At the end of 2019 the Department of Transport had a vision for a new workplace in Ringwood. With initial stakeholder engagement commenced, suddenly the world changed. We were sent home and had to work out how we would not only deliver on a 13,000 square meter workplace for the department, but what we needed to do to futureproof a workplace design through uncertain times. Rhonda Emery, Director and Margaret Matsinos, Program Lead at the Department of Transport and Planning, together with Rebecca Daff, Architect and Director at peckvonhartel, discuss the challenges, the innovations and the lessons of a Government workplace project, done differently.


Rhonda begins the discussion with the way the project began. “The Department of Transport was in Burwood and had been for over 30 years. But the building no longer met requirements. Recognition that we were not in the right location if we were going to respond to population growth. Customer service (Vicroads) was not the retail experience it needed. Demographic studies showed us that the location of our busiest csc was not going to continue to respond to populations growth, facilities were aged and had hvac and lift systems that were at the end of their life and limited meeting facilities, a cramped retail site that frequently had lines out into the car park meant the department had to make a decision about their accommodation.

She continues “As we were in the middle of a merger of entities, the business didn’t have any ideas, the staff were predominantly engineers who had their own fixed desks who didn’t want change. It was  challenging from the start as they all had carparks and had often moved to the area and built their life around their work location.”

Rebecca adds “Stakeholder engagement started and the challenge was to even understand the people in departments, their traditional connections/adjacencies and the way that they used their spaces to design transport network infrastructure. From the beginning of the project we embarked on a continuous loop of staff engagement initially in person, but quickly moved online.”


Margaret sets the environment for change “There are always machinations of government and Vicroads had amalgamated with PTV into DoT. Initially the project was to be 6000sqm over 3 floors plus ground floor retail but with the ‘Plan Melbourne 2050’ it stipulated that there needed to be some fundamental views towards accommodation. This was coupled with the VicRoads customer growth and the 24/7 Traffic Operations Center clearly a redundant facility when it is critical infrastructure.”

Rhonda adds “On review of the base building, we could see that to suit the requirements, we would need to double the EOT amenities which required digging the eastern end of the site out, design a suitable retail space on one level that incorporated the new VicRoads customer service model, providing a more open and intimate customer facing environment. There was a need for sustainable design that met the strategic focus of the department. A business hub concept that provided flexible meeting spaces for meetings/events with external parties, a mixture of staff meeting spaces including a rooftop terrace.

We could not have facilitated these changes to the base building as a part tenant, so taking the whole building gave us license to make this building work for us.”

Rhonda continues

“Then the world changed……Covid happened and we were all sent home…”

In the second PCG with the developer in late January 2020, we started to discuss the developing news story on a potential pandemic. At the time, I had started to hear rumours of the state government converting four floors of DHHS into a control centre to deal with the pandemic. When we contemplated what the next two weeks would look like, I can remember saying to the team that I didn’t think the world would be the same in two weeks….. and that would be that last time we would all be in the same room together for 18 months.”


Margaret continues “But unlike some other corporates, we were government and could not pause! But at the same time we knew that we had to shift the thinking. It actually gave us some license to push boundaries and challenge thinking and do things that before we don’t think we could have with a government client before the world changed.”

Rebecca adds “You had to shift and move quickly, and that was because we really didn’t know what work would look like after covid. We questioned everything but in regards to design we explored things like sensor technology, the smarts around hygiene stations! Lighting track fully adjustable to futureproof future planning, the quantity of rows of desks to instead make space for open collaboration and team functions: circulation spaces. Project Spaces that were fully agile and open and powered anywhere”

“But we were able to achieve density requirements – we just planned cleverly.” 

“We had to shift all of the traditional thinking of government worker from what they thought they needed into challenging the norm. for example, requirements for screen privacy in secure areas – we argued that all significant projects have a code of conduct and expectations that innately create privacy, secured floors (we have interconnecting stairs), departments that required a Laboratory for microscopic work realized that the work could be done out in an open floor area. We had to challenge and change the thinking of the new workspace.”

Rhonda adds “We also knew that we had to bring in the design team early and so the decision was made to include the design team along the whole journey to help tease out the desires and wishes of staff. From the beginning we viewed our external project team as a key partner in the journey with the staff and the department, they were part of our family, and involved them to a level not traditionally seen in a architect/client relationship.”

Rebecca states “We knew that the Stakeholder Engagement also had to be done differently. It was critical as there were high emotions, people were anxious about the current environment and there was more interrogation by the stakeholders. Historically we would create packages per stages of a project for endorsement, but we knew we needed to approach this project in a legible and inclusive way. We had to be online, sometimes 200 people at a time (and generate enthusiasm). There was a decision to include the design team along the whole journey (teased out the strategies). We knew we had to communicate transparently and regularly. The intranet site became critical – and critical to keep updated. Walkthroughs were critical to communicate. So, we used walkthroughs as our design development tool. They could actually see and understand the space and what were doing – could put themselves in the picture. (Engineers could though! So they were able to be more critical and very interested in specifications)”

Other contributions were Sustainability: “There were other aspects that we also managed.  The Victorian Government has committed that all new/refurbished office tenancies over 10000 sqm had to reach 5 star green star/nabers certification by 2025. The department’s strategic plan also committed to achieving environmental sustainability through its office based accommodation.

Thinking green – thinking future and CLEVER investment (yes there was an up front cost but in first 2 years this has been paid back in the reduction in water and energy costs, without even considering improved productivity as a result of a well designed workplace)” Rhonda muses.

Community Engagement: “there was lots of community engagement through the council, which meant that there was an appreciation of level of design – they were proud to be associated.

Cultural Heritage: “engagement with the cultural heritage was undertaken but on reflection I wished we had had the foresight to engage earlier as we missed opportunities for greater integration of indigenous concepts in the design such as the idea of walking tracks and and the connections like the DOT.”


Margaret starts “The challenge for government will be their current asset portfolio. Aged buildings without the amenity. And the long lease terms with those assets. How do we consolidate? How do we use public money justifiably to create more timeless product? How does government compete for talent?”

Rebecca adds “What will drive workers back to the office? Offering a place better than home. Seamless technology, a place to collaborate with their people, a place to eat together.

Rhonda finishes with “Traditionally government had offices and hierarchy – having worked in other departments where the department secretary sat on the floor with everyone else was refreshing. So we ensured there was no offices for execs as we had lots of different meeting spaces both enclosed and open where you could do confidential and focused work. Moving forward It is more important to create a consistent experience that is equitable across the whole building, which is now something we are striving to achieve across our whole portfolio.”