2017 GOV Design Awards

spaces, objects, visual, graphic, digital, service design & experience design, design champion, best project, best transformation, best innovation plus specialist categories

accelerate transformation, celebrate courage, growing demand for design

Image Credit : Photographer / Photo Owner Name: Brett Boardman Photography Website Address: brettboardman.com Email Address: studio@brettboardman.com Phone Number: 0418 210 943



Project Overview

The Juanita Nielsen Community Centre is housed in a heritage listed former warehouse building in Woolloomooloo. It was named after the infamous local activist Juanita Nielsen, when it was converted to a community centre in 1983. The project is a major upgrade to this existing Centre.

The Centre provides a range of activities for a highly varied local demographic – from rough sleepers and social housing tenants, to luxury apartment residents in the nearby Woolloomooloo Wharf. The architecture works intently to rejuvenate the building as a social place without sanitizing or gentrifying it. The heritage fabric is retained, up-cycled and celebrated. Vibrancy and safety are fundamental to this upgrade. The design re-orientates entries to the primary north address, reshapes the void as the core of the building, and maximises visibility internally and to the surrounding streets. A new pocket park in the adjoining lane, by Sue Barnsley Design, allows activities such as the Out of School Hours Care facility to extend outside, further activating the street. It can be completely enclosed or fully open at both ends.

Project Commissioner

City of Sydney

Project Creator

Neeson Murcutt Architects Pty. Ltd. in association with City of Sydney


Architectural team:
Tamas Jones
Giles Parker
Isabelle Toland
Amelia Holliday
David Coleborne
Dominic Broadhurst
Anne Risnes

Project Brief

The client is the City of Sydney. A City East Facilities Review recognised the need to improve programming and services at Juanita Nielsen Centre. In the context of the Integrated Community Facilities Plan and Sustainable Sydney 2030, it was proposed that the centre be refurbished to increase its role as a safe and vibrant multipurpose, intergenerational community centre.

The upgrade was to provide infrastructure to support:
• an expanded Over 55’s program.
• meals for the elderly and people with disabilities.
• after school children's program with outdoor space.
• improved art room and gymnasium.
• increased area of flexible hire spaces.
• increased environmental sustainability.

Project Innovation/Need

The refurbishment of a heritage building provides many opportunities for innovative solutions to existing problems. The existing form and envelope established a set constraint within which the design resolution could unfold in reference to the project brief.

The varied demographic of the user group led to an internal layout that is completely non-confrontational, with comfortable margin spaces for un-programmed activities. There is clear visibility through open arches to activities in adjacent bays, promoting safety and vibrancy.

There is a certain comfort in things that have endured. At every opportunity, the age of the building is revealed and amplified. The material palette works to achieve a rawness akin to the original warehouse quality. New services are exposed, drawing on the directness of a warehouse. The approach to detailing is loose-fit, suited to the idiosyncrasies of the existing building.

The claiming of the adjacent lane to create a new pocket park became an equally innovative move. The existing building did not provide any direct connection to outdoor space, nor did the configuration activate the surrounding public domain. The extension of the Centre’s program onto the street opens the western façade.

Another innovative move was the inclusion of a preserved tree trunk as part of the Out Of School Hours care (OOSH) space. There was a requirement for a certain amount of outdoor and indoor play-spaces. The inclusions of the internal tree trunk allowed the indoor play-space to be considered a suitable substitute outdoor learning space.

Design Challenge

The Juanita Neilson Centre is housed in a very dignified building. Its use as a community centre is arguably more befitting than its original function as a warehouse. Yet there is something about the openness of the original warehouse that sits comfortably with the aspirations of a contemporary community centre. This is something the 1983 conversion missed, its re-finding was a key challenge.

The project aimed to create a vibrant centre with good visibility through open arches to activities in adjacent bays. Establishing a ‘magic box’ organised around an open social core/void created a core flexible and playful space for the public.

The building’s heritage listing posed an equal challenge. Nuanced interpretation became integral to the refurbishment. The Woolloomooloo reclamation, the former warehouse use, and the infamous history of the centre’s namesake, Juanita Nielsen, all influence the design resolution.

The requirement to provide an equal access concrete ground slab provided an opportunity to reference the golden sands of Woolloomooloo with a happy yellow colouring. The yellow concrete stair is like a folded carpet inviting one to the upper floor.

The existing sawtooth parapet is used to develop a new roof form. Stripped back, robust, raw materials are used to resonate the industrial past. Nielsen, in her famous striped-top portrait, is alluded to throughout the building. The zig-zag of the new ceiling, the stripes of the black and white awnings, and the diagonal slotted window shutters all pay homage the famous activist.


Community buildings can play a powerful public educative role in sustainable design. The Juanita Nielson Community Centre makes evident its primary environmental initiative, that of ‘up-cycling’ – retaining fabric, improving fabric performance and putting the building to better use.

The project works to achieve the City of Sydney sustainability target of a 70% reduction in carbon by 2030 with;
- a passive cooling strategy using natural ventilation and ceiling fans;
- in-slab hydronic heating system to central ground floor areas;
- maximum use of natural daylight;
- a managed lighting system with compact fluorescent and LED fittings;
- energy meters on all major loads with energy usage information in a user-friendly output;
- gas-boosted solar hot water;
- water efficient appliances;
- rainwater used for irrigation and toilets; and,
- recycling bins and compost.

Energy used to air-condition the gym is offset by roof mounted PVs and an offsite renewable strategy.

This award celebrates the design process and product of planning, designing and constructing form, space and ambience that reflect functional, technical, social, and aesthetic considerations. Consideration given for material selection, technology, light and shadow. 
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