Co-CEO of Australian architecture studio, BVN, Ninotschka Titchkosky, talked to The Fifth Estate ahead of last month’s Building Circularity conference about the importance of technology, low-carbon materials and innovation.

BVN is passionate about deploying building circularity in its work, from its biggest projects, such as Atlassian’s hybrid timber tower, to smaller details such as the shape of air-conditioning ducts, as well as in the adaptive reuse of older buildings.

The Australian-based studio is using state-of-the art technology, such as robotics, experimenting with new, lower carbon materials, and working in collaboration with everyone from builders and engineers to universities and government agencies.

The goal is a dramatic reduction in embodied carbon in new buildings and existing stock, says Titchkosky, who addressed the The Fifth Estate’s conference about BVN’s work, and took part in one of of the conference’s panel sessions.

It’s a goal the sector is beginning to embrace, she says, but most builders are innovative only within the conventional framework of design and construction.

“I do see change, I really do. I think part of it is clients, a really big part of it is construction and the rest of the system. In the end, we have to have an industry that is willing to innovate because even if the client has the aspiration they are [often] told that it can’t be done,” she says.

“We really need to push past what we know into some of the more radical territory because if we don’t we are just tinkering around the edges.”

Envisioning new ways of designing building services has played a key role at BVN.

 “The services that support us in existing office buildings really haven’t changed that much over the past 50 years yet we are starting to occupy space in a more fluid way,” says Titchkosky.

“For example, why are we occupying space with big metal air-conditioning ducts that have about 50 to 60 per cent embodied carbon and that are very difficult to modify? 

“We are now exploring [new designs for] ducts, creating a system that breathes like a frog’s skin. The whole skin is breathing, it is fully modular so it is really easy to change, and it is aesthetically distributed like a system of veins that go through the ceiling plane.

“It is all digitally designed. We have done a lot of work around fluid dynamics. We have explored the fact that air does not move in squares, it moves in fluid pathways so why doesn’t the system represent that? 

“This system we are designing has about 90 per cent less embodied carbon than a conventional duct system.”

However, taking new designs and products to the market is not easy, she says.

“We have just about finished the demonstration project and the research papers so we are at the point where we will soon have a completed proof of project. Going to commercialisation of something like this is a pretty big step. I don’t know if we will get to that step or not … That would require additional funding and industry backing.

“This project has been done in collaboration with University of Technology Sydney, The Footprint Company and Arup and we have taken it to a certain level. By the end of this year we will be ready to talk more publicly about it and we can gauge interest at that point.”

The role of technology in innovation

New technologies can help crack open problems and shift the way designers, builders and engineers think about things, says Titchkosky.

“People are really interested in the 3D printing processes … We can optimise materials in a way we can’t do at the moment, finely tune what we are producing, use new materials that have less carbon, use less labour, just use what we need and no more.

“In Australia, we need to start thinking about large-scale 3D printing so one of the next projects we would like to do is large-scale 3D printed concrete.

“It can’t just be done architecturally. Construction needs to come on board with these things to enable clients to make those choices.”

It helps to have clients with courage, such as software giant Atlassian, which has commissioned a 40-storey hybrid timber tower.

“I would say Atlassian is the most courageous client we are working with. Our industry is constantly putting red flags up about why something can’t be done. That is something I really hope we can move away from.”

How far you can push sustainability in a building depends also on the site and the type of building.

“The Atlassian building has a constricted site and it is very tall, so it has a different set of constraints from a low scraper.”

Atlassian wanted to retain its culture of familiarity so the building has been designed in subsets of four levels called habitats. 

“Each habitat has access to a park, there is a shift to natural ventilation as you move closer to the façade, and there is a combination of timber, steel and concrete.

“The building is really designed to be a democratic model of a tower, a building that moves away from being a hermetically sealed box,” says Titchkosky. 

It is split into zones of outdoors, indoors and mid-doors. There are parts of the building that are air-conditioned; others are mixed mode, and there are also fully naturally ventilated spaces.

“We are starting to think in a more nuanced way about how we occupy spaces in the sky and how we stay in touch with nature and our environment.”

Sustainable materials

Currently, the world’s tallest fully timber building is 18 floors, and the technology to build one as tall as Atlassian plans doesn’t yet exist.

“Timber has so many great qualities. We did a big project at ANU with Lendlease that had two big buildings. We had a 70 per cent reduction in labour compared with a conventional build … 13 people built it, with three of them on the crane. The whole building was put together like a Meccano set, all the facades were prefabricated so construction time was reduced.

“When you go on site it is incredibly clean and quiet, and when the building is finished the aesthetic qualities and the warmth of the timber is outstanding. You are not then layering on additional materials to create the human habitat component.

“I am a big fan of timber; it is a no-brainer to use it where you can. And we are getting better pathways for supply and tender in Australia.”

The industry is developing a number of “green” concrete products but more work needs to be done, she says.

“You can 3D print concrete, which can optimise form, and without steel reinforcing. I think there is a really good future for concrete, we just need to keep working on it.

“Interestingly, there is no industry in Australia that manufactures green steel. There may be a production facility opening up in South Australia but at the moment you cannot buy green steel on scale in Australia. If we can change our production methodologies, steel will make a better contribution to embodied carbon.”

Existing building stock

We mustn’t forget that only about 1-2 per cent of our building stock consists of new buildings, a sector BVN has been concentrating on for some time.

“I think the potential is only limited to our imagination. We have cut big holes in buildings, we have opened them up, we have completely transformed what even the client thought was a defunct piece of building stock. 

“There are really good examples of how you can reinvent existing buildings. You can do it spatially, with services … We can’t keep going with the knock-down mentality. While it may be cheaper in the capital cost, it is not cheaper for the planet and a whole range of other things.”

The solutions always come back to innovation.

“In NSW we have design excellence but I would support moving to something like innovation excellence where it is not just about the design but innovation within the whole model,” whether that be in construction or occupancy or leasing, says Titchkosky.

She would also like to see more construction companies invest.

Her ideal builder is someone who is introducing incremental innovations to conventional builds but who is also investing “in the space of tomorrow and thinking about more radical innovations”.

“What’s worked really well for us is finding a real-world problem and bringing partners together to solve that problem. If everyone did that … we could together lift the entire industry.”

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