IMAGE SUPPLIED 4th September 2012 shows the new advanced Manufacturing centre at R.M.I.T. DESIGNED & SUPPLIED BY H2o architects Pty Ltd for Phil Hopkins BUSINESS-AGE

Lots of natural light and timber. Photo: Supplied

OFFICES and factory designs change as the industries that use them evolve. This evolution was in Mark O'Dwyer's mind as he set out to create a new home for manufacturing research at RMIT University.

''In the 19th century, manufacturing was in the inner city, and people lived locally, but with rising values in the city centre, industry, too noisy and smelly, fled to the outer suburbs,'' says O'Dwyer, a director of H2o Architects.

''Now, there has been a prodigious shift; manufacturing will become more environmentally determined and compact, more white-collar, more technical. Manufacturing is now smaller, quieter, more sustainable, comparable to an office set-up.''

IMAGE SUPPLIED 4th September 2012 shows the new advanced Manufacturing centre at R.M.I.T. DESIGNED & SUPPLIED BY H2o architects Pty Ltd for Phil Hopkins BUSINESS-AGE

RMIT University's advanced manufacturing precinct occupies a revamped red-brick factory.

O'Dwyer's task was to design an advanced manufacturing precinct at RMIT, consolidating the university's various manufacturing areas.

''RMIT has always had a manufacturing base/character - a working man's college - but it has to be on top of where manufacturing is going,'' he says.

That direction is clear: high-tech, high-skill manufacturing driven by computer-aided design and computer-aided engineering platforms, digital control and electronics, software and automation systems.

The new approach is an economic imperative, as advanced manufacturing now accounts for half of Australia's manufacturing output - areas such as automotive, aerospace, machinery, tooling, medical, instrumentation and new materials, such as high-performance textiles.

The new 3500-square-metre centre occupies a former foundry, a red-brick building dating from the 1960s that was part of a bigger complex - ''massive and brutal, unloved, a dowdy red-brick remnant of the institutional period of the 1960s'', as O'Dwyer puts it. ''There was not the money to do a new building. We had to use the existing building.''

Flexibility in design was a key aim, as the advanced manufacturing centre was to be an ''ideas hub'', reflecting the modern reality that at RMIT, academic silos do not exist any more.

''Even if individual courses are still taught traditionally, such as biomedicine, there are not separate schools … disciplines cross all boundaries. You can't afford to have manufacturing unrelated - there must be a cross-pollination of ideas, with people working together,'' O'Dwyer says.

The flexibility was obtained by keeping spacious, large areas near the meeting rooms. ''Basically, we took the roof off, put a box on top and created two floors of open space, supported by columns. The total floor height is 5.5 metres - big open plates. We only kept a small hub of offices. There are two new floors of concrete with a clear span.''

The new building is about 50 metres long and 20 metres wide, over two levels, with three at the front. The aim was to have the new and old work with and against each other - ''solid and massive compared with lightweight but still large''. ''The old, big red form, which was dark, is now lighter and more simple in form.''

The original building had skylights, allowing natural light to enter the building. ''To get more light in, we followed that pattern and cut windows at the bottom out of the bricks. They were cut so that the brick walls look like a floating form,'' O'Dwyer says.

The advanced manufacturing centre is structured like a factory with no airconditioning due to the expense. ''It replicates some old models. It retains the existing front so you can observe the new version of the factory floor. The centre will use the upper floor for conferences and video conferencing. Bearing in mind occupational health issues, visitors can oversee proceedings without being on the 'factory floor','' he says.

''We retained timber - the timber stairs. Timber naturalises and personalises the space. Also, the view of the trees at the front was retained.''