Professor Paul Cooper, director of the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre, University of Wollongong, recently unveiled the Illawarra Flame house – the region's entry in the Solar Decathlon.

Over the past thirty years he has focussed his teaching and research on the improvement of the efficiency with which we use energy and other resources, particularly in the built environment and in industrial processes.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about the Solar Decathlon, why engineers are important in sustainability and why the carbon tax will be the biggest sustainability issue in the next 12 months.

Why are you involved with the Solar Decathlon?

The Solar Decathlon is an international competition that provides a wonderful challenge for university students to design, build and commission their own net-zero energy house of the future. For many years I have seen this competition as one of the most inspirational initiatives in the sustainable buildings sector worldwide. It is a unique vehicle for harnessing the creative energy of a new generation of young architects, engineers and other professionals to meet the challenge of radically reducing the environmental impact of our built environment.

With the development of our new Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) at the University of Wollongong, we felt it was time for Australia to play a role in this international initiative. In 2011 a core group of our students developed a house concept design that demonstrates how to retrofit a classic Australian ‘fibro’ home and bring it into the 21st Century as a net-zero energy home.

With this concept and a detailed technical proposal we were successful in going through to the finals of both the US and Chinese Solar Decathlon finals in 2013 – the first Australian team to compete in any Solar Decathlon competition.

For me personally, the journey over the past two years, with our team of University of Wollongong and TAFE students and staff, has been both intense and rewarding. I think the Solar Decathlon epitomises the great outcomes that can be achieved from higher education teaching and learning when this is founded on an inspirational project that students can relate to.

How does Australia stack up compared to other countries when it comes to solar technology and development?

Australia has been a leader for decades in the development of solar technologies, particularly through fundamental research on high-efficiency photovoltaic generation systems; in traditional silicon-based PV-cells; and more recently in second and third generation thin-film and organic solar cells. Where I think Australia has played less of a leadership role has been in the application of solar systems to our buildings in an appealing, cost-effective and holistic way.

What role does engineering have on achieving sustainability?

Engineering plays a key role in the practical realisation of sustainable buildings and a sustainable built environment generally. We need our engineers to have the state-of-the-art tools and the motivation necessary to achieve high-level sustainability outcomes. There are a myriad of situations where new approaches are needed, from mechanical engineers tuned-in to the best ways maximise natural, or mixed-mode, ventilation opportunities for a building rather than adopting a traditional 100% mechanically ventilated building. 

An example of the importance of new approaches and roles, particularly in engineering, is the emergence of the ESD engineer/consultant as a player in advanced building design and construction. This challenging role is a key element in any project trying to push the sustainability envelope.

In the design of our own Sustainable Buildings Research Centre we set out to build an exemplary building that would not only meet the current national 6 Star Green Star benchmark, but also achieve the higher goals of net-zero energy operation and Living Building Challenge accreditation.

What is your opinion on how sustainability is approached in Australia at the moment?

There are many great champions of sustainability in our country, not least amongst the architectural and engineering professions. But I feel their calls to action are too often drowned out by the voices in favour of the short-term economic view. We should be taking a much longer term view of all our activities. We have just exceeded the 400ppm threshold for the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of our planet. I just hope that when our grandchildren look back to the present time they will say “thank goodness, they quickly changed their ways when they had the chance”, rather than, “400ppm? That was nothing compared to what we live with now!”

What do you think the biggest change to sustainability will be in the next 12 months?

The carbon tax – to be or not to be. If there is a change of government and a consequent major shift in the approach to mitigating carbon emissions this will undoubtedly change the type and quantity of opportunities for sustainable innovations that are available to business and the community. Secondly, electric vehicles will continue to become more accessible and will start to make an impact on how we view personal mobility.

You've spent some time in London. What could Australia learn from England about sustainability?

The UK, and Europe generally, has proposed and mandated much more onerous energy efficiency requirements of new and existing buildings than here, and the European community have proposals in place for all new buildings to be “near net-zero energy” within a relatively short space of time.

One particular initiative that I think we could take on board is in regards to the requirements for buildings to achieve a minimum performance standard on air tightness. This is principally to reduce heating and cooling requirements resulting from outside air infiltration. At present Australia lacks minimum overall building air tightness requirements, which is particularly important in regions with relatively challenging climates. Of course, we will also need to ensure that there are not knock-on effects, relating to interstitial condensation risk, for example.