Surry Hills Library
Library Down Under: A new library is transforming one of Sydney’s most diverse neighborhoods with a design that places passive ventilation at the heart of the project.
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Surry Hills has long been an idiosyncratic Sydney neighborhood. The run-down, poverty-stricken area immortalized in Ruth Park’s 1948 novel, The Harp in the South, has witnessed a bonafide revival in the last decade, with trendy shops, design offices, pubs, and restaurants now lining its streets. The opening last year of the Surry Hills Library and Community Center is but the latest evidence of the neighborhood’s claims for the buzziest, liveliest scene in town.
The project represents a bit of a gamble for the city, since the building houses a hybrid of community resources—the library, a child-care facility for 26 kids, and a community center with meeting rooms, yoga spaces, and a commercial teaching kitchen, which have no precedent in Australia for being colocated. “It wasn’t that long ago people were predicting the end of libraries and the book, but they have become more important because they provide access to data and information,” says the building’s architect, Richard Francis-Jones, who led the project for his Sydney-based firm, Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT). “Libraries have evolved into much more flexible facilities.”
The library’s sleek glass design stakes a claim in the quaint heart of Surry Hills, with a notable location on the main commercial strip, Crown Street. The library’s east elevation, directly on Crown, presents the welcoming gesture of a frameless glass facade on the ground floor, where people lounge in white leather sofas, sipping coffee and reading books. The glass facade extends up to the second and third floors, where it’s fitted with vertical timber-veneer-clad louvers that shift to provide solar and glare control.
By far, the most radical gesture is the south facade—or “environmental atrium”—which faces a new green space that conceals a subterranean tank used to store rainwater. This facade features double-skin glazing with an array of triangulated internal cavities serving different purposes. Four of the cavities pull in outside air from the roof, running it over coils supplied with cool or hot water from geothermal heat exchangers under the building. The air is then filtered through plants growing up from containers installed at the bottom of the cavities, before it enters a gabion rock wall labyrinth that surrounds the basement foundation in a void created between excavated rock and an internal “dry wall” needed to prevent water seepage. During summer, the labyrinth cools the air by several degrees; the labyrinth is then recharged using a night-flush strategy. The other two glass cavities act as supply ducts, feeding each building level and ceiling cavity, where variable air volume boxes provide further conditioning as required.
The glass wall was also the focus of intense collaboration among the team members, particularly the architects and structural and services engineers. Dan Mackenzie, managing director of Steensen Varming, which provided sustainability consulting for the project, says the glass wall ventilation system may appear complex in operation, but it’s really just a series of simple processes that developed as alternatives to conventional approaches. While the glass shafts replace traditional core mechanical risers and allow fresh air to be taken from the highest possible point on the site, the sub-grade labyrinth eliminated the need for bulky ductwork in the basement that might have taken up added space. “The cooling from the geothermal system provides a thermal buffer between the library and the outside in the glass wall,” says Mackenzie. “We wanted to do that as passively as possible, using only a pump and the geothermal wells.” Solar photovoltaics on the roof offset the energy consumption of the pump. Mackenzie estimates the passive systems have reduced the need for conventional refrigerant-based cooling by nearly 70 percent.
Steensen worked with FJMT, also the landscape designer for the project, to select plants for the glass wall cavities that would aid in the bio-filtration of the air. Mackenzie says there wasn’t much literature to guide them in selection, which is why they insisted on installing oxygen and CO2 sensors throughout the mechanical system in order to monitor air quality. The latest published results, from November 2009, suggest the building’s oxygen levels—at a concentration of nearly 22 percent—are significantly higher than conventional buildings, which might be closer to 12 to 15 percent.
Given the hybrid nature of the project, Mackenzie says the team struggled at times to benchmark the building to existing tools and standards, such as the Building Code of Australia’s Section J for Energy Efficiency, but that the biggest hurdle was getting the contractor on board to deliver what is an unconventional mechanical system for Australia. “Commissioning and educating the facility manager is a major issue for buildings like this and the industry is still learning,” says Mackenzie.
Russell Fortmeyer is a Sydney-based journalist and engineer who frequently contributes to GreenSource.