3XN’s Fred Holt on why buildings need to be beautiful, sustainable and perform well

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Fred Holt, partner in charge of 3XN, one of the most exciting architectural studios in the world, explained some of his firm’s sustainability philosophy in relation to AMP Capital’s Quay Quarter Tower, when he spoke at Tomorrowland19.


The old AMP Centre at 50 Bridge St, which dates back to 1976, is a good example of how “constraint” can inform design, Holt said.

There are a couple of catch phrases that turn up time and again when partners from Danish architectural firm 3XN talk publicly about their work.

“Architecture shapes behaviour; constraints inform the architecture,” is one of them.

Fred holt Tomorrowland19
Fred Holt demonstrated that creativity and sustainability can be catalysed by constraint

“There is no waste in nature so why do we have it in the building industry?” is another, coined by Kasper Guldager Jensen, founder of the firm’s innovation arm, GXN.

Together, they sum up a great deal of the philosophy that drives 3XN, which designed the revamp of AMP Capital’s 50-storey skyscraper, Quay Quarter Tower (QQT), in Sydney’s harbour precinct.

The international firm – which is based in Copenhagen but has smaller offices in Stockholm and New York, and a “pop-up” office in Sydney – is known for redefining how buildings can influence our well-being, and how we live and work. 

With a staff that includes engineers, graphic designers, urban planners, programmers, and even a psychologist and anthropologist, 3XN is considered one of Europe’s most inventive architectural practices. 

The 3XN team came up with a design that tapped into its nine-point philosophy of creating “social synergy” for a building’s inhabitants.

With a strong emphasis on sustainability and the circular economy, it has thought deeply about how to create new materials, how to use old materials in new or renovated buildings, and how to reduce waste throughout the entire building process.

Partner in charge, Fred Holt, explained some of this philosophy in relation to QQT, when he spoke at Tomorrowland19.

The old AMP Centre at 50 Bridge St, which dates back to 1976, is a good example of how “constraint” can inform design, Holt said.

AMP Centre, outlined in red

The original building had settled over the years “and that means it has dropped and [and that] meant we had to graft on some new structures and, architecturally, there were some issues” such as the movement of the new floor plate versus the old floor plate, he said.

Thinking about the user experience first, the 3XN team came up with a design that tapped into its nine-point philosophy of creating “social synergy” for a building’s inhabitants, things such as open space, space that workers can share, space that is comfortable and stimulating, and that can be adapted to different uses over time.

For example, internal staircases aren’t just connections between floors, they help people meet each other, acting as a “catalyst” for social interaction.

Buildings that “perform”

Connection to and interaction with green space and areas outside a building is also important, Holt said. The podium below the QQT, for example, will have a large garden, and wide, flowing steps and escalators leading to the surrounding street life.

3XN’s design for the planned revamp of the Sydney Fish Markets, at Blackwattle Bay, incorporates the market into the local community and links it to public foreshore land, in comparison with the current building that blocks foreshore access, is hard to access on foot, and is surrounded by ugly road overpasses.

Holt said the design for the fish market illustrates the idea that buildings shouldn’t just look good, they should “perform”.  It’s undulating roof – somewhat unkindly dubbed a “mattress topper” by one wag – blocks direct sunlight while still allowing light into the open space below. 

It also collects rainwater that is re-used on site, and provides natural ventilation. 

It has a modular construction, which reduces waste, and it has been designed to find the “sweet spot” for the installation of photovoltaics.

“We say it looks like a sustainable roof,” Holt said. “It is performing and that’s what’s important.”

Disassemble, don’t demolish

With all its designs, 3XN aims to minimise waste. “We try to create a circular economy from a linear economy,” Holt said, such as taking a waste stream from one industry and turning it into a viable material for another sector.

Designing for disassembly: here you cannot tell if the structure is being constructed or taken apart.

Modular designs also feature regularly so that buildings can be re-arranged in various ways, and easily disassembled, and individual parts re-used.

We need to start thinking about demolition sites as disassembly sites rather than as rubble sites. 

The best technology is the kind you can’t see.

We also need to re-use much more of the material that comes from building and demolition sites. In Denmark, in the demolition process, about 89 per cent of concrete by volume is repurposed as road fill, Holt said. 

However, that represents only 2 per cent of the value of that volume. 

“Concrete can be sold as road fill for $6 a metric tonne, but the inherent value is much higher. We need to recycle value not just volume, that is quite important.”

Technology is playing an important role in sustainable design but according to Holt the best technology is the kind you can’t see. 

Passive design, for instance, is being increasingly relied upon instead of engineered solutions to solve problems such as heating and cooling. For example, there is an international shift away from floor-to-ceiling glass, and to facades that create shade.

Tenants and leasing agents can drive demand for these features, instead of accepting more of the same kind of design we already see in our cities.

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