Building the Boilerhouse The first instalment- the search for a designer.

By Dr. Kirsti Abbott, UNE Discovery Program Leader

From the outside, four years seems like a long time to get to the point of hiring a designer for the Boilerhouse Discovery Space. But the truth is, UNE is on a well-paced trajectory for opening a world-class $15 million play destination in regional Australia within 8 years of inception. It has been a wild ride to where we stand now, with wind beneath our hopes and dreams sometimes still, sometimes gusting, and always full of energy. And now, as we enter design phase at a time when the world is re-imagining how life will look forever, we are perched, ready to fly and likely thrash about with all the crazy ideas we’ll need to see our future with fresh eyes.

This will be the first instalment of what it takes to design, construct, fund and open a STEAMpunk, play-based educational destination in regional Australia. Each month, I’ll divulge some snippets of our experience. Starting now.


This is the stage when we start spending serious money on serious designs.

I thank the building gods often that Universities have qualified and talented people who follow rigorous processes through which we must wade to ensure the best outcome for this job. At the University of New England, the Facilities Management Services and Strategic Procurement teams have combined to enable a two stage tender process for the Boilerhouse Discovery Space. This is cool, because typically Universities are beholden to hiring design and construction firms from a pre-determined panel of firms vetted for quality, capacity to deliver, experience and other criteria. Universities don’t want multi-million dollar infrastructure projects to go south.

But ours – the Boilerhouse build – is a bit different. It’s a really out there structure. It is unique, considered one of regional Australia’s most innovative, brutalise industrial building. And it only heated the place! But the structure, built in three stages from the 1950’s through to the 1970’s, and winning an architectural award in 1975 (the same year as the Sydney Opera House), is significant to our university, and our region. I can’t imagine that academics and students would flock to a freezing agricultural area to learn if there was no relief from the below zero temperatures. I sometimes think that the university exists purely because the Boilerhouse allowed humans to thrive in the Armidale winter!

Anyway, it harbours stories. Lots of them, and if you’re interested in the history of the place, click here to read about it. Our History of the Boilerhouse group will continue to add to this history, and develop interactive experiences that tell the story of old coal fired technologies, and our journey toward renewable and sustainable heating practices.

So this two-stage tender process is to get it right; attract architects and designers that have created beautiful buildings outside a tertiary education context. We are looking for architects and designers that understand playful design, have demonstrated experience in adaptive re-use of old, industrial buildings, and other specific criteria. The Expressions of Interest were released via TenderLink on Monday the 27th of April 2020. Our procurement guy Nathan, and our Project Manager Chris, have excelled at getting the paperwork out for this Expression of Interest at a time when people are losing work, and universities are under pressure to maintain business as usual. There has been a huge amount of interest in the Boilerhouse EOI, including from US firms whose bread and butter is creating children’s museums around the world and companies who have delivered some stunning contemporary architecture in Australia. I’m so excited!

The EOIs will be evaluated by a team at UNE, and the submissions narrowed down to 5 or 6 lucky firms that will then work on a larger proposal that includes much more detail than the initial expression of interest. We expect to have what’s called a Principal Design Consultant for the Boilerhouse Discovery Space by July 2020.

I am immensely grateful for the four years of planning, of the Voyager program taking playful experiences and activities in STEAM to our northern NSW students, teachers and curious minded friends, and for the support shown to me and our team by individuals and organisations not only in Armidale, but around Australia. The Boilerhouse Discovery Space will be part of an Australian landscape of science centres, museums and discovery spaces committed to providing interactive, thought-provoking and playful experiences and encounters. It will be part of a childhood in the New England, a place we’ll return to over and over, discovering new things on every visit.

Keep an ear to the ground for how you can be involved in the process. I’ll give you a heads up here on our blog, and newsletter, and also on social media.

As our Director of Facilities Management Services, Jo Scanlan, says, ”Let the games begin!” After all, she’s the one signing off on this amazing job, and I’m personally pretty stoked that she’s playing along the way.