Honed concrete, Creswick white quartz with white oxide and off white base. Additionally, honed concrete, basalt with black oxide in a grey base
Function and form combine in stunning polished stairs
A great staircase is not only a means of ascent, but is also a breathtaking architectural achievement. The polished concrete staircases at Melbourne Girls Grammar School are an outstanding example of how form and function can be combined to stunning effect.
Part of the school’s Morris Hall redevelopment, the space includes a large polished concrete landing marked by a bold black and white concrete design that leads to a series of staircases in contrasting blacks and whites. The main staircase seemingly has a mind of its own, with each step meandering like gently rolling waves. The design is reminiscent of the great Barcelonan architect Antoni Gaudi’s unique and distinctive work. It was Gaudi who introduced the world to architectural organic-like ‘living’ shapes for buildings and the employment of concrete to build them.
Specialists in design
The fabulous design is the mastermind of landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean (TCL), who were engaged by Sally Draper Architects to create a new outdoor space as part of the Morris Hall refurbishment. TCL then engaged one of Melbourne’s leading polished concrete specialists, Geocrete’s Paul Warner, to provide his expertise in polishing or ‘honing’ the concrete space.
Honed concrete is a polished finish recommended for outdoor areas, which gives an attractive matte appearance, protects the concrete from staining and scratching, and most importantly provides high levels of traction and slip resistance.
Craftmanship and skill
Paul, who has been polishing concrete since 2001, said the job was “most unusual”.
“From a technical point of view, this was one of the most detailed jobs I have undertaken because of the sheer volume of vertical facework I had to work with, all of which had to be polished with a small hand grinder,” he said. “It was a very physically intense job that had me working in really awkward positions. I felt like my arms would explode with lactic acid and fatigue!”
It was up to Paul’s skill, craftmanship and hard work to create the smooth, rounded, bullnose shape on the edge of every step, to soften their appearance and reduce the trip hazard. “I have polished stairs for clients in their homes, and this is time-consuming and requires attention to detail, but creating a bullnose edge is ‘next level’.
Like a pottery wheel
“The concrete was poured with a straight edge, so it was my task to firstly shape the edges with a hand grinder, then again manually with a diamond pad and a hose. I love doing pottery and felt like I was back on the wheel creating those beautiful curves.”
Contrast makes statement
The main staircase is huge in scale, consisting of eight uniquely shaped steps, each 30 metres long, with white treads and black risers. Flanked on either side is a smaller staircase with evenly spaced, curved-edge steps made with contrasting black treads and white risers.
Much of the design statement comes from the contrast between the glossily polished black and white concrete mixes. Supplied by Melbourne’s Vic Mix , the darker aggregate consists of basalt with black oxide in a grey base, while the white aggregate is Creswick white quartzite with an off white base and white oxide tint.
“The quartzite mix is quite unusual and also very expensive, and it happens to be my own favourite design palette.” Paul has used this finish in residential houses to stunning effect.
Fun and zany
Adding a fun and zany element to the design is a balustrade edged in bright green bricks that bend in waves like a waterslide. It’s not hard to imagine it as the school girls’ favourite lunchtime perch.
Beyond this is another narrow landing of black polished concrete and a series of straight steps that lead down to the grass. The landings feature cuts sawn into the concrete in geometric lines.
Like a surgeon
The concreter, Mario DiPaolo of DiPaolo Constructions, was “like a surgeon” in his precision with the pour. “Starting at the top landing, each step was poured one by one and in two stages – black concrete first, then the white a few days later to get that nice sharp distinction between the two colours,” Paul said.
“Creating the shapes of the steps was also very technical. They had to use double the amount of formwork and bracing to create the curves and to prevent blowouts.”
Melbourne’s most skilled
Although Paul has worked on high-volume jobs such as the Melbourne International airport, he prefers “niche market” work such as this one. Paul, whose experience and expertise has earnt him a reputation as one of Melbourne’s most skilled concrete polishers, won the tender for the work by word of mouth, and completed the entire job on his own. “I like to work alone as I am then able to put the highest quality of craftmanship into all my work.”
A sensational effect
Paul said the project was “simply amazing”, and one of the school’s standout features. “It’s a brilliant and unusual design and would most definitely have won an architectural award had it been entered for one”.
“For me, the space really highlights the amazing qualities of concrete. For one, it’s a living, organic product that isn’t mass produced like products such as Ceasarstone, and it looks absolutely beautiful when it’s polished. In addition, the possibilities for shape and form are infinite, and the only thing that will limit you is your mould and your imagination.”
Very importantly, the design really works as a functional space. “The gorgeous shapes and curves of the steps provide a fun and beautiful descent to the playground below, and the stairs double as exterior seating for assemblies and outdoor learning,” Paul said.
However, functionality is dwarfed by the beauty of the concrete and the sensational visual effects of wavelike motion formed in structured stillness. Who knew stairs could be so breathtakingly stunning!