Insights from Investa’s Barrack Place

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Stephen Mee

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What legacy does Investa’s Barrack Place, the 2020 RLB Australian Development of the Year, offer our industry? Investa’s national development director Shen Chiu shares his insights.

In 2018, as the new 23-storey office building in the heart of Sydney’s CBD opened for business, Investa’s national development director Shen Chiu took his family to see the finished product. His daughter had one question: ‘Which bit did you do, Dad?’ The answer, of course, is ‘all of it,’ but Chiu emphasises the enormous ‘team effort’ required.

Developed by Investa for Oxford Investa Property Partners, Barrack Place was designed by Architectus, constructed by Built and engineered by Arup. Commercial certainty was provided by RLB, and the 22,000 square metre building is tenanted by Arup, Mills Oakley, Pfizer, NRMA and Washington H Soul Pattinson.

No one builds for awards, but Chiu says winning Australia’s most prestigious development award was ‘recognition and validation’ for the ‘hundreds of people’ who spent five years working on the project to completion and another two tuning it in operation with sitting tenants.

Smart and state-of-the-art

When Investa laid out its plans for the building at 151 Clarence Street in 2013, a smart building just meant good building management, a digital twin was a term only used by NASA for space travel and the idea of buildings achieving ratings for health and wellness was pie in the sky.

But Investa’s visionary approach delivered a series of ‘firsts’, including Australia’s first operational digital twin and the nation’s first WELL Core-and-Shell Gold pre-certification.

Trusted partnerships played a crucial role in the project’s success, Chiu says. ‘If you’re going to deliver something special and lead the market you need to be open, transparent and accept that you are going to make mistakes – and that requires a lot of trust.’

Chiu points to the partnership with Arup as an example. Arup pre-committed ‘before we had a development application approved,’ he explains. Chiu first worked with Arup as a graduate structural engineer, and the strong relationships with his former colleagues and broader Investa and Arup business relationships led to conversations about the potential of the project.

‘Arup’s team recognised they wouldn’t just get a building that ticks all the boxes for a great workplace. They would also get to be the engineers on their own headquarters and showcase their capabilities through the quality of their work’. It was an innovative way to match up a tenant with a development, and Arup’s precommitment ultimately led the way for the initiation of the project.

Very WELL done

This same partnership approach was behind the commitment to achieve a WELL rating too. In 2013, the International Well Building Institute had just been established and the WELL Building Standard was still some time away.

‘We only had an inkling of an idea coming across from America, but we knew that by embedding best practice health and wellbeing principles we would be offering our tenants a building set up for the future,’ Chiu says. Back then, one of the key benchmarks of wellness was the inclusion of luxury end-of-trip facilities to enable healthier tenant lifestyle choices during working hours. While the concept of wellness has since expanded rapidly, the end-of-trip investment at Barrack Place prepared the workplace for the pandemic of 2020 and an increase in the number of people cycling to avoid public transport.

Other decisions have proved just as prescient: the advanced air filtration that pumps the building with 50 per cent more fresh air than required under the Australian Building Code; the UV lamps that kill microbes and mould; the biophilic greenery and abundant natural light that contribute to a calm, connected workplace.

The building’s technology backbone – envisaged years before people started talking about creating a ‘frictionless experience’ – made it easy to incorporate touchless technology essential for COVIDSafe workplaces.

‘All these features were built into the DNA of the building to improve the health and productivity of people,’ Chiu adds.

Virtual model reaps real benefits

When Investa opened the doors of Barrack Place for the first time, the operational team knew where each of the building’s 25,476 physical and maintained assets were located and their condition, thanks to an industry-leading digital twin delivered in partnership with technology company Willow.

The digital twin not only mapped out every floor, wall, ceiling, stair, lift and even doorhandle. It also captures real time data from IoT sensors, monitors the spatial utilisation by people, and is a deep database that holds everything from the architect’s drawings through to the service histories of plant and equipment.

‘When we started working with Willow, everyone was only talking about building information modelling, but everyone wanted an off the shelf solution and were waiting for the government to mandate a standard. It was far from a mature market. But we understood the value and decided to take a stance and make Barrack Place the first office building globally that mandated a digital twin from start to finish,’ Chiu says.

RLB director Stephen Mee led the team providing commercial certainty on Barrack Place by guiding design development, tendering and post contract cost administration. He agrees that Investa’s approach was ‘industry-leading’, and the digital twin helped Investa to ‘optimise the building’s full value’.

‘Market cost escalation was emerging when Investa went out to tender. Documenting the project in the BIM with a bill of quantities resulted in a competitive tender and improved the project’s feasibility. Digital twins might be more commonplace today, but Investa led the industry to make them commonplace,’ Mee says.

RLB has partnered with the Property Council to present the awards program since its inception in 1982, and when Mee joined RLB 37 years ago, the awards program was just a year old. He’s watched Australia’s property industry evolve since then and says Investa’s win is a career highlight.

Mee’s colleague Terrance Lai, who also worked on the project, agrees. Lai points to the building’s ‘multiplier effect’ as an important legacy. ‘It’s not just an office block in the city. Investa’s Barrack Place has regenerated the whole North West area of the CBD,’ Lai says.

Chiu says the development process wasn’t always smooth sailing, but ‘Investa is relatively small and nimble and we don’t get hung up on making small mistakes. We’ll take our licks as long as we learn and keep evolving.’

In the case of Investa’s Barrack Place, the lessons learnt – from digital twins to WELL ratings – have benefited Australia’s entire property industry.

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