Self-sustaining buildings on the rise

MATT STEWART
Last updated 05:00 20/07/2013
Pearl River Tower
Reuters
PEARL OF WISDOM: The 71-storey Pearl River Tower, in Guangzhou, China, is hailed as one of the most environmentally friendly big structures on the planet.

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Organic buildings that pulse, breathe and react are becoming a viable reality as engineers, scientists and architects look to the Holy Grail of eco-friendly design.

It's called "triple net zero", which means buildings and homes are self-contained, producing almost zero energy, zero emissions and zero waste.

They feature cladding called eSkin - modelled on human muscle cells that optimise heat and light - and living walls that automatically adjust temperature.

These sustainable self-contained buildings have cheaper upkeep and power costs, while acting as a shield from power outages and other side-effects of infrastructure and energy grid failure.

The green-building movement, known technically as the integrated whole building design process (IWBDP), aims to link waste treatment with water supply and energy generation in a closed circuit using a mixture of ancient engineering nous and fast-emerging nano- and micro-engineering advances.

Self-sustaining buildings make sense - New Zealand buildings are responsible for almost a quarter of energy use, and more than half the electricity used here is in some way sucked up by office blocks, homes and shopping malls.

Designers have started to harness the synergy of water, energy and waste in skyscrapers such as the 71-storey, clean-tech Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, China - hailed as one of the most environmentally friendly big structures on the planet.

The 309-metre skyscraper is about the same height as the Sydney Tower and has features such as harvesting water from chilled surfaces to control indoor humidity that, once filtered, is reused for pot-plant irrigation and toilet flushing. It's an example of a single piece of looped kit serving the dual functions of energy reduction and water recovery.

Wellington designer Marc Woodbury was the lead architect on the country's first Green Star-rated building, the Meridian building on Wellington's waterfront.

Mr Woodbury says everyone - from engineers to clients and contractors - has "got to be on the same wavelength" when working on green buildings.

As one of the country's first truly sustainable buildings, its construction was a shared vision but also a "teething process", he says.

"We were all sitting around the table with a clear set of objectives and targets and looking at how the architecture would work with the structure and how that would work with the building services."

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Unlike conventional building, which is linear and segregated, in green construction it is "very hard to break apart and work in little silos".

Once hailed as New Zealand's flagship environmentally proactive building, the Department of Conservation's super-green, ultra-integrated headquarters in Manners St in Wellington is cited by Mr Woodbury as another example of Kiwi eco-flair.

Though great leaps are still being made with technology, engineering and science, new construction of sustainable eco-buildings has slowed since the global financial crisis.

"It's been a very tough economic climate."

But Mr Woodbury is still excited about the future.

"The adoption of some of these processes has become standard. People are now more conscious of the materials they specify and what their sustainable characteristics are."

Micro and nano-technologies are also set to revolutionise the way we live and work.

Sun-soaking roofing membranes that generate electricity and a raft of other technology embedded in building materials are all in the pipeline. These new products - such as paints, claddings and glass - will be able to self-generate, regenerate or grow in tandem with construction from a microscopic level to the finished piece of architecture.

Mr Woodbury is also excited about a return to the low-tech basics and the ancient fundamentals of architecture and engineering - techniques as simple as structures facing the sun.

New Zealand Green Building Council chief executive Alex Cutler agrees that the eco-building movement, because of the trying political and global financial climate, "has been flying under the radar for a couple of years, but is back with a full force".

But with the launch of a government-backed energy performance rating system for office buildings this year, the focus on Christchurch's sustainable rebuild and the growing credibility of the Green Building Council's Green Star rating in new building design, "awareness of green building continues to track upwards".

Certified sustainable buildings are easier to rent, have higher asset values, encourage greater productivity and cost less to run, Mr Cutler says.

"Global evidence exists, and we're continuing to build on that body of data here in New Zealand."

- The Dominion Post

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