The Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong is a multidisciplinary facility designed to address the challenge of transforming our buildings and built environment into sustainable, resilient and effective places for people to live and work. Buildings have major economic, environmental and social impacts on the community and the planet. IMAGE: The Sustainable Buildings Research Centre. Image credit: Paul Jones.

Between a quarter and a half of all greenhouse emissions result from the use of buildings. As such, the aim of the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) is to research, collaborate, and link with industry to meet the challenge of improving the performance of new and existing building stock. The SBRC is focused on making buildings more liveable, more sustainable, more costeffective, and kinder to the environment. With research themes that range from sustainable and efficient energy usage, utilisation, generation and storage, through to human factors like health, comfort and wellbeing, the SBRC takes a holistic approach to buildings.

According to Professor Tim McCarthy (Director, SBRC), “The SBRC is interested in everything to do with sustainable building. The range of projects we work on is quite eclectic. We do everything from building bushfire resilience, re-engineering of more sustainable supply chains, and affordable heating and cooling. We’ve worked with the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Lands Council on the retrofit of a building to achieve net zero energy usage. We have a raft of projects on the power quality side of things. As the amount of renewable energy increases in the grid, it places stress on the old grid, and creates opportunities for new microgrids on the energy provision side,” said Professor McCarthy.

It comes as no surprise then, that the SBRC has access to a working micro-grid with standard and hybrid residential and commercial solar photovoltaics systems, spread across several buildings on the University of Wollongong (UOW) Innovation Campus. The micro-grid also includes small scale electrical and thermal energy storage, a plug-and-play distributed generation connection panel, 30kVA rated fully regenerative arbitrary waveform generator and passive adjustable load bank, a DC fast charger for electric vehicles, and extensive building submeter and portable instrumentation.

Living laboratories

As Senior Professor Paul Cooper explains, “Right from the very beginning the SBRC has had a focus on Living Laboratories that are able to test new systems and products. Our Living Laboratories include two Solar Decathlon Houses.”

The Solar Decathlon is the world’s largest sustainable architecture contest that challenges student teams to design and build highly efficient and innovative buildings powered by renewable energy.

The SBRC’s first Solar Decathlon House is known as the Illawarra Flame House, and won the 2013 Solar Decathlon China Competition with a world record score. Following the competition in Datong (300km west of Beijing), the House was shipped back to Wollongong and has since been a unique test facility and Living Laboratory for the SBRC.

The House is used a research tool in many areas, from advanced HVAC and electrical energy systems control, through to moisture research in building envelopes.

The Desert Rose House—the UOW’s second Solar Decathlon House—won second place in the Solar Decathlon Middle East Competition in November 2018. More than 200 students volunteered from the University of Wollongong and TAFE NSW, to take part in the Desert Rose House project—a net zero energy eco-friendly home that was architecturally inspiring, innovative and adaptive to a person’s needs as they age.

The home’s design takes into account the challenges people may encounter when living with dementia and other age-related disabilities. The unique features means the home will adapt to the occupant through the years, making it ‘A House for Life’.

With hundreds of industry sponsors supporting both projects, including household names like Daikin and BlueScope, the teams were able to push the boundaries in design and purpose with industry mentors supporting and championing the various innovation initiatives.

Building insights facility

“One of our most exciting projects is the Building Insights Facility. The new Facility features a very large pair of climate chambers, which are unique in the Southern Hemisphere. There are only a couple of places in the world that have similar capabilities.

The new Facility allows us to work with clients that would previously have had to conduct tests overseas because this scale of facility just didn’t exist in Australia before,” said Professor McCarthy.

The Building Insights Facility is capable of measuring the thermodynamic, hygroscopic and environmental performance of large scale building elements. While the primary function of the Facility is the testing of facades, wall systems, and building envelope elements on the outside of environmental chambers, its flexibility also enables efficiency testing of HVAC systems, and performance testing of indoor environmental quality, thermal comfort and air distribution systems.

“The Building Insights Facility links in with some of the work we will be doing in one of our major projects with the Steel Innovation Research Hub. We’re working on a key project with BlueScope investigating the complex way that walls and roofs and the envelope of the building work in terms of heat transfer and condensation. The Facility will be key as we start to test innovative building systems. We are also involved in the Prefab Innovation Hub that is being funded through the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC). Our role is to test the sustainability of modular and prefab buildings,” said Professor Cooper.

“As part of the first Steel Innovation Research Hub, we worked on a project that looked at how steel can impact sustainability. We all know steel has a heavy carbon footprint. But, with its high strength to weight ratio and little waste, steel can be sustainable.”

“The main issue with utilising steel is embodied carbon within a building. So, we looked at the use of light gauge steel for mid rise buildings. We found that using light gauge steel in a seven storey apartment block has about 40 per cent less mass than the concrete equivalent—this has a huge impact on embodied carbon and foundation design. In addition, because light gauge steel structural elements are effectively made by robots, there is little waste.”

“Steel also has a very high recycling rate, which is essential because ‘end of life’ is a really big part of sustainability. We can even extract steel from reinforced concrete at the end of life. That circulatory is one of the important features of sustainability. With steel, you’re not down-cycling—crushing it into a lower grade material—you can actually make it into fresh steel,” said Professor Cooper.

Sustainable buildings research centre building project

The SBRC building project began when the UOW won a $25.1 million capital works grant from the Australian Government to build a new facility.

Once the funding for the project was established, the UOW leadership team developed a vision for the SBRC building, which was to be a 2,600m2 flagship facility for sustainability at the UOW. It was decided that, as the home of a centre of excellence for sustainable buildings, the design of the SBRC building needed to go well beyond the existing Australian sustainability benchmarks.

The choice of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) as the main sustainability framework for the design of the building was then a logical step to take. The LBC framework provided both the SBRC leadership team and the design team with a holistic way of approaching the challenge of delivering an outstandingly sustainable building, without being overly prescriptive and restricting the creativity of all involved.

Administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), the LBC certifies projects that meet ambitious green building performance standards through a framework of seven ‘Petals’— stringent performance standards and metrics covering energy use, site utilisation, health and happiness, equity, beauty, water and materials used.

Living Certified buildings have met the criteria for all seven petals. There are only 24 buildings in the world that have met all seven Petals and are considered Living Certified; an exclusive list that now includes the SBRC.

IMAGE: The SBRC’s Building Insights Facility. Image credit: Paul Jones.