Intelligent Design

Advanced Engineering Building

The University of Queensland in St Lucia, Brisbane approached six architecture groups to enter a competition to design an energy efficient building for the civil engineering faculty. The winning design had to be far more than just bricks and mortar; it had to be adaptable, sustainable, engaging and interactive.

The Principal of leading international design practice HASSELL, Mark Loughnan is one of the people who entered his business in the competition together with urban design practice Richard Kirk Architect based in Brisbane. “We formed a joint venture and entered the competition in mid-2009. We were lucky enough to win that competition and then from mid-2009 to late last year the project was completed, so it was a four year process.”

The $130 million Advanced Engineering Building is a multi-award winning establishment with a state of the art 500 seat auditorium and a 5 Star Green Energy Rating. What is perhaps even more impressive is the range of built-in features throughout the 20,000 square metre facility, which allow the students to interact with and learn from their surroundings every day. “Right from the start we wanted to have a building that would be very open, transparent, interactive and engaging,” says Mr Loughnan. “There are so many parts of the engineering school that are really part of everyday life and we wanted to open that up. We wanted to not only facilitate the students in the building but also the visitors to engage them with all the different learning and research processes that are going on at the University.”

Professor of Materials Processing and Manufacturing, David St John, is just one of the many people at Queensland University who work inside this extraordinary building. “The philosophy behind the building was to improve the civil engineering education as well as the research facility, so it had a very strong educational focus,” he explains. “The shared civil engineering department had grown dramatically and that was putting a strain on delivering practical experiments so the students weren’t getting enough hands-on activity. We were looking at how to deal with larger numbers and therefore, we would need new pedagogies to be able to do that.” The University also wanted to introduce improved design into the engineering course to better equip the students to go into the workplace.

The Advanced Engineering Building is a marvel of sustainable architecture, blending leading edge features with more traditional design concepts. While the building is equipped with energy efficient lighting and air conditioning with an extensive array of solar panels sitting on the roof, 75 per cent of the air inside is naturally ventilated. “We’ve integrated a labyrinth that runs in the basement on the lower levels to draw in fresh air from the full perimeter of the building and provide a tempered air supply to the atrium,” comments Mr Loughnan. “This atrium is set up through the building and is articulated into all the different spaces. It is a teaching school and an engineering school so we really wanted to combine passive technology and good design logic as well as high tech installation. There’s a good combination of logical rational approaches on the environmental side combined with some of the high tech features that exist these days.” Along with fresh air, the Advanced Engineering Building also captures plenty of natural light to encourage clear thinking. With recycled timber and Blackbutt flooring, the design combines beauty with sustainability.

The GHD Auditorium is the heart of the Advanced Engineering Building. “It’s a little unconventional in that it sits right on the lake on two of the sides,” explains Mr Loughnan. “It occupies a three storey volume and two of the sides are fully glazed, looking out towards the lake. There’s the opportunity to create a cocoon using a dark box of operable movers, or the whole area can be naturally lit so it’s a very engaging and adaptable space.” The Auditorium is already being used as a resource for departments outside of the engineering faculty. It was not long ago that Professor St John attended an international conference held in the Auditorium. He says that if a lecturer has a clear voice they do not need to use a microphone and can hear a question from all the way in the back row. “It becomes far more personal; it’s amazing! If you’re standing at the front it doesn’t feel like you’re standing in front of 500 people at all.” Mr Loughnan agrees. “We worked very closely with the acoustics engineers to ensure that the acoustics panels around the room would really customise the reflection of sound so that every seat would get a clear audio.”

The Advanced Engineering Building may have won numerous awards but the real measure of its success will be how well it is utilised by the University for decades to come. “The feedback is good and the project has gone on to the national awards now so we’ll see what happens,” remarks Mr Loughnan. “We would be very happy if the potential of the building in terms of allowing more active learning in the engineering programme was realised to the extent that we had hoped. It looks like that’s happening right now.”

Professor St John says that there has already been a lot more active learning and collaboration happening across the different engineering faculties. “We were spread out throughout the campus before and now we’re all together in one place. The vision from that point of view is already coming through.” Professor St John is a mechanical engineer and a regular user of the labs. He credits his colleague, Professor Carl Reidsema, who was involved in the design of some of the labs.

Professor Reidsema was involved in the development of the Advanced Engineering Building and is at the coalface of developing and implementing active learning processes. “We tried to challenge the academic conceptions of teaching spaces primarily by trying to avoid fixing the engineering equipment, computers, furniture and removing the lecterns wherever possible so I could get my colleagues out from behind their hidey holes and in amongst the students. We’ve got 1,200 students in first year and needing larger spaces; we’ve maximised the number of seats in these flat floor spaces by putting them around tables of six in design teams. We can accommodate 200 students per room now compared to only 25 previously.” Having more communal learning spaces has provided significant opportunities for not just the students but the professors. “It’s been a fairly interesting exercise in cultural change and an expansion in active learning not just across the faculty but across the University.”

Prior to designing the Advanced Engineering Building, Professor Reidsema says that the team conducted a survey of people who were trying to implement similar projects. Many of them were over designing and reducing the flexibility of a space in the process. “What we were really after was about as flexible a design as you could possibly get and I think we’ve achieved that.” Mr Loughnan agrees. “We really wanted to break down those boundaries between the teaching, learning and research components by co-locating the different faculties in the school. I guess in a way we were aiming to bring the lectures into the laboratories so the learning spaces are interactive, multi-purpose and varied.”

A variety of sensors were installed while the Advanced Engineering Building was under construction and are an industry first for this particular type of project. “We’ve got sensors embedded down in the civil engineering lab,” remarks Professor St John. “The students can get information which really relates to the very basic stuff they would do in a course but from a real object in real time.” There are even sensors in the lift. “We’ve got an instrumented lift and when you’re in it you can watch the load changes, acceleration and so on. We can get all that data.”

Environmental data gauged by the sensors is displayed on touchscreens around the building. “You can access that from the web as well where you can find out what the temperatures are, how much energy the solar panels on the roof are generating over time and so on,” explains Professor St John. “Our vision that we have really is to maximise the use of that data and that will be a much longer process because you have to develop software to analyse the data. Eventually if all that is available on the web, not just us but others will be able to access that information.”

‘Live’ buildings are not a new concept but nothing has really been taken as far as the Advanced Engineering Building which has set a new benchmark in progressive architectural design. “We spent quite a bit of money making sure that we had a good kick start,” says Professor St John. “So far, we’ve got a really good environmental system working and we’ve got these sensors in place but we want to take that further. It’s quite exciting to be in this building while these things are happening and stimulating other activities.” The future of the Advanced Engineering Building is brimming with possibilities and opportunities for further development. For now though, the students and professors at The University of Queensland have access to a building that is in itself an endless supply of knowledge.

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December 16, 2018, 3:53 PM AEDT