Striking and fit for the best: Deakin University’s new Exercise and Sports Science Building

In 2016, Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences faced an unusual problem. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) had just named the department the number one sports science school in the world – but the department felt the school didn’t have the facilities to match its prestigious new title.

“The existing facilities were dated and substandard,” says Emeritus Professor David Crawford, Head of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University (2008–20) and a respected academic with nearly 40 years of experience in public health research.

“The physical footprint wasn’t big enough to manage the popularity of such a practically oriented, hands-on course. We needed an industry-standard facility with access to the latest equipment,” says Crawford. Small spaces, close quarters, low ceilings, minimal natural light and weather-reliant outdoor classes created countless ongoing challenges for teachers and students at the school.

Nevertheless, in a testament to the quality of the department, the school placed first in ARWU’s 2016 Sports Science Schools and Departments international rankings – beating Loughborough University’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences to the top spot. When Professor Jane Den Hollander, then Vice Chancellor of the university, phoned Crawford to congratulate him, she asked how the university should celebrate the achievement. Crawford replied, “How about a new building?”

The conversation ignited a two-year process of forming a business case for a new school premises. The proposal advocated for a brand new, state-of-the-art, 4000 sqm, $30-million structure on the University’s Burwood campus with facilities that could improve the student experience, maintain accreditation and continue the department’s recent growth trend.

In 2017 DS Architects, led by Managing Director Peter Schreuder, was engaged to design and deliver the revamped Exercise and Sports Science Building on the site of a tiny former car park at the entrance to the campus off the Burwood Highway. Having already worked with Deakin on the Burwood Campus Science Precinct and the Waurn Ponds Campus in Geelong, DS Architects were more than up to the task. 

“They fitted the project very well,” says Kevin Murphy, Executive Director of Infrastructure, Property & Precincts at Deakin, who led the original business case for the development along with Crawford and his team.

“Functionality is one thing, but meeting the complex needs of the school within such a small floor plate was a whole other challenge. Peter and his team understood what was needed, almost with a sixth sense.”

DS Architects Senior Architect David Miller led the design of the new school. “It was an incredibly small footprint with very complex accommodation requirements. We quickly realised we’d need to extrude the building vertically over multiple levels,” he says, adding that a combined need for high-performance facilities and quiet, private offices posed a unique challenge for the design.

The result? A striking four-storey building that Miller says feels more like eight storeys, due to a series of high-volume internal spaces with generous ceiling heights that allow typically outdoor activities to take place inside. Launched in late 2019, the revamped school’s exterior takes visual cues from sprinters’ starting blocks. The building is smallest at the ground floor, with floorplates increasing progressively at each level and protruding outwards, almost like the bow of a ship.

Schreuder explains: “One of the key requirements was for a 50-metre indoor running track. With only 30 metres possible at ground level, we had to achieve the extra 20 metres by cantilevering the running track on the upper levels. It was this requirement that really helped us generate the exciting, dynamic form of the building you see today.”

Inside the new building, a 22-metre-high atrium welcomes visitors to a central staircase connecting the four internal storeys – a far cry from the restricted ceilings of the previous structure. Moving through the levels, high-performance suspended concrete flooring minimises noise and vibrations, while natural light permeates throughout.

On the ground floor, a clinical exercise centre allows students to work alongside accredited exercise physiologists in a real-world professional setting. On the second floor, a 100sqm climate chamber provides a high-tech, pressure-controlled environment for practice, as well as 600sqm of office space with a mix of consulting rooms and open-plan work areas. On the third floor, an 850sqm strength and conditioning facility sees the 50-metre running track wrap around a suite of state-of-the-art exercise equipment, including in-ground treadmills.

On the top floor, the biomechanics area – previously relegated to a nearby alleyway – now enjoys 700sqm of floor space and 12-metre-high ceilings, with specially mounted motion-capture cameras for measuring and assessing movement. Next door, a 200sqm motor learning space allows up to 10 participants to simulate throwing against an 18m x 3m video projection wall.

Cormac McCoy of Deakin’s Infrastructure, Property & Precincts faculty served as the client-side project manager and conduit between university stakeholders, DS Architects and the building contractor. “It’s an impressive building that really maximises the land value here in Burwood, where we’re more constrained than some of our other campuses,” he says.

In 2021 and 2022, the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences once again took out ARWU’s coveted top spot. And not only that: the school is the only university department in any discipline in Australia to ever be ranked number one in the world.

“It’s an enormous achievement,” says Crawford, who retired in 2020 shortly after the building’s completion. “We’re the envy of so many colleagues from other institutions.”

Visit the Exercise and Sports Science Building project page to view more images and learn more about our design for this exciting project.