Charles Sandford

Western Edge Biosciences Building, Parkville.

The new Western Edge Biosciences Building, designed by Hassell for the University of Melbourne, comprises wet and dry teaching laboratories, and a diverse range of learning spaces, with a grand stairway, triangular in plan, that spirals up through the heart of the structure. The stairway itself is made of steel, but is clad in what is effectively a seamless skin of Victorian ash, with solid timber handrail, all crafted in the Charles Sandford workshop.

Soffit on the timber clad stairway at the Western Edge Biosciences Building at the University of Melbourne

Looking up to the timber-clad soffit on the underside of the stairway.

Four different veneer panels were created, two for the inside radius of the curve and two for the outside radius. With the veneers being laminated into curves, their relatively low thickness, and the importance of not having any gaps or misalignments between panels, an incredible degree of accuracy was required. Additional timber veneer panels were made to clad the expansive, continuous soffit. And a solid timber handrail with capping rail, or upstand, was fabricated for the entire length of the stairway. As with the curved veneer panels, the handrail demanded great precision and care to manufacture, thanks to its undercut profile.

Timber clad stairway landing at the Western Edge Biosciences Building at the University of Melbourne

A landing half way up the stairway showing the tight radius in the design.

To ensure a perfect match between the steel stairway and timber cladding, the entire steel structure was laser scanned after it was installed. This meant that our team could work with three-dimensional drawings that took into account any changes in measurements resulting from the welding process. Completing this circle of high-tech woodworking, every component was fabricated using our five-axis CNC machine.

Timber handrail prototype

Prototypes of the handrail were produced before it went into full production.

The final result appears as a finely crafted, sculptural insertion that rises up through the centre of the building, although, for the Charles Sandford team, the precision required throughout the production process was more akin to a piece of furniture, “the biggest piece of furniture we’ve ever made!”

Finished stairway photographed by Kane Jarrod.