Thought Leaders

Research in the Urban Transformation Towards Energy Efficient Cities

Research in energy and material efficient cities and in urban transformation

Among the most significant environmental challenges of our time are global climate change, excessive fossil fuel dependency of our cities and the growing demand for energy and materials – all major challenges of the 21st century and in the meantime some of the greatest problems facing humanity. Almost half the energy consumed is used in cities and urban built-up areas, and avoiding mistakes in the urban development at early stages will genuinely lead to more sustainable cities and less greenhouse gas emission. The Zero Waste SA Research Centre for Sustainable Design & Behaviour (sd+b) is conducting research in the City of Tomorrow and the role materials and energy will play in low carbon urban models. In this context, urban design and the fundamental principles of how we will shape our cities in future is increasingly recognised in the greenhouse debate; this is about time, as previously the debate has circled around active technology for ‘eco-buildings’, but less in holistic systems thinking for entire districts and neighbourhoods. The research conducted by the sd+b Centre deals with cross-cutting issues in architecture, urban development and engineering, and addresses the question of how we can best cohesively integrate all aspects of energy systems, material recycling, waste and water management, transport systems, passive and active building strategies, climatisation and so on, into contemporary urban design and improved environmental performance of our cities. It provides a context for a general debate about the regeneration of the city centre, and discusses how urbanism is affected (and can be expected to be even more affected in future) by the paradigms of urban ecology. The significance of this research is found in the pressing need for an integration of sustainability principles in the urban development processes of cities in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, and the general need for more sustainable city development, systems thinking and decentralised infrastructure (for energy, waste water, etc) at the neighbourhood-scale. Our findings are of particular relevance to the rapid urban growth of developing Asian cities that have, in the past, frequently been poorly managed. Research in sustainable urban development recommends increased harnessing of renewable energies and the energies manifested in the existing building fabrics – for instance, through the adaptive re-use of former industrial (brownfield) sites, urban infill and the upgrade and extension of existing building structures. One research finding is that it is less environmentally damaging to stimulate growth within the established city centre with infill, rather than sprawling into new, formerly un-built greenfield areas.

What are the potential benefits of the urban transformation towards a ‘zero emissions and zero waste city’?

The Zero Waste SA Research Centre for Sustainable Design & Behaviour (sd+b) has two main research frameworks: ‘Low Carbon Precincts’ and the ‘Integrated Building Systems’ program. The ‘Low Carbon Precincts’ research program develops tools that enable the design of, and stimulate the market for, low carbon infrastructure at 'precinct' and ‘neighbourhood’ scale. This will facilitate property developers and local government partners providing low carbon infrastructure at the development planning point of delivery, where new low carbon living strategies that mobilise cultural and social capitals will be demonstrated. Our research in low carbon urbanism aims to develop and establish an international framework and standards for eco-city transformation of existing cities, with a focus on 'zero waste city' at the neighbourhood- and precinct-scale. The project includes social and cultural indicators for behaviour change and reduction of consumption; it helps decision-makers to adopt new low carbon living strategies that will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of districts (neighbourhoods), and increase their sustainability and liveability through step-by-step urban transformation, including new urban technologies (see diagrams 1 to 3). Precincts selected as demonstration projects include current master plans in Melbourne, Adelaide and Singapore, involving government and industry partners, and provide them with social, technological and policy tools to adopt cost effective low carbon planning for future urban communities and deep carbon reductions. The holistic concept developed by my Centre is the concept of Green Urbanism. This concept points out that 4 to 7 storey infill buildings as urban blocks represent the ‘ideal’ height were materials, energy and land use are at its optimum, able to deliver a maximum of sustainability benefits. It represents the urban form that achieves the ‘ideal’ carrying capacity and highest possible level of social, cultural, technical and environmental goals (the range of 4 to 7 stories is neither low-density suburban sprawl nor high-rise, representing the urbanity that will best meet our long-term vision for Australian cities). The research work also highlights the enormous opportunities for decoupling waste generation from GDP growth (and urban growth), including resource recovery and recycling while also providing climate benefits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The ultimate aim is to achieve a decoupling of the use of materials and energy from raising consumption (Lehmann, 2010).

Background to the sd+b Centre

The Zero Waste SA Research Centre for Sustainable Design & Behaviour (sd+b) is the outcome of the University of South Australia’s successful bid to the South Australian Government in 2008; the Centre was subsequently established in 2009, and in February 2010, after an international search, Professor Steffen Lehmann was appointed as the Centre’s inaugural Director. In the same year, the Centre became a ‘University-recognised research centre’, and in 2011 the Centre joint the group of ‘multidisciplinary research and innovation clusters’. The Centre has strategically planned its future in the wider context of the federal government’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative, in the research fields of sustainable design, cities and the built environment. Key research findings are regularly presented in public lectures and for a, and this public interface draws large external attention to areas of the group’s research excellence.

Signing of the agreement for the sd+b Centre between Zero Waste SA (a South Australia Government agency) and the University of South Australia, on 7 September 2010. Seated, left to right: UniSA President, Prof. Peter Hoj; Mr. Vaughan Levitzke. Standing, left to right: Prof. Pal Ahluwalia; Prof. Steffen Lehmann (Centre Director).

Fig. 1: Signing of the agreement for the sd+b Centre between Zero Waste SA (a South Australia Government agency) and the University of South Australia, on 7 September 2010. Seated, left to right: UniSA President, Prof. Peter Hoj; Mr. Vaughan Levitzke. Standing, left to right: Prof. Pal Ahluwalia; Prof. Steffen Lehmann (Centre Director).

Key public outcomes for the Centre in its first two years of operation have been securing significant external funding and involving a large number of researchers and organisations in the Centre’s multidisciplinary activities. For instance, in 2009-2010 four successful Australia Research Council ARC-Linkage grants were won by different teams of researchers, and close collaboration with nine Partner Organisations on a range of new activities has begun. The current research projects amount in total value to over $5 million; clearly, our partners value the collaborative applied research the sd+b Centre is delivering. For instance, the research project ‘Sustainable urban infill development using low carbon cross-laminated timber prefabrication’ has recently delivered a scoping study report, which was launched with the South Australian Government Architect in November 2011, with the aim to transform the construction industry; and the book publication ‘Designing for Zero Waste’ (Routledge, 2012). In addition, the Centre builds capacity through the active recruitment of suitable doctoral research students and the creation of a lively intellectual platform encouraging others to participate, in order to involve our best researchers in the rapidly emerging area of environmental sustainability research.

The changing context for multidisciplinary research in sustainability

Research has moved from disciplinary silos to multi- and interdisciplinary research networks. In its strategy Horizon 2020, the University of South Australia has identified in 2010 that its multidisciplinary research concentrations will work with key partners and stakeholders to anticipate and solve complex problems and grapple with the ‘big’ issues in a rapidly changing world including:

  • improving health and health care for all,
  • protecting the planet’s natural resources,
  • generating clever solutions to global energy needs,
  • creating new designs and technologies for a changing urban world,
  • enhancing the quality and productivity of working life, and
  • building just, resilient and inclusive democratic societies.

Hence, the Centre’s research agenda aims to contribute to broader environmental and social urban issues. Four Research Programs have been identified, amplified and commenced through a number of ongoing research projects. The Centre is now an active hub for research supervision and dissemination of findings. With all these activities, the Centre has emerged as one of the University’s leading research units for resource efficient architectural and urban design and as a collaborative, multi-disciplinary research centre that has forged research alliances across different Divisions and Schools, government departments and agencies, and industry partners. The Centre addresses: building energy performance, typologies of emerging public spaces, and rapid urbanisation in the Asia-Pacific, rethinking urban form, infrastructure and mobility, prefabrication of low carbon construction systems and questions of systems integration, with a particular interest in the link between the design of buildings, districts and sustainable principles to reduce embodied and operational energy.

The Research Programs and Projects of the sd+b Centre

The sd+b Centre’s four main Research Programs - each representing a particular scale, from cities, to infrastructure, to communities, to buildings - include:

Program 1: Communities: Social Sustainability, Consumption and Behaviour

  • 1.1 ‘Zeroing in on Food Waste’
  • 1.2 ‘Work, Life and Sustainable Living’
  • 1.3 ‘Social and Cultural Acceptance of Multi-storey Timber Urban Infill’

Program 2: Infrastructure, Water Sensitive Urban Design and Productive Landscapes

  • 2.1 ‘Mathematical Modelling and Design of Permeable Pavements’

Program 3: Buildings: Materials Flow and Low Carbon Construction Innovation

  • 3.1 ‘Re-considering Sustainable Built Environment and Design: A Cultural Change Approach’
  • 3.2 ‘Sustainable Urban Infill Development Using Low Carbon Cross-Laminated Timber

Construction for Prefabrication’ (this is an Icon Project, in collaboration with the BHI)

Program 4: Cities - Green Urbanism: Transforming Urban Form for Adaptation and Mitigation

  • 4.1 ‘Zero Emissions and Zero Waste City’.

Contributing to research in the field of urban transformation, sustainable design and behaviour change, the objective of the Zero Waste SA Research Centre for Sustainable Design & Behaviour is to implement the best of urban, environmental and social sciences research in the selected research programs dedicated to building sustainable and liveable Australian cities. Its research focuses on producing outcomes aimed at influencing public policy, sustainable design, urban planning and architecture; and assisting communities: locally, nationally, and globally. The sd+b Centre aims to be a national research centre committed to innovation and urban renewal, to be recognised globally for the strength and relevance of its integrated research outcomes. The Centre creates and disseminates knowledge and engages with our communities to address the major issues of our time through multidisciplinary urban, environmental and social sciences research by:

  • carrying out high calibre research and research training, scholarship, and debate.
  • providing a forum in which public policy makers, public and private sector organisations, and national and international experts can explore, anticipate, and evaluate complex issues.
  • building policy and collaborative research capacity and a research culture within which postgraduate students, early career researchers, and more established researchers can thrive.

The Annual sd+b Symposium is a key event in the Centre’s calendar. Two symposia with national and international speakers have been conducted with great success (the 1st Symposium in November 2010 and the 2nd Symposium in May 2011; both with over 150 participants) and the 3rd Annual sd+b Symposium will be held on 17 May 2012; this will be again in connection with an Early Career Researcher Colloquium, where young researchers will present their findings in the field of cities and sustainability to a wide audience. The Centre’s internationalisation activities have brought academics to Australia presenting their research, including: Prof. Manfred Hegger (TU-Darmstadt), Dr Ong Boon Lay (NUS), Prof. Hermann Kaufmann (TU-Munich) and Prof. Herbert Girardet (London), just to name a few. Our international links focus on high-ranking universities in Europe and the Asia-Pacific (especially with the University of Tianjin and Hong Kong Poly University), with possibilities for research collaboration including joint grant applications and publications.

As director I will continue raising the profile of the Centre and promoting the importance of waste avoidance and material efficiency in achieving critical environmental goals. One significant platform for this is our successful bid for a new Co-operative Research Centre: the CRC for Low Carbon Living (jointly with the University of NSW and Swinburne University of Technology), which was announced in November 2011 by Federal Government, will commence operations in mid 2012. The coming years provide the opportunity to continue delivering on our promise to our stakeholders.

The city of tomorrow has to be transformed from unsustainable linear throughput of materials to a closed-loop circular metabolism, where materials, energy, water, food and other resources are fully recovered; continuously circulating for material gains and greenhouse gas reductions. The sd+b Centre is researching in the transformation of existing cities at the neighbourhood scale to low carbon cities.

Diagram 1: The city of tomorrow has to be transformed from unsustainable linear throughput of materials to a closed-loop circular metabolism, where materials, energy, water, food and other resources are fully recovered; continuously circulating for material gains and greenhouse gas reductions. The sd+b Centre is researching in the transformation of existing cities at the neighbourhood scale to low carbon cities. (Diagram: Steffen Lehmann, 2008)

The Eco-City is in a healthy balance and equilibrium with its hinterland. There is an urban growth boundary that protects precious farmland and forests, and the city does not grow at the expense of its surrounding landscape and supporting agricultural system.

Diagram 2: The Eco-City is in a healthy balance and equilibrium with its hinterland. There is an urban growth boundary that protects precious farmland and forests, and the city does not grow at the expense of its surrounding landscape and supporting agricultural system. (Diagram: Steffen Lehmann, 2008)

The holistic concept of Green Urbanism is based on three pillars (energy and materials/ water and biodiversity/ urban planning and transport), and the interaction between those pillars.

Diagram 3: The holistic concept of Green Urbanism is based on three pillars (energy and materials/ water and biodiversity/ urban planning and transport), and the interaction between those pillars. (Diagram: Steffen Lehmann, 2008)

Chinese cities and the particular challenges posed by rapid urbanisation: Some of the enormous challenges are posed by rapid urbanisation of Chinese cities and the fast increase of consumption levels in the Asia-Pacific region. The sd+b Centre is actively involved in advising Asian governments and municipalities in low carbon urban development.

Fig. 2: Chinese cities and the particular challenges posed by rapid urbanisation: Some of the enormous challenges are posed by rapid urbanisation of Chinese cities and the fast increase of consumption levels in the Asia-Pacific region. The sd+b Centre is actively involved in advising Asian governments and municipalities in low carbon urban development. (Photo: the author, 2009)

The 7-storey residential ‘Bridgeport’ building in London using timber: In future, many of the urban infill projects will be built using low carbon construction systems of prefabricated cross-laminated timber panels. This allows buildings to store carbon in the timber panels and will speed up construction significantly, thus delivering more affordable inner-city housing. The sd+b Centre is working towards the introduction of CLT construction technology to Australia by removing barriers such as fire, durability and building code regulations.

Fig. 3: The 7-storey residential ‘Bridgeport’ building in London using timber: In future, many of the urban infill projects will be built using low carbon construction systems of prefabricated cross-laminated timber panels. This allows buildings to store carbon in the timber panels and will speed up construction significantly, thus delivering more affordable inner-city housing. The sd+b Centre is working towards the introduction of CLT construction technology to Australia by removing barriers such as fire, durability and building code regulations. (Photo: the author, 2011)

Project example: Low carbon construction systems for urban infill using cross laminated timber technology

One concrete example for our research is part of the ‘Integrated Building Systems’ research program, which develops knowledge in low-carbon-lifecycle building construction components and materials, targeting the next generation construction practice, where step-change emissions cuts are required. Our current research in low carbon construction systems builds on the work that has already been done in low carbon/zero waste construction technologies, using cross-laminated timber (CLT) prefabrication for urban infill residential buildings for Australian cities, with a focus on construction waste avoidance. The study will develop low-carbon construction components using CLT timber construction for inner-city housing applying design for disassembly and modular prefabrication principles, enabling significant emission cuts. Such low carbon construction materials and systems of the future will have ‘cradle-to-cradle’ green supply chains, less environmental impact over their entire lifecycle, are light-weight to reduce embodied energy, are fully recyclable/re-useable and allow for off-site prefabrication. Replacing masonry, concrete and steel in construction with engineered light-weight timber panels for 4 to 7 storey residential infill buildings will reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the building’s entire lifecycle by approximately 50 per cent, storing carbon dioxide in the structure, effectively turning buildings into carbon sinks. The aim is to build a first demonstration project (prototype) of an Australian CLT system that works with our hot climate; international research partners for the project are the University of Cambridge (UK) and the TU-Munich (Germany).

References

  1. Lehmann, Steffen (2010): ‘The Principles of Green Urbanism. Transforming the City for Sustainability’, Earthscan, London.
  2. University of South Australia (2010): ‘Horizon 2020. The University’s Strategy for the Next Decade’, available online at: www.unisa.edu.au
  3. sd+b Research Centre: www.unisa.edu.au/sustainable-design

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