Sailing to sustainability

Talk of sustainability in architecture evokes images of Masdar City, and 'green' initiatives.

The buildings are designed to appear as boats
The buildings are designed to appear as boats

James Boley investigates a sustainable housing development in Malaysia from Studio Nicoletti Associati.

Talk of sustainability in architecture evokes images of LEED, Masdar City, and 'green' initiatives in the UAE and USA.

In such a climate, it is easy to forget that sustainable development needs to transcend national boundaries and that initiative to reduce carbon emissions need to be made across the world.

Yet, some 5,500km away from the headline-hitting Masdar City, an Italian architect is helping a new residential complex lead the way for sustainable development in Southeast Asia.

Putrajaya, a city located 30km to the south of Kuala Lumpur, was built in 1995 to become the new administrative capital of Malaysia.

Recently, Rome-based architects Studio Nicoletti Associati won a competition to design Precinct 4, a new residential estate for the garden city, which was inspired by local culture and landscape, as well as the increasing global demand for environmentally sound designs.

A unique location

Putrajaya itself forms an interesting canvas on which to build.

The city was formed by flooding a palm plantation to create an artificial lake with several islands.

It was from this lakeside landscape that architect Manfredi Nicoletti drew inspiration for the design of Precinct 4.

"Designing an iconic residential development for Putrajaya requires a rethink to what makes Putrajaya unique in the context to the world," says Nicoletti.

"The building should have a uniqueness that tells of its place of origin which is culturally modern, Islamic and tropical in nature."

"This group of houses is on the artificial lake, so we conceived a complex of elements like a fleet, each one inspired by a boat," explains Nicoletti.

The eight buildings that make up the housing complex resemble the sails of ships at sea.

Similarly, each level of the sail-shaped buildings is designed to mimic the deck of a ship.

The structural frame is a series of double-pillars linked to each other at the summit, similar to the transversal frames of a boat.

The double-pillars create an ogival shape, which converge on the line of the 'keel' at the summit.

Islamic design elements were also included to appeal to Middle Eastern and Asian investors.

The ogival arches are themselves an Islamic design feature.

"Imagine an upside-down 'V' and then curve the sides, then you have this type of Islamic arch, almost like a Gothic arch," says Nicoletti.

While each building resembles a sail, they also draw influence from traditional Islamic designs.

"The silhouette of each 'building-ship' resembles that of Islamic mosque domes from the architecture of the Arabian Peninsula and Moghul India."

Soulful structure

The buildings are elevated on a podium, which acts as a linked walkway and covered canopy to the individual buildings.

The free space below is designed to incorporate retail space, utilities, healthcare and recreational facilities.

According to Nicoletti, this is important for giving the development a 'soul'.

"In order to create something that will bring life to the area, public activities need to be located at ground and above ground levels," he says.

"This approach takes precedents from other similar developments around the world."

Sustainable sails

Sustainable design played a key role in the winning bid from Studio Nicoletti Associati and Malaysian architects Hijjas Kasturi Associates, who provided the masterplan of Putrajaya.

"I think that our design, at least from a symbolic point of view and a sustainable point of view, was considered the best," says Nicoletti.

As yet, Studio Nicoletti has not sought any form of green building accreditation such as LEED or BREEAM, but Nicoletti argues that extreme climates can beget sustainable designs.

As an example, he cites the design of a previous project in Kazakhstan-the Astana Concert Hall-which required a comfortable building despite a temperature that fluctuates from -40°C in winter to 40°C in summer.

Extensive experience in extreme climates led to a wealth of information on how to make buildings more efficient.

Nicoletti personally has thirty years of experience in 'bioclimatic architecture'-architecture designed to respond positively to the environment, rather than challenge it-which helped inform the design of Precinct 4.

"We have adopted a lot of bioclimatic experience in order to protect from the sun and heat," he insists.

"For example, each apartment has at least two terraces on either side of the building and everything is protected by sunshaders."

Skin deep

The design of the buildings aims to conserve the amount of energy used by inhabitants, and plans to incorporate alternative energy sources in the complex are currently in place.

Combined, the amount of CO2 emissions from the estate aims to be 50% lower than that of comparable residences.

A double skin façade of aluminium and prefabricated concrete elements provides plenty of opportunities to install solar shaders.

In addition to the brise-soleils, the double skin comprises of both an open façade and an internal sealed façade.

Vertical elements in the open façade provide shading when solar angles are low, whilst the horizontal balconies have been sized and positioned to provide shading when solar angles are high.

These passive shading elements provide a balance between retaining a good level of daylight and providing attractive views, whilst reducing the heating effect created by the harsh local climate.

Meanwhile, semi-reflective glazing prevents excessive light and heat entering the building.

This helps maintain the nautical theme of the exterior design.

"From the inside of each flat is an extraordinary sense of being completely surrounded by water," says Nicoletti.

Natural ventilation is also possible as the outer skin is unsealed. Mixed-mode ventilation offers the opportunity to reduce the building's dependence on artificial cooling.

Comprising functioning windows and user-operated switches to adjust centralised air-conditioning in the units, the system allows occupants to choose between natural air and mechanically cooled air.

The domed 30m elevations of each building have been earmarked for meeting places and roof gardens, both of which incorporate plenty of open air space.

Moreover, brise-soleils are used to reduce the amount of solar gain.

"You have a very pleasant shadow on the top and at the same time you can see an artificial lake and the surroundings, but you're protected from direct sun," says Nicoletti.

Perhaps more striking than the form of the buildings is their sustainable design-an element that was not a design requirement in the initial brief.

"Each ‘sail' building expresses something magic, exclusive, exceptional and iconic," says Nicoletti.

"[Sustainability] is not something the client requested. [But] this is what we do in every design we make."

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