TIMBER dominates the internal design of Phillip Island’s prestigious new multi-dimensional cultural centre in Cowes – and what better place to source much of the timber than Gippsland.

‘Berninneit’ – ‘Gathering Together’ in the Boon Wurrung Indigenous language – encompasses a 260-seat performing arts theatre, a cinema, gallery, library, historical museum, events spaces and community meeting rooms, and was opened late last year.

Sitting at the heart of it is glue-laminated timber (MASSLAM) – huge beams 5.9 metres long and columns 4.2 metres high, all 42cm wide – from Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH) at Heyfield.

“Vic Ash glulam timber is the essential structural element for the building,” said Thom McCarthy, an interior designer with Jackson Clements Burrows, the project architects and designers.

“They form the Grand Hall, the spine of the building connected to all the rooms – the artistic and library at each end, and the function rooms in the centre. They are the three major tenants of the community facility.

“Glulam columns are very striking; we have had tremendous experience with them in student residential projects. We were keen to express them as much as possible. They formed a lot of the internal pallet, and at the library end.”

Quipped the project architect, James Stewart: “Regarding the tall columns, a woman came up to me and said, ‘There is steel inside those columns isn’t there?’ No! All are just laminated timber, she couldn’t believe it,” he said, as the columns are so tall.

“She thought we had steel columns and capped them.”

The library and offices in the mezzanine floor are all CLT (cross-laminated) mass timber, made from plantation pine, at the X-Lam factory in Wodonga.

Heyfield timber is a strong feature in the Cowes Cultural Centre on Phillip Island. Photograph supplied

Mr McCarthy said the company had experience with CLT in a number of projects.

“We were keen to use Victorian Ash and see these two timber products combined. They are the two key structural components,” he said.

“The devil was in the details – the base plates and how they meet the structural slab. We were keen to do a little timber design solution that expresses all that but defines and emphasises the timber.”

The national business development officer at ASH, Daniel Wright, said ASH was the only Australian producer of mass timber glulam in any volume. MASSLAM 45 is the proprietary strength of ASH’s strong hardwood glulam. According to ASH, European mass timber brands base the name on bending strength; Australian glulam usually follows stiffness. This makes Australian GL17 stronger than European GL28.

“We are competing with imports. MASSLAM 45 clearly shows where we sit in strength,” Mr Wright said.

Mr Wright said ASH did the shop drawings, produced the timber and glued the timber members and profiled them using CNC. CNC (Computer Numerical Control is a term referring to automated specialised machinery, a process for automating the control of machine tools via software installed in a microcomputer linked to a tool).

“We then delivered to TGA Engineers. TGA did the structural design and purchased the manufactured components from us. They then attached connections, coated them and delivered to the site,” Mr Wright said.

TGA, based in Bayswater, specialises in mass timber engineering. Mr Stewart said the columns were spectacular, beautifully finished with brackets and metal plates at the base that were manufactured in their shop. Extra timber was obtained through the Big River Group, which supplied blackbutt that was 15 millimetres thick.

“It creates terrific variation. The visual quality of the timber worked in with the structural columns. This is beautiful timber but put a foot wrong in sealing it can change its appearance. From a design perspective, we had a thread and kept building on it,” Mr McCarthy said.

Mr Stewart said one problem occurred with the timber.

“We had the Ash columns, but all these different tones – the acoustic ceilings, the mass timber framing, the library at the end and ceiling and walls mass timber in CLT, the stairs, handrails, so many different wood types – the trick was the ‘pallet’,” he said.

“But it’s quite successful when you go through the space; you feel like it’s all the same, even though there may be Blackbutt here and Ash there, CLT pine … it all fits comfortably together.”

Mr McCarthy said pine has a few more knots and a “bit of attitude”.

“In terms of design move, it’s free and beautiful. Our challenge was to rationalise all the surfaces in a way that expressed that timber without interrupting it too much,” he said.

Mr Stewart said JCB’s practice was to avoid plaster board at all costs.

“You can’t always do that,” he said.

Design work on the project began in 2015. Several schemes followed before JCB took on the job in 2020. The lockdowns created havoc, but there was still big stakeholder engagement.

“In those discussions, we introduced the notion of a big timber building and the qualities that come with it,” he said. The community got really excited and responded positively to it.

Mr Stewart said the other ambition was to achieve a ‘passive house’ (PassivHaus) building, a style of building from Europe that emphasises energy efficiency that is now increasingly adopted in Australia.

Such is the quality of the columns, there is no steel inside to aid strength. Photograph supplied

“They are mainly residential buildings, but this is the second-largest public building in Australia that is ‘passive house’ and the first Passive House theatre in Australia,” he said.

“The principle of it is a highly thermally efficient envelope – air-tight, high performance glazing, insulation. That works well for the council, which owns it for 50 years, but ongoing energy costs will be very small.”

There was no measure of timber in the building as a carbon store.

“Not in passive house; it’s all about ongoing running costs,” Mr Stewart said.

Timber’s carbon role was part of the design approach but not as a method of measurement. The timber is both structural and aesthetic. Mr Stewart said the outside of the building was responding to the geology of the island.

“The brick and outside façade are meant to reference the erosion of the cliffs at the Nobbies, the golden beaches … those were the three-dimensional aspect of the façade,” he said.

“The colour hues related to the island’s geology. Go inside, see the obvious relation between the colour of the brick and these beautiful Vic Ash glulam columns.”

Mr McCarthy said the local community was very engaged with the ESG (environmental, social and governance) component of the project. Passive house mass timber was important, along with the way building was planned.

“We retained significant eucalypts on site. With the shape of the building, we kept two clusters of trees – native gums, but not heritage listed. Another really nice quality, is with glass here and there, we celebrate the trees, to keep the emphasis on timber,” he said.

“There was no negative feedback on timber, they (the community) were very positive about it. Timber is essential to the entire building.”