The University of Wollongong's Sustainable Buildings Research Centre

The Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong in NSW is on track to be the the first building in Australia to meet the Living Building Challenge.

The rating is notoriously difficult to obtain, with Living Buildings needing to generate all energy by renewables; capture and treat their own water; incorporate non-toxic, locally and appropriately sourced materials; and operate efficiently, equitably and beautifully.

The end game is to move from creating buildings that are “less bad” to ones that are regenerative, contributing something back to the environment. It’s a tall order, but one the SBRC seems set to see through.

There are seven “petals” that need to be met in order to receive certification – place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty – which are subdivided into 20 mandatory imperatives (see end of article).

Cox Architecture was tasked with designing the high-performance building, created to research how to sustainably retrofit Australia’s existing building stock. It won a competition to design the building five years ago, and has been engaged ever since – an extremely long process for what is essentially quite a small building at 2600 square metres, and one that in the end had become a “labour of love” for the firm, but well worth it for the learning that was achieved for the industry.

The decision to go after the LBC rating was taken part way into the process, according to Michael Bradburn, an associate with Cox and project architect on the SBRC, because the team wanted to push the boundaries of what a sustainable building could be.

“The design was at a concept level where there was a general feeling that we weren’t pushing the envelope,” Mr Bradburn told The Fifth Estate.

“We were just sort of pushing for 6 Star Green Star, and it was just going to be another 6 Star education building, which is very good in and of its own right, but just wasn’t the blue sky thinking of pushing beyond, the way the project team really wanted to go.

“When [LBC] was suggested, and everybody had a read through it, the team was unanimously excited about pursuing it.

“So it was adopted at the stage where there was a concept design on the table, and that was interesting. We were sort of forcing our selections onto a preconceived design and that did eventually result in having to redesign it and change some of our thinking.”

Material concerns

The materials petal was the one that caused the most issues for Cox, Mr Bradburn said, particularly given local sourcing issues with Australia being large, isolated globally and without a local market for some building materials.

“The materials petal was quite easily the most difficult challenge, and it’s broken up into a series of imperatives,” he said. “One of them is the local sourcing; one of them, which was probably a slightly more difficult challenge, was the red list, which is eliminating a series of chemicals, at this stage considered to be the worst by the [International Living Building Institute], and that’s an expanding list.”

At present it includes 22 materials and chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride, volatile organic compounds, halogenated flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls, bisphenol A and chlorofluorocarbons. And they can’t just be minimised. They need to be gone.

“There were also some other things around responsible sourcing. If there’s something like Forestry Steward Council certification, you must be meeting it. It applies to any industry, but it mandates that one about FSC and not any of the other timber certifications.”

Iterative design

The challenge, Mr Bradburn said, was balancing all these imperatives against what was trying to be done both architecturally and functionally with material selection. Clever solutions had to be employed to make sure all of the selected materials in the building complied to the materials imperatives.

“Where we had selected something that didn’t comply, we had to change our thinking and change our tack,” Mr Bradburn said.

“As an example, there was certainly a drive to have exposed surfaces throughout the building given the nature of engineering work that they do there. And so in the industry display area and the exhibition space downstairs, there’s no ceilings, but there was a whole series of challenges we had to meet because the slab above has a hydronic system in it and needs to be insulated so you don’t loose all of that heat you’re generating and the storage you’re creating in the thermal mass.

“Actually insulating the bottom of that became very difficult because most insulation materials will have a red list item in them, and if they don’t, they don’t have the fire resistance properties they need to meet compliance.”

The team got stuck, meeting four out of five criteria needed to be met, but failing on one.

“We ended up in a situation where the only compliant material was a sprayed on paper pulp type material, which is quite a challenge to what you would normally select in a gallery type space.

“That’s an example of where the thinking around what the architecture actually looked like had to fundamentally change.”

Recycled content

The decision to use a large amount of recycled content in the building – primarily a client directive – helped a lot with meeting the materials petal. Though it threw up its own particular challenges.

“Because we’re always designing 6-12 months in advance of procuring any of these materials, it’s about how do you go about finding reused and recycled materials that are going to be available?” Mr Bradburn said.

“There’s a lot of things that might come up, but it’s only for a very short period of time. There might be a series of glass panels that are an appropriate size that are coming down from a particular building, but that might not be available in six months, or whenever you come to procure it.”

It led Cox to look around for things readily available around Wollongong.

“The things that were identified were obviously recycled timber, from a variety of sources, but there’s a lot of disused railway track around Wollongong so railway track has been used as structural members on the PV armature, but also as some of the columns on the office building as well. So they’re readily visible as you walk around the building, including the scars of their former life.

“The other primary one that is obviously really visible in the building is the reused brick.”

In fact, bricks representing four different generations of Australian building have been used, from Edwardian to art deco and bricks from the 1950s and ’70s.

Working together with Green Star

As part of the initial design, and necessary to comply with conditions specified for funding received under the former federal Labor government’s Education Investment Fund, a 6 Star Green Star rating was mandatory. But how did the two systems interact?

“Because the Living Building Challenge is so stringent and such a stretch, there was obviously a risk in this but we really just went down the path of designing to meet LBC with the assumption we would in inherently meet 6 Star Green Star,” Mr Bradburn said.

There were, however, a couple of conflicts.

“There were a few things that popped up after applying the Green Star matrix across what had been done to meet the LBC.”

As an example, credits pertaining to predicted mean vote as part of Green Star Indoor Environment Quality credits were not received.

“We deliberately went outside of the comfort range that you need to be in to get your full three points in that category. Now they set quite a tight band for what’s acceptable comfort, and part of the research, and part of the push and the stretch this building is trying to make, is challenging that comfort band.

“And part of the research that the SBRC do is look at how people respond to thermal comfort. It’s actually researching user and occupancy response. So we had to sacrifice those two points to actually go and stretch and essentially have a lower energy building.”

Certification

The SBRC has already completed the preliminary audit for the LBC, which looks at the series of imperatives that don’t need to be measured. The final audit will involve the elements that will be able be measured – whether the building has achieved net zero energy and net zero water, for example.

Projects in the Living Building Challenge must be operational for 12 months before receiving the certification. Due to the special functions of the SBRC, the 12-month period hasn’t yet begun.

“With a building this complicated, and with this many services with the plug and play aspect, and this level of control over the building management system, the commissioning period is longer than a typical building, so there’s still some issues being ironed with the commissioning of the building, and getting all the systems to work at their optimum levels,” Mr Bradburn said. “When that commissioning period is finished, then we’ll start the year clock ticking.”

Future success with LBC and lessons learned

Mr Bradburn said the LBC process had been one of great learning for Cox and all of the associated project team members. And although it’s been a fairly long and arduous process, it has also been a worthwhile one.

“I certainly see the value of the tool,” he said.

“The hard part is the financial reality of it. Yes, I think the tool is very valuable, and something more and more people should be adopting, but there is probably a bit of work that needs to be done – and there are a series of Living Building collaboratives that operate around Australia that connect back to the IBLR – and it’s recognised that the tool needs to be made more efficient in the way you can go about meeting it.

“Obviously when we went down the process we were pioneering everything. We went on the discovery process of what it is to meet the materials petal in an Australian market context.”

He said those lessons could inform how future project teams meet the rating efficiently. There is already movement in the materials space with EcoSpecifier’s GreenTag certification moving to display whether materials are LBC compliant.

“That’s one piece of the puzzle, which will start to reduce the level of research into materials that project teams need time to take. A lot of cost is involved in that research time and engaging with all the materials suppliers and manufacturers.”

And worth doing again

Although difficult, Mr Bradburn said he would be up for going through the process again.

“Absolutely, I’d love to be involved in another project if one came into the office and presented itself.”

What was needed for success, and to get the best out of buildings going for LBC certification, was an openness to an iterative design process.

“More iterative design is required with consultants meeting the LBC, and the consultants need to come on that journey, in particular regarding thermal modelling, just trying to optimise and pull out every last piece of efficiency.

“You should always be focusing primarily on the front end and optimising the passive approach to the building – getting the right ventilation strategy, getting the right orientation for optimal ventilation and solar design, because that’s going to give you the biggest reduction in the energy demand of the building. It’s only when you’ve optimised that passive approach that you start to look at the systems.”

Building features

  • Net zero energy: 160-kilowatt onsite renewable energy system produces more power than the building uses each year.
  • Net zero water: Onsite rainwater harvesting and treatment system
  • Building layout: H-shaped floorplate designed to optimise natural ventilation, provide access to fresh air, natural light and optimise the use of thermal mass
  • Hybrid mixed mode ventilation: Maximised natural ventilation system with a ground source heat exchanger and in-slab hydronics system
  • Internal green walls: Three vertical green walls within internal atrium space
  • Plug and play microgrid: Advanced electrical and communication system to mimic the broader utility network and enable testing and demonstration of emerging power technologies
  • Car free living: Twenty dedicated bike spaces with change rooms, electric vehicle parking and close to public transport
  • Edible gardens: Onsite vegetable, herb and fruit gardens
  • Advanced building management system: Advanced BMS to control, monitor and report on all building systems
  • Low impact IT solution: Energy efficient thin-client hardware operating in a virtual desktop environment with softphone technology
  • Environmentally safe materials: Building materials predominantly free of Red Listed chemicals
  • Locally sourced materials: All primary materials have been sourced within a limited radius of site to contribute to the regional economy

Project team

  • Architect: Cox
  • ESD consultant: Cundall
  • Building contractor: Baulderstone Pty (Lend Lease)
  • Civil and structural engineer: TLB Engineers
  • Mechanical and electrical engineer: Medland Metropolis
  • PV design consultant: Energy Matters
  • Owner: University of Wollongong

The Living Building Challenge imperatives

Place

  • Limits to Growth: projects may only be built on greyfields or brown fields
  • Urban agriculture: the project must integrate opportunities for agriculture appropriate to its scale and density
  • Habitat exchange: for each hectare of development, an equal amount of land away from the project site must be set aside in perpetuity
  • Human-powered living: each new project should contribute toward the creation of walkable, pedestrian-oriented communities and must not lower the density of the existing site

Water

  • Net positive water: 100 per cent of the project’s water needs must be supplied by captured precipitation or other natural closed loop water systems, and/or by recycling used project water, and must be purified as needed without the use of chemicals

Energy

  • Net positive energy: 105 per cent of the project’s energy needs must be supplied by on-site renewable energy on a net annual basis, without the use of on-site combustion

Health and happiness

  • Civilised environment: every regularly occupied space must have operable windows that provide access tog fresh air and daylight
  • Healthy interior environment: a project must create a Healthy Interior Environment Plan that explains how the project will achieve an exemplary indoor environment
  • Biophilic environment: the project must be designed to include elements that nurture the innate human/ nature connection

Materials

  • Red list: the project cannot contain any Red List materials or chemicals
  • Embodied carbon footprint: the project must account for the total embodied carbon (tCO2e) impact from its construction through a one-time carbon offset
  • Responsible industry: the project must advocate for the creation and adoption of third-party certified standards for sustainable resource extraction and fair labor practices
  • Living economy sourcing: the project must incorporate place-based solutions and contribute to the expansion of a regional economy rooted in sustainable practices, products and services
  • Net positive waste: the project team must strive to reduce or eliminate the production of waste during design, construction, operation, and end of life in order to conserve natural resources and to find ways to integrate waste back into either an industrial loop or natural nutrient loop

Equity

  • Human scale and humane places: the project must be designed to create human-scaled rather than automobile- scaled places so that the experience brings out the best in humanity and promotes culture and interaction
  • Universal access to nature and place: all primary transportation, roads and non-building infrastructure that are considered externally focused must be equally accessible to all members of the public regardless of background, age and socioeconomic class, including the homeless, and the project may not block access to, nor diminish the quality of, fresh air, sunlight and natural waterways for any member of society or adjacent developments
  • Equitable investment: for every dollar of total project cost, the development must set aside and donate half a cent or more to a charity of its choosing or contribute to ILFI’s Equitable Offset Program
  • Just organisations: the project must help create a more just, equitable society through the transparent disclosure of the business practices of the major organisations involved

Beauty

  • Beauty and spirit: The project must contain design features intended solely for human delight and?the celebration of culture, spirit and place appropriate to its function and meaningfully integrate public art
  • Inspiration and education: Educational materials about the operation and performance of the project must be provided to the public to share successful solutions and to motivate others to make change

One reply on “Behind the Living Building Challenge process: the SBRC”

  1. There are two things I want to mention

    1. The Living Futures Institute of Australia is organising a competition to design a Living Building Challenge 3.0 development/building somewhere in Australia. The competition is open to all designers across the planet (personally I would rather it kept local). The goal of the competition is to build the winning design It is to be a multidisciplinary design competition. So all you up and coming young designers sharpen you pencils and start looking for a developer/site and come up with a design that could put you on the map.

    2. Urban Integration Working Group (UIWGroup) whose goal is to build low impact zero carbon urban developments and vision is to create vibrant, resilient, healthy and sustainable urban communities will be holding a series of meeting in Sydney to start the processes that will make this our goal and vision happen.

    We are putting ourselves out on a limb here. We with our team and the community will win to top awards in the timber awards in the next four years and we will also be entering the LBC 3.0 competition in 2016/17.

    Also, I with Kate St James (one of the judges) attended a great night last night at the National Australian Timber Awards. There were many great entries in all categories and some great winners. Great night!

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