Located on the outskirts of Horsham, the Australian Grains Genebank (AGG) sits quietly among the wheat chaff. Surrounded by the grasslands of the Wimmera plains with distant views of the Arapiles mountain ranges, the area experiences extreme temperatures, with summer months reaching 40 degrees. So designing a facility for storing grains for plant research, requiring temperatures 20 degrees Celsius below freezing point, required a different approach than a traditional storage facility. “It was a dream site, with a combination of plains, wetlands and mountain views. But primarily we had to address the extreme temperatures and ensure the grains were protected all year round,” says architect Mark O’Dwyer, co-director of H2O Architects.
H2O Architects’ design appears initially as one finely crafted form in the landscape, however, the AGG is actually a series of three layers specifically designed to ensure an even temperature. The exterior layer was treated like a pergola, with thousands of timber slats, each one 120 centimetres in length, creating the top layer. Below that, as seen in the over-scaled wheat chaff (that also acts as a logo), the middle layer is made from a black steel shell and between this ‘skin’ is the final layer, foam sandwich panels with a gap of 1.5 metres. “The gap between the lower two layers is also a form of insulation,” says O’Dwyer, who looked at examples of seed-storing facilities in both Norway and the United Kingdom as starting points in the practice’s research.
“The facilities in Norway and the United Kingdom are underground, where there’s little thermal movement,” says O’Dwyer, who was keen to engage with the landscape rather than bury the facility. “We didn’t want to create a clinical space that felt disconnected to this wonderful landscape,” he adds. So while the seed storage facilities are protected by a series of layers, there are also insertions of glass (also three layers for climate control). And in contrast to what appears to be a closed ‘box’ is a glazed pavilion including administrative offices, which take advantage of the wetland views. As this facility was also designed for school children to learn about grain research, H2O Architects included generous glazing between the reception area and the laboratories.
Unlike most laboratories, which are clinical and generally white, the AGG includes an interior palette of brown hues in the four freezers provided (storing up to 200,000 seed accessions or packages). The earth-toned walls and shelves evoke a sense of the surrounding terrain. However, H20 Architects, known for their vibrant use of colour, also included bold striations of colour in the foyer. “We looked at the brilliant stripes of colour of the flowers found in the surrounding fields: pinks, blues and mauves,” says O’Dwyer. As inspirational in the colour of the interiors were the paintings by mid-19th century artist Eugene von Guerard, who fortuitously captured the nearby Arapiles mountain ranges.
The architects also wanted staff and visitors to the AGG to enjoy the surrounds, rather than being isolated in a protected facility. Large glass pivotal glass doors leading to broad decks offer expansive views, similar in the way Eugene von Guerard interpreted this unique landscape in his lifetime. Most importantly, the design also ensures that seeds from the past, present and future can be appropriately stored and recalled for generations to come. “It can be accessed by researchers as well as growers to ensure biodiversity,” says O’Dwyer.
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