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Forest EcoCentre Employs Passive Design (Australia)

Credits: ©2009 Chris Wilson/Tasmanian Timber

Architect Robert Morris-Nunn has persistently explored passive and low-energy designs, and has applied his experience and skill to this hybrid building for Forestry Tasmania. Robert Morris-Nunn’s Forest EcoCentre, completed in 2001, demonstrates effective climate control through clever positioning, appropriate applications of material, and passive energy use. This tensioned, glazed structure, in its semi-rural setting in Scottsdale in Tasmania’s north east, has been compared with many other greenhouse-styled projects. The conical external structure uses plantation pine softwood ribs – Morris-Nunn is doggedly specific when seeking timber from renewable resources, whether it is for cabinetry or framing. The inclined ribs of 300mm x 70mm glued-laminated eco-pine are treated with a non-arsenic based preservative. The walls are clad externally with 10mm thick arsenic-free Ecoply (locally produced with a Madison oil treatment) and 10mm thick twin-walled translucent polycarbonate sheet. The polycarbonate acts as double-glazing to reduce heat loss in winter, without the weight of conventional glazing. Stretched over the conical frame is a tension membrane made of fireproof ‘Teflon’ coated fiberglass, also with a twin skin to minimize winter heat loss. A central flying mast holds this membrane taut and apart.


Forest EcoCentre View

Architect Robert Morris-Nunn has persistently explored passive and low-energy designs, and has applied his experience and skill to this hybrid building for Forestry Tasmania. ©2007 The Pook

Externally, the tension to the membrane roof is provided by an exposed system of ‘laced’ stainless steel wires in a double spiral pattern (inspired by the ‘Fibonnaci series’ spirals within a Pinus radiata cone). Rigidity is imparted to the exterior through galvanised steel strip pipes fastened at intervals of 90° to the ribs and braced with the steel tension wires that are anchored to exposed concrete footings. This lacing forms a highly aesthetic ‘corset’ that serves to constrain the ribs of the conical outer shell. Inside the rectilinear secondary three-storey structure constructed from an exposed primary frame of steel and hardwood flitch beams, laminated timber floor framing and cruciform flitch columns are the offices, including a ‘roof’ terrace.

Much like a normal office building, this internal structure has fixed glass walls. These walls are set with operable sliding glass vents that open into the forested buffer zone. Set parallel to the glass vents are panels of timber slats, for privacy from below. However, unlike most office buildings, the spaces are comfortably and naturally ventilated. Built at an equivalent cost to a more conventional building with a similar function, the Forest EcoCentre is designed to use 50% of standard operating energy. Morris-Nunn has used locally grown plantation timber for the structural components of this building, and recycled, endemic forest species for feature cabinetry, such as the reception desk, shelving, and the frames of display panels.

The life of the timbers in this building is extended with the use of non-arsenic preservatives and sealants. This practice, in addition to the planted buffer zone, serves to ensure good indoor air quality. The base of the curved internal wall is clad in the warm tones of Leatherwood, Myrtle and Tasmanian oak. Timber details are subtly employed throughout the interpretive centre, reinforcing the two central tenets of this project and its progenitors: acknowledgement of the long tradition of the timber industry in this region; and the need to responsibly and sustainably manage the production of timber and to rebuild and maintain Tasmanian forests and ecosystems.

The motivation behind this project is best summed by Robert Morris-Nunn who acknowledges ‘the future must be creating new buildings that incorporate the wonderful historic environment that we’ve inherited, along with an increasing understanding of all the environmental issues’. If these two factors can be merged, he notes, ‘then these buildings, hopefully, are going to become catalysts to show others what is possible’ (GNT Future, 23 June 2004).

The project condenses a number of design aspirations:

- the practical use of pinus radiata and sustainable softwood products;
- a desire to create a landmark with positive values for Forestry Tasmania (which faces a difficult political climate in the state);
- and the further application of sustainable passive building concepts.

As a result, Morris-Nunn has cocooned an orthogonal three-storey structure – containing offices on the upper two levels and visitors centre on the ground floor – within an inclined cone, creating a tempered internal microclimate.

Perhaps suggestive of Future Systems’ “offices in a bubble”, the experimental approach to ventilation, day lighting and air movement defines the iconic architectural character of the project. The project has enabled ideas to be tested and developed in everyday circumstances, and for forestry products to be utilized in an exemplary fashion.

The internal building contains three floors of Forestry Tasmania offices, which are not publicly accessible. The outer shell encloses the ‘greenhouse style’ interpretive centre on the ground floor, which contains displays that focus on local forest history, hardwood and softwood plantations, a café and retail outlet, and a Tasmanian Visitor Information Network (TVIN) point. The visitor moves internally through the interpretative centre in a circular, clockwise direction, from the impressive Celery Top Pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius) bench at reception, past the café, through a lit tunnel (an ecologically-based ‘animal walk’), to a series of timber framed display panels, and then back to the retail outlet at the reception point. For the visitor the journey is economical; easily navigated and repeated; informative and distinctly atypical in terms of tourist sites. Unlike the experience of most tourist buildings and interpretative centres, here the visitor is made aware of structure, environment and materials through transparency of design intent. Private and public zones are clearly articulated and very few visual clues are required to complete the journey through the interpretive centre.

Its design has been recognised through a wide range of awards for excellence in building, environmental architecture, structural innovation, and steel construction. The EcoCentre is a joint project between the (local) Dorset Council and Forestry Tasmania, and was supported by the Tasmanian State Government.

The Forest Eco Centre acts as a natural conservatory and includes innovative environmentally friendly heating and cooling systems. The structure, a unique icon for north-eastern Tasmania, houses a forestry-based interpretation centre on the ground floor and Forestry Tasmania offices on additional floors. The interpretation centre is the gateway to the north-east and east coast and provides information and interactive displays about the Tasmanian forest industry - on which the region was founded - its heritage and culture. The centre is also part of an overall forest experience. Links from the centre to North East Park encourage visitors to explore the environmental and aesthetic qualities of this natural feature, which incorporates a small rainforest walkway, natural streams and waterways, public facilities and amenities and an adjoining community pine plantation. The building’s design reflects the importance of softwood and forest-based industries in Tasmania using interactive and static displays, with associated public infrastructure amenities.

Interview with Robert Morris-Nunn from Specifier

Robert Morris-Nunn has practised in Tasmania for over 25 years, taking a special interest in the social impact of architecture. Morris-Nunn Associates recently gained critical acclaim both here and in the US and Europe for the redevelopment of the IXL warehouses on Hobart's docks (2004), and the Forest ecoCentre in Scottsdale (2003). Both designs used an ingenious encasing structure to direct air flows and moderate the thermal environment of their interiors. Robert has won numerous state and several national architectural awards; his work has been illustrated in international publications such as Architectural Review; and he has been invited to lecture at many Australian and international conferences about his work.

What future or futures do you foresee for the built world? I am a somewhat naïve optimist, so I hope a more responsible built environment happens before it is too late.

What is your greatest fear? Ongoing complacency over environmental issues.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Books are something which I can never go without.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Learning to tell stories through architecture.

What are your favourite buildings? Any building where there is both humanity and passion.

The greatest hero from the history of architecture? I prefer the humble people, so no heroes.

The dastardly villain? All the architects who have sold out to greed.

The most inspirational advance in your lifetime? A practical understanding of ecology and how the built environment can actively contribute to it.

What green building excites you the most? CH2 in Melbourne, where the degree of innovation is truly magnificent.

What is your most treasured possession? A phial of Norwegian Heavy Water, manufactured just prior to World War Two, a talisman for my own story making.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? An ongoing socially rewarding series of design challenges, with no politics attached.

City or country? I am an urban animal.

Best vista? Any view which I can look at without thinking that I have to actively respond in a design idea!

Worst blight? Unfortunately, most contemporary urban environments.

Who or what was your mentor? Glen Murcutt and Richard le Plastrier, both of whom taught at Sydney Uni when I was there as a student.

Strangest architectural experience? Having to explain to a group of Japanese aged-care experts the cultural value of a Derwent Valley hop pickers’ hut as a way of creating contentment in a nursing home I designed.

In my youth ... I almost died, and it taught me to value people from all walks of life.

What quality can Australian architects export to the world? A real belief that one can really do innovative things, a sense of sunny optimism.

What qualities do you owe to Tasmania? An understanding of cultural history.

If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? A book worm.


  Greenhouse Effect on Three Morris-Nunn Projects (639 kb)

  Forest EcoCentre (Australia) (3,826 kb)


Forestry Tasmania (Australia)

Forest EcoCentre Video Link