University of Melbourne School of Design

Case Study

Melbourne School of Design

The School of Design at the University of Melbourne celebrates new levels of human-centered design


Buildings that are truly inspired for the future demonstrate an understanding that the physical environment is not stagnant: it is a masterful web of originative design, sustainable construction and technology that work together to deliver a transformative experience for the people inside.

There is no better example of this than the University of Melbourne School Of Design (MSD). This 17 000 m² colossus of glass, concrete, zinc, brick and steel is the new state-of-the-art home for students of architecture, planning and building at the University of Melbourne. Aurecon managed the design and construction, and also provided facade, geotechnical, land surveying and building services.

The facility enhances the student experience by merging environmental performance and leading-edge design in an extraordinary learning experience. Now, seven years after Aurecon commenced project management, the MSD lives up to its original vision as a living, pedagogical building that celebrates sustainable design and ‘transformative teaching’.

Brian Lewis Atrium

With its breathtaking sense of scale and loftiness, the Brian Lewis Atrium overhauls the concept of a traditional transit area to make the Atrium a destination in itself. This four-storey indoor plaza offers a magnificent introduction to the building, as many key functions collide in a single space. The architecture accounts for seamless spatial dynamics, so that students can use the Atrium as a meeting hub and working area. Open-plan clustered workspaces house over 60 per cent of the academic body. Remarkable acoustics are integrated into the building’s design. Natural light floods through an enormous skylight that is supported by a coffered installation of glass and wood, overset by a network of oblique beams.

The ceiling’s jaw-dropping design is marked by 21-metre-long, north-south roof Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) beams that carry the loads. They reduce the embodied energy of the building and offer shading below. The beams also function as an energy-saving system that ventilates the hot air out of the roof and draws fresh air from below the Atrium floor.

In addition, the ceiling boasts of a wide variety of transparent and solid building materials, finding the right balance between hidden and exposed elements for observation. “Given the visibility of the services, it was critical that they were highly coordinated in order to provide an aesthetically pleasing result,” says Aurecon Project Leader Gary Bourne.

Hansen Yunken suspended studios

Hanging from beams at the western end of the Brian Lewis Atrium are timber-encased, three-floor suspended studios. These impressive features are deliberately placed in the ‘heart’ of the building, so that the concept of collaboration can also be held up as the heart of all future design. The three-levelled studio is a unique architectural feat that defies gravity and inspires design. It is cladded with Victorian Ash veneered board, secretly secured from inside and punctured by a pattern of holes with varying diameters, which help to manage acoustics.

Due to the structure’s rare design, construction had to take place bottom up. Four temporary columns were erected to support the structural steel. Because each floor plate is different in shape and size and none of the columns are vertical, it was a serious challenge to align the top of the columns to the supporting beams. Lightweight materials were used for the flooring to reduce the load on the laminated veneer lumber box beams.

The hanging studios are today considered a separate floor area that offers academic space for collaborative discussion and design learning. All told, the finished product is dramatic, living up to its ambition that Professor Tom Kvan, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, describes as “to invite, engage and reward inspection by everyone.”

Y-Staircase and walkways

The so-called Y-stair is both an aesthetic focal point and a teaching tool, which showcases the vibrancy of the student and academic community. The staircase spans the Atrium and effectively manages foot traffic between the first floor and level four of the building. Based on a conventional staircase model, the Y-stair splits at each landing, offering its user an alternative route to their destination.

Originally, the walkways were intended to be covered by acoustic paneling; but when the crane lifted the first set of stairs into position, the architects reconsidered the plan. They immediately realised that for educational and aesthetic reasons, the surface should remain uncovered to keep the steelwork exposed underneath. This honest, graffiti-marked exhibit of raw materials is contrasted by highly refined and acoustic-lined veneer, stonework and stainless steel above. From all angles, the Y-stair offers its students a hands-on learning opportunity around materials and construction processes.

A living, teaching tool

The MSD was created to give students an evolving, interactive environment from which they can glean and inspire new design. Spaces for peer learning and collaborative study prevail throughout the facility, including technologically advanced and highly flexible studios, auditoria, lecture theatres, exhibition spaces, administrative and research work areas as well as a library.

To achieve an environment that fosters dissected study and enquiry, pedagogical features of the building had to be incorporated. Internal structural elements have been left exposed for observation, and water and energy usage can be tracked by data sensors for students to integrate into their research. A window into the basement’s plant room allows the students to observe how the vital organs of a state-of-the-art facility keep the building moving. Raw steel beams and refined perforated timber speak for themselves, when students stand below to learn about construction methods and techniques.

Altogether, the transparent nature of the building offers a vast range of modes of learning, says architect John Wardle. “It’s essentially a giant ‘show and tell’ - a living laboratory - for the academic community seeking hands-on learning and boundary-pushing experimentation in the field of design.”

A green architecture of unprecedented scale

The MSD is the largest of only 12 buildings in Australia to receive the industry-lauded Green Buildings Council of Australia (GBCA) 6-Star rating. Impressively, it is the only building to merit all 10 innovation points for incorporating rewarding applications, technologies and uncommon approaches into its building design.

Aurecon Project Leader Gary Bourne notes that this 6-Star Green Star rating is a remarkable achievement, considering that they are on the same level with other reward recipients who mostly gain their points through natural gas fueled co-generation or tri-generation, large scale renewables and black water recycling systems.

Among other innovative green solutions such as LED lighting, up to 750 000 litres of water can be collected from the roof and building exterior and stored in the basement. The water is used for building services such as bathrooms and for irrigation.

“The 6-Star Green Star rating reaffirms the design efficiencies that the building incorporates as well as the sustainable projects that the University is undertaking on a wider, precinct scale. The new building will have lower operating costs, increased user satisfaction and be a showcase for green architecture in Melbourne,” comments Bourne.

The Joseph Reed facade

When Melbourne-based John Wardle Architects and Boston-based design firm NADAAA won the bid to design the MSD in 2009, they began with the building’s legacy in mind. Today’s façade, a multiple layering of modern and historic architectural elements, was once a four-wall block of stone. This Victorian-era sandstone edifice was designed in 1856 by Joseph Reed, one of Australia’s most notable architects at the time, as an original part of the Bank of NSW. Wardle and NADAAA resolved to preserve this cultural heritage, while tying new design elements into the overall exterior of the building.

Today, the Victorian frontage is flanked on each side by a modern display of metal, glass and prefabricated concrete, rendering an overall dramatic blend of high-tech industrial design with Gothic classicism. As a result, one of the 10 points awarded to the University of Melbourne School of Design was given for preserving the structure’s cultural heritage.

In a letter of thanks and acknowledgement to Aurecon for its involvement in the project, the University of Melbourne offered two touch points of gratitude. The client noted “Aurecon’s ability to give honest, practical and expert advice on sustainable green building practices”. They also thanked Aurecon for their investment in the students’ journey of learning.

“The Master of Architecture students received a presentation on the outcomes of the project to show them the type of collaboration and planning involved in creating a building of this stature.”

“This, coupled with Aurecon’s ability and willingness to incorporate client requests and pursue groundbreaking design and building solutions, has helped the University of Melbourne achieve international acknowledgement and green building ratings,” concludes Bourne.

The project was listed as a finalist in the prestigious Property Council of Australia’s Innovation and Excellence Awards in 2015.

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