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Designing for a Circular Economy

For the past three years we’ve been working across an exciting fleet of five projects for the University of Tasmania. With Cradle Coast campus opening in Burnie on Saturday, we’ve been reflecting on the research and innovations that have sprung from this commission.

One of the most rewarding has been in sustainability, where initiatives championed by ambitious Vice-Chancellor Professor Rufus Black will see the delivery of low-carbon buildings across two campuses. As construction of the latest two buildings commences, we’re positioned to reduce their carbon footprint by 30-35%. Designing for a circular economy, our research examined the origins, utilisation, assembly, eventual dismantling and potential reuse of materials to evaluate total carbon utilisation.

The $362M Northern Transformation Project includes new campuses in Burnie and Launceston in a partnership between the University and local, state and Australian governments.

Tasmania’s 100% renewable energy supply served as a catalyst to exploring how best to minimise the carbon footprint of the initial construction of the new buildings. The operational carbon emissions of an education building in Tasmania are currently 60% lower than a comparable building on the mainland. This inverts the paradigm of carbon footprint from initial construction (10-20% on the mainland), to operational footprint through operation (80-90% on the mainland).

Working with Integral Group, we developed a Life-Cycle Assessment method – but with a twist! Rather than establishing a benchmark building, then assessing the comparative carbon reduction in an early design phase, we developed an iterative methodology that assessed and verified carbon reduction initiatives through all phases of design.

This modified Life-Cycle Assessment allowed the design team to progressively review the impact of each material and system at an elemental level and seek contractor verification through Early Contractor Involvement. It also allowed us, working with UTAS, to assess each carbon reduction initiative through the lens of an established metric; cost-premium/tonnes of carbon (equivalent) reduction.

Industry engagement:

The first step in our methodology was a deep engagement with Tasmanian Industry. Following conversations with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, The Regional Australia Institute and the Department of State, the team investigated leads from the Centre for Sustainable Architecture, UTAS academics, suppliers – even a security guard at the Alcoa aluminium smelting plant – among others. We started each conversation with this question: How you would build an exemplar in sustainability?  

These conversations led to terrific discoveries:

The world’s first hardwood CLT: launched by innovative start-up Cusp, it’s made from Eucalyptus Nitens, sourced from certified sustainable local plantations (a resource currently exported as pulp & woodchips). This material is used for the mass timber structure that supports the upper floor structures and atrium skylights.

Low-carbon concrete: called Boral Envisia, it’s likely to become Boral’s ‘standard mix’ in Tasmania.

Recycled Steel Piles: reclaimed from disused gas pipelines from QLD, the scale and sustainability credentials justified transport cost & emissions. UTAS procured these themselves and supplied them to contractors.

Further discoveries included concrete rubble stockpiles for sub-base, internal linings that use  marmoleum rather than vinyl where practicable and carpets made of 100% recycled PET. Recycled formply has been used an acoustic backing to ceilings.

Amidst this discovery, challenges remain. Primary among these is the cost of innovation, which remains high. For example, processing low-grade ‘residual’ timber is considerably more expensive than harvesting and processing new timber of a higher grade. Carbon Credits offer significant value over innovation, though carbon offsets have a limited role in achieving a ‘Net Zero carbon’ built environment.

The Influence of Buying-Power on Sustainable Outcomes:

Universities are innovators and facilitators of change. They’re ideally positioned to develop emergent technologies and impact resource streams.

Leveraging their strength in research, universities have embedded knowledge, expertise, plus facilities for testing and verification (I.e CSAW).

University construction projects often provide opportunities for innovation due to their economy of scale. These projects are often outward-facing, highly publicised and positioned to showcase a University’s progressive and sustainable credentials.

This places university buildings in a unique position to influence, support and showcase emergent technologies, systems, resources and materials.

On the path to net-zero, we need to look beyond carbon credits. One of the challenges with the UTAS NTP buildings was connecting with the breadth of innovative industry players required to bring about meaningfully sustainable outcomes. Here and now.

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