Here's a second skin for a second chance

There are plenty of opportunities and challenges in converting ageing brutalist commercial towers into more environmentally responsive buildings and the Tower Skin conceptualised by LAVA – Laboratory for Visionary Architecture – offers one innovative solution.

Recently showcased at the Architecture Biennale in Vienna, the second skin uses membrane technology that brings together embedded solar photovoltaics, LED lighting, water collection, thermal protection and ventilation.

It was first applied as a design concept to the UTS tower on Broadway for the Zerofootprint Re-Skinning Awards in 2010, where it was recognised with an award.

LAVA director Chris Bosse says the concept – yet to be commercially applied on a major scale – is a missed opportunity for UTS in regards to its current campus redevelopment.

Chris Bosse

The idea did, however, draw attention from the engineering community following media coverage of the awards, with Bosse receiving numerous phone calls and emails from engineers in Australia and around the world offering assistance in collaborating on prototyping and refining the Tower Skin.

Bosse says that the organic form created by the skin is part of its attractiveness.

“Everyone knows these square boxes with curtain wall facades are enclosed, alienated structures,” he says.

“I recall flying into Paris, and looking down on the satellite cities with their brutalist residential towers, which have become like residential ghettos.”

Fighting the knock it down and rebuild mentality

The skin is also an alternative to the “knock it down and rebuild” approach, which is being taken in many places to the issue of ageing and unattractive tower buildings.

“New technologies can be used to repurpose these buildings, and add new layers to them. People adjust to their environment by layering, so can buildings if they have new technologies,” Bosse says.

“Technology has changed, but the buildings from the 1960s have not changed.”

The second skin reflects the layering found in nature, where there are few monolithic structures and layering allows organisms to react to the climate.

Getting it off the ground

What is needed to make it happen, Bosse says, is a visionary developer who can appreciate the business case – and estimated $10 million to $20 million to re-skin and repurpose an existing tower, compared to $100 million to $200 million to demolish a building and construct anew.

“Developments are very commercially driven; they are not socially or environmentally driven,” he says.

“When we talk about sustainability, we are talking about social, environmental and economic sustainability. [With the skin] this is achievable, and it also creates spaces for people to move and meet, has possibilities for urban farming, and has the advantages of combining heating and cooling, water supply and energy in one.

“A lot of that potential is untapped.”

UTS with a second skin

LAVA had a sample of the type of membrane proposed for the skin outside its office windows for some months. Bosse said it still allowed for the view to be seen and filtered light to penetrate, giving the light a “milky” appearance and also blocking UV rays.

“We have had indications from a facade manufacturer that a skin would last between 20 and 40 years,” Bosse said.

“It is quite lightweight, you can print on it and screen things on it.”

The membrane technology, he says, is an example of some of the high performance materials being developed by the aerospace, military and sports industry.

One of the recent innovations in this realm is ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, which has been used for thermally efficient ventilation and daylighting solutions in projects such as the Global Change Institute in Brisbane and the “eco-spine” roof on Highpoint Shopping Centre in Melbourne. This material was first developed for uses in the space industry, and Bosse says there are local manufacturers who could conceivably produce materials with embedded intelligent threads such as the Tower Skin membrane.

The firm was recently commissioned to do a study of the potential for re-skinning the Goulburn Street carpark near Sydney’s Central Station. However, the concept of “wrapping” the carpark was not adopted.

Until someone, somewhere, decides to invest in the concept and the research and development needed to bring it to market, Bosse says LAVA will aim to keep generating discussion and debate around the idea.

As a practice, this is one of the team’s aims, taking an approach to architecture that is about sustainability through “the science of integrating principles from nature that are millions of years old – light, air and space”.

“We look at the latest research about [aspects like] natural ventilation and materials. We like to look at [design] as a combination of nature and technology that is truly the architecture of the 21st Century.”

Designs by the practice, such as Sydney’s award-winning Martian Embassy and the sales office for the new Greenland Tower, highlight organic shapes and the use of natural materials such as timber. Much of the practice’s offshore work in places including the winning design for the civic centre of Masdar City UAE and projects across South East Asia, go even further outside the square.

Bosse says the reason the offshore work can explore such dramatically different forms is due to Australia being a much more cost-conscious and conservative scene in terms of development. He says that given the high price point of completed developments, more money should be invested in constructing them.

“Developments like Barangaroo can be much more courageous,” he said.