Designing for the tropics

Jun 1, 2011
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Designer

Woods Bagot has recently been fortunate enough to do some work in far north Queensland, the wet tropics. The work on our successful design competition for The Cairns Institute was the result of a period spent talking and thinking about what it meant to work in the tropics, and how this might influence outcomes.

At the outset of the competition we did what we normally do: research the topic and the place, see what others are doing, learn from history. But we found a scarcity of conceptual thinking and approach, and a dearth of architectural innovation in tropical architecture across Australia. Many recent projects appear to have the same author: the buildings look more or less the same, and have been designed using similar tools. This got me curious: how might ‘tropicalness’ be re-interpreted from a design perspective in order to deliver an alternative approach to tropical architecture?

We wanted to move beyond simple rainwater solutions with wide eaves and the commonplace ‘veranda, big gutter and shade’ approach to design for the tropics. The brief for the building is serendipitous in that it called for a ‘completely tropical building’ – The Institute is focused solely on the tropics and consequently wanted to create a building that represented what that meant. At the heart of the project – at a cultural and civic level – is the desire to create an environment and building that provides for a wide range of stakeholders and participants.

This is what we think of when we consider the tropics, a selection of ideas and reflections that have informed our thinking:


The tropics have an enormous biodiversity and therefore demonstrate a high level of evolution. The wet tropics have a heightened evolutionary quality: life, death, decay, recycling and re-growth are all visible, legible and obvious. Growth is quick and observable; it almost happens before your eyes. The air is thick and humid, the environment is demanding and quick to exploit weakness in man-made environments.


In the tropics, the notion of the orthogonal, square-cornered, colonial grid is an outdated idea. New and relevant diagrams and organisational tools need to be established to provoke a fresh approach to what the idea of ‘building’ and ‘city’ in the tropics might be, finely tuned to place and participants. Our proposal for The Cairns Institute was formed following a thorough landscape and place analysis of the campus context and landform. We came to understand that there were extraordinary spaces within the existing landscape that were particularly successful and had the ability to become the symbol of the campus.


Nature suggests an informality of structure; tropical culture is not square and right-angled. Accordingly, urban design and ‘pattern’ should be less orthogonal and instead become fluid and adaptive. The relationships between built and unbuilt, and constructed open space and natural landform and geology, is important, informing the way the air moves, the type of flora and fauna we find and hence how micro ecologies exist.

Place making

Place making in the landscape is a key starting point. Where does place making start? Where does the idea of public begin and private end? We believe that this concept has not been explored to its full extent in the Australian tropics. We seek to redefine what a tropical civic building could be, and how it relates to the community.


The influence and reach of a building’s footprint is exacerbated and expanded in the tropics, particularly in a natural setting. The building’s location impacts the climate, immediate environment and natural ecology that exist between buildings.


Air movement in all corners and places is of absolute importance. The tropics are a haven for mosquitoes and other blood-sucking insects, all of which thrive in still air. Air movement on the skin and through space must be maintained if the use of external space is to be optimised.

Mark Damant is a principal at Woods Bagot’s Brisbane studio, with more than 20 years’ experience working across three continents. His focus is to ensure that clients’ design aspirations are clearly understood and that the final built solution exceeds their expectations.

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02 Jun 11 at 11:32 AM • Paula Mitchell

I believe you are on the right track, living in the tropics is so different to living in ‘Melbourne’ I have experienced both and both have totally different requirements for comfort..and living and working…I look forward to the design for tropical being a ‘different experience’


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