For the Common Good – A Restart to Retailing: Buchan Group, Grun, Inhabit, Rushwright Associates.

UPDATED: When Frasers offered up its Brickworks retail centre development to a Living Building Challenge design competition, the result was a total of 44 entries, mostly from Australian architects, engineers and sustainability consultants.

The competition is being coordinated by the Living Future Institute of Australia, and the winners of both the major jury competition awards and the People’s Choice Award were announced last night (Thursday) in Melbourne.

The winner of the major Professional Award, the Candlebark Award was The Difference is Living by the consortium led by dwp|suters and Aurecon, also one of the People’s Choice finalists. The People’s Choice winner was For the Common Good – a Restart to retailing by the team led by Buchan Group and Grun Consulting, and the design also won the Professional runner-up gong, The Power  for Life Award.

Three entries were chosen as finalists in the People’s Choice Award at Living Futures Institute’s unConference in Seattle at the start of this month.

Interestingly, even though all three teams came at the competition from very different perspectives and experience bases, they all have some things in common that reflect broader sustainability trends.

They envisage a lot of timber being used. The interior design focus is on prefabricated, modular and flexible. There is also an emphasis on recycled materials.

And members of all three teams told The Fifth Estate they hope the experience will have legacy value in terms of future projects they undertake.

Bringing industry together

Rory Martin

Rory Martin, national sustainability leader for dwp|suters says the competition was undertaken purely as a learning exercise for the studio and the other team members to understand “what really is sustainability.”

The foundation for their “The Difference is Living” design for the Brickworks retail centre was biophilia and biomimicry.

“We kept coming back to those,” Martin says.

The team included Aurecon, CJ Arms, Reed Bed Technology, Eco Harvest, Biomimicry Australia, Future Food and WATPAC. Bringing together this variety of expertise was important, Martin says.

“No one entity has the solution for the Living Building Challenge; you need a whole lot of different experience.”

Aurecon was first onboard with the practice, followed by Jane Toner from BA. Then Aurecon brought CJ Rams on board for its expertise with ecohouses and sustainable technology. Future Food was brought into the mix because it is in retail, Martin says, and WATPAC was brought into the mix because the team “needed the practicality” the builder could bring to the table.

Martin says the involvement of WATPAC in the design also reflected some research that had been done that showed late involvement on the part of the contractor is one of the biggest barriers to achieving the kind of sustainability levels required for the LBC criteria.

One of the key elements the builder added to the mix was its experience with “doing more with less” through the use of modular and prefabricated construction.

The design concept is built around a billabong, and the ebbs and flows it represents,” Martin says. There is a sensory walk element that sits between the proposed residential development and the retail development, which incorporates a landscaped ramp that connects to a child care centre.

The sensory walk includes bush tucker, for the taste of place. Even when it brings people down into the market level they will still hear the movements of wind, and water, and smell food and flowers, Martin says.

The structure itself is “really basic”, Martin says. The design team tried to draw on the vernacular of the market, with multiple small stalls underneath one sheltering large roof.

By using prefabricated modules for the retail “stalls”, Martin says Frasers would be in a position to expand or contract the centre as required. Units could also be repositioned onto other sites that are being developed to activate them, he says.

“We wanted to give [Frasers] a toolkit they can take to other communities.”

In terms of materials, Martin says the practice is generally a “big fan of keeping it simple”.

Frasers would also be taking a risk if they went ahead and built, he says, so the team wanted to keep it simple from that perspective.

The decision was made to look at what could be done with rammed earth, as being the site of a former brickworks, the soil is good. The announcement of the new CLT plant being opened by XLam next year on the Victorian border made it practical to envisage engineered timber for the roof.

For concrete, where it has to be used for elements such as slabs, Boral’s Envisia concrete, which is 30 per cent lower in CO2 emissions, was specified.

Martin says the team used a carbon calculator with a Revit plug-in to determine the relative carbon footprint of a design using predominantly lightweight timber compared to traditional steel and concrete.

Whereas a traditional design would equate to the embodied carbon of 92 hectares of 30 year old trees, the team’s concepts would equate to 45 hectares of 30 year old trees.

The team was also able to ascertain it could obtain 52 per cent of the materials from within the 500km radius the LBC specifies the majority of materials must come from, and that many could be obtained within a 150 km radius.

Martin says the design process required “systematic thinking” rather than the traditional problem and solution approach.

An example is how the design manages waste – which needs to be net positive under the LBC. Martin says the solution included input from Eco Harvest, Future Food and WATPAC as well as the rest of the team.

Just as the design outcome needs to be holistic, so was the process that got them there, he says.

Martin says this also meant team members had to “step out of their comfort zones” and be prepared to see elements through the lens of other disciplines.

The solution for energy is centred around solar photovoltaics, and Martin says he envisages batteries will be part of any actual built outcome to ensure net positive energy.

To ensure sufficient generation capacity, the design puts solar PV over carparking that is designated only for electric vehicles, GoGet share cars, mother-and-child parking and disabled parking.

The solution for toilets involves low-flow fixtures and reed bed technology for managing blackwater. This would require some education of the local council, Martin says.

Managing waste on site – another LBC requirement – would also mean having to “bring councils along” on the journey.

Martin says the team want the concepts to live longer than the award night.

“We’ve realised we can produce this kind of [design],” he says.

He says that the team has learned a framework now to engage with the different levels within organisations in promoting the aims of the LBC. This promotes cultural change, he says.

The entry was also driven by quite a young team, which shows how young architects and graduate engineers can “make a huge impact.”

Martin says they are hoping to build on this experience and empower more young people.

DesignInc extends on its biophilia approach

Stephen Webb

The DesignInc team’s “The Biovale” design was developed by the studio, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Outlines Landscape Architects and MeND.

DesignInc design director Stephen Webb says the practice has been a strong advocate for biophilia for a decade now, so that concept was not new. What is new is that it is not often found in design for the commercial property sector.

“It is often done as more subtle elements,” he says.

For the LBC, Webb says it should be lifted as an “over-arching principle”.

The Biovale design, like others the practice works on, draws on 14 patterns that have been adapted by Terrapin Bright Green in the USA.

“We look to nature and get inspired by nature.”

Webb says the team entered the LBC competition because as members of the Living Futures Institute, it “felt like a genuine opportunity to do a challenge within Australia that really appealed to us”.

It was also an opportunity to test some of the ideas that they have been using in real projects in a less constrained fashion, he says.

The core of this challenge was that trying to match the criteria of the LBC with the criteria required by retail is “a real stretch for that typology”.

He says they asked themselves, “Do we want to win, or do we want to impress Frasers?”

Another big question was how could the team “adapt and challenge” the LBC criteria for a real commercial environment. The design had to be “buildable and realisable.”

Webb says the WSP team members approached the practice initially as the professional services firm were keen to undertake the competition.

This was a benefit, Webb says, as “you need engineers on board to realise the design”.

“The engineers brought quantification,” he says. This included ways of managing water, waste and energy.

In terms of the materials sourcing requirement, Webb says “looking local” is the practice’s starting point for any project.

Two items that are hard to source from within Australia in terms of their location of manufacture are solar PV panels and glass, he says.

To compensate, the design team looked to source natural materials wherever possible, including brick, timber and reused materials.

In the design, brick from the site is re-used both for the landscaping and for the building form, which Webb says “breaks down the barrier” between the two. Brickwork also adds an element of articulation that wraps around the building and forms a sense of connection to the residential element, while also functioning as wind scoops on parts of the structure.

Timber, in the form of modular pods is proposed for pavilions and retail spaces, with the overall aesthetic of the centre “relying on space and light”.

Webb says the practice has already been working in prefab and modular, including The Nicholson social housing project.

The trend is shifting, Webb says, from full prefabricated modules to flatpack and panellised building elements.

He says prefab is “not necessarily saving time and cost; it’s just a smarter way to build.” The benefits include the accuracy that prefab can achieve and the ability to minimise waste.

In addition, it also has the ability to be deconstructed in future.

“You can actually take it apart.”

Webb says one of the outcomes from the challenge is a “team legacy”, with a good culture developed between the various parties. This will have benefits for future projects.

“Most projects that are high achieving come out of a team that’s worked together before,” he says.

He says this kind of team-building is “moving the industry”, as both clients and the industry come to see that an integrated approach can “make or break” a project.

The LBC extending itself into the commercial building typologies is a “big step”, he says.

He says that to make the case for more sustainable buildings to clients, architects should be looking at the kind of tradeoffs that provide amenity to compensate for smaller footprint interiors rather than putting budget into “tricked out” facades, for example.

Also, he says the practice believes that if an element is “only doing one job” it should be challenged.

“If it is doing two or three things it much easier to discuss with the client,” Webb says.

Some elements of the LBC approach are already being applied to one of the practice’s other commercial projects, a small retail centre that is aiming to reposition.

Webb says the client is looking to take an alternative approach to competing with big centres, involving creating more of a street-based “old-school” experience. The design solution involves creating an edge to the centre that allows for an external food area and a play courtyard.

The lesson is, it doesn’t have to be a big complete new build to utilise LBC principles. Any edge idea can benefit from the LBC, Webb says.

One aspect of the retail centre typology that was not part of the brief for the competition is “the whole back story of the produce and packaging” of the retailers within the centre, Webb says.

“We had discussions about whether we should push that. There is no point having an amazing sustainable building if the product inside isn’t.”

PassivHaus goes retail

Clare Parry

Passive House expert and principal of Grun Consulting Clare Parry was asked by architects Buchan Group to be part of the team that produced “For the Common Good – A Restart to Retailing”. The team also included Inhabit Group and landscape architects Rushwright Associates.

Parry says the big challenge from a Passive House perspective was accommodating the fact there is so much permeability in a retail centre and so many people constantly going in and out.

There are also different loads to consider compared to a residential building, such as the major energy loads of a supermarket.

To manage the permeability, she says air locks were used in the design. The team were also able to isolate a lot of spaces, such as the supermarket, by designing for them to be located underground.

“We put most of the building under a landscaped roof,” Parry says.

“This also gave it quite a thermal buffer.”

To ensure natural light in the underground parts, the design incorporated light tubes and technologies including light shells and fibre optics.

Using the landscape within the building has benefits for human health and wellbeing, Parry says.

She says the team recognised it would need to use a lot of concrete for the structure and for durability. This was balanced by the extensive use of timber, including a lot of “kit of parts” construction elements so it would be very quick to build.

This also future-proofs the retail areas, she says, as Frasers would be able to move things around.

A substantial amount of recycled materials, including recycled steel and timber, were also specified.

Parry says the brainstorming sessions got quite creative, with Buchan Group and Inhabit both contributing a lot of energy.

One of the aspects where recent trends have made specifications easier, she says, is the rapid rate of progress in terms of materials including timber and insulation.

Lifecycle assessments have also become more significant and are more readily available.

“It is becoming more possible to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of a building,” Parry says.

In terms of the mechanical systems, Parry says a lot of the Passive House systems are smaller, more simplified and use minimal energy compared to traditional mechanical systems. Innovative low-energy refrigeration techniques were also incorporated.

To manage water, the team kept the systems as “natural as possible”.

The landscaping is being utilised to filter water, with elements including bioswales and a small wetland. The biggest part of managing water to meet the LBC criteria is minimising use, she says, with elements like waterless urinals and low-flow fixtures.

“These are things that are becoming pretty standard in good design.”

Parry says the toughest part of the competition was recognising the team couldn’t take the concept of a retail centre and simply “shoehorn a green building into it”.

So the team started with the experience of the centre from the people perspective, and then designed a centre around that which would be beautiful and engaging.

The design also considers that the centre is part of a larger development including a residential community.

The foundation of the design is to bring that community in, she says, through elements including a community centre, a gym, community gardens and a butterfly enclosure.

“Then we had to overlay the traditional retail centre on top of that.”

She says the team “had to challenge the idea of the supermarket”.

Any operator would have to rethink their own ideas in order to work within the LBC guidelines as well, she says.

“Everybody has to come along on the journey.”

Net positive for waste was particularly challenging. Parry says the centre will have to put policies in place, and again, have everyone on the journey.

Parry says the team has always had a bigger picture in mind, that as this design has gone beyond what has been done before, the learnings are something each collaborator will bring to every project going forward.

“There are so many new ideas in this,” Parry says. “Everything is about getting water, waste and energy to below zero.

“I’d like to see something come out of this project, or see these ideas get carried along to other projects.”

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  1. Very helpful summary of the three final schemes – awaiting the announcement asap.
    What I saw in the Passivhaus team’s recognition of permeability of spaces necessitating a new approach. This is exactly the approach needed – old approaches should not be ‘bolted on’ to old standards. Very encouraging.
    In fact all the three schemes are encouraging for interdisciplinary practice approaches.
    In terms of one omission is a consideration of another aspect of permeability – how the spaces are used by those with a disability, and not just physical. With the regular retail fitouts providing a cacophony of stimuli and challenges for cognitive disabilities it would be useful to see how each team addressed the Equity Petal’s intent for an inclusive sense of community.