A University of Wollongong centre wants to go beyond sustainability – to a point where it is actively having a positive impact on the environment.
In late 2019, the University of Wollongong’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) became the first Australian site to gain Living Certified status under the Living Building Challenge (LBC).
The fiendishly difficult framework and certification program was created by the United States’ International Living Futures Institute (ILFI) in 2006 and had been met by only 23 other buildings in the world.
The SBRC was the third building outside the US to earn seven “petals” under the program, which represent standards around place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty.
It adds to the university’s reputation as a hub for sustainability innovation, following achievements such as winning the international Solar Decathlon competition in 2013 and placing second in 2018, SBRC founding Director, Senior Professor Paul Cooper said.
“I think nationally we’ve got quite a profile in terms of not just doing theoretical work on the performance of buildings and the impact of sustainability measures in the community, but actually demonstrating to people how you can go about achieving these new benchmarks,” Cooper told create.
The centre officially opened in 2014, and auditing for the rigorous LBC began in January 2015.
The principles it promotes — such as buildings being restorative rather than just sustainable — will become increasingly accepted by the building industry, believes Cooper.
“Some of the [newer] rating schemes … are thinking about the importance of the embodied emissions and embodied energy of the building. In other words: what greenhouse emissions were involved in the manufacture of the materials of the building, transporting them to site and constructing the building,” he said.
“With the advent of cost-effective photovoltaic panels and so on, operational emissions are trending towards zero and embodied [emissions] are the thing that we’re going to need to tackle in the future.”
The push to do more with less — or even negative — impact means it’s an exciting time for engineers, Cooper believes.
Expertise in building energy management, HVAC, artificial intelligence, data mining and advanced control systems will be “vitally important” to make buildings — which use 36 per cent of the world’s energy to run and construct — more efficient.
Cooper began at the University of Wollongong in 1988. His PhD at Imperial College London was in electro-hydrodynamic heat transfer.
As founding Director of SBRC, Cooper wanted the project to aim beyond the six-star Green Star Certification, which was a requirement for the Federal grant awarded in 2010 funding its construction.
SBRC Project Manager Lance Jeffrey and Cooper saw a keynote by the Living Futures Institute’s Chair Jason McLennan, and spotted their answer.
“One of the objectives of the Living Building Challenge is to move beyond the idea of sustainability, which, at its heart, I think means that we’re maintaining the current balance and … we are not repairing previous damage to the environment,” Cooper explained.
“The idea of the framework … is trying to go beyond that steady, sustainable side of things.”
LBC buildings must achieve net-positive energy, water and waste.
“A net-zero energy building is one where photovoltaic panels on the buildings provide exactly the same amount of energy over the course of the year as one would import from the grid,” Cooper said.
“Whereas a positive-energy building will produce more electricity than that on site. So that’s just one example.”
List of ingredients
One of the hardest petals to earn was for materials.
The “red list” — one of five imperatives under the petal — was particularly challenging.
It exists, says ILFI, “to identify and eliminate the worst-in-class chemicals and materials from a human and ecological health standpoint, across the lifecycle, from the built environment”.
Those include PVC, volatile organic compounds, bisphenol A and formaldehyde.
A thorough accounting of what was used had to be undertaken.
It was difficult, but Cooper agrees that transparency is a good thing for the building industry, and people should know the provenance of the materials they’re using.
“We needed to go to the manufacturers and find out what the constituents, what the ingredients were, if you like … It’s done in the food sector, and I would use the analogy of food labelling, where we’ve got a reasonably good system here whereby if you buy something off the supermarket shelf, you can see a list of ingredients so you know what you’re going to be eating,” he said.
The University of Wollongong’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre has three solar arrays totalling close to 600 panels and nearly 160 kW. Electricity is used by the building and nearby student accommodation, and the rest is exported to the grid.
Rainwater is collected, filtered and stored in a 65 kL subsurface tank. Water used and sent to the drain goes to a septic tank for anaerobic treatment, then subsurface wetland filtration, then raised absorption-bed filtering, before being used in subsurface irrigation.
The building features reused material, including reclaimed brick from four generations of Australian buildings, as well as railway track used in building columns and PV armature. Concrete and steel could not come from more than 500 km away.