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443 Queen Street Brisbane

Q & Architecture with Elizabeth Watson Brown

Elizabeth Watson Brown on designing a sky-scraping Queenslander

Are sustainable architectural principles particularly effective in Brisbane’s climate?

Brisbane lies on the 27th parallel of Australia’s eastern seaboard, where there are benign climatic conditions shared by only a few other subtropical cities in the world. Unlike in most other global regions with far more challenging climates, humans can survive here without artificial heating or cooling.

I’ve always thought that as architects here in the subtropics we have the remarkable opportunity and, indeed, responsibility to truly capitalise on these conditions to create “low carbon” architecture through passive climatic design at every scale.

It’s tragic that European and North American building typologies – skyscrapers that were originally conceived in Chicago for that climate and therefore sealed and artificially climatically controlled – have been transposed wholesale to a city like Brisbane. They are completely inappropriate and consume huge amounts of energy.

Here, we need to truly understand our climate and design to it. In very simple terms, this means orienting and configuring buildings to shade from summer sun and to capture winter sun and the cooling breezes that sweep through our city. These passive design principles can radically reduce energy input and, at the same time, create extremely pleasant living conditions. Lush vegetation also grows quickly here, and the best architecture incorporates living, habitable, productive subtropical gardens.

We used to be much better at climate-responsive design. Before all pervasive air-conditioning, mid-century architects created elegant buildings designed for our climate, some of which still exist and are lessons for us, as are early Queenslanders (when well-oriented and surrounded by gardens) and early public buildings with cool colonnades, cross-ventilation and generous courtyards.

Good design in Brisbane is about so much more than appearances or fashion. Beauty and amenity are the result of a direct and knowledgeable response and deep reflection upon local environmental and social conditions.

Figure 1: The 443 Queen Street gardens

Q & Architecture with Elizabeth Watson Brown - 443 Queen Street

Can you describe the residential tower that Architectus and Singapore studio, WOHA are designing at 443 Queen Street in Brisbane?

443 Queen Street is ultimately a bold, large-scale demonstration of what we believe to be responsive and responsible architecture for our subtropical city. We are effectively applying those passive design principles that have long been observed in well-designed houses of our region to a 288-metre high city building of 264 “houses in the sky”.

For me this project has been a remarkable opportunity to translate ideas I have been developing and applying throughout my career – first, during 21 years leading my own practice designing individual houses, medium density residential, and institutional and education projects, and more recently, in the past 8 years, as Design Director and then Design Strategy Leader at Architectus, where I have been working on large-scale public and urban projects. To be able to apply these ideas to a large residential tower and in an urban context has been very rewarding.

443 Queen Street will be a truly subtropical building. We have planned judiciously so that high energy use is not mandated by the design. Residents can tune their individual environments. They can open their windows! Each space has natural light and ventilation and river views.

The design is radically different from standard residential towers, which usually have a central core surrounded by the service zones that require mechanical ventilation and artificial light, and sealed access corridors that are, again, mechanically lit and ventilated. 443 Queen Street has naturally lit and ventilated “arrival gardens” at every level.

These lush gardens incorporate shady trees and deep planted subtropical garden beds. They are habitable gardens, not just green walls. They will attract birds, butterflies and create special places for quiet contemplation. The building’s elevated “hanging gardens” carpark above a shaded public undercroft links the city to the river bank via terraced public gardens.

There are practical reason to elevate carparks in Brisbane, especially for riverside buildings like this one; our region is increasingly vulnerable to flooding brought on by climate change.

We estimate that natural rather than artificial ventilation and throughout the building will reduce its energy load by about 60 percent.

Brisbane City Council has a design guide “Buildings that Breathe” that post-dates our design, but 443 Queen Street is already regarded as an exemplar of those principles.

Figure 2: 443 Queen Street tower

Q & Architecture with Elizabeth Watson Brown - 443 Queen Street

What has collaborating with WOHA been like?

Truly enjoyable and educational! Richard Hassell (co-director of WOHA) has great experience designing beautiful, garden infused, low energy buildings in the tropics. We’ve known each other for several years and share many of the same concerns as designers. Richard is a genuinely good person, driven by real concern for the future of cities and the planet. It’s been thrilling to combine our ideas and experience on this terrific project. He talks about the “innovation stress” of projects like this one, and there have been naysayers and sceptics along the road but we have been advocating for this project from the beginning. We’ve been very fortunate that the client, Cbus Property and in particular the DM, Michelle Fitzgerald, has been a fantastic advocate with a true belief in what we are doing and everything it represents.

This project is about far more than the building itself. On one level, it’s about urban generosity creating connections between the river and the city and delivering some new green public spaces. At a broader level – and the reason we have been so passionate and tenacious– it’s about demonstrating a vision for an environmentally responsible green, accessible, permeable subtropical city. We hope that it is the first of many more buildings of its kind.

Figure 3: The ventilated spaces at each level of 443 Queen Street

Q & Architecture with Elizabeth Watson Brown - 443 Queen Street