In 2012, Rio Tinto commenced a major town expansion of Wickham to support the expansion of the Cape Lambert port and rail facilities and the town is now a diverse community jointly administered by the City of Karratha and Rio Tinto.
The design, documentation and delivery of the Wickham Community Hub was, from the very start, inclusive of the local community, the City of Karratha and Rio Tinto to ensure that the services and facilities it provides have a strong focus on community integration and complement the surrounding precinct.
A representative group was formed from each stakeholder and user group to facilitate a democratic community consultation process. ‘This provided the grassroots connectivity with the community,’ says Philip Gresley, co-founding director of Gresley Abas, ‘so that we could make sure that we were listening to, and taking account of, the needs of the various groups who would ultimately use the facility.’
In response to the community’s requirements, Gresley Abas has created a unique contemporary community facility in the heart of Wickham that brings together a diverse range of people and uses under a single roof. The modern and efficient community hub provides flexible, multi-use facilities to connect and activate the community, particularly those with families and children. It houses the Wickham Library, The Base (a dedicated youth space for 11 to 25-year olds), an external youth space with shaded skate park and associated seating / activity area, an early learning centre and a variety of multi-purpose rooms available for hire for community or commercial purposes. The new building acts as a catalyst creating stronger engagement in the town. It has been integrated with the existing facilities in the broader sporting precinct adjacent to the site and, as part of the project, Gresley Abas refurbished the adjacent squash centre and existing town hall to further accommodate the various community groups throughout the town.
The innovative and sustainable built form sits lightly on the landscape and is integrated with it as much as possible. Gresley Abas has delivered a low lying, single storey, horizontal structure that respects the horizontal contouring indicative of the surrounding landscape. It has been designed as a strong, hard carapace that protects and insulates a soft underbelly of user areas. The thoroughfares and pathways follow the interconnected swales that dominate the region and the colours of the underbelly reflect aspects of the surrounding landscape. “We drew inspiration from the colours found in a local creek bed,” says Philip, “the red dirt, the soft greens and golds of the vegetation.”
The building design responds to the harsh, hot and humid climate of the area and the understanding that comfortable external spaces promote community activation. Due to the sometimes extreme heat, the services and non-habitable functions are situated along the northern elevation. The habitable, useable spaces are located on the south of the building, opening up into a series of connected, shaded areas. A series of flexible and adaptable spaces are linked by an open weave of external pathways throughout the hub that capture the breeze and direct function and flow. These legible pathways and entry points encourage incidental community interaction whilst being shaded from the hot Pilbara sun and cooled by captured breezes.
The materials used by Gresley Abas are familiar, yet contemporary. They are not only able to withstand the Pilbara’s harsh climatic conditions, but also reflect the local vernacular. Wickham is located within a Category D Cyclonic Area so steel was used both for its structural properties and its aesthetic appeal. The strong steel carapace protects the users from both the harsh Pilbara heat and cyclones. This robust external shell is juxtaposed with the useable areas protected by it. A sense of softness and warmth has been created by the external use of colours that represent aspects of the landscape. Internally, this use of colour and texture is combined with the warmth of plywood to create a variety of playful and inviting spaces.
The carapace has no gutters. Instead, the building has a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding landscaping. This is a deliberate landscape response to a climate which is water sensitive. Water run-off is directed to, and collected by, a series of swales that have been integrated into the landscape design.
Gresley Abas has experience with the harsh Pilbara environment and welcomes the design challenges it presents. Having previously designed the Dampier Community Hub and the Pilbara Vernacular House, it had looked at existing structures and designs to inform how best to deal with climatic challenges ‘The utilisation of passive design solutions such as cross-ventilation really work in this environment,’ says Philip, ‘and the integration of a structure with the landscape, for example, by the use of berms, also informed our low-lying design, not only from a cooling perspective, but also as a means to protect its users from cyclonic weather events.’
Life in the Pilbara is defined by its rugged landscape and the communities that live there. Gresley Abas has delivered an innovative and functional facility that has a true sense of place. It integrates the community and natural environment in a way that will activate the heart of Wickham for many years to come.
The Wickham Community Hub received the Colorbond Award for Steel Architecture at the 2020 Western Australian Architecture Awards.
Cassandra Simpson is currently completing her Masters of Architecture at the University of Western Australia