The approach at Monash University’s latest Passive House building is about “embracing rather defending” the sun, allowing for a more circadian experience. “Passive House is typically about keeping the sun out. We were doing the opposite”, the architects say.

The five-storey 23,000sqm Woodside Building for Technology and Design really puts the tired Passive House stereotype of a windowless box to rest.

The building bears the Woodside name because the energy company plans to “support research opportunities within the building”, Monash Pro-Vice Chancellor (Academic) Kris Ryan told the Architectural Record. [We look forward to holding Australia’s largest oil and gas company to that.]

The building’s lofty steel frame in a rusty, Ironbark-inspired red, most notably has the long façade facing east to west – a departure from the usual north–south orientation used to control solar gain in many energy efficient buildings.

This orientation allows the sun to illuminate the public realm at all times, says Andrew Cortese, managing partner in Grimshaw’s Sydney studio, allowing “permeability through the east and west”.

“We wanted to embrace the sun for its amenity,” he told The Fifth Estate.

“If it’s facing north you have one side with great aspect and amenity, but the south is overshadowed.”

The east-west orientation captures the best of both the morning and afternoon sun, and also makes the most of the views to the east and west. Deep shaded high-performance facades help reflect glaring bright daylight deep into the interior.

The location of different spaces internally also helps manage the load, with the larger spaces with the biggest operational loads in the middle of the building (naturally lit with skylights).

Smaller breakout spaces and collaborative spaces are located on the perimeter of the building, where external loads are higher. Heavy load rooms on the eastern side are design studios that open to a terrace for outdoor experiments.

Cortese describes the approach as “embracing rather defending” the sun, allowing for a “more circadian experience”.

“Passive House is typically about keeping the sun out. We were doing the opposite.”

Despite its permeability, the building is 50 per cent solid.

Throwing out the rulebook

Cortese admits it wasn’t easy to go against the grain on established passive design principles but says it was equally important to provide a premium learning environment. And this meant getting plenty of natural light in and around the building to really anchor it into campus life.

“This was the architectural and engineering challenge.”

It was a tough job for both the architects and the engineers, Aurecon, that was made possible with sophisticated modelling to understand the interaction of the building with its climate very early in the design process.

“There’s a lot innovation in the design.”

One benefit of taking a holistic approach to solar load management is no sophisticated additions to defend and control the load.

“You don’t want to design a great facade then need all this expensive engineering to make it work.”

As such, the builders on the project, Lendlease, only projected modest increases in project costs compared to one built to standard building code energy efficiency standards.

“The challenge for architects is proving that this level of performance doesn’t need to be a significant cost.”

And with the building running off about 35 per cent of the energy used to keep a building code compliant building comfortable, there’s generous savings on operational energy.

“It’s intelligent design… you get this great simplicity in the building.”

The size of the building also helped it hit its performance goals because a large volume and relatively small surface area helps minimise heat escape.

Why steel?

When questioned about the use of steel, Cortese says he recognises that operational energy is only one part of the equation in the pursuit of low carbon buildings

“We’re doing a lot of work on decarbonisation pathways.”

While timber was investigated as a low carbon alternative, he says that because timber is usually imported from Europe, the actual embodied energy is not much different to concrete or steel.

“We hit that with a high degree of realism.”

Cortese also says that Grimshaw has a legacy of modular design, which helps reduce waste, redundancy and labour-intense bespoke work. A building built this way fits into a tight system of geometrical modulisation made up of standardised panel sizes and materials.

“You use that repetitive system with variation to get different outcomes.”

The other way to reduce embodied carbon, he says, is for “the building to be made of the materials it is made of”.

“The structure becomes the architecture – we’re not using materials to get the effect of surface variation, it expresses what it’s made of.”

Other sustainability features include rooftop PV panels connected to the Monash microgrid (which helps with the building’s energy budget), distributed services and vertical circulation and a rooftop water catchment.

Passive House central to Monash University’s net zero ambitions

While Cortese says Passive House may not be suitable for every project, it’s part of the story on the path to net zero. And a project like this is proof that environmental performance does not need to come at the expense of desirable architectural outcomes.

“It’s basically upped the ante.”

The university is no stranger to this level of risk. It’s set itself the challenging target of getting its campuses to net zero by 2030 and energy efficient buildings is central to its plan to get there. Timber student accommodation building Gillies Hall also has a Passive House certification and several other projects are going for the standard.

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