Sydney Opera House | Free Essay Examples


The Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s most iconic and well-known landmarks, revered as a masterpiece of modern architecture and an important cultural landmark in Australia. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon and completed in 1973, its complex of performance venues hosts events ranging from music and opera productions to ballet, dance recitals, theatre plays, comedy productions, and ballet performances (Australian Institute of Architects, n.d.). One of the key aspects of the Sydney Opera House’s construction was its use of concrete, steel, and glass, chosen for their strength, durability, and aesthetic qualities. However, as sustainability and carbon emissions become more of an issue globally, iconic structures such as the Sydney Opera House must evaluate what materials were chosen in their construction to find environmentally-friendly options that may better reflect today’s world (Elaouzy & El Fadar, 2022). This essay will review the materials used to construct the Sydney Opera House and identify an alternative material that may have been more appropriate. We will assess their advantages and disadvantages before assessing their embodied energy as an environmental impact indicator. By undertaking such analysis, we aim to gain insights into decisions surrounding large-scale construction projects and explore possible replacement materials that could be implemented into future endeavors.

Building Materials Selection

The House is an iconic landmark in Australia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famed for its signature sail-like design and contribution to architecture. Construction began in 1959 and was completed in 1973 at a total cost of approximately $102 million, comprised of reinforced concrete, steel, and glass components covering an area of 182,000 square meters; this analysis will focus on selecting non-load bearing materials and alternatives for its non-load bearing elements. Reinforced concrete was one of the primary building materials utilized in the Sydney Opera House construction (Gaim et al., 2022). Constructed from concrete with steel reinforcement embedded, reinforced concrete is often chosen due to its high compressive strength, fireproof properties, and durability; reinforced concrete was chosen for use on its podium, piers, roof shells, and more than 14,000 floor slabs throughout this iconic structure.

Steel was also a primary building material used in the Sydney Opera House’s construction due to its superior strength-to-weight ratio and ductility. Steel was utilized extensively during its assembly for this iconic building’s trusses, arches, tension rods, and tension cables. Glass is an integral component of the Sydney Opera House, providing natural lighting and visual appeal. Toughened safety glass was used extensively throughout this structure, specifically in windows, doors, and sail-like shells of its sail-like sails.

Reinforced concrete has a high carbon footprint due to the production process for cement, its main constituent. Steel production also leaves an environmental imprint by using fossil fuels in manufacturing; finally, toughened glass production requires significant energy input but cannot be recycled back into products like it could.

Therefore, exploring alternative building materials that could serve as replacements for non-load-bearing elements of the Sydney Opera House is worthwhile. Such alternatives should have comparable mechanical, thermal, and acoustic properties while having a less environmental impact than the current materials.

Building Materials of Choice

The Sydney Opera House is an iconic symbol of modern architecture and engineering. Completed in 1973, this complex is considered one of the world’s most recognizable structures. Designed by Danish architect Jorn Utzon who won an international competition to design it in 1956. Situated at Bennelong Point on Sydney Harbour, it attracts tourists and locals with its three interlocking vaulted shells on an enormous platform covered in over one million white, glazed ceramic tiles. Concrete was chosen for this project because of its extensive use in constructing the Sydney Opera House foundations. Five hundred eighty concrete piers were sunk up to 25 meters deep into the ground to support its immense weight. Special high-strength concrete developed specifically for this task was utilized; it needed to withstand marine environments and provide a stable base upon which shells would be constructed (Rey-Rey, 2022). The Sydney Opera House foundation’s concrete consisted of Portland cement, sand, aggregate, and water. Portland cement was chosen because it can set and harden quickly when exposed to water. At the same time, local sources for aggregate and sand helped reduce energy embodied in production, and water was drawn directly from the nearby harbor.

Estimating the quantity of concrete needed to construct the Sydney Opera House foundation is difficult; however, we know each pier was approximately 1.2 meters in diameter and up to 25 meters deep; in total, approximately 15,000 cubic meters of concrete was utilized in its foundation. Although concrete was chosen to form the Sydney Opera House’s foundation, other possible choices included steel, commonly used when building high-rise buildings. However, using steel as the foundation of the Sydney Opera House would have been inadvisable given its harsh marine environment and need for a stable base upon which shells could be constructed (Lang, 2017). Timber foundations are often chosen as an option for smaller buildings; however, the weight and need for stability of Sydney Opera House make its use impractical; consequently, concrete was chosen due to its ability to provide a robust base.

Alternative Materials

The Sydney Opera House, one of Australia’s iconic structures built during the 1970s, originally required extensive use of reinforced concrete; this material would eventually make up most of its structural elements. However, alternative materials that served similar functions may have also been considered. Structured steel is one of the alternative materials that could have been used instead of reinforced concrete, offering several advantages over its use, including its high strength-to-weight ratio, ductility, and ease of fabrication. Furthermore, structural steel’s flexibility enables greater freedom when designing the building’s form and function.

Laminate timber could have been another viable material choice. Timber offers various advantages, including low embodied energy consumption (Chiniforush et al., 2018), renewable nature, and aesthetic appeal. Laminate timber is a strong yet lightweight material suitable for load-bearing elements like roofs, walls, and floors. At the same time, its excellent acoustic properties make it suitable for concert halls such as those found at the Sydney Opera House. Glass-reinforced polymer (GRP) would have been another suitable material, offering lighter yet high-strength construction elements for non-load-bearing elements like cladding and facades while being highly weatherproof for lower maintenance costs over the lifespan of buildings.

Each alternative material offers unique benefits and drawbacks, affecting its suitability for use in the Sydney Opera House based on cost, availability, and environmental impacts. While available construction materials and techniques heavily impacted the original design of the Sydney Opera House at its inception, further investigation of alternative materials’ advantages and drawbacks may provide insights for future building designs and material selection processes (Lotfi et al., 2021). At the Sydney Opera House, one area in which alternative materials could be utilized is in its exterior cladding. It was originally composed of precast concrete panels designed to look like shells, but they now need replacement due to weathering. This presents an opportunity for alternative cladding materials that provide better durability and aesthetic appeal.

Zinc panels make an excellent material choice for exterior cladding applications. Zinc has an eye-catching, unique aesthetic that allows it to be formed into different forms for an eye-catching facade, and its durability withstands weathering and corrosion (Marriage and Alaf, 2021). Zinc has been featured prominently in several buildings worldwide, including the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (UK) and the Museum of Islamic Art (Qatar). Steel or aluminum roof tiles could also offer an eco-friendly alternative to Sydney Opera House building elements, like its roofing system. Concrete may present issues due to leaks and moisture buildup; as alternatives, these lightweight materials would make installation much simpler while having a longer lifespan than concrete, making this choice environmentally friendly. Identifying specific building elements that could benefit from alternative materials is integral to the evaluation process. Comparing advantages and disadvantages by choosing to replace cladding or roofing system elements as potential candidates lead to a clearer understanding of whether alternative materials could work in the Sydney Opera House.

Advantages of materials and disadvantages of the materials

Advantages and Disadvantages of Concrete

Concrete was chosen as the main building material to construct the Sydney Opera House due to its superior compressive strength, fireproof qualities, and versatility – casting different shapes or sizes is easy with concrete; plus, its longevity requires low maintenance costs compared to alternative options and costs can be saved substantially through reduced labor.

Concrete does have some downsides, however. Due to its low tensile strength, which makes it vulnerable to cracking, reinforcement must often be added in order for its performance to improve. Furthermore, its weight makes transportation energy intensive leading to its high embodied energy and high carbon footprint.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Steel in Opera House Construction

Steel is an attractive choice as an alternative to concrete for non-load-bearing elements in the Sydney Opera House’s construction due to its superior strength-to-weight ratio, ductility, and versatility, in addition to having lower embodied energy than concrete (Amelian et al., 2018). It also benefits from being recyclable. Steel also comes with its share of disadvantages, including corrosion that may require costly repairs, lower fire resistance than concrete, and higher costs over its lifespan. Furthermore, maintenance requirements could increase over time with steel.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Timber

The material, an alternative to concrete used for non-load-bearing elements at the Sydney Opera House, is timber, which boasts several advantages, including its low embodied energy, renewability, and aesthetic appeal (Taffese & Abegaz, 2019). Furthermore, timber is lightweight and easy to work with, making it an excellent material choice for construction projects. Wood has its own set of drawbacks; it can be susceptible to decay and insects, requiring regular maintenance for optimal durability. Furthermore, its lower fireproof rating makes it less suitable for certain applications – such as high-rise buildings. Each material offers, therefore, presents different advantages and disadvantages; selecting the most appropriate material depends on various factors such as its intended application, design requirements, and environmental impact.

Embodied Energy

The embodied energy of building materials refers to the total energy consumed during their production, transportation, and installation – an essential consideration when designing sustainable buildings that directly impact their environmental impact throughout their lifespan. Here we will calculate the embodied energy of two materials used at the Sydney Opera House: concrete and timber. Concrete is the primary building material utilized in the Sydney Opera House, especially its foundation, columns, and beams. Production requires extracting raw materials for manufacturing purposes and transporting them for distribution – this process also consumes considerable energy; an estimate can be made of its total weight using its specific energy per unit weight figure. According to research conducted by the Australian Greenhouse Office, concrete has an embodied energy of 0.12 megajoules per kilogram; when applied over 182,000 tonnes as in Sydney Opera House’s case – its total embodied energy would therefore equal: Embodied energy of concrete = 0.12 MJ/kg x 182,000,000 kg Embodied energy of concrete = 21,840,000 MJ.

Timber is a renewable building material with relatively lower embodied energy than concrete, depending on its type, distance traveled during transport, and processing method. According to Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation research, Australian hardwood has an approximate embodied energy of 1.6MJ/kg. Assuming that one percent of the Sydney Opera House building area is covered with timber of nominal sizes 50mm x 150mm, then approximately 660 tonnes are utilized in its construction; hence its embodied energy is estimated. Embodied energy of timber = 1.6MJ/kg multiplied by 660,000 kg = 1,056,000MJ. The Calculations showed that concrete had significantly greater embodied energy than timber at the Sydney Opera House. However, this should only be used as one factor when selecting building materials – other aspects must also be considered, such as durability, strength, and maintenance needs.

Relevant Case Studies

Various alternative materials are being utilized in construction projects similar to the Sydney Opera House. One notable case study is Canada’s Vancouver Convention Centre, which utilized engineered timber roof trusses combined with concrete foundation and support columns as construction materials – using wood for roof truss construction while using concrete for foundation and support columns; using timber was found beneficial for both energy-wise and aesthetically – reflecting local forestry heritage as part of the structure’s aesthetic design.

Bullitt Center in Seattle is often considered the greenest office building worldwide, constructed entirely from sustainably-sourced materials such as FSC-certified timber and recycled steel, featuring rainwater harvesting systems, composting toilets, and solar panels to reduce environmental impact. Locally, Sydney’s International Convention Centre employed both precast concrete and structural steel construction methods in its building process. Precast concrete was utilized on its outer facade. In contrast, steel was utilized for roof supports and support columns – using precast allowed faster construction times and reduced material waste. In contrast, lightweight yet durable steel provided lightweight support columns and roof structures. These case studies illustrate the potential of using alternative materials in construction projects to reduce energy and environmental impacts. While the Sydney Opera House is an iconic structure made largely of concrete, it is important to keep alternative options open and evaluate potential advantages they could bring for future projects.


Building materials are essential in creating iconic structures like the Sydney Opera House. Selecting appropriate materials requires an in-depth evaluation of their advantages and disadvantages, embodied energy usage, and compatibility with each building element where they will be employed. We explored in this essay both concrete and timber’s advantages and drawbacks when used to construct roof structures for the Sydney Opera House; additionally, the aluminum composite panel offers advantages such as low energy use as well as greater durability but has initial cost limitations that must be considered carefully when choosing between them as alternatives. Through a comparative analysis of embodied energy, it has been determined that timber provides lower embodied energy than aluminum composite panels when it comes to the roof structure of the Sydney Opera House roof structure. On the other hand, the aluminum composite panel’s longer durability and lower maintenance costs, in the long run, make it more sustainable, and its lighter weight makes installation simpler. Building materials require careful evaluation based on cost, durability, and sustainability factors to select the most appropriate material for each construction element. Case studies presented in this essay underscored their significance; such evaluations can have an incredible effect on iconic structures’ longevity and environmental sustainability.


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