Touch wood: Sustainable building design

03 May 2018

Author: Imogen Brennan

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Sydney-based Tzannes has been recognised internationally for its deep design philosophy dedicated to sustainability. The architecture firm’s newly finished project, International House Sydney, is the world’s tallest commercial timber building.
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It took a leap of faith for the clients of architecture firm Tzannes to agree to have their seven storey commercial office block at Sydney’s Barangaroo precinct built out of timber, not concrete.

But since the globally awarded International House Sydney was completed mid-2017, there has been nothing but praise for what is now the world’s tallest commercial timber building.

“This one was so successful in the market place – it sold well, tenanted well – there are already tenants lining up for the next one,” Tzannes Director Jonathan Evans says.

“We’re doing the building next door now, too. It’ll be the same height, but 50 per cent longer.”

Founding Director, Alec Tzannes, says it took years of rigorous testing to prove that a sustainable timber structure could be a safe, desirable and financially viable option for a commercial building.

A building that's easy to love

“The uptake of International House means this sort of design for commercial buildings is now de-risked,” Tzannes says.

From the outside, International House is a distinctive, clean structure, with thick timber beams growing out of the footpath and up the building.

Inside, the timber bones of the structure are bare and exposed. Natural light floods into the open plan space.

“The experience of walking in this building is quite unique,” Tzannes says.

“You get a very subtle aromatic smell from the timber. The other thing that’s different is the tactile quality of it.”

“This building is very easy to love because you can feel the structure and you know it’s come from nature. It also has imperfections, character… and it will age beautifully, changing over time.”

Designing with renewable timber

International House has already won the prestigious Chicago Athenaeum and the European Centre for Architecture and Design award, the sixth major international award for Tzannes in the past two years.

Both Tzannes and Evans are champions of environmentally sustainable design.

Evans' passion for using sustainably sourced engineered timber emerged while completing his Masters of Design Science and Sustainability degree at the University of Sydney.

“Timber is the only structural material we can use for large projects like this, which comes from a renewable resource, so long as the forests are managed correctly,” Evans says.

“It’s also strong, lightweight and it has a high strength to weight ratio, which has other advantages with building in that you don’t need so much foundation work.”

The interior structure of International House is made from Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and glue laminated timber (Glulam) materials, which were pre-fabricated in Austria – a country recognised for its engineered timber – and shipped to Sydney “like a big IKEA flat pack”.

Not only does International House have a significantly lower carbon footprint than concrete buildings, it was faster to build and will require few, if any, changes during the building’s life cycle.

Evans says the solid spruce timber material in CLT is sourced from sustainably managed forests and there’s essentially zero waste in its production.

The exterior features recycled Australian hardwood, including Ironbark and Turpentine, suited to Australia’s harsh weather conditions.

Tzannes says it was crucial for the design to honour to the history of the timber wharves and storerooms that once stood in the space the building now commands.

Game-changing design

Sustainable design and a move away from unnecessary consumerism is at the heart of the practice.

“We build things to last forever… essentially we’re trying to do ourselves out of a job,” Tzannes says.

He is disturbed by the fact that interiors are routinely “thrown out and redesigned” every seven years on average.

“One of the most common demolitions of interiors is with restaurants. And I can proudly say the restaurants we’ve done are basically the same as they were more than 20 years ago.”

“I see our bigger buildings basically as big machines,” Tzannes says.

“We work into the building designs the capacity to change them, with lower energy costs. So for example, the services are easy to access and retrofit if needed… that’s deep design.”

Old co-existing with the new

That philosophy is evident in redesign of the Carlton United Brewery site in inner Sydney’s Chippendale.

Tzannes again won a number of international awards for the Irving Street Brewery project, including the 2016 UNESCO Heritage Award for New Design in Heritage Contexts and the 2016 Chicago Athenaeum International Architecture Award.

The Brewery building stands tall in the centre of the Central Park precinct. The towering, dark brick heritage building, with gleaming silver additions atop, is hard to miss.

Those zinc, mesh towers envelop the central nervous system of the site – the tri-generation system.

“The thermal tri-generation system produces renewable energy on site to look after all the energy needs of the project precinct, rather than having to rely on coal-fired electricity coming from elsewhere,” Evans says.

The system, engineered by WSP Group, uses extremely energy efficient processes to generate low-carbon electricity, hot water for heating and chilled water to cool buildings.

“The ultimate goal is not just to get to a point where our buildings have a zero carbon footprint,” Tzannes explains.

“Even better than that – we’re aiming for a positive carbon footprint… contributing back to the grid for example.”

A sustainable legacy

It’s extraordinary to think Alec Tzannes became an architect, as he says, “by accident”.

“I started off wanting to be an engineer… then I decided I wanted to be an artist,” he said.

“Then I discovered architecture was a bit of both.”

Tzannes graduated in the early-1970s from architecture and urban design at Sydney University and a Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design at New York’s Columbia University.

His interest in sustainable design and making better urban environments has been unwavering since he started the Tzannes firm in the early-1980s.

Tzannes has received the President’s Medal from the American Institute of Architects and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He’s also an Honorary Member of both bodies and the New Zealand Institute of Architects. And was until recently an Emeritus Professor at the University of NSW.

“A particularly a striking characteristic in our Australian education culture is that we really value critical, independent thinking,” Tzannes says.

“We have a pedagogy, which encourages challenging ideas and preconceptions and encourages people from a knowledge base to think afresh.”

 Find out more about Tzannes.