Opening of SDE4, an inventive educational architecture

1st Quarter 2019

Opening of SDE4, an inventive educational architecture

April 30, 2019

The new National University of Singapore (NUS), School of Design & Environment 4 (SDE4), the first net-zero energy building of its kind, opened in Singapore in January 2019. The building, a prototype of sustainable design, combines a stringent net-zero target and a revalidated grammar of tropical architecture. It is a 8,500-square-metre, six-storey, multi-disciplinary space that is located on a hillock near the southern coastline of Singapore.

SDE4 is a new addition to the Design & Environment zone and is part of a larger campus redevelopment. The building includes more than 1,500 square metres of design studio space; a 500-square-metre open plaza; a wide variety of public and social spaces; workshops and research centres; a café; and a library. The building has a flexible design with high efficiency—most of the rooms are designed in a variety of sizes to allow for an adaptable rearrangement of layout for exhibitions, school-specific installations and future change of use.

Adaptable rearrangement of layout in the interior spaces


Lam Khee Poh, dean of SDE, explained, “Buildings are not isolated entities in their own context. They form an environment, a precinct or a neighbourhood that supports community activities, which is crucial for educational institutions. Our students and faculty get the opportunity to learn both inside and outside the classroom, and be engaged in an integrated process of designing, developing, constructing and operating state-of-the-art buildings that will, in turn, influence them to adapt their own behaviour when they occupy it.”

Awarded to Serie + Multiply Architects with Surbana Jurong through an international design competition in 2013, the building was envisioned as a porous architecture structured as a juxtaposition of ‘platforms and boxes’, expressing its programmatic content. Christopher Lee, principal, Serie Architects, shared, “One of our ambitions when we started the project was to challenge the notion that a high energy-efficient building has to be opaque. Therefore, the completed building is incredibly open. This is where I think it is successful: it is able to reduce its energy demand, but at the same time, doesn’t end up being a solid building. SDE4’s large platforms are configured in a way that promotes interaction and visual connectivity. We envisioned transparent volume where the outside and inside spaces are ambiguous; where nature and landscape play an important role as the backdrop to the building.”

Tropical architecture

This design carries the principles of vernacular tropical architecture in Southeast Asia. More than 50 per cent 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 spaces interspersed between cooled volumes benefit from cross ventilation, acting as thermal buffers/social spaces that emulate the signature tropical verandas. The architecture is punctuated by an alternation of terraces, landscaped balconies and informal spaces. There are no formal boundaries between the spaces to study, work and socialise.

Erik L’Heureux, vice dean, Special Projects, SDE, commented, “SDE4 represents a ‘scaffold’ for learning, teaching and research designed for the 21st-century university. Not only does it envision how we teach today, but it also paves the way we might teach in the future.” The interstitial space between the inner and outer skins on the east and west façade is, for instance, designated for research. In these areas, elements of the façade can be dismantled and replaced with new systems depending on the school’s research needs. Therefore, the building serves as a canvas for test-bedding and developing relevant Green building technology, becoming, in effect, a living laboratory.

Circulation corridors and straight flight staircases link and penetrate these volumetric platforms, allowing spaces to bleed from one learning and research space to another, thereby broadcasting a collaborative nature of design. The large over-sailing roof protrudes along the south elevation embedding a tropical portico, which is built around existing mature trees. This openness allows spaces to flow freely across the envelope of the building, bringing the surrounding landscape into close proximity with the interior spaces and vice versa. The east and west façades are designed as a veil, an aluminium curtain that filters sunlight and emphasises a connection to the surroundings.

The south gardens are integral to the pedagogical experience of the building. Designed as a natural purification system, the landscape improves water quality while encouraging lifestyle activities and teachings around water. Runoff from the roof and hardscape is cleansed by passing through soil, which removes sediments and soluble nutrients. Nearly 50 per cent of the selected plants are native species and most are from the southern tropics, a choice that also provides opportunities for environmental education. The building has a strong biophilic component in the deliberate use of the raw and natural characteristics of materials like steel, perforated metal and concrete. As a result, the finished concrete surfaces are distinctive; some columns resemble marble, and all possess a tactile quality that enhances the materiality of the architecture.

Health and wellbeing

The building is designed to be climate-responsive with net-zero energy consumption—it features a range of sustainable design attributes and more than 1,200 solar photovoltaic panels on its rooftop. SDE4 exceeds standards of health and wellbeing, creating new avenues for delivering comfort in the tropics. Embracing an innovative hybrid cooling system designed by Transsolar KlimaEngineering, rooms are supplied with 100 per cent fresh pre-cooled air, albeit at higher temperatures and humidity levels than in a conventional system, which is augmented with an elevated air speed by ceiling fans. This cool circulating air creates a comfortable condition in a high energy-efficient system.

Giovanni Cossu, senior manager, SDE, explained, “The main story of SDE4 is how we progress to net zero through design. During this process, the building has demystified the general perception of spatial quality, comfort and cost for sustainable buildings. SDE4 changes the argument that Green buildings cost more; rather, it has limited or no extra cost compared to similar, industry- standard models. Preliminary results of subjective surveys completed by occupants show high levels of user acceptance of the environmental conditions offered by the building. In doing this, SDE4 speaks to multiple audiences: occupants and users, policymakers and developers.”

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