achieving a higher standard of accommodation for their client. The design exceeded the prescribed height limitations, but used only two-thirds of the density allowed by the regulations, providing car parking and gardens on site see Figure 6.

In support of their case, BSM listed a few buildings and structures that already exceeded the height limit of feet in Melbourne, including the offices of the Police Headquarters Building in Russell Street feet, completed in and the Australian Building in Elizabeth Street feet, completed in McCutcheon stated that, contrary to the position of the chief officer of the MMFB, authorities in other parts of the world had different opinions about the fire safety of buildings taller than ladder-reachable height. The provision of a general sprinkler system throughout the building was also contemplated by the architect, but it was not included in the final design and sprinklers were only installed in those floors higher than ladder-reachable height.

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It led to the development of a practice of addressing fire safety by installing sprinklers on floors above the ladder-reachable height of feet. However, this approach was seen as risky; in other parts of the world, the provision of sprinklers on all floors in tall buildings was not unusual. When facing requests for alternatives about fire safety provisions, authorities were less accommodating than they were on matters of building height alone.

At ICI House, building regulation authorities ultimately allowed increased height, but did not concede a reduction of safeguards for fireproof construction. Several detailing iterations for the fireproofing of spandrels of the all-glass curtain walls were prepared by the architects and submitted for approval to the building surveyor. After considering alternatives with terracotta and lightweight stud walls—contemplated by American standards, but not by the UBR—the project was finally built with the conservative provision of concrete parapets behind the curtain wall, acting as a measure to prevent the spread of fire between floors through the facade see Figure 7.

Left: lightweight stud wall detail, preliminary, dated 27 May Right: precast concrete upstand detail, as built, dated 29 July Subsequently, and notwithstanding these concerns, the process to request a dispensation from the feet height limit became a norm for building applications in the Melbourne CBD. Applications for modification of the UBR multiplied and extended from building height matters to prescriptions about fire safety.


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Methods of fireproof construction were a recurrent object of negotiation between architects and authorities, with the requirement to have three hours of fire rating protection on external walls a common source of contention. The request was motivated by the innovative method of fireproofing proposed, which specified sprayed asbestos in place of the more common gypsum plaster.

The rule-breaking deal of ICI House was granted on a principle of exchange between building height in return for public benefits, namely open space at ground floor and parking facilities, but without lowering fire safety performance in construction. The building set an important precedent and anticipated a wave of further applications on the same basis. In the face of ongoing requests for amendment of the regulations, public authorities in Melbourne took the opportunity to use negotiations on height controls to gain public benefits, trading approvals in exchange for civic amenities that would help to decongest the CBD, such as open space at ground level and car park facilities.

A more tacit, but no less significant, public benefit brought by tall buildings was the opportunity to multiply by many times the income from council rates. Public revenue increased in particular with more efficient modern buildings, which attracted higher council rates. Five years after the completion of ICI House, the same property had multiplied in value and, therefore, in annual rates, by more than 50 times see Table 1. Properties before consolidation in [78]. Total adjusted to — [79]. Table 1: Comparison of City of Melbourne annual rate revenues of the land parcels occupied by ICI House before and after the land consolidation required for the project.

These figures confirm the critical importance of the events that led to the approval of that single tall building. However, they also reveal a picture that extends beyond the significance of a one of a kind monument of architecture. Further, the ICIANZ request stemmed from a mechanism of ad hoc modification that was in keeping with the regulations; indeed, discretionary flexibility was embedded in the statewide code of the UBR. In the case of the approval of ICI House, the role taken by city planning authorities, as local custodians of the regulations, was not merely passive.

The instrument envisaged the prescription of a gross floor area allowance to be directly proportional to the site area, thus superseding the built form and light angle guidelines set by height limits. The review of the controls was accelerated, perhaps incidentally, by the private interests of corporations, such as ICIANZ, and the design inputs of architects, such as BSM. The City of Melbourne endorsed the proposal, thus setting a precedent for a new approach to city planning, which, in the end, was conceded less on grounds of fireproofing and more on sought after explanations from the architects that, through innovative provisions in their design, public safety would not be compromised.

With the release of the first inner city planning scheme in , the City of Melbourne addressed the question of built form control in less ambiguous terms than those of the UBR, regulating building height in the Hoddle Grid by the planning instruments of zoning and plot ratio. After WWII, pressures to modify the prescriptions of the Victorian building regulations amplified, following the need to test modern ideas of workspace design with communal spaces for staff, flexibility with modular coordination and column-free open space. The implementation of these spatial concepts relied on development rights in land parcels of adequate size and quality.

Even once the built form controls of the UBR were overridden in , the City of Melbourne continued to administer tall building activity with a project-based culture of assessment. Using seminal projects to test the transformation of the CBD, authorities set the stage for the development of a hub of prestigious corporate employment in Australia, while negotiating public benefits in return. Similar episodes of rule bending with tall buildings continued until the s, albeit with less historiographical fortune than ICI House, and with circumstances other than building height as the item of negotiation.

In Melbourne, a city where public and private opportunities for prosperity have often converged, the inclination of local developers and designers to challenge prescriptive regulations and propose alternative solutions has deep roots. The city developed a culture of ad hoc assessment for tall building projects that originated as early as the s and continues in the twenty-first century.

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Tracking the roots of such a culture is significant, not least because, in many respects, the discretionary approach that emerged after WWII continues in Melbourne today. Arguably, after six decades, that discretionary culture may have gone too far. The vicissitudes of ICI House are a powerful reminder of the instrumental role that tall buildings have played in the development of regulatory controls in some cities. Arguably more than other building types, skyscrapers seem to trigger the breaking of rigid prescriptive frameworks, such as those about height, fire safety and building form. Yet, as the history of ICI House shows, there are opportunities in which tall buildings may be allowed to prosper in exchange for design innovation and benefits to the public sphere.

Such benefits may take the form of economic growth and gain, including tax revenue, as well as architectural amenity, technological progress and long-term significance for the city at large.

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The findings presented in this article derive, in part, from a doctoral research project supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. The City of Melbourne followed suit in February The site was eventually developed in the early s with a freestanding slab project, the National Mutual Life Centre —, demolished in It was approved with a plot ratio of Beta search off.

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About Tim Flannery. Tim Flannery. Tim Flannery is one of Australia's leading thinkers and writers. An internationally acclaimed scientist, explorer and conservationist, he has published more than peer-reviewed scientific papers and many books.

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He received a Centenary of Federation Medal for his services to Australian science and in delivered the Australia Day address. In he was named Australian Humanist of the Year, and in honoured as Australian of the Year. He spent a year teaching at Harvard, and is a founding member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, a director of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and the National Geographic Society's representative in Australasia. In he co-founded and was appointed Chair of the Copenhagen Climate Council, a coalition of community, business, and political leaders who came together to confront climate change.

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