View of Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, UTS, by Frank Gehry

22 March 2012 – Engineers for the façade of the new UTS building in Sydney, designed by Frank Gehry and this week approved for construction, at one point considered robots to achieve its crumpled paper-bag look.

Arup principal and façade team leader Peter Hartigan says a number of ideas were floated for construction of the building, including the robot idea, and then dismissed.

Robots would lay the bricks in a way that was too perfect, he says.

The stunning façade of the building to be known as the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, will put the UTS campus on the global stage, at least in its ambitious architecture.

The translation of the vision to reality might also score a few points.

For the Arup, it has required a different approach even in the procurement process.

In a telephone conversation with The Fifth Estate, this week, Hartigan explained a little of the process and thinking.

Bricks laid by hand would retain the human touch; the irregularities and imperfections, required by the architect, he said.

Certainly hand laid earth bricks are a million light years away from the titanium metal spans of Gehry’s better known conceptions such as the Guggenheim museums around the world.

Many of which seem to defy gravity and certainly convention. And even the ability to stand near them when the sun is glaring and bouncing, according to the accounts of some visitors.

But at UTS, the developer wanted a five star Green Star and five Star NABERS energy rated building, and the titanium might just have bucked the spirit of that brief.

“Gehry is always looking for new materials and interesting uses of things,” Hartigan said.

“On the UTS project we looked at looked at number of ways to realise the undulating planes on sections and using robots was one of theme, and there is a precedent for that around the world,” Hartigan said.

“It’s an off-site manufacturing process. It uses special glues instead of cement and mortar uses mortar.”

But the architect wanted “the feeling and the look of hand laid bricks, with all the variability that goes with that and there were also program reasons why that wasn’t going to work because of the lead time on manufacturing”.

The set up issues to achieve the undulating surfaces were “pretty significant.” Normally offsite construction is a distinct advantage, Hartigan said.

So the bricks will be laid on site. Interestingly, the final product will include insulated metal sheeting that will be constructed off site.

“It’s like brick veneer, so the brick is the outer skin and provides the outer layer of protection, and then there is the substrate which does most of the waterproofing, [and supports the bricks].”

The method is not as unusual as it sounds.

“It’s pretty common. The last one we did was the Royal North Shore Hospital.” It used normal metal studs and plasterboard membranes on a steel sheet. And it will be insulated.

The steel is fairly sustainable, says Hartigan. It uses low embodied energy and is recyclable. Even better, it’s relatively low cost.

UTS building by Frank Gehry: the western facade will have a series of smooth curtain walls

Interestingly another façade of the building, a series of curtain wall areas on the western frontage, will be as sleek as the twisty curvy façade is…twisty and curvy.

Procurement on the job was another unusual solution, driven by the specialised demands of the project.

The idea was to work on design solutions with contractors tendering for the job until a final contractor was selected.

“We will have one contractor for the bricks and Sharvain Projects, which did the elements of 1 Bligh Street façade], to do the rest of the facade.”

The choice of the steel was a “team decision” Hartigan said.

Work has now started on the foundations and construction is expected to take about two years.