University of Wollongong’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre

Not only is the building itself pushing the boundaries of sustainable design, it will house University of Wollongong researchers passionate about improving the energy efficiency of Australian buildings.  In partnership with the industry, the Centre will become a test bed for sustainable building and retrofitting technologies and will take a leadership role in addressing the skills gap in technical training.  University of Wollongong Project Manager, Lance Jeffery, has been with the project from its earliest days—before it was going to be a Living Building at all.

by Lance Jeffrey

From the outset, the University of Wollongong wanted this building to set the benchmark for sustainable design in Australia.  The University had committed to a 6-star Green Star rating – the highest measure of sustainability in Australia at the time – and while this would be a first for the region, there were already several hundred 6-star buildings in Australia.

The founding director of the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC), Professor Paul Cooper, and I wanted to do something more, something that would provide inspiration for others and long-term impact for the region.

During the early planning phase, Paul and I attended a conference in Sydney and saw Jason McLennan present on the philosophy of the Living Building Challenge. As Jason concluded, Paul and I looked at each other and instantly knew we were both thinking the same thing – this was our program, the one that would push boundaries and would enable us to look back on the project and know we had taken it as far as we could.

Rather than replacing 6-star Green Star certification, we believed the Living Building Challenge complemented Green Star, driving us to aim even higher by providing an over-arching philosophy for the building and its surrounds.

We knew the journey to become the first building in Australia to achieve Living Building Challenge certification would not be without its challenges, however, finding solutions to sustainability challenges was the very reason for the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre.

To quote Dr Seuss’ The Lorax, ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’  The SBRC project team cared ‘a whole awful lot’ and we believed confronting and overcoming challenges during planning and construction would provide valuable lessons for researchers and a practical and inspiring example for the industry.

New life for Australian buildings

The SBRC is the flagship of the University of Wollongong’s Building Sustainability Research Program, the brainchild of Professor Cooper and his research team.  The Program focuses on making Australian buildings more sustainable and energy efficient, with a particular focus on breathing new life into old structures. With new buildings replacing existing stock at a rate of just 1-2% each year in Australia, retrofitting has become a critical priority.

The intention is for the SBRC facility to become a powerful advocacy tool, and ultimately, its own largest experiment: proof of the concepts it champions and the research it generates.

The project kicked off in 2009 with funding support from the Australian Federal Government’s Education Investment Fund. Three years later, the SBRC is just months away from occupancy.

“It’s exciting to see our vision for Australia’s most sustainable educational building become a reality.  Not only is the building itself a test bed for sustainable technologies, its lab space enables us to collaborate with industry to develop and test new sustainable technologies and address the skills gap in technical training.” – Professor Professor Cooper.

In short, the SBRC is a living lab full of labs. Once operational, it will house over 50 staff, students and industry collaborators in a 2,600m2 mixed-use facility comprising academic and support offices, public exhibition and training spaces, a large component testing laboratory and roof top testing space – a 1,200m2 industrial high bay space – for full-scale component testing.

As well as urging the construction and planning industries to embrace green skills, the SBRC aims to change community attitudes to retrofitting and renovation.  Creating a home at the SBRC for the University of Wollongong’s 2013 entry for Solar Decathlon China is one way we are working towards this goal.  The University of Wollongong’s Illawarra Flame house demonstrates retrofitting in a domestic setting and is the first entry from an Australian university ever to win a place in a Solar Decathlon final.  Before and following competition judging in China, students and the wider community will be able to visit Illawarra Flame house at the SBRC.

Challenging the status quo

“The imperatives of the Living Building Challenge set the bar for us and encouraged us to be inventive, innovative and ambitious, which is something we’ve taken very seriously as the first Australian project to pursue Living Building status.” – Professor Paul Cooper.

Once we made the decision to be part of the Living Building Challenge, our first task was making sure everyone involved with the SBRC project was on the same page with what we were trying to achieve by adopting Challenge’s vision of sustainability.

We had already engaged our team of architects and consultants and they had been briefed to deliver a 6-star Green Star building.  Now we were challenging them with a second certification program, meaning the building would be accountable to two of the most rigorous sustainable buildings programs in the world.

Our lead designers, Cox Architects, quickly came on board with the Living Building Challenge and so began the design phase.

As we were breaking new ground with the Building Research Sustainability Program as well as with the Centre itself, our next challenge was determining exactly what was needed in the new facility. Understanding that we would need to specify and then refine as research programs were established drove our desire to future-proof the building by providing as much flexibility within its spaces as possible.

Our most important learning from the design phase was that the sooner the entire team is on board and chasing the same goal the better. The imperatives of delivering a highly sustainable building and meeting performance requirements of the Living Building Challenge meant that our design team needed to bring in services and ESD consultants at an earlier stage than usual.

A pertinent example was the iterative design process required to achieve our net zero energy goal.  While this did result in additional design costs, the end result was worth it – cutting our generator capacity by half and delivering benefits in the life-cycle costing of the generator and refined plant and equipment selections.

We also invested time upfront with our contractor, before final material and equipment selections were made, to ensure they understood the end goal and the importance of Living Building Challenge petals and imperatives to what we were trying to achieve. Living Building Challenge projects have a layer of complexity that makes them more difficult to deliver than your average project so you need to know your contractor is on the same team from the very beginning.

A learning here was that the traditional design-bid-build model isn’t ideally suited to a Living Building project so agreeing to some kind of alliance contract with your construction partner will deliver a better outcome. We were fortunate to have a situation which partially offered this openness and despite the Living Building Challenge being a completely new concept to Australian trades and suppliers, construction has been an absolute team effort.

Lost in translation

From a practical perspective, there were definitely challenges in converting the Living Building Challenge to an Australian context.

Some of these, while difficult, were mundane, like trying to equate MasterFormat materials specifications to Australian Standard (AS)/ISO standards. Others required deeper consideration, like geographic restrictions on sourcing.

We quickly found that the Zones mandated don’t work in the Australian context given it is a vast island nation with major cities spread out around its massive coastline and has a relatively small population of 23 million. The radii effectively restricted us to products and materials from Australia only and we simply don’t manufacture enough.

We presented an exception for Australia to better align with our product markets and this was accepted by ILBI.

In a certain sense this was disappointing, however, it was also a stark reminder of how far we’ll have to go to create a truly sustainable environment in Australia, and will serve as a national challenge to policymakers and the manufacturing industry.

Other challenges of sourcing materials in Australia will seem familiar to anyone who has worked in sustainable development, especially on a Living Building. Most suppliers struggled to tell us where their product came from, or exactly what was in it. The idea of a red list above and beyond AS/ISO standards was entirely new to them.

A larger challenge with material sourcing and red list verification was with services, where tracing all the components in complex equipment was often frustratingly difficult.

Re-use of building material for the SBRC was also laden with inherent difficulties as:

  • It was not always possible to ensure the exclusion of red list items in reused products
  • Availability in the required quantity of materials could not be guarantee at a future date
  • A significant cost premium still exists for product purchase and installation
  • The project documentation occurred well in advance of product procurement
  • Data necessary for building code compliance was not available
  • The trades expressed initial reluctance to construct with reused material.

Bricks reused for the SBRC have become a favourite feature of the building for many on the project team and University of Wollongong Professor of Human Geography and SBRC academic partner, Chris Gibson, recently noted that the urban heritage on show is richer than anyone anticipated. He said the bricks represent four generations of Australian building – from Edwardian to art deco, 1950s and 1970s bricks.

“We started with a directive to re-use locally available material, inherently addressing the embodied carbon and appropriate sourcing imperatives.  The default approach to reused materials can be to restore them to look new. In the case of the reused brickwork in the SBRC, the preliminary design called for plaster and paint, concealing any evidence of their former life and imperfect nature.  However, during construction, the patterns made by generations of pre-loved bricks expressed an imperfect beauty. The tangible history of the brick complemented by reused timber and steel creates a subconscious experience.” – Michael Bradburn, project architect, Cox Architects

A sunburnt country

In her poem My Country, Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar declares her love for our “sunburnt country” and the SBRC site indeed has remarkable solar access, with 200 sunny days a year and 1082mm average annual rainfall. An annual mean temperature range of 14 °C – 21 °C and prevailing coastal winds made it relatively easy to design efficient, naturally-ventilated spaces.

Our local climate has few extremes, and this facilitated a driven agenda of natural ventilation first – and as often as possible – with conditioning mode only used to manage the peaks.

Water use is a major resilience consideration for Australia and policy and public action on water conservation has risen sharply in the last decade, largely on the back of over a decade of drought across the nation that only officially ended in 2012. Water security also has people concerned and several states have turned in desperation to desalination plants.

In this context, demonstrating innovative water efficiency is important, since reducing usage within existing supply and consumption frameworks will only take us so far.

The SBRC has been designed to achieve net zero water by harvesting and treating all water used in the building, essentially becoming self-sufficient. Using an ecological water flow system, we will treat and dispose of all our own wastewater through a natural reed bed black water treatment system with sub-surface irrigation. This isn’t done on such a large scale very often, especially in our region, and the approval process has been a challenging one.

One of the key advantages that has had bearing on our project is the site. The SBRC is being built on a 8,000m² site at the University of Wollongong’s award-winning Innovation Campus, a 33-hectare business and research precinct just one hour south of Sydney. The site’s size and coastal environs informed the design process and provided the flexibility the design team needed to provide for the ecological elements of the Living Building Challenge that may be constrained on a traditional business park/CBD site. These include the establishment of the reed bed for water treatment as well as permaculture and Australian native food gardens across the site.

From an energy perspective, the SBRC will be grid-tied energy positive, generating up to 300,000 kW/h for a projected mean usage of 148,000 kW/h. It will also generate up to a maximum 24,000 kW/h from its rooftop PV and solar PV thermal arrays.

A ‘converged backbone’ of control and monitoring systems will integrate power and water management as well as central processing of the building’s sensor suite. The 2000-point sensor suite will be tied to an integrated management computer sampling 1,000 simultaneous data for its lifetime.

The SBRC is designed to be a living laboratory so most attributes of the building, such as air quality and temperature, will be monitored and reported back to the users – to a level well beyond the requirements of the Living Building Challenge.

The short race to the top

While we have had our challenges, the design and construction of SBRC has happened very quickly. Serious design work only began in September 2010 so it was a relatively short design period for a building of this size and complexity.

Despite the pressures this has placed on team members, no one resents the pace of the project. Everyone involved recognises that a project of this sort is long overdue in Australia and that it’s time to get clever, and quickly.

This need for optimistic, informed risk-taking is part of why the Living Building Challenge appealed so much to the University of Wollongong, and why we hope the SBRC will inspire many Australians to embrace real, sustainable living.

Photo gallery: http://sbrc.uow.edu.au/galleries/sbrcbuilding-sep13/index.html