Collegians Rugby League Football Club:

3A Charlotte Street  Wollongong NSW
(02) 4229 7711 or www.collegians.com.au
 A lush garden oasis in Wollongong.

The Collegians Rugby League Football Club has always been one of the most popular clubs south of Sydney. But until recently was showing, what L’Oreal might call, the ‘visible signs of ageing’. As of 2012, after a $2m renovation, it looks super slick. In fact, care of natural finishes and lots of greenery, it looks and feels not unlike a tropical resort, offering the people of Wollongong a touch of the exotic: “The club’s an escape of sorts,” Marc Nicholas from Nicholas Associates Architects says. “People can feel as though they’re in their own little oasis.” The overhaul of the club was initiated in 2011. The project’s scope was twofold — the first phase involved expanding the outdoor gaming terrace from a capacity of 40 machines to 100, and the second involved increasing the size of a social terrace from 260sqm to 380sqm. “The venue just generally needed an upgrade,” Michael Wilkins, Collegian’s CEO, says. “We felt there were markets we needed to expand on; that being our gaming offering and our lounge offering. Everything we did in the design process was to appeal to females in small- to medium-sized groups. Our prime aim was not to build a barn of a club, but to build zones where people could mingle.”


The construction stage was perhaps the most challenging. New England Constructions and Nicholas Associate Architects had to stick to a tight 30-week schedule in order to hand the bulk of the space over to Split Watermelon Design — the project interior designers — by Melbourne Cup Day 2011. Which meant that excavation and demolition, and all the noise and debris that goes with it, happened right next to a still fully operating venue. As a result, Work Health and Safety had to be monitored closely, and all attempts were made for construction to take place after hours. “The fixed ideas about the time frame were definitely challenging,” Nicholas says. “There were also staging and structural challenges.”


Despite being there out of practical necessity, the marble columns add to the high-end feel of the outdoor gaming terrace. “We were trying to make it as luxurious and fresh looking as we could,” Nicholas says. But the real wow-factor comes care of a 20m-long water feature and garden wall. “It was all about that vertical wall — choosing the right plants, and making sure they were something the client could look after,” Sue Jago from Split Watermelon Design says. Wilkins can confirm that upkeep of the wall is relatively easy: “It’s all plumbed in behind and drip-fed. The plants have to be trained to grow horizontally, but that’s the only thing we really have to worry about. We have a great guy from Cool Water Landscapes who comes through and does maintenance on it occasionally, but it’s fairly self-contained.” Plus, the tranquil sound of trickling water masks the noise of traffic from the nearby Princes Highway. “It looks phenomenal,” Wilkins says. “But it’s also very serene.” The tropical theme is reinforced through bespoke finishes and light fittings. A fern leaf carpet pattern was repeated on the timber panelling that lines the ceiling, and the spherical Yellow Goat pendant lights were handmade from natural reed — no two are exactly the same. There’s also a three-panel bird wall by Fremont Design. The first panel features a silhouette of a bird in a cage; the second a bird opening the cage; and the third, a bird flying away. “They’re three nice pieces that people constantly talk about and they only cost $1500,” Wilkins says. “We were very conscious of those finishing touches. We demand the nice bits because it’s the nice bits that make the place work.”


On the other side of the club is the bigger and better social terrace. Dominated by a timber pergola, and with woven seating pods and oversized bamboo pot plants, it has the same tropical resort aesthetic. “It was about doing something eye-catching; something that would draw a different demographic into the space,” Jago says. There’s more marble, as well as stone tiles and floor mosaics. Split Watermelon Design and Nicholas Associate Architects have also successfully broken up the space into intimate zones. “There’s very much a drinker’s area with a bar, high stools and TV screens,” Jago says. “There’s a dining area. There’s another area with a fireplace and soft outdoor lounges, which can actually be screened off from the rest of the terrace and used as a function space.” Like the gaming terrace, the social terrace is full of intricate details and special one-off pieces. Hanging over the main bar is a $30,000 light feature made from 238 pieces of hand-blown glass. The lights in the café area have the appearance of ceramic beehives, and zones are broken up by cutout metal forest walls. “It’s elegant and soft throughout,” Wilkins says. “We’re ecstatic with how it looks. It’s not at all bloke-y and we’re selling far more packaged beer and wine and cocktails. We find a lot more people dine and sit rather than dine and leave. They’re far happier to lounge now.” But Wilkin’s favourite piece in the social terrace area is the bar. A visual focal point, the bottom layer is strip lit so that it appears to be floating. “I love the curve of that bar, the lighting and the tile work,” Wilkins says. “There are no bar mats. You put your drinks in grooves in the stone. Everything drains away and staff are trained to clean as they go. It has to be spotless. Spotless is the only thing we accept.” Such a good-looking piece of craftsmanship didn’t come cheap, however. “When you talk to builders they say we can tile the whole thing for $60 a metre, but then when you turn around and find the right tiles and the right glass and the right everything, it can very easily turn into $300 per metre,” he says. “At the end of the day, though, it’s worth it. I just wish I could find somebody who could make a straw dispenser with style, rather than the ugly aluminium box we all use.”


While the bar might have stretched the budget, other parts of the renovation are proving extremely cost effective. Collegians recently made the switch to LED lighting. “On account we had 540 x 50W lights,” Wilkins says. “We’ve replaced them all with 6W fittings. We’ve effectively decreased our electricity bills by 15 percent.” As well as that, business is booming. “The response has been sensational,” Wilkins says. “All of our targets have been fulfilled in regard to people we were trying to attract.” What’s more, “pokie den” is no longer the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Collegians. “It’s often very difficult to get over that club mentality,” Jago says. “But Collegians has allowed us to do that. They’ve been open to new ideas and we’ve done something different. It really does add value to the whole job.” – Joanna Lowry

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