Press Release

The backyard invention holding up Sydney’s new structural icon.

February 02, 2015

When internationally-acclaimed architect Frank Gehry surveyed his newest creation at its official opening in Sydney this month, perhaps even he didn’t know the innovation responsible for keeping this engineering marvel standing tall was conceived in a suburban garage.

As one of the most talked-about buildings ever constructed in Sydney, the University of Technology, Sydney’s new Business School, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building – with its rippling façade and angled columns – has been referred to as a “cluster of tree houses” and a “crumpled paper bag”, dividing opinion like much of Gehry’s work.

For AECOM’s team, who provided a range of services for the project – including as brickwork structural engineer and services engineers – the building’s unique masonry façade, contorting and twisting in a three-dimensional plane for the full height of the 14-storey structure, created structural engineering challenges requiring innovative solutions.

AECOM’s Building Structures Lead Stephen Giblett said Gehry’s unconventional design necessitated an unconventional approach to the construction and support of the brick façade, an approach that has now set a precedent for future architectural design.

“There is no building in the world that has bricks like this”, Giblett said.

“They are completely unique and were invented specifically for this project. Without this innovation – and the brick support system, which we liken to the ‘Ben Lexcen winged keel’ of the project – the project would not have been viable.”

In collaboration with UTS and the brick supplier, AECOM’s Technical Director – Buildings and Structures, Ken Morkaya, developed a unique brick, tie, mortar and backing system that solved the load, constructability and complex geometrical issues, keeping the façade bricks in place.

“I worked in my garage for many hours on different ways to ensure the brick design would work,” said Morkaya.

“The brick wall steps out at over 27 degrees in some places and standard construction with existing available tie systems proved woefully inadequate. Mock-up testing showed that the brick wall would collapse and become unstable after just four courses with wet mortar were applied.”

“The tie system I developed enabled the brick wall to be built traditionally with up to 10 courses of wet mortar, the standard for normal masonry construction. The key innovation was a clip and tie system that held the bricks in place during construction while also providing the necessary tolerance to enable the complex curved geometry to be achieved.”

“UTS then carried out extensive testing of the mortar, ties, bricks and full wall height mock-up panels with load and strain gauges. This enabled confidence in the system to be achieved before full scale construction commenced.”

Mr Giblett said bricklayers working on the building had gone back to being the grand masons of centuries past to create something beautiful, with many calling their involvement in the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building’s construction a “career highlight”.

“One of the bricklayers even has a tattoo on his arm of the bricks, which shows the pride they have in what they’ve achieved, and which results in the building’s defining characteristic,” Mr Giblett said.

Turning heads outside, glowing on the inside

It’s not just the outside of the Dr Chau Chak Wing building where boundaries are being pushed.

AECOM designed the building services for the project, including developing the lighting design based on a concept by L’Observatoire International to have the building glow from the inside.

AECOM worked with UTS to embed several environmentally sustainable design (ESD) features within the building, and that have resulted in the achievement of a Green Star Education 5 Star Design Rating.

One of the challenges AECOM faced in partnership with UTS was how to heat and cool the building susta…