Case study: Australia’s first Passivhaus education building
Annie Kane | 2 November 2015
Generation Z don’t know how good they have it. Having never lived in a time without the internet, mobile phones, or social media, these millennials are used to constantly asking the world for more, faster, and at its earliest convenience.
As these bright young things step into tertiary education, educational establishments are having to shed their fusty images to meet their new students’ high expectations. Indeed, as well as providing excellent education, access to the best minds, and cutting-edge technology, universities and colleges are also looking to foster creativity through the built environment.
One such institute pioneering this idea is the Wade Institute, a new educational establishment being built at the University of Melbourne’s Ormond College. Created through a $10 million gift to the college from entrepreneur Peter Wade, the Wade Institute aims to “create and empower the next generation of audacious entrepreneurs”.
As part of this ethos, the college is currently constructing an “immersive learning environment” to house the institute and its new Master of Entrepreneurship (a joint collaboration between the Faculty of Business and Economics and the School of Engineering at the University of Melbourne and Ormond College), which begins in February 2016.
Led by architects Lovell Chen, the project is set in the university’s Ormond College and brings together industrial designer Joe Iacono, education designer Peter Jamieson and leading Australian structural engineer Phil Gardiner from Irwinconsult, to create a building that is “as agile as the minds of its users”.
This “agility” comes from the fact that the teaching wing will be responsive, with an open-plan classroom featuring moveable plastic “working” walls and screens that can be written on, projected on, magnetised together and moved (via a magnet-based system that connects to a steel plate underneath the soft cork floor), to allow the space to be configured to whatever students and teachers need it to be.
“I’ve always been of the belief that the power of a space will come from the people who occupy it,” Lovell Chen principal architect Kai Chen said. “This couldn’t be truer of the Wade Institute, where we have provided a foundation for creativity and left students to design their own reality within the space.”
Building to meet Passivhaus standards
As well as being innovative in its modular design, the building is also set to become one of Australia’s most energy efficient – needing virtually no heating or cooling, thanks to its “extremely insulated shell” and lack of thermal bridges.
In fact, the building is the country’s first large-scale educational building built to international Passivhaus standards.
It will reportedly require just 10 per cent of the energy needed to power a similar building, thanks to its smart design, as well as the use of LED lights, triple-glazed argon glass windows, low-energy air handling systems and living walls.
Speaking to The Fifth Estate, Rufus Black, master of Ormond College, said: “The residential building of the Wade Institute was designed to a 6 Star Green Star standard, as it was designed a few years ago to be the second in a series of residential buildings. But when we came to designing the teaching building, we thought that as our agenda is really about innovation – and Europeans are really at the edge of innovation in the built environment – we should use the highest standard of sustainable architecture that is well recognised, well established and uses well-proven techniques. So, in our view, that meant Europe’s Passivhaus standards.
“So, the key Passivhaus features are all there. It’s a highly-insulated and energy-efficient structure, but the genius is in the detail.”
According to Mr Black, this “genius” is manifest in the way the building is constructed.
“It was a case of making sure that, ultimately, penetrations into the building were minimised,” he said.
“We’ve achieved that through having a floating concrete slab that is stabilised on a metal lattice, with almost all of the weight of the building carried by a small number of ingeniously-designed steel columns. This technique eliminates the need for an enormous amount of concrete, and reduces the thermal breaking enormously.”
Mr Black said that although achieving the Passivhaus standard was not “unduly difficult”, designing a building that has few thermal breaks (and thus does not need heating or cooling systems) “took a huge amount of genius from the architects and engineers to get right”, and required a “modest amount of re-skilling” of the contractors, who had been used to working on more conventional buildings.
He added that he hoped the institute would be a “model for others to follow”.
“I think there’s insufficient demand in Australia for this kind of building. So we want to demonstrate with the Wade Institute that you can cost-effectively and beautifully design to this standard.”
A building that supports health
But it’s not just the design of the building that has been considered, Mr Black said. The impact of the building on human health has also been taken into account.
Care has been taken to ensure that any volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds harmful to human health (such as those found in some paints, glue, sealants and computer cables) are minimised.
To further promote healthy living, the college even decided that – as the institute was being built on the former site of Ormond College’s tennis courts – it would host a new court with seating on the roof of the new building. As an added design bonus, all the water used on the sports-facility roof will be captured to fill the pond outside, where it will be recycled for use in the garden.
“We were aware of avoiding the loss of green space, as it’s good for the mind,” Mr Black said. “So we chose to build the new teaching structure on the old tennis court, and the residential building is being build on the old car park to try protect the green space.
“There are some very substantial and beautiful trees in the grounds, so we knew that we didn’t want to use deep bored piers that would interfere with the root structures of the trees. So the floating concrete slab and metal structure is perfect for that.”
He concluded that the sustainability and ethos of the building was just as important of the curriculum that taught: “If we are to develop Australia’s next generation of businesses and teach the people who will lead them, we need to do so in a place that actively encourages experimentation, innovation and unconventional learning.
“Our intention was to establish an institution that empowers its students rather than limiting how they learn. The building embodies values we want to impart to the next generation of entrepreneurs around creativity, sustainability and health.
“And students really care about the sustainability of their environments, so it will undoubtedly attract students to the institute too. It’ll certainly be a lot of fun to be in.”
Once completed in February, it is hoped that the Wade Institute building will become the latest jewel in Melbourne’s crown of green educational buildings.
And with the University of Melbourne already having received 5 Star Green Star ratings for four of its recently-built buildings, and the Melbourne School of Design being awarded a 6 Star Green Star Education Design rating – the only building to be awarded all 10 innovation points under Green Star – and a Green Good Design award, Generation Z are in for a real treat.