Abbotsleigh Research Centre

The strongly timber-influenced research centre was the first stage in a strategic master plan by architects Johnson Pilton Walker to guide development on the school’s 10 ha site.
Project Name
Abbotsleigh School for Girls, Wahroonga, North Sydney
Case Study Type
Photographer Details
Brett Boardman Sourced by arrangement from timber DESIGN magazine


Architects JPW were commissioned by Abbotsleigh School for Girls to develop a strategic master plan to guide future development of its 10 ha site. The research centre was stage one, establishing design and quality precedents to inspire and inform future phases.

The siting and scale of the new building refer to the historic pattern of development along the Pacific Highway, that forms the northern boundary to the site. As Sydney expanded in the mid to late 19th century, significant family houses, set in large landscaped gardens were established along the principal roads linking outlying settlements to the city centre. While many were later subdivided, Wahroonga retained its native bushland character.

The research centre, located between two 1920s houses, responds to the geometry, scale, material, siting and landscape character of the heritage structures and creates a contemporary language of its own.

The building provides a range of new facilities for students and staff, including a library with integrated study and teaching spaces, dedicated archives and storage spaces and a significant new outdoor social and teaching area that has become the focus of the campus.



The project has three levels - classrooms at the lowest overlooking the oval, a new 'town square' and library entrance at mid-level and the library and research facilities on the upper level. The special sequence is carefully modulated to create a range of spaces and vistas.

A wide set of brick and paved stairs, extending into the building from the external teaching court, reinforces the structure's relationship to site and blurs the definition of the outside and in.

At the upper level the building wraps around a large Sydney blue gum, creating a shaded outdoor court and breakout space. The building links to an existing classroom structure through a new pedestrian bridge, accessing an extend range of facilities.

The design sets out the school's book collection in a series of timber and metal structures that define the primary structural and architectural grid of the building. Support facilities such as staff rooms and computer areas are located in smaller pavilions each side of the central hall. A series of curved timber 'clouds' floating over the entrance stairs control vistas into the main internal space from the mid-level entrance and act as acoustic baffles.



Timber is used extensively. Paired laminated beams spanning 12 m supporting the roof of the main hall are clearly expressed and establish the primary rhythm of the space. To the east and south, large glazed facades are framed and supported by a combination of laminated and solid timber framing, in an irregular and lyrical pattern.

Although the geometry of the main space is rigorous and orthogonal, the architects have combined the timber elements to create an unexpected and relaxed quality - making the building quite unlike any of the others on the site, or any other educational buildings.

The direct expression of material and structure and the extensive use of solid, laminated and veneered timbers combine to create a rich, legible and varied material expression that is clearly contemporary.

Wood products include: laminated Tasmanian oak beams and columns, Tasmanian oak window frames, joinery veneer and edging, blackbutt decking and flooring, Tasmanian oak veneer acoustic 'clouds'.

The building is environmentally responsible through the use of low embodied energy materials, natural ventilation, recycling of stormwater and maximising entry of natural light to work and study spaces.


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