Should “beauty” be a requirement for a green building?


It’s been said the Living Building Challenge rating system is the toughest standard to achieve in terms of green building credentials. Is this because of the requirement for “beauty”?

Under this system, not only do buildings have to operate at net zero for energy, utilise local materials, entirely avoid a list of toxic substances including common plastics, and materials, operate at net zero for water and enhance human wellbeing – they also have to achieve the quality of “beauty”.

University of Wollongong’s Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) was the first project in Australia to register to achieve LBC certification.

Unlike some other tools, a further hurdle is that the building must be verified to have achieved its net zero benchmarks for 12 consecutive months post-occupancy.

Dr Craig McLauchlan, research facilities manager for SBRC, says that his team are hopeful the building will soon receive certification for some of the “petals” that constitute the various categories within the toolkit.

The Centre has already achieved a different green credential – a 6 Star Green Star Education v1 rating.

McLauchlan says the building is performing well since it was completed and occupied in 2013. 

It is operating at net zero for energy, and “doing well” with water, with the vast majority  supplied from harvested rainwater and nil discharge from site. 

Potable mains water consumption is around 150L per day, with up to 50 people, plus visitors, utilising water in the building each day.

For McLauchlan, the element of beauty is one of the features of the building that is most important

“Beauty can be under-sold and under-appreciated,” he says. 

Yet it is one of the things that gives a building its significance and contributes to longevity.

He gives the example of a cathedral that has been utilised for centuries. Its beauty and significance are “why it is still there”, and it has a connection to “story”.

“Beauty can be under-sold and under-appreciated”

After working as an engineer in a steelworks for 15 years prior to moving across to UoW, McLauchlan has a genuine appreciation for the beauty of the SRBC, he says, believing that it also means a lot to visitors who come into the building, giving them a “fresh perspective.”

While there have been some measures of occupant experience – such as the use of BOSSA for post-occupancy surveys of thermal comfort and occupant satisfaction – that have shown users are content, there is simply a “feeling” when people come into the building that is positive.

“It is a really nice place to be.”

The first thing people see when they enter the main space is the SRBC kitchen, he says, which features a green wall and timber finishes.

The kitchen is the main meeting place, and McLauchlan believes it “says something” about the building when the kitchen is the main focal point.

While his role is to keep the research labs working, the “hardest working bit of research equipment is the [kitchen] coffee machine” – because collaboration over coffee in the kitchen is a major feature of researchers’ working lives at the SRBC.

“The building’s passive design is working well to deliver thermal and energy performance goals”

McLauchlan explains that natural ventilation is used whenever possible, as is natural lighting.

Some of the passive design elements include solar access, shading, a reverse façade and daylighting.

The success of the passive design means the building is not only “pretty comfortable” but also there is a reduced workload for the mechanical systems and the Building Management System.

One of the lessons for the facilities management team has been a note for future projects on the location of windows designed to operate automatically for ventilation. 

They need to be positioned in a way that enables safe access if they require manual operation because they have become “stuck” in an open or shut position.

McLauchlan says that in a mixed-mode building it can be easy to forget about the windows in terms of attention and maintenance too.

Another major learning has been how effective passive design can be. 

When a building works well passively, there is less need for “intervention” from building mechanical and BMS systems.

So the simplest way to achieve a highly sustainable building is to start looking at energy saving in terms of the design of the building, and also in terms of the design of everything inside the building including IT.

SRBC’s solar PV system.
Photograph courtesy of University of Wollongong.

Then design the energy generation systems to match the use profile. At the SRBC the generation includes solar PV, wind, and storage, in addition to a ground-source heat pump system.

Another lesson for the project team was around the structuring of contracts. 

The HVAC system involved two different contractors, one for the zoning controls, one for the HVAC system itself. 

This made for added complexity when working through some minor issues during commissioning and tuning.

Even an advanced sustainable building can still suffer from some issues, says McLauchlan.

the passive design means the building is not only “pretty comfortable” but also there is a reduced workload for the mechanical systems and the Building Management System

But it’s also important not to depict the advanced sustainable building as a “problem child”, when the same issues are just as likely to occur at the business-as-usual building next door.

The SBRC has become a real showcase for the university, attracting industry, local councils and even school groups to learn about sustainable building.

“It is a flagship and exemplar of what you can do when you really try and what is possible.”

1 comment
  1. Beauty is important because people campaign to keep beautiful buildings and they maintain and renovate them so they last a long time and keep that embedded carbon safe.
    Steve Mouzon wrote a book about it called “The Original Green” in which he sets out some principles of long-lasting building. Worth a look.
    I think it’s important that beauty is understood as culturally specific and following demonstrable principles specific to each culture. You can demonstrate these as specific proportional relationships (as in the work of Joachim Langhein) and in human preferences for naturally-derived detail (as now demonstrated in a host of peer-reviewed eye-tracking studies). Beauty isn’t ‘in the eye of the beholder’ in this sense, but depends on a set of – culturally specific – relationships, proportions, details and decorative elements.

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