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Turned Inside-Out: To daylight its new Faculty of Law building, the University of Sydney presumed a central atrium—FJMT suggested a surprising alternative.

Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp
May 2010

By David Sokol

By relocating its Faculty of Law building from a high-rise in the central business district to its Camperdown campus, the University of Sydney was making a symbolic gesture as much as a geographic decision. The new building would not only provide expanded facilities for students and academics, but also it would assert Sydney Law School’s importance within the university pantheon: Its site is just steps from the institution’s iconic Quadrangle Building.

Faculty of Law building, the University of Sydney
Photo © John Gollings / courtesy FJMT
Faculty of Law building, the University of Sydney

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Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT) won the international competition to design the Faculty of Law facility in late 2003. With the brief, says FJMT principal Johnathan Redman, came a commitment to environmental high-performance. Yet the site demanded orientation along a north-south axis. Prior to the contest university officials supposed the long elevations would have to block hard-to-control morning and afternoon sun. “They were concerned that they were limited to daylighting with a central atrium,” Redman says, “We figured that we could take that inward focus and put it on the outside of the building.”

FJMT won the competition in part by designing a double-skin curtain wall with operable louvers positioned within its cavity, as a substitute for the atrium. High-performance glass works in tandem with the system’s stacking effect to regulate the interior thermally, while the louvers control both incoming daylight and solar heat gain. The louvers are operable in banks of five, which, Redman explains, equates to the width of a Faculty of Law office; moreover, there are lower- and upper-level banks: “So if you’re sitting at your desk and leave the bottom louvers on automatic tracking, you could manually open the top louvers and allow some sun into the back of the room without putting glare on your computer screen. Similarly, if you’re not on your computer and you want some sun, adjust the bottom louvers and you can also enjoy views outward.”

Overriding the louvers’ automatic tracking requires only a button push, and lasts two hours. FJMT’s and its facade engineer’s experience with movable surfaces informed the two-hour-long timeframe. Redman explains that shorter periods can be distracting, while overriding the tracking for too long will cause an office to overheat.

Just as the design team was developing the curtain walls and internalized louvers, steel prices began skyrocketing due to Chinese demand. The new financial constraints demanded a redesign, and FJMT obliged by hanging the system from the top of the building, rather than bracketing it at each floor. The move lightened the composition entirely, allowing FJMT to use frameless glass, for example. And in response, they also reconfigured the louvers, which were originally designed as wood ply laminating a steel core. Now each louver comprises an eight-ply sheet of steamed plywood sandwiched between two veneers.

A cavity facade is not common in Australia, Redman says. But it yielded benefits well beyond daylighting and thermal regulation. Since the Faculty of Law inauguration in April 2009, building occupants enjoy vistas of the Camperdown campus’s historic buildings—and, from the west side of the building, of downtown Sydney. The louvers also provide a formal resolution, lending the design a verticality that corresponds with the university’s original Gothic Revival–style sandstone buildings. Finally, “There are some major roads nearby that generate enough noise to be intrusive if you are engaged in quiet study,” Redman says. “The double layer is an acoustic barrier, so people can open their windows without being disturbed by the traffic.”

The short north and south sides of the Faculty of Law facility are clad in paneling in which natural veneer is laminated onto Bakelite sheets and finished in polyurethane film. Their color corresponds with the honey hues of the louvers’ oak veneers.

While FJMT”s design of the Faculty of Law’s skin was dedicated to reining in daylight, the architects deployed several strategies for injecting more light into the school’s basement levels, which include a library, seminar rooms, and a 300-seat auditorium. To those ends the building podium is punctuated with expanses of trafficable, triple-laminated glass that ensure daylighting of every below-grade circulation route. In addition, and most spectacularly, an expressive light tower clad in stainless-steel sheets tops the library’s main reading room. The 20-meter-tall element visually represents the library, while inside, Redman says, “We’re looking to the model of 19th-century circular reading rooms with a lantern above. The tower provides for that top light, and it serves a dual function of drawing out stale air.”

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