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National University of Singapore, NUS School of Design

Boasting cutting-edge skyscrapers, towering manmade gardens and a magnificent new retail and lifestyle complex at Changi Airport, Singapore has become one of Southeast Asia’s – if not the world’s – most architecturally ambitious cities. So it’s only appropriate that the latest addition to the National University of Singapore’s School of Design and Environment – already a leading proving ground for regional designers – should be equally innovative.

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SDE4 – a six-storey, 8,500-square-metre building located on a hillock on Singapore’s southern coast – is the island city state’s first new-build net-zero-energy building. Part of a larger redevelopment of the university’s campus, it was designed by Serie + Multiply Architects with Surbana Jurong, who worked hand in hand with the faculty to showcase “new forms of teaching spaces as a scaffold for research.”

SDE4, National University of Singapore, Serie + Multiply, Surbana Jurong

“Buildings are not isolated entities in their own context,” says Lam Khee Poh, dean of the School of Design and Environment, which unveiled its new facility earlier this year. “They form an environment…supporting community activities, which is crucial for all educational institutions. Our students and faculty get the opportunity to learn both inside and outside the classroom, [engaging] 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.”

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To that end, SDE4 includes more than 1,500 square metres of studio space, a 500-square-metre open plaza, a wide variety of public and social areas, a host of new workshops and research centres, a new cafe and a library. Most of the rooms are designed in a variety of sizes to allow the flexible rearrangement of layouts for exhibitions, school-specific installations and future change of use. According to Serie principal Christopher Lee, “the building was envisioned as a porous architecture structured in a juxtaposition of ‘platforms and boxes’ expressing its programmatic content.”

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“One of our ambitions when we started the project,” Lee explains, “was to challenge the notion that a high-energy-efficient building has to be very opaque. Therefore you see that the completed building is incredibly open. This is where I think it was successful: It is able to reduce its energy demand, but at the same time it doesn’t end up being a very solid building.”

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In many respects, the architecture team riffed on and contemporized Southeast Asia’s tropical vernacular. More than 50 per cent of the building’s total area, for instance, is naturally ventilated, with most of the rooms open to prevailing breezes. This means that air conditioning is used only when needed, while the spaces interspersed between cooled volumes benefit from cross ventilation, acting as thermal buffers/social spaces.

SDE4, National University of Singapore, Serie + Multiply, Surbana Jurong

The structure is punctuated, moreover, by alternating terraces, landscaped balconies and informal spaces, this juxtaposition eliminating formal boundaries between places to study, work and socialize. The south gardens are likewise integral to the pedagogical experience of the building, serving as a natural purification system (runoff from the roof and hardscaping is cleansed by passing through soil, which removes sediments and soluble nutrients) and as an example for students of a location-appropriate green space (at least 50 per cent of the on-site plants are native or tropical species).

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As mindful as the architects were of traditional elements, however, SDE4 is also decidedly modern. More than 1,200 solar photovoltaic panels sit on its roof, while parts of the east and west facades can be dismantled and replaced with new systems depending on the school’s research needs. As a result, says Erik L’Heureux, vice dean of special projects at the school, “the building serves as a canvas for test-bedding and developing relevant green building technology, becoming, in effect, a living laboratory.”

The main story of SDE4, concludes the school’s senior manager, Giovanni Cossu, is how “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, as it has limited or no extra cost compared to similar, industry-standard models.”

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