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    Peek inside the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre: Australia developing cutting-edge architectural technology and knowledge

    David Wheeldon

    You won’t die wondering what’s going on in the new Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC) in Wollongong on the NSW South Coast. Sure, the name describes it pretty well. But more to the point, the team behind the centre are going to great lengths to share what they’re up to and collaborate with industry and the wider community.

    In that spirit of transparency, the building’s situated right beside the Wollongong Science Centre, on the Innovation Campus at the University of Wollongong. Visitors will be encouraged to step next door to see some of the work going on inside the centre (and literally within the fabric of the building). On display is research, development and live testing of the latest sustainable building technology in a ‘Living Laboratory’ – that’s actually what it’s called.

    The centre will hold its first public open day on Saturday, October 25. That follows from a symposium on Friday October 24 with leading designers, practitioners and policy makers in the sustainable building sector. 

    The SBRC Building was designed by Cox Architecture to allow experimental technologies to be plugged into the building’s power, water and waste systems, allowing researchers to modify the building’s services and research occupants’ responses.

    Stage set to become leading centre in Southern Hemisphere

    The SBRC’s aim is simply to address the challenges of making buildings sustainable. The task is anything but simple. The multi-disciplinary facility is hosting a wide range of academic and industry collaborations to develop new products and systems.

    The building itself is a world-leading example of sustainability, and a functioning and evolving test-bed that will yield all kinds of insights on occupant behaviour through sophisticated Building Management Systems, prompting further research and helping guide development of better technologies.

    It’s a similar story with the international competition-winning net-zero energy ‘Illawarra Flame’ Solar Decathlon house, also housed on the site. 

    The structure (pictured below) is a fine example of how the SBRC is engaging with industry, with manufacturers contributing innovative, sustainable materials and components.

    It’s with these kinds of collaborations the centre’s director, Professor Paul Cooper, is setting out to achieve a lofty ambition.

    “We want to be the leading research centre in the southern hemisphere for development, demonstration and implementation of sustainable building technologies, integrated systems and changes in day-to-day practice in existing buildings,” Cooper explains.

    A benchmark for SBRC, Cooper tells us, is the BRE Innovation Park in the UK (pictured above), a research facility which also partners with industry.

    The BRE demonstration site has some of the world’s most sustainable buildings, landscape designs and innovative low carbon materials and technologies. 

    The Innovation Campus location in Wollongong has space at the ready for projects to line its own emerging 'sustainability street'.

    Next generation technologies under development today

    Developing Australia's first Building Integrated Photovoltaic Thermal (BIPVT) steel sheet roofing over the past three years has been a landmark project for the SBRC. Working with BlueScope Steel and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the team successfully created a system which seamlessly integrates energy producing capacity into the building fabric. 

    The technology is incorporated in the roofs of both the SBRC Building and the Illawarra Flame House, where refinements are taking place, which will help enhance and bring the product to the mass market.

    Taking it a step further, researchers are now exploring the feasibility of integrating Phase Change Materials (PCMs) with the BIPVT. These are materials that change from a solid to a liquid state when sufficient thermal energy is absorbed. Cooper explains the phase-change process as being similar to the melting of ice, but in the PCMs selected for the SBRC research, the melting temperature is chosen to match applications in buildings and solar thermal systems.

    The researchers are developing technology to store and release energy in a controlled manner, in principle working as thermal mass in a brick wall might to store heat during the day (if suitably oriented to the sun), then working to release warmth during the night. In the Flame House however, the PCM is held in a central store, designed to be retrofitted to an existing lightweight building.

    A promising focus is around multi-functional envelope materials: walls, cladding, roofs and the like, where they can find ways to generate energy, harvest thermal energy and explore passive and natural ventilation systems.

    The SBRC is taking a lead role in a new Steel Research hub - with a $5 million Government grant - along with industry partners, including Cox Architecture, BlueScope and others, to develop for example multi-functional roofing and cladding systems. 

    These are just a couple of the many initiatives taking place. There’s much more, as you can glimpse on their website. And the applied research centre is looking for more consortia or partnerships that may want to take advantage of the testing ground.

     

    Professor Paul Cooper will be guest speaker at the Sustainability Awards on Thursday, October 23.

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