Anthony Furniss, architect of the University of Newcastle’s new Q Building in the heart of the Newcastle CBD, had a conundrum to sort out.

Anthony Furniss

The newly completed building, a showpiece of mass timber – a mix of cross laminated timber and glulam – needed a profile that signalled creativity and innovation, in line with the university’s future occupants at the School of Creative Industries and Innovation Hub.

It’s an important building because it’s the first on the university’s City Campus Development on a large block on Honeysuckle Drive that will eventually house five to six buildings. It’s part of the university’s shift of some of its activities from its city fringe campus to the CBD in line with the thinking that this is key to reinvigoration strategies for commercial centres.

The university already has one building, NUspace in Hunter Street in the CBD, which Furniss also designed in collaboration with Lyons architects.

But Q Building faces west, on the main gateway into the city, on land reclaimed from the disused heavy rail line that was removed to reconnect the city from the spectacular harbour. So brilliant views, but a big heating issue.

To protect the building from the western sun, the design was originally shrouded in sun-shading. Which made sense to control temperatures and save energy but blocking views both ways and missing an opportunity to connect the inside activities of the building with the outside world.

Furniss, director at EJE Architecture, worked for the University of Newcastle for more than two decades, in the earliest days under the tutelage of his boss Philip Pollard whose PhD in the design of the campus we featured in the earliest days of this publication.

He knew the university, its needs, and its particular challenges.

He needed to convince the university that the new four-storey 2500 square metre building needed another solution.

Up his sleeve was the university’s desire to display the internal elements of the building – all that beautiful timber and 5.1 metre ceilings.

So his team set about researching an alternative solution.

They found an electrochromic glazing technology produced by SageGlass and distributed in Australia by George Fethers and Co that met the requirements. The product had only been used in this country sparingly.

Certainly not a whole façade.

This week, Furniss told The Fifth Estate the story.

The building needed thermal protection, he says. “So we did our homework and found electrochromatic glass. In Australia the technology had only been used in internally and in a couple of skylights.”

“Basically, it’s kinetic tinting that alters according to where the sun is.”

The glass can change colour according to the position of the sun and thermal load, on a panel by panel basis, from completely transparent to very dark.

“The groups in the building can manipulate the individually controlled panels to create a pixelated image – say to create a word saying, ‘innovation’ or ‘open’. It can be used as an art installation.”

Perfect for students of creative industry and innovation.

So what made the university decide on this technology?

It was “a credit to the university” that it had a pretty strong commitment to make the building as good as it could be for its stakeholder groups such as educational clients and facility managers who needed to look after this asset in the long term, Furniss says.

The university contacted clients of the technology in the US to better understand how to live with it.

Cost wise says Furniss, it’s on a par with sun shading.

Most other sustainability inclusions in the building were not necessarily new [more an outcome of good design], Furniss says, and others are simply what the university considers standard.

For instance, the sophisticated sensors that control air in the building according to the atmospheric condition and number of occupants.

Standing out as a major inclusion though – and decided on pre-Covid – is an “oversize airconditioning and ducting system to allow fresh air to be pumped through the building, with fans that draw that fresh air powered by a solar array on the roof.”

This needed a high degree of energy efficiency, so the building was sealed to prevent wasted conditioned air. It meant giving up openable windows.

The building, however, doesn’t aim for a Passive House standard, Furniss says.

“We looked more towards WELL ratings because our practice is about to have a WELL certified practitioner, and we’ve spoken to the university about applying the WELL review of the building because a lot of the initiatives pretty much meet a lot of the WELL standards.”

When The Fifth Estate caught up with Furniss on Tuesday though, he was still slightly frustrated that a competition his studio was entering for the building permitted just 200 words on sustainability outcomes.

“There are 1000 words we could use,” he quipped.

For instance, “it’s not just the mass timber. The building is reconfigurable”.

The spaces are designed from the start to meet changing needs and to allow efficiencies.

The huge internal heights for instance.

“We gave 5.1 metre floor to floor height for multiple reasons. The university can repurpose the spaces in the future, they can reconfigure the building. It gives us a larger façade to draw natural light into the depth of the building and it gives us ample space to include the oversize mechanical ductwork to draw fresh air into the building.

“We put the core into the corner to maximise space. We used 5.1 metre heights to stack the amenities; the male and female toilets sit on top of each other.”
This is not a new idea, he says; it was used in the buildings from the 40s and 50s. “We’ve come across some in Newcastle.”

Then there were embodied carbon savings with the building’s life cycle assessment showing a 58 per cent reduction in embodied carbon thanks in good part to work by builder Hansen Yunken.

Furniss has worked with the university for nearly 30 years on projects that have included renovations as well as new buildings.

“We learn from them what footprints they need and what poses problems for them.

“You might come across a building in the 60s that was purpose built for them but now requires a different function. We know they are going to churn through this building in the future so we wanted to make it as flexible as we could, like a Rubik’s Cube. We did a whole lot of internal configurations to show them how to 50 people or 100 would work in the spaces.”

“The university was serious about sustainability and that for us as designers who want to thread sustainability into the design makes our job a hell of a lot easier.”

So how do other clients respond to this sustainability drive?

“There’s not so much a paradigm shift,” Furniss says, “but there are conversations particularly around energy savings”. Much depends on the length of time they intend to own it. Long term creates much bigger investment in the sustainability of the building.

On outlook, from his perspective Furniss says that across all sectors investment is up – regional, tertiary, education, seniors living through to commercial.

The desire for a fast train to Sydney is not so strong these days, he says. Covid and remote working has taken the heat out of the urgency.

And in fact his studio is now working interstate, in addition to other work it does with Fiji where it has a relationship with students studying at the university, and it does planning work in Papua New Guinea.

The company owned by Furniss and nine other partners has more than 65 staff with two new staff recently employed.

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  1. Just wonder about the resilience of the shading strategy – in case of failure of electrochromic glazing, you have a hotbox? “Building a greenhouse in a climate crisis is a pretty strange thing to do”

  2. It’s a great building but it doesnt sit on the old railway corridor. The land its built on a brownfield site part of the Honeysuckle site that was formerly port operations. The whole new university site needed substantial grouting due to old coal mining operations but fortunately this was largely done by a former developer. The railway corridor itself was largely unaffected by undermining.