Architects don’t normally invest in developing new technology and research. But that’s exactly what co-chief executive officer of BVN Ninotschka Titchkosky managed to get across the line with her fellow directors’ support. The result, developed in collaboration with University of Technology Sydney, is an air diffusion system made from recycled waste plastic that has 90 per cent less embodied carbon – perfect for retrofitting our vast swathes of existing buildings. Oh, and there’s big energy savings potential as well.

Printed City next Thursday 17 June will explore these issues through an exhibition and Surround Sound panel.

Glance up at the ceiling in the BVN offices in Sydney and you see almost clear luminescent tubes, shimmering and curving their way above the humming clusters of designers below.

It’s SR2, the prototype air diffusion system that from aesthetics alone looks to do for ducting systems what the Apple Mac did for IBM mainframes.

While traditional metal plated ducting systems tend to “dump” air from single diffusers across the floor, and leak significant amounts of conditioned air through the joints and connection points, this potential new disruptor has been aerodynamically designed and inspired by nature, it’s inventors say. Instead of losing air through unintended leaks, it “breathes” through “thousands” of pores, much like coral reefs.

The result is evenly dispersed temperatures that are a lot more comfortable for occupants.

The design is aimed directly at sustainability: less incidental air loss; use of recycled waste plastic as its base material; 90 per cent less embodied carbon; greater adaptability that’s perfect for retrofitting and speed of construction because it’s a click and connect system that fits together like Lego ­­– so with a promised cost savings dividend as well. And though the energy efficiency potential hasn’t been fully quantified, on the design template this too looks hopeful.

All of this designed for building services that we know that on average, account for approximately 33 per cent per cent of a building’s total embodied carbon.

So overall, a long way from the general tenet that for the built environment almost anything that is customisable, comfortable or efficient will probably cost more and take more time to implement.

For BVN’s co-CEO Ninotschka Titchkosky who led the architectural practice’s significant foray into research and development enlisting a collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney, says the innovation was almost accidental.

“We didn’t set out to redesign air diffusion systems, but over 20 years of workplace design, we continually came up against the problem of services limiting how we want to occupy space, their impact on aesthetics and critically the level of redundancy currently designed into systems.”

Any adjustments to how the space might be used inevitably proved cost prohibitive often because of the way the services needed to be redesigned, Titchkosky says.

“We were looking at ways to improve occupant comfort, and the environmental factor kept popping up as the most important part of a desirable space for occupants.

“We know that the issue of air quality, environmental temperature and vent location are one of the most common complaints that facility managers receive from occupants, so we started by asking ourselves what would improve the occupant experience and moved on from there.”

This occupant-centric approach influenced the team to envision an air diffusion system comprising lengths of porous material that were aerodynamically designed to provide consistent airflow into a space. While the concept might seem simple enough, developing a new system also required consideration of how it could be manufactured, and how emerging technologies could be leveraged to create further benefits.

Tim Schork Associate Professor, School of Architecture UTS said he believes it’s a world first and possibly the “only 3D printed ducting system.

“It’s a very modular system, and requires no expanded skill set on how to deliver air into a space and customise it to the particular comfort levels of the occupants.”

“Tim and I had shared interests in robotics and circular economy,” Titchkosky says. “We knew each other through our industry work and we formed a research partnership to develop this concept into something that could be implemented into the built environment in a practical way that also inspired the industry to see the potential new approaches and technologies afford us.”

Innovation and advantages over the current systems

While fabric and other alternative materials are sometimes used for ducting systems, steel is by far the most common material in mechanical services ducting design.

While steel’s rigidity and robustness is considerable, the weight, limited venting locations and difficulty in modification and complex forms made it unsuitable for the design goals.

Environmental impact was also a key element of the new design.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the buildings and construction sector accounted for 36 per cent of final energy use and 39 per cent of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018, 11 per cent of which resulted from manufacturing building materials and products such as steel, cement and glass.

“SR2 has 90 per cent less embodied carbon than existing ductwork,” Titchkosky says.

“We looked at material systems that would enable us to have a continuous or controlled diffusion. There are flexible ducts, fabric ducts, but they come with efficiency and reliability disadvantages.

“We started from scratch and designed a system from the ground up that’s aerodynamic, which means we can significantly reduce the section sizes and reduce the energy by reducing the friction and velocity of air and limiting any leakage.

“We found the optimal design would also have little pores distributed throughout the system to softly diffuse the air into the space.

Because the airflow is consistent, there’s no single area that’s being blasted with conditioned air while another space may be stagnant. It’s even throughout the whole space.”

Energy efficiency and occupant comfort are certainly positive elements to any mechanical services design, but there is also the potential for space savings that will greatly increase the flexibility of service spaces.

“Ducting takes up a lot of service space,” Schork says. “If we implemented this system into a new building you could potentially reduce the floor-to-floor height by a couple of hundred millimetres,

“If you take that saving across a 30-storey building, that’s almost another whole floor of useable space. Even in refurbished buildings the benefits are significant”

“Our initial target was actually existing buildings as opposed to new buildings because 98 per cent of building stock is existing. If we are going to address climate change and reduce our environmental impact, we really need to make sure that we continually worked towards adapting and reinventing all aspects of the built environment.”

Sustainability considerations

Through a thorough evaluation of materials and research into manufacturing processes, Schork and Titchkosky established that 3D printed plastics were the optimal material to provide the necessary porousness, while still maintaining the robustness, flexibility and adaptability that the design would require.

“Critically, 3D printing enabled us to consider working with recycled waste materials and also create a single material solution that could be recycled at the end of its life to close the loop.”

The result is a robotically 3D printed system using PETG plastics. This solution came about in consultation with manufacturers, builders and service designers in the construction sector.

“As architects, we could come up with bright ideas all the time,” Titchkosky says. “But if we can’t actually bring them into reality through the construction process, then there isn’t much point. It had to be practical, and it had to be something that didn’t require a lot of adaptation or new skill acquisition.”

Aside from the reused plastics, there are also sustainability benefits to the transportation costs if the option of 3D printing the SR2 on site is taken up.

“When you consider the amount of truck movements necessary to bring in 1400 mm long sections of steel ductwork each day for a construction project, along with the weight of those sections, replacing them with on-site printing that can reuse its own waste offers enormous secondary benefits,” Titchkosky says.

Schork says printing on-site is a “fantastic benefit of SR2,”.

“You just supply the machine with PETG plastics and specify the section to be made. If the system needs to be adapted, rather than order a new piece of ducting, you can custom print the section to the specifications you need, and shred the unsuitable section to use as materials to print the new one, so there is zero waste.”

Titchkosky says another important benefit is the reduction of on site installation time. There are no mechanical fixings at the joints, its all click and connect, and because the system is 75 per cent lighter than steel ducting it requires less fixings into the concrete slabs.

The team also explored the waste effort in design time and therefore created a “fully digitised design tool that enables accurate and real-time design to occur linking spatial configurations with component sizing.

“Once the design is complete the files can be translated directly to the robot for production.”

Service with style

Traditional ductwork has its own aesthetic, but few people will have much appreciation for exposed ducts with all the attached lagging and large vents. While the visual appeal of the design wasn’t the most important consideration, the use of plastics allows enormous opportunities for customisation and a more visually pleasing service design.

“Made out of clear plastics, we developed it the protoype  with a crystalline appearance, so it can work in any environment ,” Titchkosky says.

“But SR2 can be tailored for each building or even each space within the building. It can be coloured and branded to suit. The potential customisation of design and aesthetics are almost limitless.”

Scaling the solution

The potential benefits of SR2 might be easily apparent, but now the challenge is to commercialise and scale the technology.

“There are so many good reasons why this could be commercialised,” Titchkosky says.

“We have working prototypes. We are at the position where we’ve finished the ‘concept car’ and we would really like to try and find some partners that could help us to expand this and bring it to the sector at the scale necessary to make an impact.”

“We see the potential for huge savings on the product compared to traditional designs, but also in the labour, time and resources” Schork says.

“Once the designs are input, there’s no need to have as much hands-on labour compared to fabricating steel ductwork. There is also the reputational benefits of being a leader in the sustainability and energy efficiency fields that will help brands and companies contribute to a positive environmental impact.

“It’s a really exciting technology, and we think it can be enormously beneficial to the industry, landlords, tenants and the planet.”

Titchkosky and Schork will be speaking about the SR2 technology at the Printed City exhibition starting at 5:15 pm on 17th of June at BVN studio, Level 11, 255 Pitt Street, Sydney.

This article has been produced with the assistance of BVN, sponsor of the Printed City event on 17 June 2021

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  1. How does this work from fire perspective? Does the system meet the DTS provisions? And how does it integrate with fire dampers where crossing the fire compartment boundaries?