Melbourne School of Design

A world class building for educating the building professionals of the future

Irwinconsult is pleased to announce that The Melbourne School of Design was recently awarded best education structure in the world at The Structural Awards 2015. It was one of just fourteen international projects to be honoured by Institution of Structural Engineers in London, where the annual awards ceremony celebrates outstanding achievement in structural engineering.

Following an international design competition in 2009 Irwinconsult was contracted to deliver structural and civil engineering services for the project. Central to the brief was the concept that the building would itself be a case study, from which students could learn about design, structural engineering and construction.

Irwinconsult worked closely with John Wardle Architects & NADAAA to deliver on the brief, through the expression of several key structural elements within the building. Timber, steel and concrete are each designed to demonstrate their structural and material qualities: a unique structural timber roof over the central atrium, from which is suspended a three storey ‘stalactite’ containing a series of studios, a dramatic steel scissor staircase, alongside exposed in-situ concrete beams and post-tensioned slabs that allow the building to perform significant floor spans and cantilevers. The result is what the awards jury called, “a built dictionary of exposed structure”.

Fourteen awards were announced on the night, recognising all aspects of structural engineering, from bridges and stadia to innovative housing and educational buildings. The winners were drawn from nine nations across five continents.

“We are honoured to win the Education or Healthcare Award, and hope that the new building inspires many generations of students to believe in the possibilities of structural engineering” says Barry Roben, Lead Structural Engineer on Melbourne School of Design.

Built Pedagogy

A Building Designed to Teach Students about Construction and Engineering

The Melbourne School of Design was commissioned by the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning via an international design competition in 2009. The resulting building, designed by John Wardle Architects and NADAA architects in collaboration, opened to acclaim in August 2014.

A key element of the brief was “Built Pedagogy”, the concept that the building itself would teach the students about design, structure and construction. To this end, the team adopted a carefully considered program of exposing the key elements of the structure, and then introduced multiple materials and innovative structural schemes and details. The end result is a building that not only educates student architects and other construction professionals about construction, but introduces an excitement about the design possibilities of structural engineering.

Exposed Structure

The majority of the building structure comprises an exposed concrete frame, with precast columns and core walls supporting in-situ post-tensioned beams and reinforced concrete slabs. This generated the most economic outcome for the utilitarian elements of the building, forming the background against which the innovative elements were contrasted.

To speed up construction, the columns were precast in two storey heights, hence halving the required number of crane lifts. The cores were precast and stitched using ‘NMB’ couplers.

Honesty in use of materials was a core principal throughout the design. Materials were left without applied finishes where feasible, with only a clear sealer to the concrete and timber, and steel left unfinished even exposing fabrication marks on the underside of the stair.

What Can Students Learn From the Structure of MSD?

MSD-CS-What Can Students Learn

Key Innovative Features of MSD

1. Structural Timber LVL Roof

The main hall is the hub of student activity and circulation in the building. Providing a roof to this space that provides shade from the Australian sun, while allowing sufficient light to reach the floor below, was taken as an opportunity for an innovative structural solution. Rather than providing structure, ceiling, and shading as separate elements, the three were combined into one structural element that delivers all of these functions, and more.

The entire roof is constructed from Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) comprising primary base beams and secondary coffers. The LVL timber base beams span 22m across the atrium, with timber coffers spanning 6m between main beams. Beams and coffers are profiled to act as sun shading, through parametric modelling by varying the depths and spacing.

The 22m long box beams were fabricated by Timberbuilt in 63mm LVL and were bolted to steel columns. The coffers were fabricated from thinner LVL on a plywood frame, then lowered into place spanning 6m between the box beams.

The use of LVL, in place of steel structure and aluminium sun-shading, delivers a significant environmental benefit, reducing the building embodied energy and sequestering carbon. The LVL was manufactured in New Zealand from plantation grown radiata pine. The building achieved 6 Star Greenstar certification and was the first in Australia to achieve all available innovation points.

We believe this is the largest LVL roof in Australia and the only timber roof worldwide to have used a profiled structure in this manner to provide sun shading.

MSD-CS-Structural Timber LVL Roof

2. Hanging Studio

A three storey timber-clad ‘stalactite’ is suspended from the main hall roof. Framed in steel, with timber infill walls and floors, the hanging structure contains three teaching studios. For reasons of fire-rating, the studio structure is suspended from two steel trusses concealed within two of the roof base beams. These trusses and the steel hangers are protected with intumescent coating.

MSD-CS-Hanging Studio

3. Exposed Steel Y-stair

Located at the West end of the atrium the Y-Stair provides the main circulation through the teaching levels. The Y-Stair spans the width of the atrium using trusses concealed in the balustrade. It was assembled for test-fit in the factory then disassembled and transported to site. The completed Y-Stair is clad in acoustic material and timber with the soffit structure left exposed as a pedagogical device.

MSD-CS-Exposed Steel Y-stair

4. Exploring Exposed Concrete Frames

As stated above, the concrete frame is exposed throughout the project. In the library undercroft, the plastic possibilities of concrete are exploited in complex 3D forms of slab and ‘wishbone’ beams.

These beams support a landscaped berm curving over the library undercroft below, while also providing restraint to the perimeter retaining wall and allowing a continuous steel framed skylight bringing light to the ground floor and undercroft. The slab and beams were poured in-situ on faceted and curved formwork.

MSD-CS-Exploring Exposed Concrete Frames

5. 12m Steel Cantilever

Three levels of staff offices cantilever 12m over the Northern courtyard, forming a dramatic feature to the corner of the building. The cantilever is framed in steel, with diagonal hangers on each side to transfer loads back to the main building concrete frame.

The three floors each span 12m between the side frames, forming open office space. The structure was modelled using finite element software to prove a response factor lower than 8 to provide a quality environment for the occupants.

Hanger tension loads were transferred across the building at level 5, using post-tensioning tendons, to a core on the opposite side.

Once completed, the cantilever was clad with precast, followed by zinc screen. The diagonal hangers can be perceived behind the façade, giving the students clues as to the nature of the structure.

MSD-CS-12m Steel Cantilever

6. Long Span Floors (18.5m)

The requirement for a 500 seat lecture theatre in the basement and open lobby space at ground gave rise to a 18.5m span through the centre of the building. Furthermore, there was a need to transfer the columns to one side of the main hall to avoid creating a 23m span below. This was resolved using deep post-tensioned beams with two layers of tendons. The underside of these beams is exposed in the lobby between ceiling panels. A section of glass floor gives a glimpse into the main hall over.

MSD-CS-Long Span Floors


The new Melbourne School of Design was handed over to the client four months early in August 2014 and welcomed its first undergraduate students for the start of the Australian academic year in March 2015.

We at Irwinconsult hope the new building inspires many generations of students to believe in the possibilities of structural engineering.



Brookfield Multiplex

Media coverage of Melbourne School of Design:

Image and Drawing Credits in order of Appearance

Please note that images should not be used for any press purposes without prior consent.

1. Photo: Melbourne School of Design, Courtesy of John Wardle Architects; 2. Diagram: Cross Section, Irwinconsult; 3. Diagram: Exploded view of the Main Hall, Courtesy of John Wardle Architects and NADAAA in collaboration; 4. Photo: Diagram: Section through typical box beam, Irwinconsult; 5. Photo: Coffer, Irwinconsult; 6. Photo: Steel framed hanging studio, Irwinconsult; 7. Photo: Y-Stair assembled for test fit, Courtesy of Aus Iron; 8. Photo: Y-Stair, Courtesy of John Wardle Architects; 9. Photo: Exploring Exposed Concrete Form, Courtesy of Glenn Hester; 10. Photo: 12m Steel Cantilever, Courtesy of John Wardle Architects; 11. Photo: Exposed soffit of long span floors, Courtesy of Glenn Hester; 12. Diagram: Long Section, Courtesy of John Wardle Architects and NADAAA in collaboration.



For more information, please contact Barry Roben on +61 (0)3 9622 9700.


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