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Back to basics at Zero Gipps: First-principles sustainability with SJB and Verosol

Beau Fulwood and Alison Peach on returning to a low-tech, first-principles concept of design as a strategy to combat climate change.

Back to basics at Zero Gipps: First-principles sustainability with SJB and Verosol

This story originally appeared in INDESIGN #90, the ‘City Futures’ issue – get your copy here.

Sustainability is a big word. For an area that truly concerns us all and has the possibility for pretty dire outcomes, the complexity of the problem can lend itself to a flurry of complex solutions. The majority of the complex solutions rely on the promise of new technology and an ‘innovate our way out of it’ approach. For the building and construction sector though, it’s worth revisiting the tried and true elements of good design that can have immediate impact now and into the future.

The UN Environment Programme notes: “Despite an increase in energy efficiency investment and lower energy intensity, the building and construction sector’s energy consumption and CO2 emissions have rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic to an all-time high.” We’re off track to decarbonise by 2050.

So how can we return to low-tech, first principles to reduce energy waste and truly embed sustainability? We spoke to Beau Fulwood, director at SJB, and Alison Peach, commercial account manager at Verosol, to uncover how low-tech solutions embedded in practice can impact architecture and design’s role in fighting climate change.

Sustainability as Practice

Not surprisingly, the most energy and resource intensive part of the building process is building itself. Arguably, it’s the fact that buildings go up and come down at an unprecedented rate and materials criss-cross the globe in staggeringly complex patterns that truly pushes us into unsustainable territory.

For Peach, we have to “return to quiet quality and an everyday practice that focuses on the longevity of the product. Do it once and do it right.” Admittedly, this takes some adept value management, but the key is building in longer-term efficiencies in cost and resources.

Similarly, Fulwood approaches sustainability as an embedded approach: “Environmentally sustainable design is thrown around a lot as a value add or a box-tick. But sustainability has to be integrated into architecture and design practice in a way that it’s less likely to be extracted. Then it becomes real.”

Returning to fundamentals

SJB’s Zero Gipps project in Collingwood, Melbourne, and Verosol’s work with Smart Design Studio’s new office in Alexandria, Sydney, embody a commitment to using the fundamentals of good design to embed sustainable practice. Both of these projects exemplify low-tech approaches with punch.

Aptly named, Zero Gipps has zero operational emission and zero gas. The adaptive reuse project has a litany of interesting initiatives from an emphasis on natural ventilation to inspired end-of-trip facilities. First, there are no carparks. Even with aspirational tenants and a progressive council, the idea of literally no car parking in an office is bold. Zero Gipps boldly “heroes the experience as a pedestrian and a cyclist.”

Fulwood elaborates that sustainable practice has to marry user experience: “A car park experience is simple for a user because they know it. But pedestrians and cyclists were often an afterthought. With no cars, we’ve forced a rethink to that arrival and there is now more effort in the end-of-trip facilities than the lobby. Everything is of a higher specification. That’s how you encourage people to use these facilities, rethinking how they travel to work and arrive while inspiring how they interact with the building.”

Fulwood also notes that “we have to balance low- and high-tech solutions. Adjustable louvres are great but they can be expensive to install and maintain. Instead, can we reorient the building, reduce glazing and get more bang for our buck with fixed louvres instead?”

This contextual approach embedded in Zero Gipps is alive in Verosol’s work with Smart Design Studio. Peach prefers to get into a project as early as possible and SDS’s new home base for practice is no exception. To ensure the building is carbon neutral with no airconditioning, Verosol played a key role delivering shading solutions alongside natural ventilation and underfloor hydronics.

“The biggest cost to a building is the people in it. We’re constantly looking for efficiencies in cost and resources and one of the best ways to do that is to control the seasons and control the comfort,” says Peach. In this and all projects, Verosol is looking to give the architect flexibility while keeping people connected to the outside world.

Related: Industry Lanes by Architectus

Practice What You Preach

Admittedly, these projects had the best clients, good councils and everything else needed to produce a stellar outcome. What do Fulwood and Peach do when the conditions aren’t so perfect?

Practice what you preach. All too often sustainable outcomes land in the nice-to-have box, and moving them to the must-haves requires a clear presentation of value. If the outcome is about to be value managed, then the only option is to fight fire with fire. For Peach, it requires, “daily education in every conversation that I have.” It’s not just the nitty gritty like keeping builders accountable to a budget estimate so other elements don’t get value managed, it’s consistent education on long-term value.

Like Verosol, SJB lives and breathes sustainability. Fulwood notes that it’s always best to show over tell. “Zero Gipps is an office but we also work in an office environment. How can we best demonstrate to a client how a zero carbon company like SJB works. Fundamentally, we’re trying to live what we’re trying to design.”

I asked them both about what keeps them up at night about the problem of sustainability in architecture and design. Fulwood notes that, “It’s many issues. Day-to-day decisions feel like a drop in the ocean, but incremental input is critical. Because our industry has such an impact on climate change, collectively we can do a lot.”

Peach concurs: “The scale of waste is daunting. There’s something to be said for a slower approach to create the room for considered design that maximises materials and resources.”

It’s true that the enormity of the problem can seem to dwarf individual effort. But it’s only in practice and a return to the tried design principles that have helped us live with – not against – our environment that we can turn the tide and move our industry from part of the problem to part of the solution.

Find out more about INDESIGN #90 and susbcribe here!


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