Famed for its appearance, the triangulated and textured façade of the 2,500m2 South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) is not just about looks. According to Adelaide architects Woods Bagot, the creative force behind the SAHMRI building, it represents an intersection between art, science and innovation.

The exterior of the structure is made of 15,000 steel-framed triangles that form a diagrid – a diagonal grid – and was designed to maximise natural daylight while minimising sun glare and energy use.

How? Through incorporated sunshades.

“They deal with sunlight, heat gain, light glare and wind noise,” architecture project director, Woods Bagot’s Anoop Menon, said.

Each triangle panel has a moulded metal point integrated into the piece that varies in width and angling depending on sun exposure. More simply, the sunshades extend out or draw back into the building as you move around the construction. They are designed to deal with the environment – and to not obscure the view or natural light for researchers within.

“Putting it all together, the geometry evolved from the ground up,” Mr Menon said.

“Because of the organic form of the object, we wanted to ensure that the building would have some symmetry from any angle.”

Affectionately branded “the pinecone”, the façade of the SAHMRI building has become a great talking point throughout the city and worldwide. It was named Highly Commended in the 2014 World Architecture News Awards Façade Category with judge Renato Benedetti commenting that the exterior made the building “significantly more interesting”.

The design of the façade alone took almost one whole year of the five-year project.

“Very loosely it is inspired by the organic nature of nature,” Mr Menon said.

“A lot of [seed] shells have that sort of form… we were trying to get that organic nature and sculptural quality as well as something that works.

 “We thought about what is the best way considering the environmental considerations and did some parametric modelling.”

This modelling process – using cutting-edge RHINO and Grasshopper computer-aided design software – found a key balance between the two cornerstones of architecture: form and function. Using the software, the triangle sunshade forms were reduced from 300 variations to just 20 across all 15,000 panels – fewer styles allow for necessary diversity to accommodate shape and orientation of the building while facilitating a more streamlined production.

The triangles themselves are made of various materials: glass, steel mesh and aluminium. The fabrication correlates with the positioning; the “write-up area” – where researchers work on concept planning and analysis – calls for more daylight and unobstructed views to promote creativity and free-thinking. Meanwhile, the services area that supports the laboratory models is on the western side of the building, protecting the majority of workers from peak afternoon heat gain.

Having a blank canvas on the prominent site in the north east of Adelaide’s Central Business District provided the team with a huge opportunity – and equally significant responsibility – to set the tone of the precinct.

Further, they had to consider the imminent arrival of the New Royal Adelaide Hospital, which didn’t have a design at the time of starting.

SAHMRI Project Director Michelle Gheorgiu said there were a lot of challenges but the extensive network of designers, engineers, contractors and planners had met and exceeded expectations.

“Normally a project will have a clear brief but in this case it was very fluid… the sky was the limit,” Ms Gheorgiu said.

“There’s innovation and ingenuity across all disciplines.”

Ms Gheorgiu said the façade epitomised the building’s expression toward revitalising the city’s west end and impacted on the architectural landscape of Adelaide since its opening in November 2013.

But the importance of the Institute’s exterior is much more personal.

“The project team actually achieved one of the main philosophies of SAHMRI; to demystify research,” she said.

“Hence the façade from the eastern side becomes transparent at night so the community can see the research that happens.”

There were two main sources of architectural inspiration for the $200 million project: the link to nature due to the close proximity of parklands to the east, and SAHMRI’s own core value of collaboration.

 “Collaboration was the key for us, as was SAHMRI’s vision for the project. They want to be the headquarters of research for the whole of South Australia,” Mr Menon said.

“Everyone really is proud to have worked on it, it’s not just one vision.”

Moreover, the team set – and achieved – the goal to acquire a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental design) rating, recognising the building’s environmentally responsible design and construction practices. It is the first laboratory building in Australia to obtain the prestigious green building rating.

Candice Keller is a writer for The Lead South Australia