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University Building Brings Zeros and Ones to Life
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Exterior rendering of the New Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology building at the University of Technology, Sydney
The New Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology building at the University of Technology, Sydney, is wrapped in a series of “binary” screens perforated with zeros and ones. Courtesy of Richard Glover

A technology building in Sydney is clad in an undulating and perforated “binary” screen.

July 15, 2014—Despite a location in the center of a vibrant urban landscape, the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), was—as Ian White, a project director for the Melbourne-based architecture firm Denton Corker Marshall (DCM), puts it—somewhat like a poor cousin to the wealthier colleges in Australia’s largest city. Little work had been done on the campus in the last few decades.

But the UTS’s dramatic new building for the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology (FEIT), which opened last month, is part of a nearly $1-billion surge of new construction that is meant to raise the university’s profile. “They decided to be more competitive with the main universities,” says White, who is the FEIT building’s designer. “They had to produce some really great architecture on campus to increase attraction to the campus.” The FEIT building joins a range of new construction that has taken place since 2008, including new or retrofitted classroom spaces, student housing, and an athletic center. A Frank Gehry-designed business school and a new science building are also on the way.

The building occupies a visible site that demanded a striking feat of architecture. The university is only a few hundred meters from Sydney’s central rail station and only a few kilometers southwest of downtown. The building itself occupies a significant corner of the campus, serving as a gateway between the school and the city. At 13 stories and with 23,000 m2 of usable floor area, it’s the biggest building on campus.

Before it was constructed, it was known that the edifice would be across the street from buildings by the world-class designers Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster, upping the pressure for an outstanding design. “It’s difficult to compete in building terms against those two architects,” says White. “So we had to design something that was going to be striking and had a point of difference from what was going to occur across the road.”

As he explains, “The idea was to create something very sculptural.” Indeed, White describes the building as a “nonbuilding” and notes that it’s more like a 13-story object. “None of the floors are delineated, so you never really quite know the scale of it.”

Creases in the facade, referred to as gills, are meant to break up the wall of metal as well as to open up the building for pedestrians at ground level

Creases in the facade, referred to as gills, are meant to break up
the wall of metal as well as to open up the building for pedestrians
at ground level. Courtesy of Richard Glover

The building is wrapped in an intricate, origami-like screen perforated with the ones and zeros of the binary world. “The screen camouflages, in many respects, what’s going on inside,” White says. “It really has a sculptural representation in terms of how it sits and how it appears.” Given the city’s warm climate, screens are coming into greater use both to control heat gain and to cut down on glare across the computer screens inside. “Denoting the ones and zeros seemed like a really nice story to tell,” he continues. The code actually spells out the full name of the building: University of Technology, Sydney, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology.

From farther away—that is, more than about 200 m—the eye reads only a texture on the facade. As one moves closer, the pattern can be discerned but remains subtle. Up close, designers also had to make the perforations fairly small so that people wouldn’t attempt to climb the screens.

After being manufactured in France, the 4 mm thick aluminum screens were shipped to Shanghai, China, where they were cut by lasers and perforated. From there they were shipped to Sydney, where they were anodized. Across the facade, the screens are interrupted by several slits, referred to as gills. These break up the facade and lend a folding, three-dimensional quality to the building. Without them the panels, which are 60 by 100 m, might have proved overpowering, White says. The gills allowed the designers to introduce undulations in the facade, pulling it outward by up to 1.8 m. In this way spaces have been created inside the building from which occupants can gaze out at the city.

Initially, the binary screens all came down to the ground. A footpath was planned on the outside of the screens. But city planners wanted the building to offer protection during bad weather, so a second pathway was planned between the facade and the building itself. This, however, led to a concern that people could be accosted inside the long pathways. So DCM raised the screen from the ground at certain points, giving pedestrians easy exit points from the inside pathway while also opening up the street-level activities of the building to passersby.

There were also challenges in attaching the screen to the building. “As idealistic architects, we want the screen to be on the building and pretend it’s hung there by magic,” White jokes.

If only it were that easy. Because the screens were functioning in three dimensions, coming close to the building and then protruding outward, it was by no means easy to develop a system of angles and brackets that contractors could standardize, explains Mark Smith, the technical director of buildings for Aurecon, the international firm responsible for the building’s structural engineering.

The designers wanted the support system to be as unobtrusive as possible to complement the slenderness of the screens themselves. Smith says that, initially, Aurecon proposed a binary screen assembly that would be fully suspended and supported at roof level by structural steel framing. This approach would have meant “minimal tiebacks to the building’s facade, opening up the space between the facade and the binary screen.” Furthermore, articulated joints would have accommodated the “varying three-dimensional nature of the panels, as well as accommodate for construction tolerances during erection.”

But eventually the plan was simplified to a more conventional panelized system, which, Smith says, “resulted in additional subframing members within the void space.” In this way the building’s subcontractor could prefabricate the screen into individual panels with, Smith explains, “the provision of additional subframing members, which introduced this additional steelwork into the void space.”

Under the revised scheme, steel brackets attached to the mullions on the curtain wall system extend outward from the perimeter. The framing then comes up, and the binary screens are attached to the framing. After several reviews, the architects and the engineers agreed that this solution would not have a significant visual effect on the screens.

The interior of the FEIT is split by a long and narrow atrium known as a crevasse

The interior of the FEIT is split by a long and narrow atrium known
as a crevasse. A series of bridges and stairways tie the building
together and create informal meeting spaces. Courtesy of
Richard Glover

The cantilevered ground-floor screen panels are supported by steel sections connected to the upper floors, Smith adds. “The steel members have been designed to be tapered to minimize the visual impact of the supporting structure and showcase the suspended binary screen panels,” he says.

The FEIT building houses two different groups of faculty members from 5 schools and 11 research centers. “There’s quite a lot of different activities going on within this building,” White says.

The building is 30 m wide, which posed a lighting challenge. “When you have glass on either side, if it’s greater than 25 meters wide, you don’t get sufficient light penetration into the center of the building,” White says. Early on DCM decided to run an atrium from one end of the building to the other in order to introduce light. They dubbed the space the crevasse. “If you had a big ice block and put a fracture through it, that’s essentially what the crevasse is and looks like,” says White. The idea is to provide transparency and permeability for the whole building.

This crevasse, which is 100 m long but only 5 m wide, splits the building in two; a series of interconnecting bridges and stairways tie the space together, creating informal spaces in which students and faculty members can socialize and exchange ideas. “It’s really a whole series of social spaces,” says White. Smith says that interlinking the bridges and stairs also helps to stabilize the building structurally.

The crevasse is finished with exposed concrete, and the bridges and stairs spanning the space are finished with weathering steel. Together, the materials form a tough and industrial palette that befits the no-nonsense work of engineers. (It also fits the robust wear-and-tear needs of any university environment.) The steel is coated with a clear sealant so that any rusting won’t rub off on clothing.

The complex geometries of the bridges and stairs create what Smith calls a “Harry Potteresque” effect in that one has to look carefully to be sure where the stairs and bridges are actually going.

The floors are posttensioned, and Smith notes that since the building features many individual spans, “the structure wasn’t as efficient as it could be. Those spans were quite big. We tried to thin it out as much as possible to make it fit inside the raised floor.”

The raised floors house the cabling and heating systems. “The exposed concrete soffit and concrete pedestrian access along the crevasse provide minimal service reticulation space and were visually unforgiving in terms of construction and building tolerance,” Smith says. For the most part, the raised access floors provided the only service routes available inside the building, he says. “Every millimeter of space was precious for the design team and contractor.”

The building also features a “data arena,” an immersive 3-D theater that will make it possible for students and faculty members to simulate being inside an enclosed space—for example, a ship, a human body, or a brain. “It’s the most advanced research facility of its type in Australia,” White says.

In the building’s large lecture theaters, engineers had to remove two planned columns to create free space for clear vantage points. The three-story concrete truss erected to transfer the loads was the most viable solution given that there was no other transfer structure nearby.

The building features such ecofriendly components as wind turbines, solar troughs, photovoltaic units, and systems for obtaining hot water from solar energy. It uses no power from the grid and has received a five-star rating from Green Star, the Australian equivalent of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. There are even charging stations in the underground garage for electric cars.

Another innovative feature is that the building functions as a “live lab” for smart building technology; a variety of sensors for measuring performance are embedded within the building. The sensors not only provide information on, say, energy use, water use, and waste management systems; they also, with the aid of tensiometers, measure the stresses and strains in the building’s structure. What is more, the power plant spaces have balconies and walkways that provide access so that faculty members and students can learn how the building actually functions.

White notes that the building should realize 30 to 45 percent energy savings compared with a normal building (the binary screen contributing 10 to 15 percent), a 20 to 30 percent reduction in potable water use, and a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The difference is you’re not trying to make all this stuff overt,” says White. “It’s all there. It’s a very smart building. But it’s not there dangling in your face. The best thing is, it’s accessible by researchers and the students.”


 

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