2020 hindsight – the University of Melbourne’s emissions reduction journey since 2007

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The University of Melbourne has committed to achieve a 4 Star rating for all major building refurbishments.

“The Spot”, constructed for the University of Melbourne’s Business and Economics faculty, was reported to be the first 5 Star Green Star university building in Australia. Constructed in Pelham Street, Carlton, it is, effectively, a test-bed for multiple sustainability approaches and technologies.

Colin Reiter, the university’s director, campus services, says the decision to build the then $145m building to the 5 Star Green Star standard was part of the university’s larger 2007 objective to reduce its carbon footprint by 50 per cent by 2010.

Since then, the university has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

The Spot was reportedly the country’s first 5 Star Green Star university.

Audits uncovered inefficiencies

When the university’s Sustainability Plan was first being developed, Reiter says an audit to measure the carbon footprint and identify potential energy savings, was undertaken by specialist energy consultants, Energetics, of over 130 buildings at UoM’s main Parkville campus.

The audit quantified the carbon footprint at 135,000 TCO2e and recommended works to reduce this footprint by 25,000 tonnes each year through a series of works, later estimated to cost $3.5m.

As energy reduction works alone were never going to be the sole actions to achieve the 50 per cent carbon reduction, and ultimately carbon neutrality, the university’s Sustainability Plan also committed to achieve a 5 Star Green Star rating for all new buildings and 4 Star for all its major refurbishments.

Having now operated a 5 Star Green Star building for nearly a decade, Reiter says it is worth reflecting on what has been achieved over that time, particularly related to the sustainability elements designed into the building, such as frets on the glazing to act as a “thermal curtain”, energy efficient lighting systems, a chilled beam HVAC system, waterless urinals and a new black water treatment plant.

A good result, but not all wine and roses

Reiter says the outcome is a building that uses 46 per cent less energy than a comparable 26,000 sqm building. But some of the sustainability elements used to achieve the rating, and energy reduction, continue to present challenges to building owners.

The chilled beam system, used throughout much of the building, uses ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) pipework and has been the source of multiple water leaks since its construction, causing damage to the furnishings and disruptions to teaching and learning.

More than 400 repairs have been needed, to date. Now the university is working with the building construction company to replace most of the pipework with a more suitable material and support mechanism.

Reiter says it is difficult to undertake such extensive works within a purpose-built building and to find suitable alternative accommodation to decant staff and students.

The blackwater treatment system is intended to recycle waste water, primarily for toilet flushing purposes. However, as the building produces more water than is required to top up the toilet cisterns, much of the treated water is ultimately discharged to the sewer.

Reiter says, “ideally such systems, to be cost effective, would have downstream uses that exceed or match demand so that this valuable resource can be utilised – for example, garden watering.”

to “engineer out” emissions through new buildings alone would take 200 years to replace all of its 410 buildings

Unfortunately, with regard to The Spot, there are no other uses within or adjacent to the building that can benefit from the excess treated water. Even the building’s urinals were built as “waterless” and do not require the treated water available within the building.

Reiter says a blackwater system would be a more effective initiative as part of a precinct, or a system for several buildings where there would be higher uptake of the treated water.

Beaurepaire Pool employs a concentrated solar thermal system to heat its water.
Photo courtesy of University of Melbourne

A living laboratory

At the same time, he says there is value to the university beyond the simple cost of the water produced and saved. The Sustainability Plan, via the “Campus as a Living Laboratory” objective, seeks to use such opportunities to provide students with real life, hands-on applications to study and learn from the technologies being implemented to achieve carbon neutrality.

Another, more recent, example of the Campus as a Living Laboratory is at the university’s heritage listed Beaurepaire Pool, where a concentrated solar thermal system has been installed to heat the water.

The pool project has been part of a wider package of $8.5m works, supported by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, to reduce the university’s carbon footprint by 4000 TCO2 and its power bill by $800,000 per year.

Reiter says the University of Melbourne really wants to achieve its sustainability goals to reduce its exposure to the significant increases in electricity, gas, water and waste costs.

the university is now pursuing a Smart Campus Energy Upgrade program of works to existing buildings valued at $45 million

While five new buildings completed since 2007 have achieved superior emissions performance through Green Star design approaches, he says to “engineer out” emissions through new buildings alone would take 200 years to replace all of its 410 buildings.

Energy intensity versus energy use

Mr Reiter also says that a focus of the University has been on reducing energy intensity, as a better measure of success than gross annual energy use, because the university is continuing to grow its building footprint at around 10 per cent a year, or more.

The energy intensity on a per square metre basis needs to reduce from 0.9 gigajoules per square metre GFA to 0.6, and this is guiding efforts.

The university has established a leadership position in the procurement of clean energy, Reiter says, signing Power Purchase Agreements with two windfarms in Victoria.

The renewable energy certificates derived from the output of the windfarms will offset the university’s emissions from electricity consumption.

This will, effectively, make the entire building portfolio zero net emissions from electricity – a target in the Sustainability Plan.

Improving existing buildings

Buoyed by the success of the CEFC project, which included the installation of over 7000 solar panels, including those on The Spot, the university is now pursuing a Smart Campus Energy Upgrade program of works to existing buildings valued at $45 million.

This program has been developed with its consultants, Aurecon, who have identified lighting upgrades, HVAC efficiency improvements and building thermal performance improvements as the next range of works that can be undertaken.

The University of Melbourne really wants to achieve its sustainability goals to reduce its exposure to the significant increases in electricity, gas, water and waste costs.
Photo courtesy of University of Melbourne

Reiter says there is a major difference between the technology that can be used for a new building like the recently completed 6 Star Green Star School of Architecture and Design and an upgrade of an existing building.

“With a new building, you can build [the technologies] in,” he says. “But once people are in a building you are limited in terms of what you can do.”

The easy wins for existing buildings include lighting upgrades, replacing chillers with high-efficiency equipment, adjusting HVAC set points, and upgrading building automation systems.

A major push within the Smart Campus Energy Upgrade program is to significantly improve the air tightness of our existing buildings, Reiter says.

This will help retain heating energy (winter) and cooling energy (summer) produced by the HVAC systems, inside buildings. To date, work has already been completed on some building foyers to install revolving or sliding doors and upgrade airlocks.

There is also a cultural dimension to improving the energy footprint. Reiter outlines three steps – getting the strategy right; engaging people to explain that they should not expect the indoor air temperature to be 22 degrees all day; and “walking the talk” by ensuring the building operates efficiently by using a greater range of temperature set points (18 degrees in winter to 24 degrees in summer).

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes

At Melbourne, the dress code has changed to match the strategy, with all staff, from the Vice Chancellor down, encouraged to “dress sensibly” for the seasons. The suit and tie are not regarded as appropriate for warm weather, and warm garments are expected for cooler weather.

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