Planning and construction of the chemistry building

Recollections of the architect, Charles Weatherburn

Chemistry building during construction, August 1957

Chemistry building during construction, August 1957

Involvement of the government architect's department

The Government Architect's staff consisted of architects and draftsmen, electrical and mechanical engineers, lift engineer and structural engineers. At the time of design, contract drawings etc., it was probably the largest office of architects in NSW.

The head of the organization at that time was Mr Cobden Parkes, a son of Sir Henry Parkes, the founder of the Federation of States forming Australia as we now know it. This was the background to the invitation from the University Senate for the Branch to become involved.

Site selection and preparation of contract drawings

Chemistry building 2008

Chemistry building 2008

The site of the proposed building was indicated to the Department and the design concept of the proposed building to Messrs. H. Rembert and a young university graduate, Peter Webber. Peter Webber constructed a scale model of the building, which was a great help in following the design concept.

Following the Senate's invitation to the Government Architect, I was placed in charge of a small group to prepare the contract drawings.

The building was the largest in money terms, and the most complex carried out to that time by the Government Architect's Branch.

The first step taken was to examine the site and find the location of water, sewerage and gas services. The first problem was water supply, when it was discovered that a large water main ran alongside and in close proximity to the foundations of the old Medical School. This pressure main was approximately one metre in diameter and connected the Ryde Pumping Station to Crown Street Sydney installation. The Water Board did not permit connection to this main but following discussions between the University and the Water Board a satisfactory alternative was achieved. The Government Architect was not involved in these discussions.

Architectural brief

There was no architectural brief for the accommodation in the building for the Departments of Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and Physical Chemistry. This information was obtained by detailed discussion between the three Professors involved and myself, with great co-operation and guidance from Professor Le Fèvre.

The proposal for the lecture theatres was established as two large and two small theatres connected to the main building.


The design of the electrical service lifts and ventilation was done by Government Architect's staff. Senior member was Mr L. Yates and a very active member was Mr A. Laird. There was to be no air-conditioning. However, due to the small staff of structural engineers and the preparation of Bills of Quantity for the building, consultants were engaged for this section of the contract. The consultants involved were:

  • Structural Engineers: Rankine and Hill of North Sydney,
    Quantity Surveyors: G.C. Springthrope & Associates of Balgowlah.

Owing to the complex nature of the project, it was decided that the specification for the contract would be prepared by myself. This would enable all matters of a technical nature to be decided in discussions between Professor Le Fèvre and myself. One example of the endeavour to have a low maintenance building was the specification of glass piping for chemical wastes from laboratories. This use of glass was probably the first in NSW.

The specification for the work was fairly large and in view of the use made of it on site and in the builders' offices, it was decided that the NSW Government Printer would be asked to bind the copies supplied. This was done and proved a great success.

Estimate of costs

There did not exist any reliable data of the cost per square metre of a building of such complexity, and it was probably decided to test the building market (I was not involved at this stage). Tenders were invited and the lowest tender was submitted by the firm of James Wallace of Sydney. This firm, controlled by Mr N. Clark and favourably known to the Department, recommended the tender in the sum of £1,300,000.

The University accepted the recommendation and work commenced. Site meetings arranged between the Department and the Builder were held weekly. I visited the site on this basis and a Clerk of Works, Mr N. Nicks was my on-site representative.

Design and construction

The design and construction of a building is the combined effort of a team and, as Harry Rembert often remarked, the design is not complete until the last detail drawing has been finished.

Charles Weatherburn, A.S.T.C. (Arch.)
(Government Architect 1974-1978)

14 May, 2007