The Beehive


Prue Roscoe

In Surry Hills, New South Wales, Australia, Raffaello Rosselli has collaborated with Luigi Rosselli Architects to design the studio’s new office.

Af Elliott Webb

Commercial office towers and apartment buildings occupy one of the largest infrastructural markets in Australia, contributing to the construction industry’s near 50% share of Australia’s waste production. Each building’s energy footprint is largely based on the materials’ embodied energy. The architects’ collaboration on a site tucked between an area of both suburban terrace houses and two-story warehouses sought to resolve these issues through an often-overlooked approach of material reuse; the studios’ planning and the creation of a unique brise-soleil system has remedied both environmental impacts — of construction waste and embodied energy — through an efficient, beautiful and considered design approach based on the act of making.

The project was borne out of an in-depth study of material waste streams. The studios looked for an appropriate object to adapt for a brise-soleil that would filter the harsh western sunlight on the main façade; given its context, this was ultimately the spatial catalyst for a typical building site with limited room for architectural merit and ingenuity. Some of the design challenges from Australia’s harsh western light are not only finding a material to design a heat-diffusing façade, but also allowing in as much diffuse light as possible. The humble terracotta roof tile was appealing through its crude materiality, its relationship to the surrounding context and the varied results from being cast in clay and fired by hand. As an often-overlooked symbol of suburbia, its commonality means that it is easily sourced, but lacks an adequate reuse market. While tiles are collected out of manufacture, newer tiles have no market value and find their way to landfill. Beyond this, it is an object akin to a brick, modular and bound through a variety of aggregative methods: some rough and rudimentary, others explorative and stylized.

Taking this well-known yet ubiquitous waste product, the terracotta roof tile, a rigorous and explorative approach to sustainability and design has subsequently resulted in a beautifully complex brise-soleil façade that defines the building more commonly known as The Beehive. The unique and untested material required the team of architects to open up an intuitive form of designing through the act of making. The tile’s geometric complexity called for multiple full-scale tests and hand-built prototypes to inform the final design. The object was revealed to be flexible in order to achieve multiple objectives, where each tile course was placed based on its function.

The acute course was used at the bottom due to its construction strength as well as its tendency to obscure the solid spandrel panels beyond. The equilateral tiles allowed for eye-level vistas inside the building, reducing visual obstructions. The diagonal tiles were used at the upper datum of each level due to their low clearance and were angled north for tempering the light and controlling heat intake. This final layer also took on the curve of the building’s desired form, which linked with its misaligned neighbors and allowed the paperbark tree (Melaleuca) to unite with the stepped-back form of the building.

This varying complexity of tile placement hides the concrete construction beyond, reducing the building’s perceived height and allowing the façade to be read as a single connected geometry.

Retaining the feeling of the two-story warehouses to the south, which articulate hidden floor levels and a setback upper story, the building’s primary gestures came through a consideration of its immediate contextual setbacks and heights. A curved awning at street level casts a generous interface with the street, mimicking the paperbark tree that encroaches on the site and bridging a connection with the brise-soleil façade with the entrance. Internally the building houses, amongst other commercial spaces, a light-filtered architecture studio designed as an environment to stimulate creativity and teamwork. To combat the generic and often alienating nature of open-plan office buildings with limited access to natural light, the design seeks to provide an active space with opportunities for more intimate arrangements. Multiple working positions are offered through the custom-built joinery, which was largely repurposed from the former studio — another element of upcycling in this project.  The eight-meter floor span frees the space from being closed in by columns or thicker slabs and load-bearing walls; rather it is defined by two linear rows of semi-enclosed booths, with two desks allocated to each architect, linked by a long linear standing beach for collaborative work.

With the servicing allocated to one side of the building, the space directs itself more openly and naturally towards the beautiful western light and the terracotta brise-soleil that tempers it. On the top floor is a communal garden terrace for the occupants’ use. Below this level, a conference table is semi-enclosed by a terracotta tile bookshelf, showcasing a variation of the stacked module for interior use.

This collaborative project by Raffaello Rosselli and Luigi Rosselli Architects conveys a public demonstration for the possibility to reuse waste products from the construction process and discover new ways to harness their inherent, raw beauty. Beyond the ingenuity of the terracotta tile reuse for its street interface and brise-soleil system, the building responds and offers a beautiful form within its tight constraints. It mimics other pocket openings at street level, offering intimate and tactile spaces to engage the public. Its internal planning makes the best of what the site could offer and fosters a creative and adaptable working space. With unique and tempered internal lighting, it does not rely on expensive and scarce materials to define its value, but rather the simplicity of astute spatial planning, visible detailing and an aesthetic celebration of adapting an unpolished symbol of suburbia.