The Desalination Plant is an insurance policy for our most precious resource.
It is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Victoria’s history and can supply up to 60 per cent of Melbourne’s daily water requirements: 150 billion litres a year, regardless of rainfall, to Melbourne, Geelong and regional towns in South Gippsland and Western Port. It also has the largest green roof in the Southern Hemisphere.
Most desalination plants globally are hideous water factories in industrial zones. Ours is in a sensitive coastal landscape with neighbours nearby so the essential challenge—and the satisfying part of the task—was to ensure it wouldn’t be an eyesore. There was significant community resistance to the plant and the Government didn’t want it to be visible from the Bass Highway.
“If you do something that has a real and believable story attached to it, people who live near it and work in it really like it. Those stories motivate them to do a good job.”
—ARM Founding Director Stephen Ashton
Australia’s millennium drought was the worst on record. It kept Melbourne dry for nearly 16 years (1996–2012) and, at the worst point, our reservoirs dropped to just 25.8 per cent of capacity. The Victorian Government had to act.
For us, the plant was primarily a complex masterplanning exercise. We researched the local environment (Powlett River flood levels, property boundaries, view corridors, location of underground coalmines etc.) and how the plant would function, in order to lay it out. We compared precedent examples, both successful and cautionary, of large infrastructure placed in landscape contexts. We then needed to create an overall concept to guide the landscape design and the plant design. For this, we researched the history of land art, in particular the work of Michael Heizer and Andy Goldsworthy, and explored the idea of a large figure in the landscape.
We researched the technical requirements of desalination so we could communicate with the engineers and design a plant that was compatible with the environment. We discovered that what looked like pristine coastal landscape was actually man made. There should naturally have been three main dune systems along the beach but the secondary and tertiary dunes had been swept away by pasture in the area’s previous life as farmland.
Since the dunes were missing, we surrounded the plant with new ones to help conceal it visually and acoustically. The new dunes are built from spoil excavated to make the plant’s platform and to hollow out the 4 km of tunnels that take water in and out. Reusing the spoil avoided the need to dispose of it elsewhere.
As well, we had to allow for expansion. Currently the plant can produce 150 gigalitres of water per day but our masterplan accommodates the extra buildings necessary to expand to 200 gigalitres a day, or an extra 33 per cent.
The green roof provides thermal and acoustic insulation for the plant (the pumps are very noisy) and disguises the larger buildings into the landscape, particularly when viewed from the Bass Highway.
Beneath the green roof are offices, the control centre, a water-testing laboratory, visitor facilities and amenities for staff. We tailored the contemporary office design in collaboration with the plant’s operational team, who were already in place during the design process.