How buildings can restore nature

By Jerome Partington

Architecture & design: Nature is smart. Over the millennia life has evolved - on a shoestring budget - to create this beautiful planet with an outstanding life support system, all optimised to run on the energy provided by the sun. But we have entered the Anthropocene era and we are now experiencing the cumulative impacts of billions of people and a wasteful economic system. Impacts are so massive we are actually disrupting this steady state life system through climate change, toxic pollution in the air, land and water, biodiversity collapse and social inequality.

One critical arena for this disruption is in our buildings, invariably impacting on, and expanding into, valuable ecological and productive land. The Living Building Challenge (LBC) asks us to determine the success of our buildings by measuring them against nature's performance. The ideal is to create a building that works as efficiently and beautifully as a flower; harvesting water and energy from the sky, local 'nutrients' from the ground, containing zero toxic materials and managing any waste on site.

A Living Building is one that is deliberately designed to restore, to heal rather than harm our communities and the environment. The Bullit Centre, a recently completed six story office building in Seattle, is a powerful example of the Living Building performance in a cooler, cloudy climate. Only healthy materials were used in the build - to eliminate all carcinogenic and hormone disrupting chemicals, common in our buildings.

Smart design using window technology (they open!), insulation, super-efficient lights and computers and a small ground exchange heat pump system all combine to offer an incredible 83 per cent reduction in operational energy use. The remaining energy demand is provided by an 800m2 solar electric roof.

Similarly, the Bullit uses 80 per cent less water by using foam flush toilets that send waste to basement composting units, and a small roof top garden is actually a designed wetland treating all the grey water from kitchens and showers before this polished water irrigates the local park.

Projects like this meet every day functional needs on a quadruple net zero basis. Net zero energy, water, toxic materials and waste.

The CIRS building (Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability) at UBC Vancouver goes way beyond simple 'net Zero'. The project claims seven net positive outcomes -it is actually restorative. The timber primary structure has sequestered more carbon dioxide than was emitted from energy used during construction. CIRS scavenges energy from an adjacent 'leaky' building and uses it for heating. Locally controlled fresh air and light offer net positive human wellbeing.

There is a 'Living Machine' with aquatic plants which processes waste water, but actually sized to harvest water from the sewer below. It cleans that water before exporting it to the adjacent greenhouses. The CIRS café operates 'zero waste to landfill', using local produce, reusable packaging and tagletelle for coffee stirrers.

In New Zealand a Living Building project is nearing completion: Te Uru Taumatua - Tuhoe's new headquarters in Taneatua near Whakatane. Tuhoe's Te Uru Taumatua is designed by Jasmax and is now under construction by Arrow International.

Tuhoe has asked the project team to design and build to comply with the LBC as there is a strong alignment with Tuhoe values and wisdom. The impact of decades of colonisation has been harsh, especially in disconnecting Tuhoe from their lands. The building will be the new administrative centre and meeting place for Tuhoe Iwi and a signal of restoration and regeneration. It's due for completion in December.

Te Uru Taumatua is literally translated as a grove of taumatua trees which sustain life and its environment. The word is unique to Tuhoe and encapsulates sustainability and sustenance, strength, unity, identity, icon, security and prosperity to those connected to it.

The project is a leader in sustainability and regeneration. Innovative timber piled foundations, columns and structural panels are seismic resistant, they sequester carbon and are treated without chrome or arsenic. The whole building can be dismantled at the end of its useful life.

The timber used is from exterior wood specialist Abodo Wood, which supplied cladding and decking from NZ Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) certified plantations or salvaged from the forest - all within 150km from the construction site.

The roof hosts the largest array of solar electric panels in the country - installed by solar company Alphatron - and a high performance flat plate solar hot water system installed by EWA TEC. With aware and motivated occupants it will easily achieve net zero energy, targeting a very low 45kwhs/m2 for the office, about half current best practice in NZ.

Water is collected from the roof and after use, treated in a planted constructed wetland before recharging the ground aquifer. Daylight and fresh air ensure the occupants of the offices and meeting spaces are comfortable and healthy through the year.

5000 earth bricks made by Tuhoe people will line the walls and help condition the internal environment, sucking in heat and moisture and releasing it when needed.

Key to success has been the program of engaging local people and training them for construction skills and employment as well as their personal contribution to the building.

Complying with LBC materials was an onerous task for the Jasmax team, followed with onsite verification by Arrow. Each of the 350 materials are checked out for toxicity, sourcing origin, FSC compliance chain, the embodied carbon value and any waste issues. This work has led to the discovery of new local suppliers and changes in formulations to remove toxic chemicals from products.

The landscape design and planting has two key drivers; to allow the forest to re-establish and be the setting for the building whilst offering significant food and medicinal plant cultivation, a requirement of the LBC.

A serious investment is also being made to ensure the building is beautiful; Tuhoe has invested significantly in commissioning local artists to display their work next to artists like Colin McCahon. Historical artefacts will be on display and they have worked closely with Jasmax's Landscape team to ensure the planting and design surrounding the building allows the forest to re-establish and offers significant food and medicinal plant cultivation, a requirement of the LBC.

In reality, for the attention this building receives, it is really a seed planted to help Tuhoe restore their communities, build social capital through new skills and ideas, to create jobs and healthy sustaining communities and buildings that nurture their people and their land.

Far-sighted Tuhoe are clearly walking toward a self-sustaining future, closely aligned with nature. They are shining a bright light on the path for the rest of New Zealand to follow.

Built in
Living Buildings can only be certified 'Living' after they have proved their performance during a full year of occupation.

The Seven Petal Performance areas of the LBC;
Site - restoring a healthy co-existence with nature
Water - creating water independent sites, buildings and communities
Energy - relying on current solar income
Health - maximising physical and psychological health and wellbeing
Materials - endorsing products and processes that are safe for all species through time Equity - supporting a just equitable world and
Beauty - celebrating design that creates transformational change.

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Jerome Partington is the sustainability manager at Jasmax, a leading NZ design firm, with a remit for sustainable innovation, education and greening of the business. Jerome has piloted integrated design in NZ to create high performance buildings and promotes the Living Building Challenge, a program for transformational change. He is also an NZGBC Green Star AP, Home Star practitioner and senior adviser of The Natural Step NZ.

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