What do you get when you cross architectural ambition with modest sustainable technology? Midtech? Hippy style? Funky neo-vernacular? Well, all that and more if you visit Thurgoona, the Charles Sturt University (CSU) Campus just north of Albury NSW.

Thurgoona CSU front garden

A truly sustainable network of buildings, it is an exercise in combining historic and innovative design strategies to produce a delightful low impact learning campus. The eclectic character is a consequence of the design intent – low impact architecture leads to high impact design.

The design and construction of the Campus on the 87 Ha greenfield site on the northern edge of Albury-Wodonga took place over a 10-year period from 1996. CSU’s architect and head of the Office of Design, Marci Webster Mannison proposed three key guiding principles; low energy consumption, responsible resource management, and minimal environmental impact. Very appropriate for a School of Environmental and Information Sciences.

Achieving this involved a collaborative effort from a wide range of consultants, including Advanced Environmental Concepts (Che Wall) and local firm Branco Boilers and Engineering, both engaged from the early stages of the project’s development in ‘think-tank’ meetings.

Guidelines were developed so that detailed environmental principles could be carried through from first principles. The structures follow an east-west axis, maximising the opportunity to harness the highs and lows of the northern sun while avoiding thermal gain from hot summer afternoons. It also takes advantage of the sloped site to allow for water management throughout the site so that buildings wrap around a central valley and wetlands where water is drained and partly treated.

Thurgoona CSU interior rammed earth walls

A major focus for this green design is the lowering of embodied energy, achieving less than half of what you might expect from a university building. How did they get there? One method was preferencing locally sourced earth for rammed earth walls with minimal cement for stabilisation over reinforced concrete.

These 300-600mm walls, blushing pink and yellow, are an excellent example of sustainable design techniques that aren’t simply ‘tacked on’ but are a fundamental characteristic of the composition. They curve organically across the site, embedded with graded waves consequent of the ramming process, playfully scattered with small cubes of stained glass – natural light harnessed at every opportunity.

Recycled materials were used where possible, mainly for its timber construction. The truss work across larger spanning spaces is of plantation softwood. All other timber construction involved locally sourced recycled timber, one factor that slowed the project’s construction.

Operational cost was another opportunity for energy savings, in this case roughly 60 percent. This is achieved through smart use and recycling of water, and ventilation. From the street, jutting out from the roofline, are a series of thermal chimneys – a much more pleasant way to read the ventilation strategy of a building than the HVAC units typically scattered across college walls. Here, low level louvres and openings on these chimney’s allow for stack effect ventilation, controlled through a centralised building management system.

Thurgoona CSU landscape

Not all strategies are so digital, lo-fi solutions often satisfy. Appropriate eaves on the northern facade shading the north in summer, allowing winter sun in to warm the thermal mass of the rammed earth walls and concrete slabs. Smaller windows with deep reveals of corrugated iron jut out across the northern faces. Soft daylight penetrates deep into the building from south-facing clerestory windows. The result is a series of naturally lit spaces that minimise the need for mechanical lighting – yet another operational cost saved.

Thurgoona utilises innovative techniques for thermal comfort: solar panels heavily populate its north facing roofs to assist in heating and cooling via insulated water storage tanks. Hot and cold water runs through polyethylene coils in the concrete slabs, controlled by the building management system to heat and cool the thermal mass. The ceiling slab soffits are ribbed, increasing their surface area to maximise this thermal transfer.

Thurgoona CSU solar panels

Perhaps more off-piste are the off-grid solutions of stormwater and sewer. The ‘Clivus Multrim’ composting method is utilised for sewage: waste from bathrooms is deposited into composting chambers, where it is naturally dried and eventually removed to be used as fertiliser.

Thurgoona CSU form

Charles Sturt University’s Thurgoona campus is a striking example of multi-layered green principles applied to a single complex. Its varied faces are a consequence of many low-impact considerations carried through from conception, construction to use. It doesn’t touch the earth lightly – it is in and off the earth.



Researched and written by Jackson Birrell, an AAA volunteer, edited by Tone Wheeler for the Australian Architecture Association. For more information on the AAA and its activities to promote architecture, go to https://www.architecture.org.au/