Photo by Peter Clark

La Trobe University’s new all-electric mass timber student accommodation at its Bundoora campus north of Melbourne wastes no opportunity to amplify the biophilic properties of wood.

According to the project architect on the $100 million, 624 bed project, Danielle Pacella from Jackson Clements Burrows Architects, wherever possible, interior CLT and GLT features were left exposed to make the most of the material’s inherent health and wellbeing benefits.

“You’re never in a room and not looking at it,” she told The Fifth Estate

The design team also wanted to take advantage of the gumtrees on the site and provide canopy views to all students, which is why recently completed accommodation consists of two separate arcs that curve around the mature trees.

The challenging organic shape helped maintain as many trees as possible, Pacella explains.

Photo by Peter Clark

The recently completed project is the second large mass timber building for both the architects and the builder, Multiplex. Both worked on the mass timber Gillies Hall student accommodation project at Monash University, which was also built to the Passive House standard.

Pacella, who was also project architect on the Monash building, says both the designers and builders took away lessons from the first project that translated into significant cost and time savings. Early contractor involvement with the builder also helped streamline the process.

She says the client was attracted to the material’s psychological and sustainability properties – including its ability to lock carbon away – to align with its net zero carbon by 2029 target and other sustainability goals.  

According to Kimberley Wilkinson, La Trobe University project director, choosing timber resulted in 76 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than if the university had opted for a concrete structure.

Cost is always a factor in these decisions, however. The mass timber industry is still in its infancy in Australia so developers still sometimes pay a premium, but extra costs can be offset by gains in floor space, site yield and faster onsite construction times. 

Pacella says that before Covid struck and emptied university campuses, the client was working to a tight project timeline of 24 months (start to finish) so valued the material’s quick installation times.

She says building with mass timber is a “totally different beast”, with a lot less steel than with concrete and virtually no wet trades onsite. 

Photo by Peter Clark

Other environmental sustainability features

The buildings have also achieved a 5 Star Green Star design rating and is targeting a 5 Star Green Star as-built rating. The modular façade’s thermal envelope helps keep energy use down, as do the double glazed, thermally broken windows and butterfly-shaded fins that shade the rooms from the sun’s heat and glare. 

The building also has 40 per cent extra insulation above the standard and relies on a heat pump for its heating needs. 

The buildings have a 35.6 kilowatt solar system that will contribute to the campus’ extensive onsite renewables system that contributes up to 50 per cent of its daytime energy needs.

Ecological and water sensitive landscaping is also pertinent to the design, with many trees and habitat retained and 4000 Indigenous plants grown on campus planted onsite.

The university also has its own onsite composting system. 

Photo by Peter Clark

A rich student experience

Aside from studying, student living is all about socialising and fostering connections.

Pacella says the buildings have a lot of communal spaces, including a communal outdoor BBQ that “gets used widely, even by people from off campus”.

There’s also generous outdoor courtyard space to mingle in. The two building arcs are lined up so that there’s a courtyard that takes advantage of morning sun and the afternoon sun in the other.

At the base of the “knuckle”, there’s a large sweeping stair and terraces made of timber that “provide a theatre for circulation, socialising and activation”.

There’s also communal kitchens, including a large one for hosting larger gatherings. 

The accommodation is split into a mix of single bedrooms and larger apartments (four, five and six bedroom apartments) that offer true student share house experience. These apartments also contain small living spaces and kitchens.

The larger apartments occupy the outer arcs and the single bed rooms the inner arcs for a more “contemplative” student lifestyle.

There’s also plenty of spaces for quiet study solo or in small groups.