Sydney Modern Project’s Tank Gallery: insights from Dr Michael Dunbavan

Sydney Modern

For more than 30 years, Senior Principal Dr Michael Dunbavan has been helping clients address some of the most challenging and toxic problems in our built environments.

Over the past ten years Michael, together with other specialists at Tetra Tech, have worked to help Infrastructure NSW achieve one of the most ambitious, and awe-inspiring cultural projects in recent times.

The conversion of the disused Australian navy fuel oil tanks has resulted in the Tank Gallery at the Sydney Modern, a unique art space demonstrating how successful repurposing of heritage sites can be achieved. Here Michael shares his Leading with Science insights and the challenge of bringing the historic into the modern.

Q: Tell us about Tetra Tech Coffey’s involvement with the project?

The Tetra Tech Coffey team were involved with the Sydney Modern Project for close to a decade. We commenced with our initial engagement for the site investigation over what was the Australian navy’s subterranean oil tanks (which is the land that Sydney Modern now sits on).

The project went through many stages over the years, but once the design was finalised and the main construction partner (Richard Crookes Constructions) was appointed, we were ecstatic to be engaged as environmental and geotechnical consultants for the project.

For our geotechnical team, the challenge came from construction being in close proximity (just a few metres in places) to the Eastern Distributor (a major arterial road in Sydney). Ensuring integrity of the narrow sandstone pillar separating the two demanded quite a lot of geotechnical work, so it was fantastic to be able to bring a multi-disciplinary team to the project.

Q: What is so unique about this project?

The tanks are located to the north-east of the Art Gallery between Mrs Macquarie’s Road and Lincoln Crescent in Woolloomooloo. They were built during World War II to supply fuel oil to allied naval ships.

The tank is on an immense scale – it was built to hold up to 7000 tonnes of fuel in two compartments, and with seven-metre-high ceilings and 125 columns, the space is vast. In some areas of the tank the concrete walls are five metres thick, particularly along Lincoln Avenue. It was built this way to get the resistance to balance the pressure of the oil stored inside.  They lay disused for over 30 years until about 2013 when investigations began for the potential site for the Sydney Modern Project.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges of the project?

I think the biggest challenge of the project was spatial control, which is identifying where you are, what you’re dealing with and where the ‘material comes from’.  Normally we deal with construction sites where the walls are straight but that wasn’t the case with Sydney Modern. The external walls were like ‘caterpillars wandering all over the site’ as successive floors curled across the site.

Another challenge with fuel facilities like this is the presence of asbestos because it is often used as a stable material, however as we know, it is highly toxic. So, safety and constant monitoring for asbestos was crucial.

Q: Tell us about the process of the work and the timeframe

Our involvement was completed in several stages, following a process of i) assess what’s been uncovered, ii) identify the material that is unacceptable, iii) classify that and then iv) take it off site to an appropriate recycling or disposal facility. The final step is to then issue a Clearance Certificate which is declaring that the area is clean and ready for digging or the intended use(s) of the land.

So, during construction, our teams were often there daily because different types of material were continually being uncovered that required identification.

When construction was completed, we were there to support proper management of historical fill affected by landscaping activity around the tank. Again, it was a daily endeavour because it contained a lot of historical industrial materials from the past including coal ash from domestic heating and boilers. They also uncovered building materials which contained a lot of lead and asbestos.

“The Sydney Modern is an example of successful urban regeneration, taking a harsh industrial structure and transforming it in such an elegant way. I hope that our national heritage continues to guide us in preserving and repurposing the heritage value of buildings, because at Tetra Tech we have the experts to help clients achieve this.”

Q: What value add did Tetra Tech bring to the project?

We saw huge benefit for project outcomes by drawing upon various teams across our business. For example, when we required Clearance Certificates to be issued, which verifies that the area is safe – we could reach out to our Work Health and Safety (WHS) team here in Sydney directly.

Clearance Certificates are critical to any project and time is always of the essence. Asbestos is regulated under the Work Health and Safety Act, whereas contaminated soils is regulated under the Contaminated Land Management Act and the Protection of the Environment Operations Act, as far as waste goes, so it is quite complicated. Having our Environmental Scientists, SafeWork NSW certified assessors and our WHS team and Occupational Hygienist all working together under one roof optimises response times – meaning no loss in time and collaborating information and services seamlessly.

Q: For many decades now, you have been helping clients repurpose industrial spaces into usable spaces for our communities. Why do you think clients are taking this approach?

There is more to a building than just the physical materials. There is an essence that people are curious about, people are interested to know how did this building come about and why is this building here.  The Sydney Modern Project is a fine example of that and a wonderful story.  Admittedly, it is quite a harsh industrial structure, but it is wonderful to see the way that it has been transformed in such an elegant way.

We have federal and state heritage statutes that are relevant to specific buildings and places that need to be preserved, or at least the heritage value taken into consideration. I believe this trend will continue, although you do need the funds to undertake such projects because they are more costly.

Q:  What do you think of the project and the outcome?

It took great vision of the architects, designers and the Art Gallery of NSW to see the potential in the space.  For something that was hidden from sight and was a bit of an eyesore, when everyone was thinking ‘what are we going to do with this old fuel tank’ has been turned into a positive and stunning exhibition space.

When I saw it for the first time after opening you can see what a fantastic space it is, which is enhanced by the size and shape of the sculptures that are currently on display.  From the architects to the builders and specialist teams, everyone who has worked on this project over the years should be applauded for their dedication to bringing this vision to life.

I feel privileged to have been involved in this incredible project.


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