Students Left Out of COFA Redevelopment

Unheralded delays on the redevelopment of the Arc common room at the newly reopened College of Fine Arts (COFA) campus have left students without a distinct, Arc-owned common room for the foreseeable future.

The student common room, located in the E Block of the original COFA campus, has existed since prior to the formation of Arc in 2006, when it was run for a number of years by the COFA Students’ Association. It is popularly used by students for socialising, society and SRC meetings, events run by Arc @ COFA, and for its kitchen facilities.

According to Alex Peck, Chair of the Arc Board, the common room is the “centre of Arc’s operations at COFA”, and key to Arc’s presence on campus.

Since 2010, the Paddington COFA campus has undergone an extensive $58 million for the Gateway@COFA redevelopment project. The majority of redevelopment was expected to be completed in late February this year in preparation for new and returning students in 2013. However, with classes set to commence in March, planning and development on the new Arc common room has yet to begin, replaced in its old E Block location by one of four new Student Learning Commons scattered across the COFA campus.

“To not have certainty around our space at the reopening of the campus is very frustrating,” Peck said. “The initial exclusion of Arc [from the redevelopment plans] was obviously the bigger disappointment, although the University made an effort to rectify that.”

It is understood that UNSW Facilities Management initially instructed the builder contracted to the Gateway@COFA project, Hindmarsh Construction, to withhold a quote for, and overlook building, the new Arc common room, as it was to be funded independently by Arc.

COFA Dean, Ian Howard, confirmed this to be the case, adding, “It was as much a surprise to COFA as it was to Arc.”
Since then, the university has agreed to fund the construction and fit out of the new Arc common room at COFA.

However, a legal entanglement with Hindmarsh Construction has prevented the timely construction of the new Arc space. It remains the contractual right of the principal builder on a work site to work free from the interference of a second builder, as would be the case if an Arc common room were to be concurrently built alongside the remainder of the campus.

Progress on designing and constructing the new Arc space will therefore not commence until after the completion of Hindmarsh Construction’s contract with the university, which is yet to occur.

It is understood that Arc was not informed of this split redevelopment and delay until after construction had begun in 2010, at which point a legally binding contract had already been entered into by the university and Hindmarsh Construction.
Facilities Management has not responded to requests for an interview at the time of printing.

Dean Howard told Tharunka that, in the interim, the E Block Student Learning Commons has been repurposed as an Arc common room until such time as the new common room can be built in the central courtyard of the new campus.

“Late last year when we realised the fit out of the Arc space wasn’t going to happen because of the delay with the builders, we said [the Student Learning Commons] will remain the Arc area,” Howard said. “I don’t see why it won’t operate, at least for the duration of the fit out of the new space, exactly the same as the Arc student common room.”

Whilst the Student Learning Commons occupies the same physical space as the old Arc common room, students have expressed concern as to its suitability for this makeshift purpose.

Nam Giang, Vice-President of COFA society Squiggle Collective, told Tharunka the old common room space had functioned as a relaxed, informal setting for socialising and collective meetings, in stark contrast to the “white, sterile” design of the Student Learning Commons.

“It’s definitely more a ‘student learning commons’ than a ‘common room’. We used to go to the old space in our breaks to chill out, have a tea, eat lunch, and relax. But now you don’t really want to go there. It used to have texture and character; now it feels unwelcoming,” Giang said, adding the isolated location of the common room is not conducive to attracting new students to Squiggle Collective meetings, which would now likely be moved off campus.

COFA Student Representative Council President, Laura Anthony, raised similar concerns with the learning commons environment.

“The current common room is quite clinical. Visual Arts and Design students interact and collaborate in ways that are different to other modes of learning and skills acquisition. As a consequence, we feel the current space does not meet our needs. Speaking to several students, the idea seems to be that we have been fitted into a one-size-fits-all model.”

In response to student sentiment, Dean Howard offered to ameliorate the cause of some apprehension towards the Student Learning Commons.

“If the problem is there’s not enough social space, then we can certainly adjust the furniture to make it more casual. But we were never in a position to ask the builders to change or halt the work they did to build the Student Learning Commons — it was locked into the contract,” Howard said.

“And at any rate, we were still intending to progress with the new Arc space.”

While acknowledging some efforts had initially been made to correct these issues, Peck expressed frustration with the setbacks suffered by Arc during the redevelopment.

“It’s concerning that the situation has been able to reach this stage” he said, adding that Vice-Chancellor Fred Hilmer had been contacted directly regarding the matter.

“Obviously, Arc @ COFA needs an accessible and useable space for it to be successful at engaging students on the new campus. It’s concerning if students are arriving on the new campus to find that student space has been deprioritised.”

Dean Howard acknowledged these concerns, estimating a period of one semester before the new Arc common room, located in the central courtyard of the new campus, would be available for student use.

“The Arc space has certainly suffered, not through any lack of goodwill or lack of communication, but just the level of challenge of getting the amount and quality of work we wanted done, for the price on the table, with some pretty cantankerous planning authorities, and the builder that took the development. It’s just been a very contentious and challenging building project.

Ammy Singh