Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?

Olivia RoundJuly 12, 20190 min read

Australian cities have a rich tapestry of historic architecture dating back to the late 1700s*, with a vast majority of suburbs across the country having had heritage overlays implemented to preserve notable buildings. This has encouraged Australian developers and architects to think creatively about ways to repurpose, revitalise and recover historical buildings, and seamlessly integrate old and new design.

*The oldest building in Australia is Elizabeth Farm in Sydney’s Rosehill, built in 1793.

In a study conducted in 2016, findings showed that construction and demolition refuse contribute to 40% of the country’s total waste.

This statistic raises the question, how much of this construction waste is really necessary?

Using sustainable materials can have a lot of positive effects including the reduction of cost-cutting and time-saving measures taken in the construction process and diluting construction waste production, however it also pays to take a look at what percentage of our buildings can be salvaged before they’re torn down.

A common notion among climate scientists encourages the general public to act immediately if we are to stave off the negative impacts of climate change in future. By reusing existing buildings, when it is safe and appropriate to do so, we are able to avoid unnecessary carbon emissions, and will hopefully achieve greater nation-wide carbon reduction goals sooner.

According to the National Waste Report 2018, masonry material waste (bricks, concrete etc.) generation increased from 2006-07 to 2016-17 by about 18%, while the recycling rate increased strongly from 61% to 72% (8.9 to 12.3 metric tonnes).

In keeping with this trend, a number of Australian developers and architects have transformed iconic venues into modern, future-focused residential and commercial developments, saving them from disestablishment.



Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
L-R: Old AMP Tower, New Quay Quarter Tower development
Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Render of one of Quay Quarter Tower's roof gardens



In a bid to achieve a high level of environmental sustainability, the Quay Quarter Tower development has incorporated the existing AMP Centre into the new design by stripping back the tower to an exoskeletal structure and modernising the interior. By doing so, the development will save the equivalent to 10,000 Sydney to Melbourne flights worth of carbon emission.




Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Historic Marrickville Hospital. Credit: Savouring Our Trees
Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
The new Marrickville Library

BVN architects' designed the new Marrickville Library (opening in Spring 2019) that shares a site with the new residential housing development, Marrick & Co by Mirvac in Marrickville, Sydney. The construction project has successfully diverted 95% of landfill waste by innovatively recycling and repurposing the site’s existing Marrickville Hospital into a brand new library which also involved the preservation of the Nurses Quarters, use of recycled timber and approximately 27,000 recycled bricks. The building is anticipated to run at a reduced energy use rate of 25%, compared to a traditional building.




Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
The original Auction House sign. Credit: Fashionising.com
Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
The exterior of the Auction House Cafe
Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Interior fit-out of the Auction House Cafe

The café saw the old WB Ellis Auction House transformed into a modern, innovative eatery. The cavernous, loft-style building has been segmented into intimate dining zones, through the use of multi-level flooring, vertical timber beams and hanging feature pieces such as pendant lighting. While the building’s bones are almost entirely original, many of the interior finishes have been salvaged from the Public Office project to create a modern, industrial aesthetic.

Another Six Degrees Architecture project of note is the iconic bar at 20 Meyers Place in Melbourne. The firm set out to create the fit-out using as many recycled products as they could find, such as cupboard doors from a Department of Education office, old train armrests, and timber panels which were once the stage front of Melbourne Town Hall.


Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
L-R: The original building at 446 Collins Street, the new development Collins House



Collins House is an exciting new rejuvenation project of the 107-year-old Huddart Parker Shipping company building in Melbourne CBD. The Bates Smart-lead project saw a full restoration of the historic landmark building, including reinstating the ceiling cornices and many decorative features. The team also went to the extent of stripping back layers of paint covering the original façade, to bring back the antique aesthetic found beneath the surface.

"Collins House delivers a high-quality enhancement to the urban fabric of Melbourne and an iconic addition to its skyline."

Kristen Whittle, Bates Smart Director

The project follows the redevelopment of New Zealand’s Huddart Parker building in Wellington – while the projects are not related, both have undergone a similar approach to revitalising a piece of iconic history in their respective cities.

"The preservation of the heritage features of this waterfront property along with its high seismic rating has created a unique offering in the market which has been well received."

Ray Di Leva, CBRE Director of Asset Service, commenting on the Wellington building via Stuff.co.nz.


Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Yorkshire Brewery exterior render
Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Yorkshire Brewery interior
Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Yorkshire Brewery exterior



The Yorkshire Brewery project by Hayball is another sensitive restoration project which has seen a heritage-listed building, brought into the modern design era. The focus was to build up rather than cover base-level ground, in order to retain the original structure and open-air piazza. Old 1950s heritage buildings have been transformed into luxury apartments as well as new complimentary additional structures to create a rich cultural precinct offering one, two and three-bedroom boutique apartments and townhouses in Collingwood.  



“A concept gaining currency in waste policy is the circular economy, which envisages keeping products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. This contrasts with the ‘take, make and dispose’ economic model, which relies on plentiful, cheap and easily accessible materials and energy. Several states and territories are developing waste policy within a circular economy framework.”

National Waste Report 2018

Circular Economy – is a buzzword triggered by the rising impacts of climate change and often a term touted by many environmental activists. Good Environmental Choice Australia CEO, Kate Harris, recently had a chat with Urban.com.au about the importance of implementing the circular economy concept here in Australia as a means to mitigate construction waste. Harris suggested that some key drivers towards growth in recycling and upcycling in the construction environment could be incentivising, as well as a shift in dialogue about how upcycling can be beneficial rather than a hindrance to your project. 

“It is reframing it as ‘resource recovery’. If we start to see it differently, we’ll use it differently.”

Kate Harris, Good Environmental Choice Australia CEO (Listen to the podcast here)


Although there are many signs pointing towards upcycling as a fantastic way of preserving historic cultural heritage and a sustainable approach to development, it's also important to evaluate any potential health, safety and financial risks associated with the project. If a building is riddled with asbestos, toxic VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or weak foundations/structural facets, then it's vital that these are removed entirely, which may result in a complete demolition. Another factor to consider is the cost of replacing all custom-sized windows with double glazing, and upgrading bespoke features. And finally, the operational environmental cost certainly plays a part when it comes to how the building functions on a daily basis in comparison with modern, energy-efficient new builds of today.


As mentioned earlier, the 'take, make and dispose' ideology is one that needs to change if we want to see our planet regenerate any time soon. As renown American architect William McDonough says, 

“Upcycling adds value by transforming or reinventing an otherwise-disposable item into something of higher quality.”

William McDonough, Founding Principal of William McDonough + Partners

The Victorian Budget 2019/20 will be investing $35 million to strengthen and diversify Victoria’s waste and recycling industry. A recent statement made by the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio, looked at how the circular economy approach will be pivotal in the future of recycling waste here in Australia,

“We’re transforming the way we think about waste and resource recovery – developing a circular economy will deliver better environmental, social and economic results for Victoria.”

Here are a few innovative ideas by global architecture firms:

#1 The Microlibrary by Shau

Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Credit: Dezeen

A community library in Indonesia has been created using 2000 recycled icecream containers which create an interesting diffuse light effect. The low-cost building was constructed atop an old community concrete stage and provides a sheltered, inviting place for locals to connect and hang out.

#2 SOS Children’s Villages Lavezzorio Community Centre by Studio Gang Architects

Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Credit: Dezeen

SOS is a not-for-profit organisation which provides a place of security for families to seek support and assistance. The building structure was created using left over concrete from building sites in the area, which is what caused the creative horizontal tonal line pattern. Concrete recycling saved the development 90% of energy emissions.

#3 Kamikatz Public House by Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP

Upcycling Australia: Why demolish when you can re-polish?
Credit: Dezeen

The Japanese town of Kamikatz has a goal of zero waste, so staying true to this mission, Kamikatz Public House has been constructed using abandoned materials. An eight-metre tall facade comprised entirely of windows is aesthetically intriguing, but also provides great ventilation in summer months, and the building is heated via a carbon-neutral heater during the winter.

Olivia Round

Olivia Round is the Features Editor of urban.com.au. Olivia specialises in news reporting, in-depth editorial content and video + podcast interviews with industry experts.
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