John Macdonald, DesignInc

3 April 2014 – DesignInc’s John Macdonald won this year’s AIA Leadership in Sustainability Prize but his background in sustainability goes way back. The firm was part of the design team for Council House 2 (CH2) in Melbourne, for the City of Melbourne, and K2, the “residential equivalent” of CH2. Coming right up in design, he says, is biomimicry, an “explosion” in modular building, energy storage and more focus on healthy buildings. Willow Aliento reports.

See related articles on other AIA winners this year:

DesignInc’s John Macdonald, winner of the Leadership in Sustainability Prize at the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2014 Australian Achievements in Architecture Awards says the firm’s track record with sustainable building design predates Green Star. He points to the $100 million Geoscience building in Canberra giving the company an opportunity to explore innovation in creating low-energy use, low-water use buildings with healthy indoor environments.

Following this project was Council House 2 (CH2), the first Six Star Green Star commercial building which was designed with Melbourne City Council. Then there was K2, a social housing apartment project Macdonald describes as the “residential equivalent” of CH2, which uses an estimated 70 per cent less energy than a standard apartment building.

CH2 Melbourne City Council House 2, photo: Dianna Snape

“At that time many were nervous about sustainable design; CH2 and K2 gave them confidence,” Macdonald says in an interview with The Fifth Estate, not long after the prize was announced.

Another showcase award-winning project was the Vortex Centre at the Gippsland Water Factory (the area’s water treatment plant), which is a public information centre about water resources and sustainability.

DesignInc’s plan included an artificial lake, and underfloor cooling for the building is provided through a heat exchange system that draws cooling from the bottom of the lake.

“It is very passive and simple,” Macdonald says.

“[As a designer] you’ve got to find simple solutions, good passive solutions, which work for our climate. In terms of climate, for CH2 and K2 we carefully analysed Melbourne’s climate and discovered that at the hottest time of the year, the diurnal range allows for free cooling for 15-20 per cent of the cooling needs in summer.”

He explains that by holding temperatures in the thermal mass, and flushing with cool night air, that cool air can be stored in the structure and reduces the need for mechanical cooling for part of the day. It is a concept that needs to be geared to the specific geography and climate.

“You have to design for place,” Macdonald says. “It’s important to have a local response based on climate and place.”

Where biology meets architecture

The practice is currently investing research and innovation energy into the new fields of biomicry and biophilia, which involves engaging with the emerging sciences to create “cities of the future”.

Macdonald says that biomimicry and biophilia have their roots in taking inspiration and lessons from nature, and designing – and building – structures which mimic the processes of nature.

“Nature does things so efficiently,” he says. “Nature always produces locally, and there’s a lesson [for us] there as well. [DesignInc] have been looking at it from the point of view of materials science and function as well as form.

“Buildings can still be beautiful, elegant and inspiring. [I believe] this will be the century of biology – perhaps it will not be long before we have biologists as part of the design team.

“With CH2 we rethought the whole process of office design. Through integrated design [a team can make quantum design leaps. That is part of the process [of achieving sustainability] as well as delivery. Integrated design is what it’s all about….where ‘collaboration’ is the key.”

K2 Apartments, photo: Peter Hyatt

On the horizon: biomimcry, an  “explosion” in modular building, energy storage and more focus on healthy buildings

Macdonald believes that sustainability should be “business as usual” for all architects, and that achieving it is a case of “achieving more with less”.

“Sustainable design is [simply] good design. The elements can have more than one benefit. For example, the wavy concrete ceilings [in CH2] increase the mass, form part of the structure, are return air ducts and are a conduit for services. The multiple benefit concept is one we [at DesignInc] explore for all our buildings – it can also help to optimise costs.”

Macdonald predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years there will be an “explosion” in modular building, energy storage and more focus on healthy buildings; that sustainability is not just about energy and water.

“The idea of [buildings] having a positive impact on the environment is quite exciting. It is moving beyond Five Star or Six Star,” he says.

“[When I look] at how much we have achieved as an industry in the last 10 years with Green Star, it is a testament to how quickly we can adapt.

“Now the skills [required] are to collaborate and advocate for change to achieve a decarbonised building sector. It’s not about a closed door design process.”

One reply on “DesignInc’s John Macdonald wins AIA’s Leadership in Sustainability Award”

  1. If we wish that, in the next generation, all Australians will live and work in healthy, well designed buildings, then we must encourage our schools to offer courses in design that address the study of our built environment. The new National Curriculum does not address this need and I fear that our next generation will still be buying ugly big houses with south-facing windows made tolerable for living by the installation of heaters or air conditioners powered by non-renewable energy.
    In secondary schools we MUST bring the science, technology and art departments together to work on the development of a DESIGN curriculum that will inform the next generation of home buyers and office workers and thus empower them to demand sustainable design in the buildings they will inhabit.
    Input from professional designers is vital.

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