A new building designed to be both a research hub, as well as a research subject, offers Australian buildings a chance to become more sustainable and resilient.

The University of Wollongong’s (UOW) new Sustainable Buildings Research Centre (SBRC), opened last week, is set to deliver evidence-based research on sustainable retrofits on the nation’s existing building stock. Delivered by Cox Architecture, it facilitates lab-based academic inquiries, but also uses the very fabric of the building for research.

“SBRC has been carefully designed to accommodate the prototyping and testing of a range of sustainable building technologies, designs and materials,” said Cox Architecture director and SBRC design director, Joe Agius.

“As importantly, we’ve included a range of integrated research components into the fabric of the building so that it can research itself.”

The latter directive is founded on a range of innovative features, including the incorporation of a ‘plug and play’ system – experimental technologies can be plugged into the building’s power, water and waste distribution and treatment systems, allowing researchers to modify the building’s services and research occupants’ responses.

Cox Architecture says the team also emphasised on a ‘bricolage building’ approach, with all primary materials sourced locally. Reused bridge timbers, steel railway tracks, abandoned telegraph poles, and four generations of brick and local timbers found their way into the centre’s hand crafted ‘bricolage’, while reflecting and revealing the textural richness of the centre’s coastal setting.

Set between the Wollongong mountain escarpment and Pacific Ocean, forming a ‘ribbon’ between the water and landscape, SBRC is split into two linked buildings. It frames and engages both environments, with thin north/south floor plates and optimal orientation ensuring effective natural ventilation and lighting.

Other sustainable initiatives that have been undertaken include a solar roof that produces more power than the building consumes; rainwater harvesting to ensure the building is net-zero water; and extensive monitoring and building control systems to ensure it operates as efficiently as possible.

As the newest building on UOW’s Innovation Campus, the building was constructed with the target of becoming the first certified Living Building in Australia under the rigorous sustainability program, the Living Building Challenge, as well as the Illawarra region’s first 6 Star Green Star building.

The Federal Government contributed $25.1 million from the Education Investment Fund towards the building, which accommodates a range of research laboratories, exhibition spaces and specialist pilot plant research facilities.

One of the SBRC’s key projects will be to assist older Australians to develop day-to-day practices that improve energy efficiency and reduce their household fuel bills, while making aged care facilities more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

SBRC director professor Paul Cooper said the centre was an example of a hub that is not just bricks and mortar, but a place where academia, industry and community can work together to bring innovative ideas to live.

“One of the greatest challenges today is the rising cost of energy. The applied research we are undertaking will improve the design and efficiency of buildings, leading to improved quality of life and reduced cost of living,” he said.

“Importantly for the region, access to research-based knowledge will enable up-skilling for the regional workforce that will improve the skill sets and economic opportunities for local companies and their employees.”

The SBRC team has already been recognised for their success in research and product development on the retrofitting front. The combined UOW/TAFE project to retrofit a traditional Australian fibro home won last year’s Solar Decathlon China, an international competition that challenges university teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are energy efficient, cost effective and attractive.