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New Structure is Part of Its Own Research Project

By Kevin Wilcox

A new sustainability center in Australia was designed so researchers can plug new technologies into the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.

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The dramatic roofs of the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at University of Wollongong serve as research sites, holding a large array of photovoltaic panels. © Richard Glover Photography

October 14, 2014—The new Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) cuts a dramatic profile on the campus of the University of Wollongong on a high-profile site close to a rugged escarpment with a view of the nearby sea. Beneath the building's sweeping roofline is an innovative structure that will not only house research, but actively participate in it as well.

The design is the work of Cox Architecture, of Sydney, Australia, which won a national design competition to develop the center. The university specified an approximately 2,700 sq m facility with an additional 900 sq m external test area to research sustainable retrofit strategies for Australia's existing building stock, according to Michael Bradburn, an associate at Cox Architecture.

"The building embraces its wider context of mountain escarpment and ocean," said Bradburn, who provided written answers to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. "The program is split into two, resulting in two linked buildings which together frame and engage a water course and landscape corridor. Metaphorically, this forms a ribbon between escarpment and ocean."

Bradburn explained that by splitting the facility into two joined structures—an office building and a research building—the team was able to make each structure thinner in the north-south direction, better facilitating natural ventilation and daylighting. The roof of the southern structure takes the form of a large wing supported by tall V-shaped columns.

"The expressed V-shaped columns at either end of the office building were originally meant to be cast in concrete, but due to the logistical issues associated with forming and casting the concrete on site, it was decided that steelwork would be a more effective and simpler solution," said Savas Christoforidis, a director of the engineering firm on the project, TLB Engineers, of North Sydney.

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Many of the materials used to create the center are recycled, inspired by the concept of bricolage, a French term for creating a work of art from the materials available at the time and place of the creation. © Richard Glover Photography

"A hybrid inverted king-post truss [comprising] steel and laminated timber was used effectively and elegantly for the roof trusses, the steelwork predominantly in tension and the timber working in compression and flexure—each material working to its individual strengths," said Christoforidis, who provided written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. The roof of the office structure is the primary location of the SBRC's large photovoltaic array.

The roof of the research portion of the facility is gently curved to facilitate greater daylight reaching the courtyard area between the two buildings. The roof also accommodates a test area.

Geotechnical conditions at the site were challenging, a layer of coal-wash fill as much as 2.5 m thick overlaying approximately 7 m of alluvial sandy clays and as much a 5 m of residual clay soil.

"It was determined at an early stage that deep footings would be required to transfer the loads from the new buildings [to] below the coal wash and alluvial soils, which are generally very poor ...due to their low shear strength and compressibility," Christoforidis said.

To avoid differential settlements throughout the buildings, piles had to reach through the residual clays down to bedrock, Christoforidis said. "Precast displacement piles were chosen as the preferred system due to the high water table and poor fill conditions, which would have precluded the use of bored in-situ piles," he said. "Vibration of the piling process had to be controlled and kept within defined limits."

Engineers employed a variety of bracing solutions for the structure, using concealed, vertical steel bracing within the walls above the first level in the east-west direction and concrete shear walls beneath level one. In the north-south direction, steel trusses in the plane of the roof were braced using concrete blade walls and the V columns, according to Christoforidis.

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The facility is divided into two linked structures—a sunny plaza between them—to better facilitate daylighting and natural ventilation

The facade and other material choices were inspired by the concept of bricolage , a French term for creating a work of art from the materials available at the time and place of the creation. "The material palette for the roof and cladding seeks to reveal the dense, textural richness of the SBRC's coastal setting and [to] celebrate place," said Joe Agius, a director of Cox, who provided written responses to questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

"Bricolage ...guided our sustainability approach to recycling materials 'into' the building," Agius said. "Reused bridge timbers, steel railway tracks, abandoned telegraph poles, and four generations of brick and local timbers found their way into our bricolage ."

Concrete was employed on the ground and first-floor slabs to provide thermal mass to the building. "The level-one posttensioned slab is also unique, as it integrates the hydronic system in the structural slab to allow activation of all of its thermal mass," Bradburn said.

The structure includes an innovative "plug and play" approach to the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems that will enable researchers to use the facility as a full-scale test facility for a variety of sustainable technologies. 

"The building fabric was carefully designed to allow for easy installation of research technologies—including removable facade panels, a flexible grid of rooftop anchor points, and ample service plug-in and reticulation routes," Bradburn noted.

These experimental technologies will work with the building's power, air, water, and waste distribution and treatments systems, enabling researchers to modify the building's systems and research the response of its occupants to those changes.

"The water system is a combination of ground-source heat pumps, supplemented by an air-cooled heat pump. They are mixed through a manifold that also has additional plug-in points for future research programs," Bradburn said. "This has been a challenge for the commissioning of the building; however the real challenge is probably yet to come as the SBRC starts to plug research technologies into the system. The air distribution allows for preheated or cooled air to be mixed or replace outside air coming into the air-handling units."

One of the biggest design challenges of the project was to meet the exacting sustainability standards that the university specified for the structure, Bradburn noted. Specifically, the project's target is a full Living Building certification under the Living Building Challenge(LBC), a program administered by the International Living Future Institute, of Seattle. The LBC is a rigorous building sustainability certification program that goes beyond energy efficiency to include such imperatives as urban agriculture, car-free living, and social justice.

At the same time, the building was also designed to achieve 6 Green Stars in the Green Star sustainability program, which is administered by the Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA).

"Tackling both programs was probably the biggest challenge," Bradburn said. "Under the LBC program, teams are required to address several additional challenges compared to the average sustainable building." Some of the more challenging specifications included net-zero energy, net-zero water, restrictions on material sourcing and content, and demonstrating the operational performance of the building's systems.

Christoforidis noted that the Green Star program requires a concrete mix that minimizes the use of portland cement and substitutes some of the aggregates with recycled/reclaimed material. Additionally, reinforcing steel had to be supplied by an accredited manufacturer.

"The [LBC] required that certain material from a 'red list' not [be] used and that materials had to be sourced from local suppliers as much as possible. This made the task of having to check all materials that we were specifying all the more difficult and time consuming. Much more awareness is required in selecting materials so they comply with green point systems," Christoforidis said.

"[More than] 200 architectural products alone were tracked, and countless more researched, to find compliant solutions," Bradburn said. "A palette was selected that fundamentally does not harm human health or the environment and is socially responsible."

The team developed an innovative solution to meet the strict waste-minimization targets—scrap from the timber flooring and wooden cladding was integrated into a sunshade on the west end of the building to minimize solar gain. The engineering team developed an intricate steel framing solution, the fame cantilevering beyond the ends of the roof edge to support the timbers.

Sustainability research is under way in the building, which officially opened in August to positive reviews on campus.


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