Modern university architecture studio includes elements of vernacular tropical architecture in Southeast Asia

An innovative cooling system, 1225 solar photovoltaics and the sheer cleverness of the architecture make this the first new net-zero energy building in Singapore

The innovative SDE4 building is much like a architecture, building, campus, facade, mixed-use, property, residential area, tree, SDE4 building, air condition spaces, natural ventilation, university
The innovative SDE4 building is much like a massive portico with internal cubes of air-conditioned spaces where required. Between these cooled zones natural ventilation provides natural cooling.

When the School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore required a new building, it made logical, pedagogical, and financial sense to design one that walks the talk in terms of green architecture. The result? A living laboratory that demonstrates human-centric approaches for integrated sustainable development.

Standing six-storeys tall, SDE4 makes an apt awareness project for the School, an institutional organization that promotes design, sustainability and education in Southeast Asia. And that’s partly because SDE4 is the first new-build, net-zero energy building in Singapore. The modern building presents a 8500m², multidisciplinary space, designed by Serie + Multiply Architects with Surbana Jurong.

Located on a hillside along Clementi Road near the southern coastline of Singapore, SDE4 is a new addition to the Design & Environment precinct and part of a wider campus redevelopment. The climate-responsive building includes more than 1500m² of design studio space; a 500m² open plaza; a wide variety of public and social spaces; workshops and research centres; as well as a new cafe and library.

The building’s flexible design and high efficiency reflect the School’s ambition of promoting new forms of teaching spaces as a scaffold for research. Rooms are designed in a variety of sizes to allow flexible rearrangement of layout for exhibitions, school installations and future change of use.

SDE4 now forms an integral part of the campus, says Lam Khee Poh, dean of the School of Design and Environment.

“Buildings are not isolated entities – grouped, they form a neighbourhood, supporting community activities that are crucial for all educational institutions,” says Lam. 

“Our students and faculty get the opportunity to learn both inside and outside the classroom, being engaged in an integrated process of designing, developing, constructing, and operating ultra modern buildings that in turn, influence the students’ own behaviour when they occupy them.”

In a building design where learning, linking and architecture, building, floor, flooring, interior design, lobby, tourist attraction, wood, black, gray, university
In a building design where learning, linking and social spaces run together, stairs offer a chance for casual interactions.

Awarded to Serie + Multiply Architects with Surbana Jurong through an international design competition launched in 2013, the building was envisioned as porous architecture structured in a juxtaposition of ‘platforms and boxes’ that express its programmatic content.

Christopher Lee, principal of Serie Architects, says that one of the firm’s aims when it started the project was to challenge the idea that a high energy efficient building has to also be an opaque one.

“Instead, we envisioned a very transparent volume in which the outside and the inside spaces are ambiguous; where nature and landscape play an important part as a backdrop to the building.”

To an extent responding to this, the design revisits the principles of everyday tropical architecture in Southeast Asia. More than 50% of the total area is naturally ventilated and most of the rooms can be opened to prevailing breezes. Air-conditioning is used only when needed, while the cross-ventilated spaces between cooled volumes act as thermal buffers, emulating traditional tropical verandas.

As a result, the building is punctuated by alternating terraces, landscaped balconies and informal spaces. There are no formal boundaries between places to study, work and socialise in. And as part of this, SDE4’s large, open platforms are configured to promote interaction and visual connectivity.

“Circulation corridors and flights of stairs link and penetrate these platforms, allowing spaces to bleed from one learning and research space to another, fostering a collaborative design ethos,” says Lee.

Elements of the SDE4 building’s façade at Singapore’s architecture, building, furniture, glass, nterior design, iron, room, textile, window, cladding, moveable cladding, Singapore, school of design and environment
Elements of the SDE4 building’s façade at Singapore’s School of Design and Environment can be dismantled and replaced with new systems as part of the architecture students’ learning experience.

“So, the building serves as a canvas for test-bedding and developing green building technology – effectively, becoming a living laboratory.”

Another key aspect of the architecture that helps dictate the free-flowing nature of the interiors is the large over-sailing roof. This protrudes along the south elevation sheltering a giant open-air tropical portico and is built around and over existing mature trees. This openness allows spaces to flow freely across the length of the building, bringing the surrounding landscape into close proximity with the interior spaces. The east and west facades are designed as veils – aluminium curtains that filter sunlight and further connect to the surroundings.

And links to the outdoors are fundamental in another way, too – the south gardens are integral to the teachings offered by the biophillic building.

“Designed as a natural purification system, the landscape improves water quality while encouraging healthy lifestyle activities and teaching around water,” says Lee. “Runoff from the roof and hard scape is cleansed by passing through soil, which removes sediments and soluble nutrients.

“Half the plants selected are native species and most are from the southern tropics, a choice that also provides chance for environmental education.”

The modern SDE4 building draws on classic architectural architecture, building, design, furniture, interior design, office, SDE4 building, architectural precdents, natural light
The modern SDE4 building draws on classic architectural precedents, resulting in optimum natural light penetration as well as fresh air.

Last but surely not least, SDE4 is designed to be climate responsive with net-zero energy, thanks largely to a range of sustainable design features and the 1200 solar photovoltaic panels on its roof.

“SDE4 exceeds set standards of health and wellbeing – creating new avenues for delivering comfort in the tropics, embracing an innovative hybrid cooling system that supplies rooms with 100% fresh pre-cooled air and augments this with an elevated air speed, generated by ceiling fans,” says Lee. “This cool circulating air creates a comfortable condition in a highly energy-efficient system.”

Giovanni Cossu, senior manager at the School of Design and Environment, says the main story of SDE4 is how to achieve net-zero through design.

“This building challenges the negative perception of spatial quality, comfort, and cost for sustainable buildings. SDE4 counters the argument that green buildings cost more, as it has limited or no extra cost compared to similar, industry-standard models.

“Preliminary results of subjective surveys completed by occupants show high user acceptance levels of the environmental conditions offered by the building,” says Cossu. “Thanks in part to such occupant accolades, SDE4 speaks to multiple audiences: occupants and users, as well as policy makers and developers. And this generates a level of significance that cannot be ignored.”

Credit list

SDE4, School of Design and Environment, Singapore
Executive architect, mechanical & electrical engineer, civil & structural engineer, quantity surveyor
Surbana Jurong Consultants
Engineering and hybrid cooling system
Transsolar KlimaEngineering
Design architect
Serie + Multiply Architects
infrastructure and urban development
Surbana Jurong
Steel, perforated aluminium mesh, concrete

Story by: Charles Moxham

Photography by: Rory Gardiner

30 Jul, 2019

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