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Lessons earned: fabric’s response to drought

Case Studies, Exteriors | May 1, 2012 | By:

The language of shelter and sustainability frames a grammar school courtyard.

As part of a campuswide redevelopment of Melbourne Girls’ Grammar School, the Wildfell middle school building seeks to create a rich learning environment for middle year children on a dense suburban site in South Yarra on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. Designed by Sally Draper Architects (SDA), the Wildfell forms the heart of a sophisticated school complex with a strong environmental sustainability program that integrates indoor and outdoor learning spaces.

Because the facility was designed during one of the country’s most devastating droughts, it is understandable that water and its conservation would be paramount in the client’s mandate for the new development. Responding to that mandate, SDA, working with Oasis Tension Structures (Australia) Pty Ltd, designed a lightweight tensioned fabric structure that provides shade and a sense of enclosure while simultaneously contributing to the sustainability goals.

The structure’s offset inverted fabric cone helps gather rainwater in its giant funnellike form and directs it to enormous reservoirs buried deep beneath the courtyard’s landscaped gardens, which is then used to water the plants to ensure survival. Water collected flows along the tensioned tie-down cables of the inverted cone into the reservoirs, producing a drumming sound on the fabric roof and a vortex of rushing water on the cables—a symphony of sight, sound and atmosphere on display during rainstorms.

To minimize impact on the delicate landscape, the fabric structure is supported by only two canted mast supports at one side of the rectangular canopy and the main building façade at the other side making the structure appear to float above the space. The crisscrossing tie-down cables of the inverted cone stiffen and stabilize the structural assembly and express the dynamic forces at play.

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