Retaining and preserving objects and structures

The History of the UNE Boilerhouse – retaining and preserving objects and structures of historical and educational significance, and their use in the re-purposing into a children’s discovery space.

– written by Dr Kirsti Abbott


The buildings at UNE harbour and trigger memories and stories of Australia’s first regional university, a place where knowledge and philosophy was upheld and encouraged from 1938. The structures are our connection to that hopeful past, where the vision of bold and innovative leaders created a place of education that continues to serve those who seek to transform their lives. Through a regional lens, the University of New England grew and prospered, perched upon the tablelands in a temperate, but what often felt like a sub-alpine climate. To warm the hearts, bodies and minds of staff and students alike, boilerhouses were placed around the campus, 5 in total, to heat water that was then sent through pipes out to the buildings and heaters in every office, lab and lecture theatre. In 1974, the most striking of all the boilerhouses was completed and received a Royal Australian Institute of Architecture award.

This important boilerhouse is the largest of the UNE boilerhouses, and an arresting structure prominently located on the northern edge of the academic campus.  It was built in three stages. Boilerhouse 1 Part A & B (Stage Two forthwith) was designed by Leif Kristensen in 1965 and Boilerhouse 2 (Stage Three forthwith) by Robert Bryant in 1971.  It is Stage Three that makes creative use of off-form concrete. Its deliberately brutalist form was part of Bryant’s larger scheme for a residential complex in the northern part of the campus using a similar idiom. This latter project was never realised.

Stages Two and Three of the Boilerhouse are very intact, containing all their original machinery. They provide an outstanding record of a now vanished technology when the most cost-effective method of heating UNE’s academic campus was by means of a coal powered reticulated hot-water system.

The Boilerhouse is an important example of the application of what is now `old technology’ to the provision of heating over a large and dispersed campus. Although erected and fitted out in the mid twentieth century it relied, essentially, on nineteenth century technology.  It has been sitting empty and unused since 2000, after being decommissioned in 1999. The now redundant material culture of the Boilerhouse provides a valuable record of an historical, and largely vanished, solution to large scale work-place heating.

We have one chance to capture the historical significance, stories and potential of this structure, while it is remediated, parts demolished, and re-purposed to create an early childhood Discovery Space which will introduce young learners into the world of knowledge, ideas and problem solving through innovation.

It has rich potential to use the historical narrative of coal-fired heat production, through to innovative renewables of the future, both in its design and intention in education. In order to both fully realise the historical significance of the UNE Boilerhouse structure, and enable the Discovery Space to use this narrative, it is important to retain the legibility, atmosphere and character of the Boilerhouse by keeping elements of the original fit-out and equipment where clean up and retention is cost effective. The discovery space will keep the industrial history, and bring a STEAMpunk design to it. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths) is perfectly aligned with the design, the historical narrative and the educational aspects of the initiative.

UNE has established an in-house multi-disciplinary team including educators, archaeologists and museum curators to:
a) document the Boiler-house and make recommendations on the retention of elements of the interior fit-out and machinery while taking account of the new uses;
b) invite artists & sculptors to create unique art pieces from boilerhouse items and artefacts;
c) collect and curate an archive of oral histories, and
d) produce a book for a general interested audience that tells the history of the boilerhouse.


Timeline to date

December 2016: History of the Boilerhouse group assembled
February –March 2017: Site inspections with historians, archaeologists, educators and project managers to identify items for retention. Photographic documentation commenced.
April 2017: Report to remediation planning contractors on items to retain, remediate and re-purpose.
June 2017: Initiation of the Conservation Management Plan framework.
July – August 2017: written articles within and external to UNE on the history and intentions for the Boilerhouse. Oral histories and stories collation commenced.
September 2017: Photographic exhibition of the history of the Boilerhouse hung in UNE’s Dixon Library.



February – July 2018: Work with remediation contractors to identify and retain items.
Throughout 2018: Ongoing development of the Conservation Management Plan
Continuing photographic & video documentation
Continuing collection and collation of oral histories
Launch of an online crowdfunding project to fund the history of the boilerhouse book