Seven steps to sustainable success
While we tend to look at buildings as simple, single and solitary structures, in fact buildings are a collection of parts, writes ROBIN MELLON, executive director – Advocacy and International at the Green Building Council of Australia.
A building – especially a green building – is a ‘system’, as defined in the dictionary as ‘an assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole’.
The envelope, the structure, the orientation, the design and the façade – these are all parts of the ‘complex or unitary whole’, as are the people who use the building, the flora and fauna and surroundings of the building, the local economies and social connections.
The word ‘Passivhaus’ has emerged as a common term in the green media recently, as an example of how buildings alone can overcome the burdens and demands placed upon them. But the building is simply one element within a whole range of complex parts that provide and connect services – the people, the blinds, the lighting, the blackwater treatment plant, the water meters, the cyclist facilities and showers, the ventilation. Even a Passivhaus needs active components – active people, active technology, active strategies – to raise the blinds, process the waste, turn on and off the lights, fine-tune the buildings.
While good passive design can help a building to reduce its environmental impact, it is a combination of these complex parts that will help buildings – and communities – to have a net positive effect upon their surroundings, rather than just ‘minimise harm’.
The work of the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) – and the detail of the Green Star rating tools – is all about rewarding and encouraging this ‘systems’ approach, which integrates buildings as part of a complex human and technological system.
Green Star encourages project teams to look beyond the building – just as, within the building, we encourage them to look beyond energy efficiency to the indoor environment quality, the management, the emissions and how they all interact.
With this in mind, we’ve developed ‘seven steps to sustainable success’ which will result in the best building outcomes for both people and the environment.
STEP ONE: OCCUPANTS
Good green design starts with a consideration of the building’s occupants. Who are they and what do they need from this building? When the City of Gosnells, WA, decided to revamp its office accommodation, for instance, it asked its staff to outline the defining physical features which would assist the council to become an ‘employer of choice’ with a culture of sustainability.
The staff vision was for an equitable workplace with ease of movement across all departments promoting positive, stimulating and collaborative relationships. They wanted a flexible office that could allow for changes in project work teams and evolve with time. They wanted fresh air, natural light, views of the outdoors and a high degree of indoor comfort. They wanted recreational facilities that promoted healthy transport alternatives.
The vision outlined by the City of Gosnells staff (see photo above) has been translated into a 5 Star Green Star-rated office built on basic, common sense, green design principles. And the City of Gosnells is able to ‘walk its talk’ with a daily demonstration of its commitment to its staff and the local environment.
STEP TWO: PASSIVE DESIGN FEATURES
Smart, passive design solutions are the next consideration. How can you use the climate, local environment and surroundings, natural features, materials and orientation to improve the performance of the building?
For instance, simple passive design techniques that assist in controlling ventilation and the temperature of a building, without the use of any mechanical systems, should form the basis of building design and retrofit work. Reductions in energy needs can be achieved through site orientation, window glazing and shading, good thermal mass and insulation appropriate to the climatic conditions. Features such as these can enable mechanical heating, ventilation and cooling systems to be downsized. In essence, the better the building façade, structure and orientation, the less energy required inside.
Trevor Pearcey House, the two-storey headquarters of Australian Ethical Investment in Canberra, was more than 20 years old when it underwent a retrofit with a focus on simple, passive systems and reuse of materials. The building was awarded a 6 Star Green Star rating for its green achievements, demonstrating that low-technology design principles and a modest budget of $1.7 million can produce a cutting-edge green building.
Significant improvements were made to the building fabric such as external wall insulation, upgraded roof insulation, operable double opening double-glazed windows, upgraded external shading, exposed internal mass and the addition of thermal chimneys. These features allow the building to utilise natural ventilation for space conditioning and significantly reduce the need for heating or cooling.
After its first year of operation, greenhouse gas emissions from Trevor Pearcey House fell by around two-thirds, and it now operates at 47 percent less than the standard for a 5 Star NABERS Energy-rated building. This translates into an annual saving of around $17,000 on energy costs alone.
STEP THREE: SYSTEMS & TECHNOLOGIES
Once passive design has been considered, then it’s time to look at how to ‘trim’ the load down yet further by introducing a range of systems and technologies. Many iconic green buildings – from the first 6 Star Green Star-rated building, CH2, to the highest scoring Green Star building, Pixel, integrate innovative tri-generation, water heat exchange, solar or geothermal technology to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. At Westfield’s iconic 100 Market Street project, which is located below Sydney Tower, a highly efficient tri-generation system provides approximately 25 percent of the base load, uses the waste heat from on-site gas-fired electricity generation to supply hot water as a by-product, and provides heat to absorption chillers for conversion to cooling for the building. On-site generation substantially reduces peak energy demand, future-proofing the development against both rising peak and base electricity costs. This measure will help 100 Market Street deliver a 41 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
STEP FOUR: USE OF THE BUILDING
As we continue to construct buildings designed to high environmental standards, we need to ensure they also perform to that standard. It’s certainly true that you can build a 6 Star Green Star building that represents ‘world leadership’ but fail to fine-tune it, maintain it or ensure occupants understand how to use it.
Just as you can have a high-performance car and drive it badly, you can have a high-performance building that doesn’t live up to its design potential. However, if you are taught how to drive a Ferrari, and you understand the need to service it, you’re more likely to have a high-performance vehicle that achieves peak performance. This is where the users of the building come in.
Innova21, the University of Adelaide’s new building for the Faculty of Engineering, Computer & Mathematical Sciences, achieved a 6 Star Green Star rating for a range of environmentally sustainable features. Innova21 has also been designed for use as a learning resource itself. As the building will be used primarily to teach engineering students, a secondary building management system was designed and installed to allow students to interact directly with the building’s controls and operations function, while keeping their actions separate from the primary BMS (building management system). This enhances students’ understanding of sustainable design and allows them to gain ‘real world’ experience in modifying building controls without adversely affecting the running of the building.
STEP FIVE: MANAGEMENT
The ongoing, integrated, intelligent management of a building is essential to ensure it remains efficient, flexible and adaptable. Effective management will maximise the lifetime of the buildings and its contents.
At the world’s greenest convention centre, the 6 Star Green Star-rated Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), a dedicated ‘green team’ is responsible for implementing new strategies to benchmark and enhance the building’s environmental performance. To maintain optimum performance and deliver the best environmental outcomes, the facility management team regularly tweaks the building’s central plant and building systems. In order to understand the impact of these changes, operational data is regularly collected and analysed to establish a baseline from which it can drive improvements. The building owner, Plenary Group, expects to have enough data by 2011 to produce a reliable baseline, which will help to deliver optimal operational performance across the centre’s entire events calendar.
STEP SIX: COMMUNITY
It goes without saying that our sustainability aspirations cannot be realised if we segregate the built environment from its surroundings. Buildings are a function of the community within which they operate, and so we must consider the needs of the community when designing and delivering our buildings.
Rather than focussing on building singular green ‘icons’, a community-wide approach to sustainability will deliver impressive efficiencies of scale. We’re looking to a not-too-distant future of precinct-wide energy management systems, as well as integrated rain and wastewater systems. The GBCA is currently leading the Green Star Communities project, and is developing a tool to rate sustainable communities. This new tool will ultimately set a new national development benchmark, which ensures that what we develop today has an enduring and positive impact for all Australians.
STEP SEVEN: CONSIDER ANY FUTURE RETROFITS
The seventh step is to think ahead to the building’s future and assess how and when a refurbishment, retrofit or ‘refresh’ may extend the building’s life. Considering the building’s lifecycle at the early stages of design and planning can result in a more flexible, adaptable and sustainable building. So, plan for fitout items such as carpets that can be ‘bought back’ at the end of their useful life. Ask yourself if the space is able to be reconfigured to support changing work dynamics. More flexible spaces are more sustainable in the long run, and planning for retrofits will help achieve better outcomes.
As the Green Building Council of Australia’s (GBCA) executive director for Advocacy and International, Robin Mellon is currently steering the GBCA’s advocacy agenda with all three tiers of government. Mellon works closely with the GBCA’s Advocacy Committee to set the strategic and advocacy goals for the organisation, and mentors newly emerging green building councils, such as the Israel GBC.
Mellon teaches Green Star courses around Australia, represents the GBCA on sustainability committees, and regularly presents at conferences to encourage best practice. He brings to the GBCA a broad knowledge of the international property market, a passion for sustainability, and extensive experience of working in landscape management within Australia.
Top image: The City of Gosnells’ municipal offices reflect employees’ desire for an equitable, open organisational structure with ease of movement between departments.