In Australia’s biggest university, an office made of junk

Australia

The shed is in fact our outdoor education shed (I’m an outdoor educator), where we store racks of canoes, trailers and camping paraphernalia. In-between spaces are filled with paddles, hanging things and broken things. Shed air smells like Dettol one week and mouldy socks the next.

The shed itself is a building that occasional people wouldn’t notice, although I imagine the college students that live next door would think its insides have a neat plastic sheet permanently laid out to catch all the secretive activity that surely takes place there. I fantasise that people think I’m Dexter as I neatly come and go.

The old office: not really a space for getting things done.

The old office: not really a space for getting things done.Credit:Lara McKinley

In reality, the shed is actually a friendly and purposeful space, yet has one major flaw; the small office tacked on one end lacks any sense of design, functionality or workable Zen. Suffering a tragedy of the commons over the years, the shed office is where people dump stuff and steal, only ever working in short bursts from small islands of clear, flat space.

My colleague Mitch, having had enough of this, sent off a detailed set of digital designs to internal university people, asking for a new desk and shelving. A quote of $12,900 came back.

Coughing on chunks of banana and spilling coffee down my front, I swore and condemned the hand that feeds me. Having been a carpenter in a past life, I knew the quote was bogus, a faceless contractor having a field day on small jobs across a postcode’s-worth of buildings. I sensed that such a quote was rarely, if ever, called out.

Beau Miles is an outdoor education lecturer. So who let him near the circular saw?

Beau Miles is an outdoor education lecturer. So who let him near the circular saw?Credit:Lara McKinley

I festered. Front of mind was that my university was in the midst of rolling out a marketing campaign based on a genuinely inspiring theme: “If you don’t like it, change it.” The 60-second YouTube video pushed out the message through a bloody clipfest of warfare, elephant-killing, drug-taking and genocidal dictatorship, set to Aussie hip-hop outfit A.B. Original’s track Blaccout.

It was refreshing to see our marketing team depart from their warm-and-safe stuffiness in an attempt to inspire 18-year-olds, yet there I was, caught between a good message and a bad quote from the same source.

What my irrational brain was telling me to do – shouting, actually – was to pull apart the quote systematically, accept the job and set up a meeting with the contractors. Being sure to dress like an academic (elbow patches on), I’d ask the contractors to walk me through the massive inflation on materials – around 300 per cent – and the obscene labour allocation (about $100 per hour for 60 hours of work).

But as I indulged this line of thinking, knowing I’d never do it, I serendipitously tripped on a response.

Lining the university’s halls, quite literally, were dozens of old and new desks. More specifically, new desks replacing old desks, meaning there was a visible revolution going on.

Beau Miles is an outdoor education lecturer. But the quote for renovating his office turned him into a junk collector.

Beau Miles is an outdoor education lecturer. But the quote for renovating his office turned him into a junk collector.Credit:Lara McKinley

It seems old desks in perfect working order lack what all bipedal academics want: a desk housing a small engine with a large button that makes it go up and down – the Sit-Stand desk.

Like biodiversity experts in Britain who hate eat-everything-to-the ground sheep (but sheep are cute, have been farmed forever, and taste good, so they must belong!), I detest stand-up desks for what they represent; how much they cost, what they say about our jump-first office trends, and the cord attached to them sucking up energy like a well-oiled sports star.

Most of all I hate the fact that once the new kid on the block gets plugged in, its predecessor gets sent to the hallway to await a likely fate of becoming landfill, or a decade-long purgatory in a storage facility, collecting dust.

Smacking me in the shins was the confluence of two institutional pet peeves and with it a fun, provocative opportunity. Which brings me back to the start, in need of a shower, having made a new office from dismembered, unfashionable desks from my 4th floor colleagues. Oh, and I filmed the whole escapade.

PS For the accountants and my supervisor: a breakdown of costs has myself at 10 hours on $50 an hour (which is what I get paid), a top-up box of screws at $12.50 (I used mostly the original desk screws), and an approximate materials cost at $1300. Meaning a Beau quote of around $2000, which is a saving of almost $11,000 (and this is based on buying new materials). Yes, I bought my tools along, and the ability to use them, but in the spirit of research and experimentation I’ve thrown them in as part of the deal (as do most builders when you’re getting paid by the hour).

FYI: $11,000 will buy our shed 7.2 new canoes.

Dr Beau Miles is the academic advisor of Outdoor Education at Monash University. beau.miles@monash.edu  

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