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Tropical disposition – The Cairns Institute James Cook University


The Cairns Institute is a research facility attached to James Cook University in Queensland, an academic body that aims to become one of the world's leading research centres on the tropics. What better way to symbolise this goal than to create an eco-friendly building that embodies the spirit of the host landscape.

The brief for the Cairns Institute called for three distinctly different, but related, components, says Mark Damant, project architect for Woods Bagot, the firm that undertook the design of the facility.

"Combining private teaching, research and work areas, the institute had to offer a dynamic, contemporary working environment that would attract specialists from around the world.

"The building is formed around four main research groups and a management component. Requirements included teaching spaces of varying sizes, including a flexible 200-seat auditorium, as well as a café and expansive central foyer."

The building's architecture relates to both its setting and its use. The principle public elements are two Corten steel-clad concrete pods – one containing the auditorium, the other for multifunctional teaching spaces. Offices and research spaces are separated from these pods by the foyer, which can be accessed from two sides of the building.


However, it is the distinctive combination of a giant trellis over the Corten metal skin which gives the building its immediate wow factor.

"By super-sizing a trellis onto the building form we were able to create a design that reflects the combination of flora and ‘building' as a symbiotic relationship. The trellis as an armature allows for the ability for the building to have a direct, uncomplicated reference to the rainforest which surrounds the building on three sides. It is also intended to assist with sun control and in the future, camouflage the building within the landscape, once planted.

"In this way, the trellis becomes a place for experimentation on the building itself, creating a visual representation of its context."

The central foyer has been set up as a space between functions, much like the interstitial spaces found in living things.

First published date: 02 April 2014

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Credit List

Project The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Smithfield, Qld
Architect Woods Bagot, with lead architect Mark Damant; in collaboration with RPA Architects
Interior designers Woods Bagot, Bronwyn McColl
Construction, design manager and managing contractor Hansen Yuncken
Civil engineer Flanagan Consulting Group
Mechanical and electrical engineer, energy efficiency rating consultant Ashburner Francis
Hydraulic engineer H2O Consultants
Quantity surveyor Beacon Consulting
Landscaping Andrew Prowse Landscape Architect AV
Consultant B&H Australia
Acoustic engineer Ron Rumble Pty Ltd
DDA consultant Architecture and Access
Cladding Teaching and lecture pods are site-cast tilt-up structural concrete with bespoke Xlerplate steel screen
Roofing Trapezoidal profile Colorbond Steel in Surfmist
Facade G James aluminium-framed glazed curtain walling in 650-500 series with Eclipse Advantage grey glass
Flooring Natural finish honed concrete
Custom joinery Hoop pine and spotted gum crown-cut veneer, by Woods Bagot Fans Big Ass Fans