Melbourne’s history of tall buildings is impressive even by the standards of cities such as Chicago and New York.

Whilst some tragic losses occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, we have now adaptively reused and protect our heritage of beautiful decorative styles including Classical, Neo Gothic, Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings. As these buildings age however, the legacy maintenance issues that must be dealt with can be very significant.

At a complex recent project at ‘The Lane’ building in Flinders Lane on the busy corner of Degraves Lane, issues arose regarding the heritage Victorian Classical façade. As is typical for the building style, each floor is expressed by attached pilasters supporting a string course. Decoration built up over the structural brickwork includes pediments and rendered expressed string courses.

Façade deterioration caused by water penetration into the render over many years had caused lumps of render to detach and fall into the street. The building operates as an apartment hotel with retail tenancies at ground floor. There are a multiplicity of unit owners, within three owners’ corporations and two OC Managers across the building. It is a credit to the hoteliers that they, together with the other owners, took on the task and determined that if the job was to be done, it would be done properly.

The original scope to paint the building changed dramatically once a scaffold was erected and close inspection became possible. Engineers reported that right across the facade, sometimes only light pressure was required to cause large pieces of render to break off in one’s hand. It seemed like in many places only the existing paint was holding the render together.

In a busy and constrained site such as this one and with Council heritage and works management issues to deal with, it is sometimes one thing to identify a problem, but another thing entirely to find a workable solution. This is particularly the case today, when tradesmen who have the rendering skills required for this task are much harder to find. Among the issues:

  • Once the issues were identified and given the OH&S risks, a solution had to be found urgently to avoid the risk of a Council Building Order
  • The hotel had to be kept in unhindered operation throughout the works
  • Lead paint was found, so environmental monitoring and mitigation had to be put in place
  • A methodology to limit the amount of render to be removed and replaced was required
  • A remediation brief had to be constructed that ensured a result that was warrantied to the satisfaction of the owners and managers
  • Whilst the head contractor, Hutchinsons, worked cooperatively with diligence and great professionalism, the challenge of finding a suitably reliable subcontractor that had both the technological expertise and traditional skills to deliver the required result and an acceptable price and process within a reasonable time frame required a tender of 12 tenderers
  • Stakeholder management was complex and cut across many competing commercial interests
  • Crucially, as building facades are often taken for granted, the requirement to fund an extensive repair job took the owners by surprise. A funding solution was offered to the OC by specialist providers Lannock Finance

The technical solutions include some very specialised (and expensive) coatings and admixtures, but also a very clever method of pinning flat render back to the substrate that obviated the necessity to remove and re-render for much of the façade. Only the worst affected areas – and particularly some of the most decorative, required a ‘back to the brickwork’ approach.

Overall the takeout message to strata managers and building owners is that facades require ongoing maintenance so that problems are detected before public safety is compromised. We tend not to look up when we walk the city streets. I have started to cast my eye up over older buildings and must admit that some parts of the CBD are a real concern.