Raising the flag | Coogee SLSC

One of Australia’s oldest surf lifesaving clubs is radically transformed to expand its work and community reach.

In December 2020, Coogee Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC) in Sydney’s southeast reopened after the largest renovation in Club history, that radically transformed the 110-year-old building expanding its training capacity and community reach.

Built in 1907 at the southern tip of Coogee Beach, the original masonry club house had been extended over time and was critically damaged during major storms in 2016. The project – a collaboration between the client, Randwick City Council, Coogee SLSC and AJC (for architecture and interiors) – aimed far beyond building repair, to the once-in-a-generation opportunity of complete reinvention.

A community hub

For over a century, Coogee SLSC has patrolled the beach, trained an army of volunteer lifesavers and been a community hub for schools and scouts, sports events and local celebrations. The Club house is a base for the Coogee Minnows (Australia’s longest continually running junior life saving club, and the annual community Coogee Island Swims held in April and November. The Coogee Room has also been popular venue for weddings, birthdays and community events and hosts an ANZAC Day memorial service, attended by around 15,000 people annually.

Coogee Beach
Coogee beach has over 4 million visits a year.

Revitalising an icon

Council’s brief to AJC included a focus on youth life saver training, with innovative facilities and flexible spaces for use by different groups concurrently. The damaged sea wall was repaired and the top (street) level redesigned to create a flexible main training/function room with increased capacity and added dramatic new sightlines to the beach, all while keeping within the existing building footprint. The classical-style portico to the lower level was restored, along with the Club’s famous swimmers’ clock, which is now reinstated on the new north facade.

Future-focused interiors

The new interior solves critical access, capacity, and operational issues by replanning the space and relocating ‘back-of-house’ services from north to south within the building. A new commercial kitchen for catering, full-service bar, storage and offices now occupy the southern wing, leaving a central open room that increases capacity from 60 to 200 people, and delivers dramatic new views north to the beach, east to the ocean, and integrates a new platform elevator giving access throughout the club house for the first time.

“Coogee SLSC plays a vital role in keeping people safe on our beach, providing water safety training and bringing community together in support of a great service. These changes help meet the ongoing needs of both the Club and community.” –Randwick Mayor, Danny Said

The big design move was moving northerly offices to the south, creating a dramatic new sightline to the beach, made overt externally with a camera-like framing of the windows. Internally, disparate floor levels were rationalised to create a large open space for a multitude of uses.

A new framed view of the beach.

Services and storage are gathered up along the western perimeter’s 35-metre wall of joinery. Its pivoting plywood panels conceal serving stations, storage rooms, fully accessible WCs, AV technology and egress doors. They also conceal stacked bays of acoustically rated retractable walls that partition the open space into four smaller rooms accommodating multiple user groups at once. The birch plywood panels are perforated, providing another layer of acoustic attenuation to the space.

Services spine opens to reveal serveries, storage and amenities.

Located at the southern end, the only permanently visible service area is a hotel-lobby style bar with a contemporary chandelier by Australian designer Ross Gardam. Materials and finishes throughout the main room echo the coastal location. The birch plywood panelling lends a warm sand tone against the charcoal of carpet and tiles and sky blue of the retractable walls.

The material palette reflects the deep blue-grey of the ocean and sandy tones of the beach, providing a neutral backdrop to the varied functions and activities that occur in the space, which can vary from training surf life savers to corporate functions and weddings.

Club memorabilia, artefacts and honour boards have been integrated in the interior, and Club colours are used for signage. Club memorabilia, artefacts and honour boards have been integrated in the interior, and Club colours are expressed in the curved mosaic-tiled wall at the main entry.
mosaic-tiled wall
Interlocking elements: a zinc box and curved wall tiled in Club colours.
Training in session.

“It’s not unusual to have over 100 lifesavers in training at any one time. The new design now allows for up to five separate groups to be training at once. The moveable sound-proof walls allows us to change the floor plan to meet the needs of each training session or meeting group. With access to every level for the first time, we’ve been able to open up our membership to people who have not previously been part of surf lifesaving.” –Tony Waller JP, Club Governor, Coogee SLSC

Externally the changes include a new verandah off the east elevation offering a wide ocean deck with views north and south to the beach and cliffs. The repaired sea wall was extended to improve access around the building base, and the façade combines durable new materials: zinc cladding to the north façade to highlight the beach-facing ‘camera lens’, a curved wall of blue-and-white mosaic tiles distinguishing the street entry in Club colours. The restored clock, donated to the club decades ago, is reinstated to the new north facade.

Openings to the north and east.

Key to the sustainability strategy was retaining as much of the existing building as possible including the brick base and external walls. For operational sustainability there are: rooftop solar panels to provide power; low-E glass to reduce heat intake; fully operable doors and windows to deliver natural ventilation; water and energy-efficient fixtures and appliances.

Accessible & inclusive

Core to the project from the outset was designing a more inclusive club house. While the new elevator gives wheelchair access through the building for the first time, new sightlines to the sand from the north window enable lifesavers of all abilities to participate in surf patrol. Since reopening, Coogee SLSC became the pilot site for a new program spearheaded by Club Governor Tony Waller. Over the Covid-affected summer of 2020-2021, Project Livitas trained three young boys from Muscular Dystrophy NSW to become qualified as Radio Surveillance Officers, participating in beach patrol from the main north window. Other SLSC clubs are now following suit.

“So Coogee is leading the way in breaking down barriers. Now, like other surf lifesavers they fulfill a serious role in providing surveillance of the beach and protecting. A very important aspect is also the social inclusion that comes with getting these kids here to socialise and train with other kids their age.” –Tony Waller JP, Club Governor, Coogee SLSC

In 2021 Coogee SLSC was recognised at the 2021 IOC IPC IAKS Architecture Prizes in Cologne, Germany, receiving a Distinction for Accessibility from IPC/IAKS.

The new design now allows for up to five separate groups to be training at once. The moveable sound-proof walls allows us to change the floor plan to meet the needs of each training session or meeting group.

Tony Waller JP, Club Governor, Coogee SLSC