Sustainable buildings – 10-years later, are they living up to the promise?

Total
12
Shares

Bond University’s Mirvac School of Sustainable Development building was the first in Australia to be awarded a 6 Star Green Star Education PILOT rating when it was opened in August 2008 by then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

The Vice Chancellor at the time, Trevor C Rowe, said the building reflected the university’s goal to have a “living laboratory” for sustainable building approaches and technologies.

But things change, including governments and vice chancellors, and not always in ways that benefit a building or the wider sustainability mission.

Ned Wales, Senior Teaching Fellow in Sustainable Environments and Planning at Bond, says that when the building first opened, it gave the university “considerable green credibility” and drew both national and international attention from students and academics interested in sustainability.

Ned Wales
Bond University

It also won a slew of awards across architecture, construction and sustainability categories.

Among the noteworthy features were passive solar design, mixed-mode ventilation, zoned HVAC and sensor-controlled lighting, solar PV, 50kW wind turbine, rainwater harvesting and re-use, on-site grey water treatment, landscaping according to water sensitive urban design principles, low VOC fixtures and finishes and the use of recycled materials. Even the carpets are leased, to reduce the lifecycle impact.

The building was also designed for disassembly, with the aim of at least 45 per cent of building materials being recyclable, Wales says.

As academics and other staff settled into the building, some issues emerged in terms of the difference between the expectations that informed design and operational experiences.

Wales says the centralised and automated controls for lighting proved occasionally problematic, either not delivering enough illumination to supplement natural light on overcast days or in the evenings in areas such as lecture theatres and learning spaces, or spaces being too well-lit during extremely bright days.

At its inception, the building was also part of a wider trend for the design and delivery of best practice green university buildings

Users had no ability to manually control lighting.

Another discovery was the impact that a change of university leadership, government or facilities management team can have on a building like this one.

“A change to administrative leadership can make a big difference in what is valued as important, or not important,” Wales says.

The importance of sustainable development declined under subsequent administrators, and more broadly in the state’s property sector, as the Abbott government’s policy stances took hold.

At its inception, the building was also part of a wider trend for the design and delivery of best practice green university buildings, led by the Rudd and Gillard Governments, that continued during the Global Financial Crisis.

In the post-GFC industry, and in the changed anti-sustainability policy climate of the early Abbott years, Wales explains the development sector in South East Queensland returned to business as usual, because it was seen as “safe”.

“Culture is such a big driver.”

The “moments of genius” that delivered buildings like the SDB were no longer supported at a broader policy level.

“The government’s energy policy is a classic example.”

The flow-on effect is there is no certainty given “in the right directions” for industry.

Overall, Australia is both very drought-prone and has a growing population. It also has an economy “underpinned by cheap fossil fuel energy”, 92 per cent of it imported, Wales says.

The “moments of genius” that delivered buildings like the SDB were no longer supported at a broader policy level

These facts make striving for energy-efficient, renewables-equipped and water-efficient buildings important.

However, even the best-designed plans to deliver them can go awry.

The SDB was designed to have a biodiesel back-up generator, for example. The space is constructed, the electrical infrastructure in place – but it was never purchased and commissioned.

It was also designed and constructed to use no mains potable water, with all water for use in the building derived from on-site harvesting and rainwater storage, on-site rainwater treatment to produce potable water, and on-site grey water treatment and reticulation for amenities flushing and irrigation.

Landscaping according to water sensitive urban design principles.
Photograph courtesy of Paul Dielemans

Wales says that Gold Coast City Council mandated a mains water connection, so one water point was installed for mains water and in later years “turned on.”

But in 2011, a leadership team made a decision that, as the water systems required some significant maintenance, all of the recycled water system and on-site treatment system would be removed and mains water used for potable requirements instead.

Initially, there was also an induction process for new building users and occupants. A building users guide explained how to operate the building, and a basic orientation would be conducted.

This also fell by the wayside, and Wales says there are now only a few remaining people who had the induction and know how users should operate the building.

“Initially there was a culture that was almost competitive in terms of everyone [in the academic offices] wanting to be smallest consumer of energy,” he says.

Where the plan is to “hang onto it” there is likely to be more concern about ongoing costs

There was talk of introducing measuring and monitoring of each office’s energy use.

Yet again, a shift in the culture saw this level of engagement dissipate.

The building did however demonstrate the business case for its sustainability agenda.

Wales says that in 2008 dollars, the cost of the building was $14 million, compared to a “business as usual” building, without sustainable development principles included, which would have would cost around $9 million.

The savings on energy bills from the solar PV coupled with efficiency measures and water bill savings meant the $5 million price difference achieved payback within just five years.

Wales says that whether a building is going to be constructed for immediate sale or whether it is being constructed as an asset to be retained, as a university tends to do, is an important consideration.

Projects built for sale aim to “build cheap” and sell for maximum price. Where the plan is to “hang onto it” there is likely to be more concern about ongoing costs.

Comment on this story

Sign up for our newsletter

Get the latest news from The Fifth Estate straight to your inbox twice a week.