butter paper australasia : greaseproof architecture links 2000 - 2016

wall collapse : twitter Jonathan Lian via ABC
March 28, 2013 (Twitter: Jason Lian, via ABC)

A few people have asked recently what ever came of the investigations into the wall collapse. For those not familiar, a long section of brick wall fell to the footpath at the C.U.B. site in Swanston Street one windy day late in March 2013. Of the many people ambling along this busy Melbourne street, three young students were killed. Many investigations were launched by organisations including the Coroner’s Court, the police and Worksafe. I last reported on the Magistrate’s Court hearings in 2015, and had been wondering myself what has happened since.

I had been expecting the coronial inquiry to eventually kick off, which it was going to do at the close of the court cases. There were only a couple of direction hearings in December 2013, where the site owner’s lawyers were rumoured to be numerous and obstructive at every turn. The hearings paused when the case went to the Magistrate’s Court in 2014.

Since then…

The developer

After Grocon (Victoria Street) Pty Ltd plea-bargained their way down to one charge, then paid their 250K fine into the consolidated fund. Afterwards they began selling off the undeveloped parts of the site at a very handsome profit.

In 2016 Grocon launched a new website, pulling news across from the old site. All news right back to their posts about the wall, which are now only to be seen at the Internet Archive.

The sign company

Aussie Signs, founded in 1982, cancelled its GST registration on December 31st 2015. In February 2016 it was fined $250,000 for its role in the wall collapse. Aussie Signs pulled its website the following month, and went into liquidation in May. Phonecalls were redirected to Billboard Media, a business at the same address in Sandringham. Billboard Media was launched by Aussie Signs as a separate division in 2012, specialising in adshels and large format billboards.

2011 wall installation
wall installation, 2011 (via news)

The tradie

The sub-sub-sub contractor who actually erected the hoarding was reprimanded for not checking that the work his small company Paramount Signs was sub-sub-sub-contracted to perform had a building permit. No one else appears to have checked either, but this was the man who in 2015 was fined $7,500 plus 26K court costs, striking fear in the heart of all tradies. Maddocks published an analysis of the trial a few months later.

“The Court accepted that although Mr Westmoreland took no deliberate action to avoid his responsibilities, in saying he relied on others to obtain the appropriate permits, he was found to be guilty as charged, for he had not given specific consideration to the need for a building permit. Magistrate Gwynn highlighted that checking for the existence of a building permit could have easily been achieved through use of the Council registry or through compliance with regulation 317, which sets out that the building permit must be available for inspection at the allotment concerned whilst the permitted work is in progress.” [ Maddocks 18.08.15 ]

I’m not sure where a copy of a permit could have been kept, given that this was a wall at the edge of a vacant lot. The permit registers have only been available to download from the council website since 2016 – on the website that existed in 2011, when the hoarding was built, there was no method provided to search for or inquire after a building permit’s status or existence. The register spreadsheet for 2011, available (but misfiled) on the current website, lists permits for just one sign and one hoarding across the whole city. Though the registers can now be found, they are hardly easy to search. It’s startling that this vital information has not been imported into a searchable online database with mapping tools.

Of all the “sign erectors” currently listed on the Victorian Building Authority’s register, Paramount’s owner is the only one required to “provide quarterly reports listing jobs undertaken with permit details.” Paramount is still trading, and up front and centre on its website is the following statement:

“Our mission is to set the standard for safety and quality workmanship for the signage installation industry and to be an advocate for ensuring all regulations and standards are met. This is why: We Don’t Take Chances.”


I’m not sure what the police are up to. I sent an email to a contact from early on but got no response. Then there’s Worksafe, which was one of many agencies trumpetting their investigations in 2013. In 2016, after the Aussie Signs trial, a brief summary of this investigation was added to an online database.

“The accused pleaded guilty to the charge on the basis of its involvement in the attachment of the timber hoarding to the wall which increased the risk of the wall collapsing. The company was convicted and fined $250,000. The offender pleaded guilty and was with conviction sentenced to pay a fine of $250,000.” [WorkSafe Prosecution results summaries database]

The coroner

There’s not been much of a peep out of the council or the state government since the collapse, which leaves me back with the Coroner’s Court. Since 2013, key figures have departed. The State Coroner working on the case resigned and was replaced late in 2015 by Judge Sara Hinchey. Grocon’s QC at the early hearings, Ross Ray, died in a quad bike accident in 2015.

There is no mention of the status of the investigation on the Coroner’s website so I pinged them an email recently. Here’s the response.

“This investigation is still ongoing so there will be no information on the website at this time. The file is currently with the State Coroner, however we am unable to provide you with a time of when a finding may be handed down i am sorry.”

The use of the word “investigation” in this coronial context could mean that an inquiry is yet to start and may not start. According to the Coroner’s Courts documentation, an “investigation” can lead to a “finding without inquest”.

In January 2015, the Victorian State Coroner introduced time standards to ensure that findings were delivered in a timely manner. Unfortunately it doesn’t apply to deaths before that date. Payne’s Lawyers mention the case as an example of one that’s taking its time.

While many coronial proceedings are resolved promptly, some matters can run for many years, with parties periodically being required to attend court or submit documents. “We currently act for a party in the Coroners Court’s investigations arising from the Swanston Street wall collapse. Proceedings commenced in 2013 and are ongoing.” [March 2018, company blog]

So we wait. Five years, seven years, ten years, we will wait. In the mean time, be wary of gargantuan billboards and old walls. In the absence of official recommendations that might reduce the likelihood of a similar event occurring, why should we think anything has improved?

Another post will soon cover what’s been happening at the building site that the wall once shielded.

A few people have asked recently what ever came of the investigations into the wall collapse. For those not familiar, a long section of brick wall fell to the footpath at the C.U.B. site in Swanston Street one windy day late in March 2013.

28.03.18 in brick authorities

Permalink  Comment

architects: Durbach Block Jaggers

Fine work, but it took me a while to figure out the website (2017). Don’t scroll your mouse to scroll through images, just move the mouse.

You might also want to check out the new monograph, 3+2: Durbach Block Jaggers, published in 2017 by Uro.

listing | external link

02.06.17 in architects

video-portals: Design Is Research

Guest lectures from 2015, and maybe beyond, at Bond University’s Abedian School of Architecture.

listing | external link

18.09.15 in video-portals

education: Abedian School of Architecture

“The Abedian School of Architecture aims to be a leading design-driven professional school, characterised by an international outlook and motivated by the goal of graduating architects capable of shifting the direction of future practice.”

listing | external link

18.09.15 in education

Kegs against wall
Kegs lined up against the wall, c. 1980s (VHD)

An old brick wall collapsed in central Melbourne two years ago, killing three young students walking past on a busy footpath. I cobbled together a history of the wall and published it. Then time passed. Occasional news articles focused on fragments of the official investigations, but it was (and is) hard to get the big picture on what has happened since March 2013. In summary: not a lot.

[ Previous posts: FIRST – March 2013 SECOND – April 2013 THIRD – April 2013 ]

I stopped at the site on the second anniversary last weekend and found dead flowers in the vases of the “temporary memorial”. It’s a slab of stone that appears to be frozen in the midst of falling off a rough concrete wall (which could be the original). It perhaps too closely recalls the events of the day. The main purpose of the slanted top seems to be to stop people from fixing things to it, which is unfortunate. In the week after the collapse, a melamine shrine was erected – simply a shelf that people could lave candles and notes on, and flowers and stubbie holders. It was probably more appropriate.

swanston street temporary memorial
Temporary memorial, March 28, 2015 (PJ)

Swanston wall shrine
Original shrine, April 4, 2013 (PJ)

The only hint that it was the anniversary was a white wreath from the CFMEU union propped against a planter. The newspapers were silent, as they had nothing new to report.

I’ve dredged court reporting and pieced together a timeline of what has happened since March 28th, 2013. I did not know of the dates of the various hearings and did not attend. Audio recordings of hearings are available at a cost to “non-parties” with family permission for one year and they are then destroyed. I have not sought these out. The Melbourne public is totally reliant on coverage of the case by the media, which has been rather disjointed.

Several inquiries were meant to be underway in the immediate aftermath of the collapse. Grocon, WorkSafe (also called “WorkCover”), Victoria Police, the Building Commission (now VBA) and the Coroners Court were all conducting investigations. It is hard to find much trace of these. The Coroner’s website has no information on the wall collapse other than some name suppressions. WorkSafe’s websites have two articles, both published soon after the collapse. The VBA website has nothing about their investigation of the collapse.

Swanston Street wall on April 4th 2013
An inspector at the wall on April 4th, 2013

A chronology

March 28th, 2013
New information about 28/3/13 since my last reports

  • the wall was constructed in 1971 with a building permit.
  • Grocon hired Aussie Signs to build the wall in October 2011. They sublet the job to another contractor.
  • the wall made a creaking sound just before it fell
  • the hoarding peeled away
  • others were injured but left the scene immediately

March 29th, 2013
Planning Minister Matthew Guy tells radio 3AW that he understands the wall was “more than a hundred years… The wall has been [left there since the CUB demolition] so I understand that’s the rationale for keeping it.”

Media around the country report that the wall was very old. Not much is done to correct this when two days later the wall is discovered to be quite new.

The Age 29.03.13

April 30th, 2013, WorkSafe
WorkSafe’s media website announces that an investigation is continuing but, “given the complexity of the task it remains in its relatively early stages and will take some time to complete.” “The investigation’s primary focus is to determine whether any offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 have been committed.” VWA News

The authority also issues a safety alert on its website, which is a reworking of a 2004 alert.

May 24th, 2013, Coroners Court
Coroner Ian Gray warns that possible criminal prosecutions could stall the coronial inquest for several years. He does not rule out the possibility of holding the inquest in tandem with proceedings in other courts. ABC

Brick pile

December 4th, 2013, Coroners Court direction hearing
A police investigator tells the Coroners Court that Grocon had failed to provide witness statements other than that of an archaeologist who had previously worked at the site. The state coroner judge said he would order 18 other Grocon-associated witnesses to give statements if they were not forthcoming within a fortnight. The investigators had managed to interview 60 other witnesses.

Police investigators also tell the court that they were unable to obtain an engineering survey about a bluestone wall from Grocon, as the commpany had said it was not relevant. The judge orders it to be made available anyway, by the end of the week.

While he is at it, Gray criticises WorkSafe for not having shared with police 10 folders of material from their own investigation. WorkSafe lawyers reply, saying this would not be possible before April 2014. Judge Gray: “This happened nine months ago. Of course there’s a lot involved… but I’m not prepared to accept I should wait as long as you’re proposing.”

Gray orders that a “critical” engineering report be delivered within two weeks, well before the coronial inquest which is set for June, 2014.

A “well-placed legal source” tells The Age that, “WorkSafe say they’re doing their best but Grocon are lawyered up and are being totally unco-operative.”

This tallies with what I’ve been told by another source who said that Grocon had more than 15 lawyers at the hearing, slowing proceedings. I also heard that few Melbourne building professionals were willing to provide expert advice to the authorities and so some experts were sought from afar.

The Age’s allegations were refuted in the Herald Sun in an article: published online that same day. Grocon and WorkSafe affirmed that Grocon had been cooperating, while the State Coroner refused to comment.

In the only reference to the wall collapse on the Coroner’s Court website, Coroner Gray makes an interim suppression order prohibiting publication of information which may identify four key witnesses. The order is to be reviewed on December 19th at another direction hearing. There is no further mention of the case or the name suppressions on the website.

The Age 05.12.13

December 19th, 2013, Coroners Court direction hearing
14 Grocon employees have been interviewed since the judge ordered Grocon employees to give statements to the police. Three would not provide statements until “other processes in the investigation have occurred.” Their lawyers justified this on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves. These three, and a further witness who agreed to talk to the police, were granted name suppression.

The Age


All remnants of the fallen wall have been removed, and the footpath has been resealed. In March Grocon install a temporary stone memorial and planter boxes, for which a planning permit was obtained.

March 28th, 2014, Swanston Square on the anniversary
Construction work halts for a day out of respect for Bridget Jones, Alexander Jones and Marie-Faith Fiawoo. A Grocon spokesman says, “The important questions about why these three young lives were lost are not yet resolved but some answers will no doubt emerge when the Coronial inquest begins later this year.”


April 29th, 2014, Magistrates’ Court
Worksafe (Victorian WorkCover Authority) files criminal charges at the Magistrates’ Court against three Grocon companies and Aussie Signs (the subcontractor who erected the sign). Each charge is eligible for a fine not exceeding $1.3M, however this is limited by the Magistrates’ Court limit of $305,000.

The Herald Sun was able to view VWA’s charge sheet, which stated that, “The attachment of the hoarding to the wall was unsafe… It was reasonably practicable for Grocon Pty Limited to have eliminated or reduced the risk to the health and safety of persons in the vicinity of the wall and hoarding.”

Referring to the lack of engineering and wind design, inspections and building permits, the documents allege that, “Grocon did not take any of the above measures to eliminate or reduce the risk to health and safety of persons who were not its employees. Nor did it ensure that any other person or entity took such measures.”

A third party, Paramount Signs, erected the wall for Aussie Signs. The 29 year old owner of Paramount is facing $72,000 in fines for not having a building permit. He is the first person to be charged in the case.

The Aussie Signs quote was approved on October 6th, 2011, with work beginning on October 10th and finishing four days later.

Grocon executive chairman Daniel Grollo says, “Grocon’s priority remains to assist investigating authorities as they continue to closely examine all of the factors that contributed to the wall collapse and identify what needs to be done to see it never happens again.”

The coronial inquest, scheduled for June 2014, is delayed indefinitely.

“Building giant Grocon and sign firm hit with seven criminal charges over fatal Swanston St wall collapse” Herald Sun 29.04.14
“Contractor faces criminal charges…” Herald Sun 29.04.14

Hoarding installation
Early October – the hoarding is erected and painted (Fairfax video)

Hoarding installation
Early October – the hoarding is extended to the Malt Store. This extension looks almost like an afterthought but would place additional pressure on the end of the brick wall, to which it was bolted. (Fairfax video)

May, 2014, VBA
The Victorian Building Authority reissues its “When is a building permit required?” fact sheet, adding two new clauses relating to signs on free-standing walls. Here’s one:

“A building permit is required for signs that are attached to free standing walls, permanent or temporary fences that put addition dead and live (wind) loads and forces on the wall or fence that hasn’t been designed for those additional loads. To prevent the possibility of the collapse of the wall or fence, the wall or fence will need to be assessed for structural soundness and be structurally certified to ensure it can withstand the additional forces imposed by the sign.”

The previous edition, in 2008, required a building permit for a new sign above one metre, but made no mention of signs attached to existing structures.

June 25th, 2014, Magistrates’ Court
A subcontractor to the signage subcontractor appeared at the Magistrates’ Court. He had been charged by the Victorian Building Authority with constructing a timber structure attached to a wall without a permit. Unlike those previously charged, his full name, age and address were published.

Herald Sun 26.06.14

July, 2014
Grocon puts two northern sites at C.U.B. on the market, totalling 6,600 square metres.

The Age 30.07.14

August 25th, 2014, Magistrates’ Court
Magistrate Charlie Rozencwajg allows Grocon lawyers six weeks to vet 600 WorkSafe (WorkCover) documents.

Melbourne Times/The Age

September 26th, 2014, Swanston Street
The 29 year old signage sub-subcontractor charged by the VBA in June reappears at the Magistrates’ Court. His lawyer tells the court that his client received a letter from Aussie Signs making it clear that no work permit was required. He says that their defence team is trying to access information from the coroner’s investigations in order to shed more light on the details of this sub-subcontractor agreement.

Sourceable 26.09.14

September 30th, 2014, Swanston Street
In high winds, a temporary gangway roof on the Swanston Square building site blows off its fixings, flips and lands upside down on the footpath at the scene of last year’s tragedy. Pedestrians ran for it. ABC – with photos

October 6th, 2014, Magistrates’ Court
The court learns that mounds of earth from an archaeological dig were seen immediately next to the wall prior to its collapse. A Grocon VS lawyer asks if he can question the archaeologists about the extent of their operation. “We’re not talking about the pyramids of Giza”, says the lawyer. The magistrate grants the request.

The committal hearing is expected to take 12 days and to involve more than 40 witnesses.

The lawyers for Aussie Signs would like to establish whose idea it was to hang the hoarding on the wall, while the three Grocon entities want to know who commissioned the work.

The Age 06.10.14

Glenn Wilson Feb 2013 photo of CUB site
The mounds of earth in late February, 2013 – credit Glenn Wilson

November 12th-13th, 2014, Magistrates’ Court
At the first day of the committal hearing, Grocon (Victoria Street) Pty Ltd and the prosecutors come to an agreement. Grocon would plead guilty immediately if the matter would stay in the Magistrates’ Court, and if they could plead on a risk basis, rather than a causal one (meaning that they did not cause the wall to collapse). If GVS were to plead guilty to one of two charges, the four charges against two other Grocon subsidiaries whould be dropped, pending court approval. The prosecution no longer believed it could be proven beyond reasonable doubt that mounting the hoarding on the wall caused it to fall.

Lawyers for Aussie Signs did not become aware of this conditional plea until the week before. Their QC Nick Papas said, “it changes things completely.”

Three Grocon companies had each been charged with two identical offences. 1. “[failing to ensure] persons other than your employees were not exposed to risks to their health and safety arising from the conduct of your undertaking” and 2: failing to ensure a workplace was safe and without risks to health. GVS would plead guilty only to the second charge, which relates to employee safety, not the safety of passersby.

WorkCover’s allegations centre on the lack of a building permit, the lack of a bracing design, the lack of a wind risk assessment, and the lack of a post-construction engineer’s inspection.

QC Ray asserts that, “it’s not possible to say that the conduct of the accused caused the wall to collapse… Whilst it’s serious offending, the measure of disregard is not at the highest end.”

“He said rather, [Grocon VS] should have been aware of [the wall’s] capacity to withstand wind, and should have conducted an assessment of the wall’s capacity. He said it was reasonable to accept Grocon would have taken action to reduce that risk.” ABC

By pleading guilty at the Magistrates’ Court, rather than have the case proceed to the County Court, the maximum fine would be $305,350. The maximum fine at the County Court is $1.1M.

View from North
Aerial view from North, c. 2011, Bing Maps

Magistrate Charlie Rosencwaig says previous demolition works left the wall unshielded and vulnerable to wind. He refers to an expert witness who would testify that the wall would have fallen within five to ten years without the hoarding. “With the hoarding, it comes down to six to twelve months.” He questions whether the case was resolved with Grocon’s guilty plea. But he also thinks the fine “ample” for the offence, and notes that, “closure and finalisation is a very important aspect in matters such as this.”

Grocon chairman Daniel Grocon writes in a press release that, “this process has identified areas in which we, and the industry as a whole, can improve our procedures to ensure the safety of the public, and our employees, is further protected, including on vacant sites.”

Several witnesses in the immediate aftermath of the collapse state that they saw rusted or corroded brick ties within the debris. An MFB inspector stated that, “there was no attachment from one skin to another.”

A City of Melbourne building surveyor defends the council’s inaction after the hoarding was erected. They saw no need to take action.“From our perspective this fence or wall had a building permit and has been in use and has been standing up since 1971… It’s only when issues are brought to our attention as to safety that we investigate and try to determine what needs to be done, if anything.”

An inspector from WorkCover visited the wall during the installation of the hoarding and saw nothing inappropriate or dangerous.

Aussie Signs decides not to match Grocon’s guilty plea. Under instruction from the Director of Public Prosecutions, the prosecution requests that the Aussie Signs case be send to trial at the Supreme Court. Magistrate Charlie Rosencwaig questions this, asking why they hadn’t requested the same for Grocon. The prosecutor replied that the case was sufficiently important to go to the Supreme Court.

A builder subcontracted by Aussie Signs, and who is being prosecuted by the Victorian Building Authority, is to appear as a witness.

Sources: ABC | ABC | “WorkCover drops claim Grocon caused deadly wall collapse” The Australian 12.11.14 | “Grocon to plead guilty…” The Age 12.11.14 | “Ties on Melbourne collapse wall had rusted through, court told” The Australian 13.11.14 | Herald Sun 14.11.14 | “Grocon’s maximum fine after wall collapse a ‘slap on the wrist’” The Age 13.11.14 | “Grocon guilty…” Sourceable 13.11.14 | Architecture and Design 14.11.14

enlarged detail of 1979 aerial view of wall. Credit: Wolfgang Sievers, NLA

November 20th, 2014, Magistrates’ Court
At the second day of the hearing, Grocon pleads guilty to one breach of the Occupational Health & Safety Act. Regarding WorkSafe’s allegations, Grocon Victoria Street’s QC Ross Ray says that the company was entitled to a presumption of integrity due to the “free-standing” wall’s 1971 building permit. “When it’s built with a permit there’s no need to go back and recertify”, said QC Ray. The lack of risk assessment was due to the site not being considered a building site at that stage. GVS relied upon its subcontractor Aussie Signs to assess risk.

Grocon’s lawyers express “deep regret”, and seek a fine of around $250,000. QC Ray said, “no one – no one – questioned the integrity of that wall. All people in the industry have learnt due to this tragic incident.”

Prosecutor Gregory Lyon said that Grocon had failed to check that Aussie Signs had ensured that the wall was safe before erecting the hoarding. This had exposed large numbers of pedestrians to the risk of injury or death. Ray replied that this risk hadn’t been picked up as the site wasn’t a construction site – Grocon had relied on their subcontractor – “that reliance was not enough”.

Grocon VS is fined $250,000 and costs on one charge, as Grocon had suggested. The maximum penalty at the Magistrates’ Court is $305,000.

According to Magistrate Rozencwajg, the incident represented a significant failure of the company’s duty, but acknowledged Grocon had since acted in the manner expected of a good corporate citizen.

Grocon executive chairman Daniel Grollo says, “in whatever small way, we hope that the timely conclusion of the proceedings today assists the families and friends affected by this tragedy.”

The committal hearing had been intended to run for 12 days. If there were further sittings they were not covered by the media. The news of the Grocon prosecution was not reported by WorkSafe’s own dedicated news website.

Sources: ABC | The Age | “Court hears Grocon wall had permit” SKY 20.11.14 | ABC

Saturday March 28th, 2015, Swanston Square on the 2nd anniversary
The hoarding along the site has been partially removed to make way for the entrance to the Swanston Square apartment building.

The AFR reported during the week Grocon would be selling off various portions of the C.U.B. site to other developers, but that they would retain the Swanston Street frontage. The Maltstore was sold earlier in the month to a Singaporean syndicate.

The Aussie Signs trial

This trial is to take place at the County Court, which uses juries. This is perhaps one reason for the lack of commentary on the wall in the past months. I cannot find mention of the trial in any court lists.

clean bricks
Where’s the mortar?

A few unanswered quesions

Though these questions may have been discussed in the various hearings, no commentary or conclusions have been published (that I have been able to find).

- when was the 1971 building permit unearthed? Was there an inspection during construction in 1971?
- what reasons were given for Grocon (Victoria Street) Pty Ltd’s willingness to plead guilty to one charge (relating to employee risk), but not the other one (relating to public risk)?
- has any action been taken by the Planning Minister over the lack of a planning permit for the hoarding advertising?
- what are the details of the 1984 incident when the truck hit the wall? Rumour has it that the truck hit a different part of the wall, or possibly even another wall.
- what are the results of testing done on salvaged fragments of the wall?

Street edge
Street edge, with adjacent shallow concrete wall removed

bricks on end
Bricks on end in hidden leaf. This is another indication that the concrete wall may have pre-dated the brick wall. PJ 2013

Some of the problems with the wall when it was built:

  • it was over-height by about 700mm
  • it had no effective buttressing or lateral restraint
  • the pilasters sat on an adjacent concrete bund wall
  • there was a combined concrete / brick system near the base of the wall. While brinks expand, concrete shrinks over time.
  • there weren’t enough reinforcing ties. Boral recommends medium duty metal ties spaced at no more than 400mm horizontally and vertically.
  • the wall had a stretcher bond – no headers (cross-laid bricks) other than the top capping
  • there was no drip edge on the capping bricks (though this is not uncommon in Victoria)
  • there was inconsistent mortaring – both flush and raked used – both of which were unsuitable
  • there were no control joints to allow for movement
  • there was an apparent lack of mortar in the vertical (collar) joint between leaves
  • perforated capping bricks were left open to weather at wall step downs.
  • at least 5 types and ages of bricks were used, including old pressed bricks and newer extruded bricks. There would have been varying porosities, compression strengths. The old and new bricks may have required different mortar mixes.
  • there was either a lack of mortar, or else the mortar had not adherred – noticeable in post-demolition photos showing clean bricks
  • a steel end support at the north end of the wall, and other steel fixings for a gate, may have caused eccentricities in the wall due to the differing rates of expansion
  • there was no noticeable DPC beneath the capping
  • the hidden leaf of bricks, between the concrete wall and the facing bricks, in some places contained rubble and in others bricks were used on end.

“It appears to contravene every rule in the book” Trevor Huggard. Former Lord Mayor, engineer in The Age 03.04.13

different brick types used together

Some of the problems for the wall after it was built:

  • the southern abutting building was demolished in 1989
  • the brewery was demolished by Hudson Conway, exposing the wall to wind and gusts across the site
  • the few wall ties seen after collapse were corroded.
  • capping bricks fell off and were not replaced
  • the mortar had deteriorated in many places
  • efflorescence was visible on the face of the wall at mortar joints
  • there was evidence of mould colonies within the wall
  • the outer face was sealed with paint
  • most of the inner face was sealed with graffiti
  • the addition of a plywood hoarding in late 2011
  • storage of earth adjacent to the wall in February 2013

( Information from news, photos, court hearings, brick construction manuals, head )

Bricks at street edge

Preventing a repeat

Walls have continued to fall around Victoria since 2013 and will continue to do so. These accidents attract little attention unless there is an injury or death. If the wall in Swanston Street had fallen at 4a.m. when no one was around, its likely we’d not even remember it had happened.

I had expected there to be more of a discussion about the safety of neglected sites and construction sites, but instead the media and courts have focused on the hoarding. Perhaps some initiatives are in train, but after two years of waiting, I’m not hopeful.

brick pile
Yet another type of brick: 3 hole extruded

What could be done?

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list. That would require a building industry-wide response. But there hasn’t been one.

  • Rate holidays on vacant sites could cease – RMIT didn’t pay rates on the CUB site for eight years because it is an educational institution.
  • Rates and land tax on land-banked sites and “bomb sites” could be reviewed.
  • Demolition sites could be redefined as construction sites, and so be subject to the same safety requirements.
  • Archaeological digs immediately prior to building, and requiring bulk earth moving, could be considered part of the early construction process.
  • Site dilapidation reports should be the norm when large properties change hands. ( sample PDF )
  • Selling sites like Monopoly could be discouraged.
  • There could be a public safety hotline, with a phone number prominent on any hoarding around bomb sites.
  • There could be an advanced weather forecasting system (AWFS) sending out automated alerts, as is now happening in Calgary.
  • WorkSafe could extend its remit beyond employees to the general public, better reflecting the stated objectives of the OH&S Act.
  • Worksafe could publish its construction incident report on its website, as it has done previously.
  • The Ministry for Planning and the City of Melbourne could sort out their demarcation issues on site boundaries. They could also assure the public about what they have done to lessen the possibility of a recurrence.
  • Salient points contained in the hundreds of Australian Standards for construction could be made free so that smaller builders and contractors are encouraged to obtain them and refer to them. Minimum expected standards should not be locked behind a pay-wall, especially those that affect public safety.
  • Encourage use of the building code (now National Construction Code) by making it free, as New Zealand did some years ago after the “leaky building” scandal revealed widespread ignorance in the industry. This is being acted upon now by the ABCB – the 2015 online edition will be free to view.
  • A permanent memorial could be built for the three students. One not tucked in a corner.


As mentioned in my first post, toddler Michelle Krsek was killedin 2009 by 250kg of flying roofing iron near a construction site. This prompted a conversation about public safety in Calgary which has led to several actions. These include the formation of the On-Site Construction Safety Committee ( a joint initiative between the city, the construction association and the OH&S authority ), a best practices guide commemorating Kersk ( PDF ), an advanced weather forecasting alert system, a public safety component in construction degrees, a construction award and scholarship in Michelle’s name, and a push for changes to legislation to better include third parties (the general public). It’s not perfect but at least the wheels are turning. Canadian OH&S consultant Peter M. Knaack sums up the state of things there – but he could equally be describing Victoria.

“While employers, supervisors, regular employees and contractors represent the most important identified stakeholders within Canada’s collective body of safety statutes and regulations, other significant stakeholders also exist whose importance presently remains only poorly defined and regulated under existing Canadian occupational health and safety legislation. Although largely ignored by the health and safety statutes and regulations, victims of industrial accidents who are not actual parties to the work being conducted represent the most significant additional risk factor to any public or private employer.”

05.04.15 in brick authorities

Permalink  Comment [6]

show comments

An incredible piece, thank you for sharing.

by Melissa on 7 May 15 ·#

The southern end of the hoarding was a plywood fence. The wind loads deflected by the containers stored on site would have applied pressure to this section of the hoarding which was also bolted to the masonry wall acted as a sail applying rotation force. The wooden panel The Structure of the hording at this point was such that it firmly fixed to the masonry wall. There was no fail joint. The concentrated wind load and rotation forced acted like a lever and began to pull the wall over. The weight of the wall escalating and peeling the masonry wall off its foundations. The masonry wall was stable but not designed to withstand this horizontal force. Formerly the wall would have been braced by the roof structure that the wall supported. It was the applied rotation force on the plywood section of the wall caused the collapse.

by Melbcity on 11 October 16 ·#

Thanks so much for this detailed account. I will share with Master of Architecture students next semester for all the structural and legal reasons of why this matters to anyone in the ‘trade’. Thanks. S

by Sophie Giles on 12 December 16 ·#

What happened to the inquest into this tragedy? Has it happened and where can I read the findings?

by Serena Whittington on 5 February 18 ·#

I passed the memorial yesterday on my way to the University which caused me to search for what happened. What a senseless loss of life.

Common sense and a simple ‘no we are not doing this’ at any point would have saved 3 lives. This is somehow overlooked in favour of legal arguments.

by Michael Smith on 15 February 18 ·#

Do we know when the coroner will progress their investigation?

by Aspen on 7 March 18 ·#

In July, Plan Melbourne introduced three new flavours of residential zone. Loosely described, the Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ) will prevent medium or high density developments in order to preserve character, the General Residential Zone (GRZ) is pretty much business as usual with a small nod to developers, and the Residential Growth Zone (RGZ) is where apartment blocks will be allowed to blossom. Well blossom as much as they can within a 13.5m height restriction. The new zones are meant to provide more certainty to residents and developers.

The planning department abdicated responsibility for determining where the zones go to local government, though the minister retained final say. By the time the government slipped into caretaker mode recently, Mr Guy had approved a good number of the zoning maps lodged by councils. Many of the successful councils happened to be in the south and east, where councils opted for blanket use of the Neighbourhood Residential Zone, with tiny dollops of GRZ and RGZ around busy roads.

Glen Eira neighbourhood character zones
North West part of Glen Eira’s zoning map (the beige-salmon shaded blanket is NRZ. The light pink areas are GRZ, the hot pink ones are RGZ, and the mauve areas are zoned commercial). DPCD

In July I began my zigzagging foray meander through Plan Melbourne by zooming in on some Residential Growth Zones, just to see what they were. I randomly chose an area in Glen Eira near the Elsternwick Station (middle left of the map above). Glen Eira was the first council to have its submission approved and gazetted, back in August 2013, even before the release of Plan Melbourne. As with all the leafy ‘burbs, NRZ dominates. The Age calculated that 93% of residential land is Neighbourhood Residential Zone, 5% GRZ, and 2% is RGZ.

zone comparison
Zoning on the left, NC overlay on the right

The RGZ is meant to, “provide housing at increased densities in buildings up to and including four storey buildings”. What’s disturbing is that most of this RGZ area falls within Neighbourhood Character Overlay No. 4. One of this area’s Neighbourhood Character Objectives is, “to encourage retention of older dwellings that contribute to the valued character of the area.” At the top of the overlay’s schedule it states:

New dwellings will respect the key characteristics of the streetscape, comprising of:
- Established garden settings with substantial planting.
- A single storey scale of buildings, with upper levels well recessed from the front façade.
- [etc]

There appears to be some conflict between the zone and the overlay. Which one wins? In general, “if an overlay is shown on the planning scheme map, the provisions of the overlay apply in addition to the provisions of the zone.” They would both win! But this overlay explicitly modifies the zone requirements to insist on scale, heights and site layouts that respect neighbourhod character. In other words, the zone permits you to build up to four storeys, as long as you only build up to two storeys with a hip roof, and as long as it only looks like a one storey building from the street. So much for certainty.

If this is a Claytons RGZ (the zone you have when you’re not having a zone), how many others are there? I looked at the adjacent RGZ just across Glen Huntly Road and found that it coincided beautifully with Heritage Overlay 72, “Elsternwick Estate and environs”. Most of the properties in this RGZ are significant places, as identified in a 2003 draft heritage report. Most of the rest are contributory places. Reading this report and the heritage clause of the Glen Eira planning scheme, it seems very unlikely that a developer would be permitted to demolish a letter box, much less build a four storey apartment block.

Yarra proposed zones
Part of City of Yarra’s proposed zoning plan (rejected)

Possibly these are just isolated aberrations that somehow slipped through all the checks. I decided to look at a different, distant council. The City of Yarra’s zoning plans were not approved by the Minister and the whole municipality was “neutrally converted” to GRZ on July 1st. I only examined the Northern area from Fitzroy through to North Carlton. Once again, it’s hard to find many RGZ properties that could actually be developed. There are St Brigid’s Church, School and Presbytery on Alexandra Parade, which would all be sorely missed should apartments land atop them. The RGZ picks up properties which have already been developed, others in heritage overlays, and St John’s Primary School. There is a large strip of RGZ down on Alexandra Parade close to Hoddle Street… the very same properties that the state government is forcibly buying to build a temporary road for its elephantine East West Link project.

Some councils with insufficient RGZ in their proposals were sent back to the drawing board without approval. Other with approved schemes were told to allocate more area to Residential Growth Zones as a “Stage 2”. These latter councils include Boroondara, Bayside, and Darebin. The Bayside request was withdrawn during the current Liberal election campaign (!). The most perplexing case I’ve found is Boroondara. The council’s zoning recommendations were approved on a “fast-track” by Minister Guy in June, despite warnings from his own Residential Zones Standing Advisory Committee (RZSAC). Back in March the planning department asked Boroondara to increase its RGZ from 0.8% to 2.5% of residential area. Council did so but in May the elected councillors unanimously voted down these recommendations at an RZSAC hearing, in response to community outrage . The advisory committee later rejected the proposed zones too and in September Minister Guy issued this press release:

“Residents in Boroondara will have greater certainty about where development should occur, with an independent advisory committee ruling out higher density zoning in areas proposed by the council… All councils are expected to adopt a sensible approach to the residential zones. Boroondara will have to undertake further strategic work to achieve this, and will have the General Residential Zone put in place instead of the higher density development that council proposed.” ( link )

Talk about everyone having it both ways. Guy “locked up” all the council-proposed RGZ properties that the council didn’t support and that he had requested, by zoning them all GRZ. Some poor council planners are between a rock and a hard place.

Boroondara is a very special place. In 2002, locals got organised to protest against development proposals for Camberwell Station. Quite a few groups fired up around that time, among them the Boroondara residents Action Group and the Malvern East Group. Boronodara-based Planning Backlash is a coalition of many such groups. In opposition, shadow Planning Minister Guy showed support for the groups’ demands to return power to councils and to preserve the character of their suburbs. He addressed these issues in Plan Melbourne but disagreed with Planning Backlash’s solution for reigning in the Urban Growth Boundary, preserving liveability and restoring affordability to the suburbs. They want to reduce immigration, or “build a new city elsewhere eg develope [sic] Portland”.

So where does that leave us? Boroondara, Glen Eira, Bayside and other municipalities in that leafy south eastern belt are not going to meet any targets requested of them by state government. The RGZ’s across Melbourne are not what they appear to be. Many have been deliberately positioned where they can’t work, at least without a big fight and a trip to VCAT. There is no provision for apartment blocks over the often mandatory maximum height of 13.5m. The number of dwellings in suburban municipalities will grow, but not enough to cater to upcoming demand within them for affordable and diverse housing options. Picking up some of the slack will be urban renewal zones (ie Fisherman’s Bend), and growth areas (ie woop woop).

“It was submitted that a reduction in the development of apartments; reduced new housing supply opportunities due to the inappropriate application of new zones; and increasing greenfield production costs are expected to create an ongoing structural shortage of new housing to meet growing demand.” from RZSAC’s Stage one Overarching Issues report

23.11.14 in planning 

Permalink  Comment

Arch-peace strategic plan image

{ The event link is here . }

My conversations with people closely involved in several humanitarian architecture groups have had an underlying theme – interest is down in Australia. People aren’t volunteering, donations have slumped, patrons are in name only… Emergency Architects Australia have even closed shop. I could write a book about why I think this is happening, so won’t attempt to unpick it here. Suffice to say, many of the remaining groups are in the process of re-examining their goals.

I’ve been involved on and off with Architects for Peace since its inception in 2003. It was the only Australian-based group of architects prepared to protest the Iraq invasion. Times have changed since then, and not for the better. But Architects for Peace grew beyond its roots and was soon hosting talks and events, facilitating pro bono work, hosting a busy online forum, releasing news and editorials, and a lot more. But despite having 26,000 facebook followers and 600 members worldwide, A4P was finding it increasingly hard to get things done with the resources available.

Architects for Peace went into a temporary hibernation earlier this year, and focused on itself. There have been months of meetings, discussions, arguments. The result, the first Strategic Plan, is being launched tonight at Design Hub in Melbourne. I’ve read it and am pretty excited about it. I think it’s going back to roots, to hopefully reemerge as an unapologetically political group concerned with people’s rights to built environments and public spaces that are meaningful, safe, and egalitarian. But that’s just my quick take on it. Come hear the official version yourself tonight, on the roof-top.

Details here .

11.11.14 in activists 

Permalink  Comment

architects: Bree Architects

Johanne and Joost van Bree’s new practice in Bendigo, Central Victoria.

listing | external link

10.11.14 in architects

The Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania has a peculiar name. Old art and new art add up to all art, so why not just call it the Museum of Art? But that would abbreviate to MA or MoA, neither perhaps being appropriate. The acronym is MONA and that’s what everyone calls it now, which is as it was meant to be.

Reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle recently (a good read), I realised what the roots of this name might be. In the book, Mona is the beguiling beauty – apparently the only beautiful woman on the Island of San Lorenzo, and the daughter of a Finnish architect. Vonnegut himself was the son and grandson of architects. He said his father’s only advice to him was not to stick anything in his ears and not to become an architect.

The island’s dialect contains many a strange word, and one is ‘foma’. It means ‘lies’ as in ‘a pack of foma’. These “harmless untruths” keep the country stable. In Walsh’s cradle, FOMA has become the Festival of Music and Art. Walsh let the cat out of the bag in an interview with Le Figaro last year, and Mathhew Denholm of The Australian picked up on it in 2011.

“Live by the foma [lies] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy” (Cat’s Cradle frontispiece)

1963 cover
Original 1963 cover

So that’s what Walsh has admitted to, that I can find. He has plenty of other things to say about influences though, which are well-covered in David Neustein’s 2011 review. Architects Fender Katsalidis give very little away about the origins of the design, saying it was inspired by Greek rock fortresses. Walsh mentions Naxos. Schematic architects Tandem have even less to say, but have some great photos of early citadel-esque models on their MONA webpage.

Mona stairs
Related? Lindos acropolis ( lindianet ) / MONA entry (PJ, 2011)

Walsh may have revealed more in his gilded new memoir Bone of Fact , which he wrote in the style of Vonnegut. But I’m still saving my pennies for that one. Anyhow, I decided to dig a little deeper and see what else turned up. Some of it will be B.S., but hopefully interesting B.S. I think that a few of these snips influenced the shape of things at MONA, and I think it was for the better. If you’ve not yet been, a lot of what follows won’t make much sense… maybe even if you have been.

A Fantastic Fortification
The president of Vonnegut’s San Lorenzo, a small and fictional island in The Caribbean, lived within an imposing edifice by the sea. It was built by a mad slave-turned-emperor who copied it from a child’s picture book.

“A maniac, Tum-bumwa caused to be erected the San Lorenzo Cathedral and the fantastic fortifications on the north shore of the island, fortifications within which the private residence of the so-called President of the Republic now stands.” Cat’s Cradle, chapter 57

“We at last came to the castle. It was low and cruel and black. Antique cannons still lolled on the battlements. Vines and bird nests clogged the crenels, the machiolations, and the balistrariae. Its parapets to the north were continuous with the scarp of a monstrous precipice that fell six hundred feet straight down to the lukewarm sea.” Cat’s Cradle, chapter 95

The oubliette
Within the Prsident’s residence is a large square anteroom with a manhole cover within it. This lead down to ‘the oubliette’ – a drop-and-forget type dungeon, accessible only from the top. A ventilated and stocked bomb shelter had been retrofitted into this dungeon by the reigning despot. The oubliette may have been inspired by the underground cellars of the “meat locker” Vonnegut and other prisoners of war found themselves in during the bombing of Dresden in 1945, known as Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse-Five). The only reason they survived the firestorm was because they were held in isolated captivity. Similarly Mona and the book’s bumbling hero Jonah survive an ice storm in their own oubliette. Rather than being prisons, these dungeons became arks for preservation.

I visited MONA during the first exhibition, Monanisms. It could equally have been called Meat Locker, given many of its displays (one even being a rack of meat). The MONA dungeon is entered through a deep circular drum staircase from the Roy Grounds house above. I vaguely remember that we were advised to take the stairs for the best experience. Déjà vu – all of a sudden it was 1989 and I was tramping down the emergency spiral stairs in one of London’s smaller tube stations. The lifts were off again. These stairs provided wartime access to tube station platforms, which doubled as air raid shelters in WWII – more arks.

WWII London air raid shelters
This illustration shows some purpose-built “deep” shelters, which were intended for later use as the Northern Line. ( source )

MONA basement 3
MONA basement 3 – the spiral stair is at top right. ( source )

Is Tasmania an Ark?
The state of Tasmania is almost at the end of the world, if you’re over at the ‘centre’ of things. Utah lawyer Martin Polin certainly thought so – during the Cold War he purchased 18,000 hectares of prime Tasmanian wilderness to use a a bolt hole in case of nuclear catastrophe. He even had bunkers built, which you can see here . His own survivalist ark. Perhaps MONA can be read as an art ark? Though it wouldn’t function too well in a biblical flood.

Noah's big boat
MONA (Leigh Carmichael) inset: Noah’s Ark ( source: answersingenesis )

The Other Monas
‘Mona’ has other significance in Tasmanian history. In 1865 Robert Quayle Kermode built what is thought to be the largest home in Australia at Mona Vale, a property north of Hobart. His father named the property in about 1824 after Castle Mona (1804, Isle of Man), another imposing castle by the sea. Robert Kermode’s house, which is partly modelled on the original, apparently contains a room for each week of the year, and a window for each day of the year. So it’s also known as “Calendar House”.

Speaking of castles, Julian Castle is a character in Cat’s Cradle. Sugar millionaire, draft dodger, and playboy, at forty he sought to make amends by following Albert Schweitzer’s example and building a free hospital in the jungle of an impoverished state. The House of Hope and Mercy was designed by Mona’s father, Nestor Aamons. cf…

“Mona, then, is a one-man, self-imposed gambling levy, ploughing tens of millions of ill-gotten gains – as some might see it – into high forms of human expression.” The Australian, 2011

The symbol for MONA is a cross sign and a plus sign. David Walsh is a bit clever with numbers so that’s not too much of a surprise. But then there’s this little discussion in Cat’s Cradle about the string game cat’s cradle:

“He held out his hand as though a cat’s cradle were strung between them. ‘No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between sombody’s hands, and little kids look and look at all those X’s…’ ‘And?’ ‘No damn cat, and no damn cradle.’” Chapter 74

Cross and plus

Science fiction novelist H.G. Wells visited General Electric’s office near New York in the early 1930s and was entertained by Nobel-winning chemist Irving Langmuir, who we can thank for artificial snow. Vonnegut later developed Langmuir into Dr. Felix Hoenikker in Cat’s Cradle. Langmuir hoped to inspire Wells with an idea for a type of water that was solid at room temperature. Wells wasn’t that excited, but Vonnegut later found out about it while working at G.E., and from his brother Bernard. Bernard had worked with Langmuir and was accomplished in his own right, developing cloud-seeding in 1946.

Kurt’s fictional scientist develops a version of crystallised water called ice-nine, a lot more dangerous than either Bernard Vonnegut’s or Langmuir’s contributions. Ice Nine is present today in Tasmania, but only as a climbing route in Coles Bay. (By coincidence, the first photo I found of it shows a friend of mine scaling the fractured rockface.)

H.G. Wells’ path-crossing with Vonnegut doesn’t stop there. Towards the end of Cat’s Cradle is the chapter The Tasmanians, where Vonnegut describes the tragedy.

“…They were so contemptible in the eyes of white men, by reason of their ignorance, that they were hunted for sport, by the first settlers, who were convicts from England. And the aborigines found life so unattractive that they gave up reproducing. I suggested to Newt now that it was a similar hopelessness that had unmanned us.” Cat’s Cradle chapter 125

book cover
War of the Worlds, Airmont 1964 edition ( source )

H.G. Wells was inspired to write “War of the Worlds” (and set off an alien invasion fad) after discussing the same events with his brother Frank. He refers to the Black War in the first chapter of The War of the Worlds, suggesting it was comparable to a Martian attack on England.

“And before we judge [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanquished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years.”

Vonnegut’s interest in genocide stemmed from his personal memories of the Dresden bombing, a mass-killing that Vonnegut blamed on ‘bureaucratic momentum’ in the British War Office, and which inspired his most well-known book, Slaughterhourse Five. In Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, the Armenian massacre is ever-haunting. The protagonist in Cat’s Cradle is attempting to write a book about the Hiroshima atomic bombing.

Walsh has asked Katsalidis back to work on a new high-roller hotel and casino on the MONA site, named Hotel Mona, or HOMO . HOMOsexuals don’t crop up in Vonnegut’s writing much, but HOMO sapiens certainly do. They’re a destructive species and shouldn’t be trusted.


David Walsh talks at Capitol Theatre on Thursday, November 6th, but it’s booked out.


Other odd stuff picked up along the way

  • Both Vonnegut and Wells began their careers in chemistry.
  • The subject matters of both “Cat’s Cradle” and “War of the Worlds” were influenced by the respective authors’ brothers. Wells dedicated his book to his brother Frank.
  • Vonnegut may have borrowed ‘foma’ from two short stories by Nikolai Gogol, whom he much respected. In these stories the narrator Foma relates the tall stories of his grandfather.
  • Herman Melville’s whaling book ‘Moby-Dick’ is alluded to in several ways in ‘Cat’s Cradle’. From the name of the main character (Jonah) to the profile of a mountain range. There are no strings back to MONA, but there are strings. For a start, Hobart town was the second largest whaling port in the world in the early 1800s. Whales were regular visitors to the Derwent River, and locals got an $8 spotters fee if they reported one. Melville never made it to Hobart, but in 1842 he sailed 1,371 kilometres from the Marquesas Islands to Tahiti on the Australian whaler Lucy-Ann. While on board he took part in a mutiny, so was thrown in jail in Tahiti. Elements of his time on board may have surfaced in Moby-Dick and Omoo. Super-weirdly, I now realise that some of my ancestors owned the Lucy-Ann until seven months before Melville sought refuge on it.
  • The career of Orson Welles spanned decades. He first gained notoriety for sending the whole of the U.S. into a brief invasion panic with his radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” – it was a little too realistic. At the other end of his career, the Nashua end, Welles was reduced to doing uncredited voiceovers in Magnum P.I., and “Slapstick (Of Another Kind)”, an appalling adaptation of a Vonnegut book.
  • Cat’s Cradle is probably a corruption of “Cratch Cradle”, cratch meaning rack or manger. Cratch is still used to describe cattle feed racks in France, and in England it’s used to describe hatchway frames on canal narrowboats (cratch boards). These boards are trapezoidal in shape with a strong central vertical element. Drawing a very long bow, this is not unlike MONA’s ramparts.
  • Albert Schweitzer, apart from building a hospital in Gabon, and inspiring Julian Castle to do the same in Cat’s Cradle, was an organist with plentiful Bach recordings. Schweitzer was a hero to pianist Glenn Gould, who provided Bach interpretations for the soundtrack of the 1972 film Slaughterhouse Five.

MONA from Derwent River
MONA from Derwent River (PJ, 2011)

The last words:

“Humans.. are very good at finding likenesses, at finding meaning, at finding order, where there is none.” David Walsh, ABC Stateline 2012

“What a coincidence! But that is all it is. One mustn’t take such things too seriously.” Vonnegut in Bluebeard, chapter 23

05.11.14 in museums books

Permalink  Comment

Magritte - time transfixed In May’s Victorian state budget, the Metro Rail Capacity Project was officially abandoned and relaunched as the smaller, Southern-focused Melbourne Rail Link. It’s been under consideration for less than three months, and looks to have been rushed out in time for the November state election. They’ve earmarked $8.6B – $11B, which includes (a bit like steak knives) a distant airport rail link branching off the Sunbury line.

There’s no start date for any of this, but the changes put back “threshold” readiness of Metro Rail by at least four years. Treasurer O’Brien says the shovels are ready, but if they bought shovels, they won’t be able to use them for a while yet. The Metro project was due to start in January 2015 ( Infrastructure Australia submission ), so now nothing will happen for the forseeable if the Liberals return to power in November. According to the new Plan Melbourne, the Link will become “progressively operational” between 2017 and 2021. It’s quite a clever ploy, appearing to be pushing forward with rail but effectively stalling it. I might be less cynical about it had the government raised its fundamental objections to the scheme before spending millions developing it to the point that it is ready to be built.

One factor that held some sway on Spring Street was the federal government’s putting the kibosh on public transport. The Coalition made it clear well before they were elected that they were not interested in funding rail, and 36 hours before the election confirmed the diversion of the initial Metro Rail funding of $150M into a $19B splurge on road projects.

The new route does build some inner rail capacity, but the extent cannot be confirmed – the figures are all preliminary and a $547K business case will not be released publicly. Ernst and Young will have spent three months working on it. Evans and Peck have been working for years on the Metro Rail business cases.

We have been told that the capacity of the City Loop will increase more with Rail Link than it would have with its predecessor. We just have to believe them on that front, as the details aren’t available. Transport blogger Daniel Bowen looked under some stones and decided that the new capacity figures are probably based on the use of high capacity trains – the problem being that only 25 are to be ordered…

Avoiding patrons in significant services and population centres in Melbourne’s inner North, the project favours the site of the government’s “CBD 2” development at Port Melbourne. A Fisherman’s Bend extension was always in the plans, but was low priority – to happen in 15 to 20 years when the Bend has gained a population. The reprioritisation was apparently at the behest of the Premier’s office, and has had little if any planning input – well not planning as we used to know it. Minister for Planning Matthew Guy sees the Rail Link as a boon for his new development:

“The largest urban renewal project in Australia must have a railway station.”

Guy further justifies the Link by saying that it will provide 3,700 jobs. That’s planning these days.

It’s great that a new urban development is promised a railway line when it’s barely out of the ground. That’s forward thinking. It’s like the private railways built to new suburbs in the Nineteenth Century (one of which went right through this area until 1987). The new line increases Fisherman’s Bend’s attractiveness in the eyes of developers and investors, even if at some cost. Too bad about the busy institutions that were to share the Parkville railway station in the Metro Rail scheme. These included the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the new Children’s Hospital, the Women’s Hospital, the new Cancer centre, and the Univeristy of Melbourne. These will be serviced by a “key bus route” to North Melbourne…

Transport map
Moving Victoria graphic, 2014

As with the East-West Link, the government has found a way to steer infrastructure dollars into serving marginal electorates and more safely-held South Eastern seats. This time the realignment favours the South, particularly the marginal Albert Park seat. Spring Street rumour has it that the resident Labour MP is preparing to pack his bags.

Rail Link steers clear of servicing Melbourne’s Inner North and West, where the Liberal Party doesn’t have a chance at the election. But Melbourne also happens to be the fastest growing statistical division in the nation. In addition to being the commercial and retail hub, the population jumped 10.5% in 2012-13, 23% if you focus on the CBD alone. Instead of servicing the increasingly dense inner North with several train stations, Rail Link will service an off ramp at the Westgate Freeway with one station.

It was obvious that Premier Napthine was no fan of the Metro Rail project. He was in 2012 but changed his mind this February. His surprise attitude shift is purportedly to do with disruption to Swanston Street – Napthine wants to save it from turning it into a “Berlin Wall” during construction. The reasoning should also apply to East West Link, which will disrupt Alexandra Parade for years with tunnelling, but this appears to be a more palatable sacrifice for the premier.

It’s debatable whether Swanston Street would have become a “Berlin Wall”. Another independent blogger has researched this furphy, coming to the conclusion that cut-and-cover construction of Metro Rail would have been impossible due to Swanston Street’s gradient and the depth that is needed in order to pass beneath the Yarra River. Geological surveys show the trains at least 30 metres beneath the city, requiring tunnel boring. This blogger also makes the point that where Metro Rail passed through solid ground, Rail Link has a much trickier route through the sandy soils that prevail along its whole length. There’s also the slight problem of Melbourne’s main sewer pipe, which is in the path of the line.

So the reasons we’ve been given for the new route are that it passes through a new speculative development project, that it has a higher capacity, that’s it’s a cheaper “two-for-one” deal, and that it won’t cause disruption to Swanston Street. This is blind to the bigger picture, but soon reports will be written that reinforce the government’s opinion. That’s what commissioned reports are for these days (sorry, I have become a little jaded in recent times).

“the Melbourne Rail Link will act as a major catalyst to ignite commercial development in the [Fisherman’s Bend] area.” Moving Victoria: Why Melbourne Rail Link?

The 2008 Eddington study did look at the bigger picture. It seems from this report that it’s a pretty simple equation. To increase the capacity of the rail network and to provide a better service to the outer growth areas, the City Loop needs to have the pressure taken off it. This is what Metro Rail did, by by-passing it. Eddington didn’t think a railway to Doncaster was viable, preferring “smart” buses. But if the time came for it, Doncaster and South Morang lines could have hooked into the North end of Metro Rail. This would remake the lost Northern cross connection, taking a bundle of commuters out of the city. Metro Rail also took the pressure off the three lines Northern and Western lines converging on North Melbourne Station, by taking the Western line on a separate route. Metro Rail wasn’t perfect, but it looked beyond itself in ways that the Rail Link fails to take into account.

Ashworth Report 1940
Ashworth Report, 1940

The path of Metro Rail pops up (approximately) in a report that predates the Eddington report by at least 70 years. Victorian Railways’ Ashworth Report of 1940 shows a line running due North from the CBD and connecting into the now decommissioned line that we know as Linear Park in Princes Hill. The purpose of the Ashworth Report was to set out a decades-long plan of action to better support out-lying suburbs.

The Ashworth Report did include rail to Doncaster, as an extension to the Kew line. But the Kew line was closed in 1952. The VicRoads Headquarters opened on the site of the demolished Kew Railway Station. Fitting, that.

Dr Mees checks the figures

Was Eddington’s Metro Rail all it was cracked up to be? In 2010 the late Paul Mees investigated in great detail the sudden and unexpected appearance of Metro Rail and the Regional Rail Link ( here’s the PDF ). He found it curious that Labour had put them on the table having omitted them from its major “Melbourne 2030” plan of 2002, 2004’s “Linking Melbourne: Metropolitan Transport Plan” and 2006’s “Meeting Our Transport Challenges: Connecting Victorian Communities”. These plans focused on a third track on the Dandenong line. It wasn’t until 2008 that Metro Rail surfaced in Rod Eddington’s road-focused East-West link needs assessment report. Mees found that the Eddington team contained no people with experience in public transport planning, and had based its optimistic rail patronage forecasts on linear extrapolations of old figures – extrapolations that were way off the mark by 2010 when Mees published his study.

Eddington’s report was quickly followed by the last of the biannual transport plans, the Victorian Transport Plan. This promoted the Regional rail Link and Metro Rail project (in a revised form) and dumped the Dandenong line improvements without explanation (as of May 2014 this project is back in a different form).

Mee’s argument against the assumptions behind Metro Rail stems from an earlier paper of his which suggested that the rail network in 2007 was running well below capacity. He noted that Flinders Street station has never been busier than it was in 1929, and that patronage of the system peaked in the 1950s. The official response to Mees came from the Department of Transport, standing up for their Dandenong rail upgrade plans. They said that express trains compromised the system and meant that fewer trains could run than in the past. In 2010, with the once vital Dandenong line work dead in the water, Mees could find no evidence that stacked up for the Metro Rail project. The Eddington team seemed to be borrowing the dud figures justifying the dumped Dandenong improvements for a new project somewhere else.

Those interested should really read the Mees report, as it contains far more relevant and revelatory information than I can nutshell here. Mees’ explosive report suggests that neither of Eddington’s road or rail proposals have been adequately vetted, and that the Benefit Cost Ratios (BCRs) being quoted today are a great deal higher than those calculated in 2008, even though the costs have increased substantially. The “wider economic benefits” forecasts used to inflate these numbers are borrowed from rather fuzzy UK research that is perhaps best left in the UK.

The state government was not too interested in Metro Rail in 2013, looking the gift horse of $3B federal funding in the mouth. State treasurer Michael O’Brien thought there wouldn’t be enough workers for it due to East-West Link construction. Then the federal government changed, the funding evaporated, and they stopped talking about rail.

A possible reason for the government to suddenly regain a keenness for rail is political. In early March, a poll was published finding that only one in four voters thought that The East-West Link was a high priority project. Metro Rail received twice that support. Labour has guaranteed Metro Rail will happen with them. Throw in a train to the airport, and at first glance the incumbents are ahead of Labour in their commitment to rail.

In May I watched as the PTV website steadily removed its Metro Rail content – it seemed to have been caught out by the announcement as their Metro Rail page was still available a week after the Rail Link announcement – it now redirects to the Department of Transport’s Rail Link page, suggesting to me that the PTV had little, if anything to do with the switch. While it’s still available, check out the PTV’s Metro Rail video here . You might then compare it with the government’s new video for the Rail Link. Both are well-spun. The figures stated appear to be based on a trail of assumptions that gets cloudy rather quickly.

Having poked around for the last month or so and found more questions than answers, I reckon that the MRL is an expedient and fairly useless approximation of the Metro Rail project. Metro Rail was a project which was fast-tracked from pre-feasibility to contract documentation without the proper steps in-between. Why? Maybe it’s easier and looks better to invest billions in infrastructure and jobs than to ask Public Transport Victoria to improve its timetabling. Maybe it looks better to concentrate money on big-ticket projects in the central city than spread it quietly through the expanding suburbs where roads rule and rail fails.

“The real problem with the Melbourne rail system is what the international expert Professor Vukan Vuchic calls ‘self-defence of incompetence’, as the Department of Transport and Connex collaborate to shield each other from suggestions that efficiency can be improved. Rather than fixing this problem, Eddington proposes to reward the incompetence with $8.5 billion in capital funding.” Paul Mees, 2008

Dr Mees, I think we need you back.


top image: Magritte’s time transfixed, 1938

20.06.14 in urban-planning 

Permalink  Comment [2]

show comments

Its hard isn’t it to assess these things when so few details are provided, like whether swanston st would have to be dug up or not. Or of course any political reasons. Four instance, not sure if the MRL was decided on because it advantages liberal voting areas instead of labour ones – surelky they would concentrate on marginals ? If it increases service on frankston line that would make sense, but as you say easier ways to do that, not mention actually building the Southland station. Anyhoo, I rekon they’ve chosen this one because a. its cheaper (probably, and as you say pputs off spending anything anytime soon), b. encourages development at fish bend (though only one end really) but mainly c. there’s an airport rail line connected to the southeast – I think they think that’s a vote winner generally (though it doesn’t seem to have generated much positive noise, and oddly at the same time the EWL and tulla widening would make driving easier). And as you say, nothing will happen for years….

by rohan on 6 August 14 ·#