Frasers Property Australia has announced its new Brickworks retail project at Burwood, Melbourne will target the stringent Living Building Challenge standard, and, to realise what seems a near-impossible feat, is calling on the world’s best minds to enter a global design competition to solve the problem of creating truly green retail.

Going after LBC certification is demanding enough for a commercial building, but for the notoriously un-green retail sector it is set to be even more difficult. In fact, according to the Living Future Institute of Australia, which administers the program, Brickworks is the first retail project in the world to consider LBC certification. It’s also the first Australian LBC project to be subject to a design comp.

To meet the Living Building Challenge, one of the world’s most exacting green building standards, developments must meet 20 “imperatives”, including being net positive on waste, water and energy, as well as creating humane places built at a human scale (there’s a challenge for retail), and having a healthy indoor environment.

Stephen Choi

Stephen Choi, vice-chair of the Living Future Institute of Australia, said he welcomed the news of a retail project pursuing LBC certification.

“Retail is a sector regrettably grounded in excess and waste,” Mr Choi said. “Shopping centre signs buzz at night, in-store mannequins are individually lit long after the customers have gone home, and we have somehow got to a point where we call natural daylight and fresh air ‘best practice’. In terms of how we design and build, it’s a sector in need of a fundamental shift and that is what the Living Building Challenge aims to deliver.”

Mr Choi told The Fifth Estate there was “a mixture of reasons” why no retail centre had pursued the Living Building Challenge before.

“Unpredictable tenants, long opening hours and a mix of stakeholders” would all add to the challenge of obtaining – and keeping – an LBC rating. And then there’s the building itself.

“Not many [retail centres] get built by very innovative thinkers,” he said. “They’re following a pretty standard model. Globally [retail construction is] quite simplistic in the way it works.”

The novelty of LBC in the retail context is part of why Frasers has gone down the design competition route.

“[A design competition is] good when you don’t know what the answer might be,” Mr Choi said.

While for commercial and educational facilities, there’s a fair idea of how a LBC standard can be met, for retail just how Frasers will get there is unclear.

Think about the amount of surface car parking in a traditional retail centre. According to Mr Choi, this would not make the cut for the Living Building Challenge. And what about the traditional “closed box” environment of supermarkets that don’t allow for natural light and ventilation, confusing layouts designed to keep buyers shopping, the amount of food waste generated by supermarkets and businesses in food courts, and heavy use of mechanical ventilation? All these problems and more will need to be solved to realise a truly sustainable retail centre.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” Mr Choi said, understatedly. “But that’s not a reason not to try.”

The competition, he said, was attempting to “dramatically raise the bar from a paradigm of doing less harm when we build, to one in which we view our role as steward and co-creator of a true living future”.

The Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong, NSW is currently pursuing LBC certification.

The view from Frasers

The development itself is set to comprise about 12,000 square metres of space, with about a third set for an anchor supermarket, with space also earmarked for childcare, a medical centre and about 30 specialty stores.

Frasers general manager – retail Peri Macdonald said the Living Building Challenge and design comp aimed to unlock new possibilities in sustainable design in retail.

“Frasers Property is aspiring not only to create the world’s most sustainable retail centre, but a project that actually generates a net positive, regenerative impact on the environment,” he said. “Ideally the challenge will uncover the kind of progressive design that will enable us to achieve our aspirations.”

Mr Mcdonald said the competition was “calling on extraordinary people to think boldly”.

“This design competition is not just about using tools or securing ratings, it invites design teams, professionals, students and anyone else interested to not just think outside the square, but re-invent the box.”

However, the success of design comp will be key to whether Frasers pursues a LBC rating, according to Frasers general manager, sustainability Paolo Bevilacqua.

“There’s no point in achieving a challenge if it doesn’t operate successfully as a retail centre,” he said. Though he is hopeful.

“Retail space is one that hasn’t had a lot of attention on the sustainability side of things, but it has a lot of opportunities,” Mr Bevilacqua said – most important of all the interactions with consumers and educational opportunities around sustainability.

Key will be engaging with tenants, who, along with a suitable design, will be crucial for realising the performance-based rating.

Mr Bevilacqua said Frasers had already had discussions with a supermarket (one of the major ones) who “indicated a strong interest to partner”.

He said there would be a number of criteria each tenant would have to agree to in order to be in the centre, which may change the tenancy mix and quality of tenants, attracting those who “share a similar vision or purpose”.

“The benefits [of the Living Building Challenge] are quite significant if done right.”

According to Mr Choi, mechanisms like green lease clauses could be explored to ensure tenants step up, though it was up to Frasers regarding which methods it would pursue.

“It’s impossible to hope for the best,” he said. “It’s all or nothing.”

The competition will be judged by a panel of industry experts, with more than $30,000 in prize money available to those who create “innovative designs that embrace true and holistic sustainability through the retail centre’s lifetime”.

Mr Choi said anyone from top-tier design firms to students were encouraged to enter. There’s a few retail specialists the competition is hoping to attract too.

Registration for the design competition will open Thursday 18 February, and will be formally launched in Melbourne on 3 March. The competition closes 6 May with results set to be announced in June 2016.

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  1. Congratulations Frasers and Stephen Choi for throwing down the gauntlet!