James Fitzpatrick

13 July 2012 – FAVOURITES: What do you do when you are part through designing a tall glass tower and the new Section J rules of the Building Code of Australia come into force – limiting glass in commercial buildings? Make sure your architect is James Fitzpatrick of Fitzpatrick Partner, if you have a choice. Fitzpatrick is the designer of choice for those who love to push the boundaries.

At his 1 Shelley Street design for Macquarie Bank in the Sydney CBD he placed the structural grid support structures on the outside of the building and made a feature of it. At Greystanes in Sydney’s west he designed a green office building in an industrial estate for Dexus, complete with eaves that directed rainwater to the garden, openable windows, and an airconditioning system that needed to be switched on rather than off.

In a design competition for an office tower Fitzpatrick proposed timber floors used it for a whole new way of thinking about suburban offices – a radical concept for prefabricated shells that tenants could fit-out themselves – moving around the facilities punching holes through the floors, which, because they’re timber, can be relatively easily repaired and restored at the end of the lease.

Moving around his own elegant offices in Sydney’s CBD, a converted industrial warehouse, it’s clear Fitzpatrick likes the feel and play of natural textures. But even more so is the joy he clearly derives from resolving the tensions between the need to find solutions for the “problems” of human activities and how to house them, and the limiting forces of commercial realities.

Fitzpatrick starts the interview showing The Fifth Estate images of a building with an expansive glass façade.

The Fifth Estate: The obvious question from a sustainability point of view is, how do you cool something like that?  [Fitzpatrick says it won’t be by use of plentiful fresh air.]

James Fitzpatrick: It’s a sealed building, it’s a five-star Green Star, it’s not a six-star. So it will probably use a low temperature VAV (variable air volume) system. And key is very high performance glass, he says.

Section J really starts to specify the amount of glass you’ll have. So the less amount of glass you have, the better it obviously is to keep cool, because you can insulate, so an insulated wall is better.  The dilemna is that in an office building the demand is for as much glass as possible, for natural light and views.

[Sun shading is one idea but generally it’s too expensive, before even looking at embodied energy.]

All that aluminium and metal… sometimes you’re better off saying, if possible, can I actually use that money and put it into the glass and the technology, that I would’ve paid for a sunshade, to actually get the same benefit?

And you can?

You can, with a few other tricks, some of which we’ve done on the Eclipse building, and that works. What we’ve done is put a solid zone behind the glass, so the glass visually looks like it goes from floor to floor, up the building, but when you look carefully or you see it at night, you see there’s a black zone behind the glass.

Traditionally a building would have a glass zone … you see an aluminium frame to separate the bits and it breaks it up.  So we’ve developed this way of doing the spandrel panels behind the glass, and setting them back behind the glass, so the building looks very clean but gives us that thermal performance by reducing the glass area.

[In another building Fitzpatrick has taken things another step forward.]

Instead of having narrower windows, say 1.2 metres wide, or 1.4 metres wide ­– and the pieces of glass maybe going full height floor to floor – we’ve said, “Let’s turn those windows horizontally and make the windows three metres wide’, so really wide windows between the frames, and we’ll put a frame as a halfway mark up the floor, which is about 1.8 metres, or 1.9 metres.

Now, obviously stack two of those on top of each other and that takes you to the next floor, but then … it’s full glass and you’re getting all that heat coming in.  So the two tricks are, or three tricks, one, use a high performance glass; the next thing we’re doing is actually the dot.

The Eclipse, Parramatta

[Fitzpatrick explains this is the same technology used on bus windows for advertising, which has a number of dots punched in a sheet placed over the window. From the outside the dots are not visible and the sheet reads as a message or image. But from the inside viewers see right through to the outside.]

So when you’re in the bus you can see out, but [from outside] you can’t see in. You see the ad. What we’re going to do is print that onto the glass, so it’s visually white on the outside, black on the inside, so it makes the building look very white on the outside and quite reflective.  On the inside it’s a black sheet with a clear dot, so your eye can actually look through the dots.

The dot is clear, but around the dot is black. It helps you see through it.  It’s interesting –  normally we do a lot of those patterns of dots on glass, and normally you make the dot solid and the gap clear. But in actual fact, when you go through the theory of it, the eye can stitch a clean shape together a lot easier than a jagged edge. So if you leave the dots clear, and make between the dots solid, you end up with these lovely clean edges which the eye can very quickly put together.  So I can put a piece of film on a glass there, which is 50 per cent opaque, and leave the dots clear at 50 per cent opaque, and leave the gap between the dots clear, and you’ll swear the one where the round circle is clear is so much higher.

So it looks like it’s pure glass, but it’s not?

It’s not. It’s got the film on it. And if you go up really close you see it.

What’s special about the film?

Nothing really. It reduces the amount of glass area so therefore it helps reduce the amount of light transmission through the glass.

But is it heat reducing?

Well, it does, because it reduces some of the heat coming into the glass.

So light itself carries the heat?

Light carries some of it as well. So it cuts out some spectrums. But then you still need some solid zones. So okay, we accept you need a spandrel panel, which is that solid piece inside the building, which normally may cover the ceiling or whatever.

So we’re saying, now with the new [Section J] requirements, appropriate requirements for our energy reduction in buildings, you need a lot more solid [space].. So what we’re doing is making those spandrel panels adjustable. So you, as the tenant, can slide them.

Right so the spandrel is quite movable, like sliding screen, except up and down rather than across?

Yes, it’s like a sliding screen, no structural benefit, but it’s got a seal, it seals itself to the glass which creates an air cavity between the glass and that solid piece of insulation, so the heat can’t get into the building. Normally that’s a fixed insulation panel, so it’s solid. It stops the heat getting into the building through the glass. All we’re doing is saying, ‘well, I’m going to release that seal, slide it up and down, and when I get it where I want it, seal it against the glass again’.

It’s easy to move?

No, no, it’s quite a complex technology. And the spandrels are heavy, being three metres long and so high, it’s something that can be moved, but you wouldn’t do it every day. It might happen every three months, or six months.

And from the outside you can’t really see the spandrels…

You do, you’ll see a little bit, especially in the evening, but that’s quite nice, because that actually forms the pattern of the façade. You see that subtle patination of the different tone on the glass.

It’s beautiful, so you’re actually getting what looks like a solid glass structure, but it’s not?

It’s not, it’s actually very high performing.

Fitzpatrick says that in general glass for commercial buildings comes from overseas. In this case he looked at Europe because although a lot of glass comes from China, there were difficulties in getting the pattern right in China, because he wanted white on the outside, but dot-free, white on the outside and black on the inside.

This means they’ve got to print it twice, and they’ve got to get the circles to absolutely line up perfectly, otherwise you get a little shadow of black around the white, or white around the black.

Tall Timber buildings

[Fitzpatrick mentions his use of timber frames and his designs for timber floors in high-rise office buildings and the conversation turns to the idea of timber towers, with a free 240-page plan for a high rise timber building by Canadian architect Michael Green, published by The Fifth Estate.]

I think we’re a long way from doing that. We’re … playing with a 15-storey one in timber at the moment, but not full timber, steel-framed with timber infill.  So that’s more likely how the market will go.

[Fitzpatrick then discusses how these ideas were further developed in a concept for a competition for a building in the city. The idea was for timber floors all the way through the tower.]

So we have a steel frame, steel beams, timber floors across it, and [the design is for the components to be all] prefabricated off-site. Obviously the concept there is that the tenant can change the floor around as they want. They could actually cut holes in it…you end up with this totally flexible floor. And then just for the fire rating, every four or five floors, you have a concrete floor. So that’s something we’re really pushing hard in a lot of other buildings at the moment.

What about sound, the noise travelling?

Well, it’s all design, it’s got to be obviously considered.

How do you do it?

There’s different materials, and things that you just put in the sandwich construction, to actually stop that vibration.

[Fitzpatrick discusses processes for prefabrication, which can cut 25-30 per cent off costs. He says an important issue is that we’re still trying to design buildings in the same way as in the past 10 or 15 years with a few changes with the drive to keep making them cheaper.]

Maybe the whole form has changed and it’s time to rethink and say ‘well, the design should be changed to match these new criteria’. Maybe we should actually define what the new criteria is and design a new building typography to match that criteria. Which kind of makes sense. In most fields you say, ‘well, here’s the problem, let’s come up with a solution’. We tend to say, ‘here’s our generic solution’ – I’m thinking offices particularly – ‘here’s our generic solution and we can tweak it up a little bit – oh, it’s too expensive’ – we’ll tweak it up, delete that, delete that, delete that, delete that.

Instead of saying, well, this is the new parameter, this is the new world order, this is what the world is now requiring both in environmental, both in aesthetic, both in the workplace, both in construction, and put all those criteria together, and now design a building that resolves all those issues.

Think from scratch. And prefabrication, modularisation, flexibility in materials, and both in form of buildings, are all going to become really important. And there’s not many people playing in that space at the moment, which I think is going to change very quickly.

I don’t hear that often, especially in commercial property.

Well, we’re now pushing very hard in commercial … the idea of flexible timber floors which allow tenants to move the floors around; obviously the carbon capture of the raw material, there’s a great benefit as well; but just that whole issue of flexibility, change. But also the quality of the space that it creates. That’s the big thing. People forget the quality of the space.

So what you’re doing is you’re going another step up from green buildings

It’s nearly off to the side of what green buildings are doing. Green Buildings are actually addressing the building design and fabric, systems, et cetera, and location. But it doesn’t say what sort of way you should do a building. So what we’re saying is let’s now start to step back again, once again.

[With the office component of an industrial building for Dexus at its Greystanes industrial estate in Sydney’s west Fitzpatrick tested some these new ideas.]

We said, let’s build in timber, let’s actually let water run off the roof and into the garden, let’s put verandas around the building so it actually shields the office space and gives a lovely place to sit down and have their barbecue, or whatever. Let’s have opening windows, let’s actually have it so the airconditioning is off unless you turn it on, see if you can open a window. Let’s have dimming lights, all those things. A lot of those things which we’d put in an upper level office, but some, like an opening window, we don’t. It’s not Green Star rated; … it was probably a few things Green Star wouldn’t recognise. [Its main elements included]  timber construction, carbon capture, plumbing, capturing other water for irrigation, solar hot water, dimming lights, all the tricks, are all in that one building. So it was a great little case study. And cost neutral. That’s the big thing.

So you’re finding the clients are more receptive now to new ideas than they might’ve been five or 10 years ago?

I think clients are always receptive to ideas if you address what their issues are. I think our industry tended to actually turn off from that; we can get caught up in, This is what we think you want; this is what we’re going to do. If you can show a client that you’re addressing their issues, and that there’s a twist and a different way you’re doing it, and it’s workable and what you’re proposing is real, they will generally say, Well, let’s go with it..’ It’s when you get into that combatative situation and you try and take it out, you’re trying to twist their arm, and the money gap isn’t staking out. So our issue is to understand the client’s objectives and the client’s brief, and then the uses that you’re trying to cater for, and then you can look at design to solve the problem. Don’t start with an answer and try to shoehorn everything into it.  It’ll never work.

Openable windows

What about the openable windows in offices?  Why is that still not happening? You’ve got that amazing building there.

It’s easy on little buildings, because it’s there, you just open a window and it’s a user-control thing. The problem with a big building is it’s the automation, so you need the control. So if I just go and open up, the airconditioning system turns off, because it’s not efficiently running with open windows. It can affect everyone in that whole floor. So you need – you’ve got to have opening and closing devices.

It’s got to connect with the airconditioning, and that’s just expensive. That’s the main issue, the cost. For the (design competition) we did an option to allow for a small section of window…which could open and close, and it has to have a wind filter on the outside. Because you can imagine what the wind factor at 40 storeys.  [These days cooling technology such as chilled beams tend to use 100 per cent fresh air anyway.]

It feels different, doesn’t it, if you can open a window?

It does, but it’s not necessarily because of the air quality.

It’s probably dirtier air outside.

[ Fitzpatrick was interested in a Green Cities 2012 speaker Jonathan Dalton who talked about the need for green schools.

[And consultant John Brodie who advocated in an article for The Fifth Estate automated windows and shades because they could dramatically reduce the need for airconditioning.

Problem is, it’s not cheap. It’s very expensive to automate it.  High performance glass alone is about $800 a square metre.  In some newer buildings it can reach to $1250 a square metre. It doesn’t sound a lot when you look at it like that, but when you multiply by 30, 40 thousand square metres, it’s a big chunk of money.

A simple sunshade … will add $250, $300 [a square metre to the cost of a simple curtain wall with a cost of $800 a sq m] So now I’m up to $1100. Now I’m going to put an automation system on it, that’ll take it up to $1200, then I’m actually going to have an opening window zone, and as well with automation: $1300, $1400 a square metre.

That’s interesting to know these things.

That’s big money. So that’s why we say, the solution in our market, which is all driven by what the tenants will pay for – rent at the end of the day – cannot afford those systems at this point in time. That may change [as energy costs rise]. So we’re saying how can we work with cost-effective technology assistance, and do it in a smarter way? That’s the idea of let’s work with a sheer glass building because it’s easier to clean…we don’t have the sunshades because they add all that extra cost, all that extra embodied energy in their production, being aluminium. How do we actually achieve the same benefit, but keep it within a smarter way, using technology and so on?

Image of 33 Bligh Street, Sydney

[One of the new buildings that Fitzpatrick is working on is for 33 Bligh Street, Sydney, for Investa with an Ausgrid substation at its base. This challenging project will have an interesting resolution he says, instead of hiding away this piece of “critical infrastructure” the substation will be brought “into the open”.]

Are there electromagnetic issues here?

Yes, everyone talks about it, and I was quite concerned about it, and even in our design competition not understanding it.

The result is we have the substation at the base, then we put our plant room on top of that, and our moulding on top of that, then we had our first office floor. So there’s a 15-16 metre gap between the substation and the office floors…

Have you done a study on what the safest distance is?

Our studies on the EMF, [or electromagnetic radiation or frequency]… show that…the numbers are actually less than you get when you walk past your microwave in your kitchen. The levels are so low.

When you’re there in front of it?

Right in front of it, yes. You’d have more effect, the EMF, just walking down the street, just from everything that’s around you. It’s shielded and controlled in such a way that there are high levels of components inside the substation, but it doesn’t reach anywhere else, bar background levels. It’s quite interesting, because I know it was a concern; we knew it would concern the tenants.

[Fitzpatrick played again with the idea of timber floors at 33 Bligh Street but decided against it.  The lobby will be a fully naturally ventilated space, with no airconditioning but with some floor heating and some fans. ]

It’s got a coffee shop, a wine bar in it, so it’s a really nice breathable space that breaks out onto the roof terrace on top of the substation and becomes like this real garden sitting up in the tops of buildings around it. Then further up the tower, up here, we’re actually providing a public space as well, which we’re looking at different uses.  t could be a restaurant, it could be a tenants’ space, but it could be an art gallery, restaurant, with dedicated access to the ground floor. And again in a fully naturally-ventilated environment. So the optimum would be this lovely restaurant sitting up there at level 20-odd, looking over the city.

[Fitzpatrick glances on various projects and ideas that have been trialled and sometimes dropped, such as a concept for tubes to create shading because the tubes felt a little too obtrusive and blocking. It’s a constant process of “testing and pushing the boundaries”, he says.

Start with the problem, then the solution

[Fitzpatrick says that in the suburban commercial office market there’s a real disconnect between what tenants are prepared to pay for rent and the cost of construction. ]

Obviously then, there’s also a disconnect in the sort of workspace that clients want to build and what they are forced into building because of cost.

We wanted to understand what drove that, so we went right back in time and looked at some comparisons of technologies and what was happening in building design.

[The concept of an office has moved as technology moved, Fitzpatrick says. The advent of typewriters, telephones and computers all changed office design.]

Originally there wasn’t such a thing as an office building, it was a home office, a room in the house. People had rooms. The first commercial buildings were related to typewriters. Lifts started to come in. Then we started to have more technology and we got into bigger buildings, and there was quite an interesting play of technologies.

Most interesting is that when typewriter came in, workspaces became very regimented. After World War II, before computers were in, we started to come up with this really free-form work environment, ‘specially the Germans who were leading it, about equality for all, everyone should have the same sort of work space. But they were all about how people work best together in teams, and everything like that.  ..So this whole thinking went into this, the action office, and things like that where things were being done. Herman Miller was a big player.

Interesting that since the computer happened, Bang, we went back to the regimented system.

When the Internet came along, suddenly we started to see some of the advertising companies …with the virtual office, and then we got British Airways doing hot-desking, where everyone packed up every night and put their stuff in a locker.  And then we’ve seen the development of an activity base, where everyone still thinks an activity base is really about packing up every night, and first in gets the best desk the next day.  Whereas activity based is obviously about working in the best environment to do the task you’re doing.  And that may mean changing every day, it may mean changing every month, it may mean changing every five years, depending on what the tasks you work on.

Build a box and they will come…and play with it

[Fitzpatrick conducted some intense analysis of how to solve the problem first, designing a building to fit later.

Really, you know, tenants are looking for flexibility, they want quality, and they want simple control of that space. When you start to think about that, we’ve got a bit wrong. What we really should be building is just an enclosure a box, and letting the tenant find how what they put inside that, in terms of their workplace. So not furniture, but actually floors, lifts and voids and all that stuff

Like they do with apartment shells?

To develop the thesis out further we did a whole study of how you define the shell, and we said it should be a clear span. So we looked at sheds, aircraft hanger and bridges… worked with engineers. This wasn’t about designing architecture, it was about design efficiencies.

[Fitzpatrick worked with the idea of using timber because it was flexible and sustainable. You can cut a hole in it to insert a stairway and repair it much more cheaply than with a concrete slab.]

If you want to change your work environment around, have a void there one day, and fill it in the next, get a chippie in to do it for you. And it’s a nice thing. It comes back to aesthetics.  We went through all this and in the end we defined a model that said the best way to expand a big structure would be to have one row of columns down the middle and columns down the outside.

Tenants keep on saying they like this more higgledy piggledy, they say, ‘don’t set us up, don’t make this rigid. Let us choose where we want to put the things’.

And you’ve actually provided all those slightly chaotic kinds of spaces. Well…flexible and interesting spaces.

[But these are ideas for another time. What’s certain is that Fitzpatrick will keep honing them until he can come up with something else that breaks the mould.]