Quay Quarter Tower

The Sydney office building implementing circular design on a mammoth scale

November 23rd, 2020

With the majority of CBDs around the world already built out, Quay Quarter Tower offers a world-first blueprint for the circular redesign of our cities.

“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same,” says Chris Nunn, Head of Sustainability, Real Estate at AMP Capital, when we called him to discuss an ambitious new office-development in Sydney’s Circular Quay. These words, taken from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard, capture the essence of what the Quay Quarter Tower project aims to achieve.

In collaboration with Danish architecture firm 3XN/GXN, Arup engineers and Multiplex builders, AMP Capital has undertaken one of the biggest building upcycling projects ever attempted. The project applies the circular design principle of reuse on a massive scale. Due to be delivered in early 2022, the 49-story building will be comprised of open-plan offices, flexible spaces and a retail precinct designed to provide exceptional amenity to building occupants. The Tower is part of the Quay Quarter Sydney neighbourhood comprising two city blocks in Circular Quay; the second of which is a mixed-use block called Quay Quarter Lanes. By re-using resources from the existing structure and retaining much of its internal core, the project has saved over 7,500 tonnes of CO2. That saving is equivalent to the carbon that would be produced over two and a half years of operating the building.

Everything about Quay Quarter Tower is revolutionary. From the easy-to-disassemble floors right down to the retail and dining precinct’s Market Hall where the only rubbish receptacles will be compost and CDS bins. The project has demanded creativity and flexibility on the part of all involved and proves that circular buildings work at scale.

We sat down with AMP Capital’s Chris Nunn and 3XN architect Fred Holt to talk about changing the way we produce and consume so that we can continue to enjoy the lifestyles we’ve become accustomed to, without putting undue pressure on our planet.


Chris Nunn is the Head of Sustainability, Real Estate at AMP Capital. “I'm a committed environmentalist in my life and it's just wonderful to have the opportunity to turn that into a career, have the ability to work with a big property portfolio and magnify the impact that I can have beyond my own personal behaviour,” Chris says. “I can attempt to influence others and outcomes at the scale of office towers and shopping centres, which is great.” Chris is responsible for optimising the energy efficiency, solar, waste, water, biodiversity, social sustainability and governance aspects of AMP Capital’s Real Estate projects.

For Quay Quarter Tower, the AMP Capital development team worked closely with architects, engineers and builders to achieve the 5.5 star NABERS energy rating and a six star Green Star design rating. “Fundamentally, it's a design that seeks to strike a difficult balance. The building faces north, is unshaded to the north, and has spectacular views,” Chris explains. From an energy-efficiency perspective, one of the biggest design challenges was figuring out how to shade the building while also optimising its impressive outlook. “That led to that beautiful vertical and horizontal shading structure,” Chris says.

The building’s clever design does not stop there. Working around the building’s existing lift core, the architects and engineers also came up with a way to extend the floorplates in all directions to create large open-plan spaces. “It's very open plan to allow the maximum degree of connectivity and interaction between the staff on those floors,” Chris says. Adding to that, “Structurally, it's just magnificent in the way that it ties the new to the old”.

Fred Holt, a partner and architect at 3XN who oversees the firm’s Sydney studio, sees these innovations as a necessary evolution of the industry. "Our industry’s emissions and energy use is substantial, and it’s our responsibility to reduce it and play our role in creating a planet that is sustainable,” he explains. “We’re also trying to eliminate as much waste in our industry as possible. There’s no waste in nature, everything is reused or transformed. We should do our best to do the same."

"At 3XN/GXN, we’re leading the charge on circular economy and research,” he adds. In addition to the Quay Quarter Tower project, the company recently completed a net zero energy research facility and a climate positive hotel in Denmark.


Even though the majority of the Sydney CBD is already built out, meaning there are few opportunities left for new builds, building upcycling is rarely attempted at this scale. The team behind Quay Quarter Tower chose to take this approach for two reasons: 1) to preserve the height of the existing structure, avoid over-shadowing the local area and de-risk the planning process; and 2) because of the sustainability benefits of keeping as much of the existing building to maximise environmental benefits.

“What’s clever about this approach, is that it has saved a lot of time relative to knocking down and rebuilding a new building. And the end product will be a global best practice office tower,” Chris says. “It's a great design, notwithstanding the design constraint of having to reuse the core, and I think that's what's so clever about it.”

All of our systems of production and consumption must change to become fully sustainable, zero carbon, zero waste, supply chain accredited with ethically sourced and sustainable materials, with zero impact, in our lifetimes. So it is a huge and radical change. But I think it will result in us keeping things pretty much the same by doing them very differently, to achieve that same level of high-quality lifestyle that we all aspire to enjoy.


So why aren’t more office towers built this way? Chris says the structural and programmatic challenges of working with an existing building are the main deterrents. “There’s the unknown of the condition of the structure,” he says. “First you have to commit to [the building], pay for it, and then strip it back and find out what have you got. And you don't really know what you've got until it's all there exposed.” An upcycling approach requires adaptability on the part of developers, architects, engineers and builders.

Chris emphasises that Quay Quarter Tower has been a true team effort. “The team has had to be creative and innovative and clever to overcome many challenges and keep the economics viable. And they have — they've delivered it,” he says. “It's on track and that’s despite complexity of what they've had to resolve. I have absolute admiration of the team.”

While the circular economy is a relatively new concept in the building industry, AMP Capital has been focused on minimising construction waste and incorporating recycled materials into their projects for a number of years. In this project, waste-reduction efforts have even made into the building’s Market Hall.

“One of the more interesting things we're doing on Quay Quarter Tower, from a waste perspective, is that the retail precinct and food court at the ground floor level will be zero waste environment,” Chris explains. Single-use plastics will be banned in this area, with cafés offering compostable alternatives. Additionally, the bins will ensure that nothing sold in the precinct goes to landfill. “The only two bins in the public places in the Quay Quarter Tower retail precinct will be organics for all the compostable packaging — knives, forks, spoons, serviettes, the packaging itself — plus food waste. And, [a bin for] container deposit scheme eligible bottles and cans. Both of those streams can achieve a 100 per cent diversion of landfill and a 100 per cent recycling rate.”

3XN is also integrating sustainability into its design process, with one example being the ‘design for disassembly’ approach taken in the Quay Quarter Tower. Design for disassembly means “to plan, as part of the design process, a building’s end of life”, Fred explains. “We design and build the majority of the building out of elements that can be reused, and or disassembled into its separate components to be repurposed or recycled, rather than sent to a landfill or sold as road aggregate in regards to concrete. This brings value to the building at the end of its life and maintains the inherent value of the materials and resources.”


The economic and environmental advantages of Quay Quarter Tower’s re-use approach are clear. “The headline circular economy piece is that by retaining the concrete core, you have massive embodied carbon saving that's equivalent to roughly two and a half years of the building's operation,” says Chris of the project’s environmental credentials. Embodied carbon refers to the total greenhouse gas emissions generated during the building process through resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation and assembly.

With new-build locations running out, Chris says the Tower acts as a blueprint for the way that we will build high-rises in the future. “This building is one of the first to have been refurbished at this scale, certainly in Sydney, and arguably the world and it’s showing the way for what will become more common in our cities. With Sydney CBD largely built out there aren't too many unconstrained building sites where you can place a new high-rise office tower. So I think there'll be a lot more consideration of the refurbishment of existing structures in future,” he says. 

Fred explains that refurbishment projects also have added benefits for cities. “In addition to being environmentally sustainable, it’s also a form of urban sustainability, as it revitalises an existing precinct with existing infrastructure; and thus, reduces the need for city expansion or sprawl,” he says. “Upcycling existing buildings then, is not only environmentally responsible, but also adds value back to existing assets and precincts."

While large-scale building upcycling is still a novel concept, Chris believes it is exactly this type of innovation that will shift our society from its unsustainable linear model to a thriving circular one. “All of our systems of production and consumption must change to become fully sustainable, zero carbon, zero waste, supply chain accredited with ethically sourced and sustainable materials, with zero impact, in our lifetimes,” he says. “So it is a huge and radical change. But I think it will result in us keeping things pretty much the same by doing them very differently, to achieve that same level of high-quality lifestyle that we all aspire to enjoy.”

AMP Capital believes this shift needs to be driven by the entire real estate industry and along with its flagship Quay Quarter development, has committed to an ambitious 2030 real estate sustainability strategy which aims to help shape a better future for the communities in which the firm operates. “If we all become very responsible corporate citizens and understand climate change, understand the impacts on biodiversity loss, on modern slavery and human impacts of supply chains, then we can solve all those problems for our consumers,” he says. “And they can enjoy the product guilt free. That's the aim.”

3XN also won the 10th International High-Rise Award for Quay Quarter Town as the world's most innovative high-rise in 2022/23, from over 1000 high-rises completed in the last two years.

Call To Action

"I want to acknowledge and helps others understand the truly heroic efforts of the Quay Quarter design and development team who are bringing this innovative project to life. This includes everyone from the architects to the engineers and the development team within AMP Capital. The collective efforts of the entire team are being shown in what is already proving to be a wonderful result for the building, its owners and the customers and community who will get to enjoy it on completion," Chris says.

"I would also like to encourage people to think boldly about the reuse of building structures, and to understand that it doesn't necessarily result in some sort of compromise versus a knockdown/rebuild situation. The product that the Quay Quarter Tower team is delivering is truly world class and once complete, it will perform as well as any new build would. We look forward to it opening in 2022 so we can see the full array of its sustainability features in action."

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