FAVOURITES – 6 May 2010 – Arup was founded by the visionary Ove Arup in 1946 and is arguably one of the world’s most creative and innovative structural engineering firms. For more than 60 years the firm has been working with the great names in architecture, engaged in problem solving on hundreds of projects.

Among them are the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre, the Beijing sports facilities and, just opened, the beautiful Marina Bay Bridge in Singapore, which is a double-helix spiral of stainless steel tubes resembling DNA molecules. This was designed by Sydney architect Philip Cox in conjunction with Tristram Carfrae of Arup’s Sydney office, and is a prime example of the creative tension that exists in collaborations between an architect and an engineer.

The design contribution of engineers is not sufficiently acknowledged in our society. There is too little awareness of the ways in which engineers not only enable the structure to stand up, but can also make a profound contribution to its imaginative aesthetics.

Arup’s credo is “We shape a better world”, and this embraces both working responsibly across the built environment and expertise in sustainability. Recent examples of sustainability in their large-scale building projects include Parc 1 in Seoul for 20,000 workers, and the low-carbon €60 million commercial and housing complex in Helsinki, due for completion in 2012. In Sydney, Arup, together with a team of eminent architects and developers Lend Lease, have recently started work on the new Barangaroo precinct for East Darling Harbour.

It was to talk about sustainability in relation to building projects, that I met Tristram Carfrae in Arup’s spacious office in Sydney’s central business district. The office conveniently overlooks Barangaroo, where construction starts this year, so it was not surprising the discussion involved the sustainable solutions that Carfrae and his colleagues may propose for buildings on that site.

“When it comes to sustainability,” says Carfrae, “there’s confusion in the public’s mind – caused by the press – between sustainability and environmentalism. Environmentalism is all to do with going back to nature: yoghurt … hair shirts … generally being frugal. My ambition is to persuade people that the future built environment can be both better than the current one – in all its facets – and consume less energy, less resources.

“It’s not impossible to have it all. That’s why I’m particularly excited about Barangaroo. It’s the first real demonstration in Australia, on a sizeable scale, that we can have it all.”
As a graduate trainee in Arup’s lightweight structures laboratory in London, Carfrae was profoundly influenced by a talk given by American architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. “I remember him saying ‘use less material, just use less’ – a great approach to life. This has become fundamental to my thinking about structure and sustainability: to use less and make more of it.”

Carfrae believes sustainability in building is “an equation between the resources that go into a building, in balance with the benefit you get from it.”

The social benefit has to be taken into consideration, as with the Pompidou Centre, which is “sustainable” in the sense that – despite its use of energy and materials – it has more visitors than any comparable Parisian attraction.

Carfrae points out that in striving for sustainability it’s often disregarded that if a structure is beautiful and, ideally, built in a way that “you’re getting more for less, you’re getting a double benefit – it’s not only holding up but it’s also looking good.”

For this, a trusting partnership is needed between architect and engineer: a dialogue leading to an outcome with which both are happy (and Carfrae believes that all infrastructure projects need both professions). The architect’s design is going to be structurally possible – thanks to the engineer’s technical and design input.
Leaving aside the aesthetic considerations of the perfect bridge, the problems facing growth in Sydney are exacerbated by population growth being in conflict with sustainability regulations. Land cost is such that building affordable housing in the inner city is prohibitively expensive; while building on greenfield sites is unsustainable from a transport and servicing point of view.

A partial solution is to use more economical and sustainable building materials, such as timber. This has been done, for example, by Richard Rogers, who is working on multi-storey buildings in the UK. “Buildings up to six storeys present no problem, with timber walls like in any house with a timber skin, in and out, creating a diaphragm.”  Carfrae admits that fire rating is “the biggest issue you have to resolve”. He continues: “Timber, steel and concrete: each have their advantages. The ideal is to use the right material for a specific location rather than push for one material in a place where it’s not sympathetic.”

Carfrae indicates the windows of his office: “If you look along here, all these mullions are aluminium. There’s no reason they can’t be timber – in fact there’s an advantage in thermal performance in being timber.”

With sustainable building design, energy consumption is a prime consideration. “The first thing to keep in mind,” says Carfrae “is orientation, to keep the energy where you want it”. Commercial buildings should be oriented north-south so that proper shading and efficient air-conditioning can reduce energy consumption to just 20 percent of a typical Sydney office building.

New urban precincts can aim to be carbon neutral and “water positive”. That is, they will generate more water than they consume. Tenants place great value on a building’s sustainability components. These include use of energy, the way it is cooled (especially important in Sydney, where heating is of less significance), the way light is handled, the way electricity is generated, and how waste is disposed of.

Potential tenants for sustainable buildings are companies confident the buildings they rent can attract “the best talent in the world by offering their staff a sustainable building”. And, presumably, an environment which is appealing, with amenities and integrated transport connections that make it attractive and accessible – and is also in a quarter with a working relationship to the rest of the city.

Carfrae emphasises the physical and psychological factors that must be taken into consideration with a sustainable commercial building: not too hot, not too cold; buildings with natural light and fresh air; windows which open.

“Tenants like to connect with the outside,” he says, “transparency is important. The way you sculpt the ceiling is important, so we try to put higher ceilings round the perimeter and light shelves if possible, which reflect light into the building. Glass shouldn’t be too dark. True transparency and the resulting delicacy is a holy grail yet to be addressed in Sydney.”

When it comes to that all-important air quality and air-conditioning, Carfrae outlines different systems from “stir it up” (not pleasant!) to “displacement air”, underfloor air-conditioning with grilles. “Air comes in at 18 degrees and warms up – so when it comes to a person, like me, it just rises up and floats: my air is only my air; your air is your air.”

There is also a passive chilled-air system of “cold beams”.  “This is basically a radiator in the ceiling,’ Carfrae explains, “turned on its side and filled with cold water. Hot air rises, gets cool and drops down again – cool. But condensation can be a problem.” This system is gaining popularity in Sydney.
“People love to be able to open windows – they feel they have more control over their environment. The downside,’ says Carfrae laconically, “is that opening a window in an open-plan office can have an impact on 15 people”.

Sustainable electricity is important. “At the moment, the grid is fuelled by nasty coal-fired power stations creating a lot of carbon dioxide,” says Carfrae. “Now there is a move to generating electricity on site – photovoltaic panels or solar cells, maybe windmills on roofs or between buildings. More popular is to have a gas turbine engine in your building and use the heat – a waste product – to heat hot water. This is known as co-generation, or cogen for short.

“For new urban developments, the plan could be to generate electricity with one large wind-turbine made specifically for the site (it’s important not to use existing sources but to create something new) but positioned off-site where it can be most effective. Tiny windmills on the site are woefully inadequate.”

With large-scale construction sites and their inevitable waste, good management could reduce this by 20 percent. What’s left can be shipped out to recycling facilities. Other waste will be separated on site and recycled – organic waste goes back to the soil, only 3 per cent goes to landfill.?All this bodes well for the future and not just for a yet-to-be built precinct in Sydney, where the press and public have focused on the suitability, or otherwise, of building heights and green spaces at the expense of the very real, sustainable and desirable innovations proposed for Barangaroo’s buildings.

Maybe when it comes to it, as Carfrae says, “There is a delight in making things more energy efficient, and efficient in terms of materials and how long they will last – and quite simply how much benefit there is gained from making better. And ‘better’ includes pleasure – this is so often ignored. And that includes pleasure from beauty.
“I try to tell architects that they’re derelict in their duty in not talking about beauty. They try to use ‘sustainability’ – particularly the energy side of it – as an excuse to do what they want to do rather than saying ‘we’re going to do it because it’s beautiful’.

“According to the media, we seem to be faced with some sort of choice,” says Carfrae emphatically. “It’s either we change our ways and we save the planet, a planet we’re not going to like; or face a future that we’re going to enjoy that won’t save the planet. I don’t think we need to make this choice.”

But then Tristram Carfrae, creative engineer, believes we can have it all.?[ends]