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Making a positive contribution
17 February 2017

Jerome Partington wants New Zealanders building their own homes to shift their thinking from compliance to "doing good". He talks to Kim Dungey.

Sustainable architecture expert Jerome Partington says it’s not enough for buildings to be a little  more energy efficient; they should make a positive contribution to our communities and the health of our natural systems.

Auckland-based Partington is an advocate of the "living building challenge", arguably the world’s most rigorous performance standard for buildings and precincts.

The programme goes a step further than "green" and sustainable building, which focus merely on improving existing performance or "doing a little less harm", he says.

Instead, it uses the challenging goals to achieve better social outcomes and to give back to nature. The resulting buildings might create local employment, as did New Zealand’s first "living building" — the Tuhoe headquarters in Taneatua — or help nurture the local ecology, like the Californian resort designed to mimic the estuary which existed on the site before being filled in for development.

"One of our challenges in New Zealand is that it looks like all the ecosystems are healthy," he says.

"But even New Zealand is very degraded ... When we make investment decisions — be it in a building, a new industry or a farm — we need to start saying, ‘is this just about financial optimisation or will this project serve the health of the ecosystem and the health of the communities around it?’."

"This value-add is our only hope for a long term future on this planet."

To qualify as a "living building", a project must achieve what is called quadruple net zero performance in toxicity, energy, waste and water use. This means the building must be carbon neutral, generate at least as much energy as it consumes and use only rainwater collected on site. No materials with toxic chemicals can be used and no waste can go to the landfill.

While a "green" home is about 15 to 30% more efficient than a standard one, a "living building" is 90% more efficient than code, Partington says.

"The Challenge also asks us to design buildings that are really beautiful and that people will appreciate over decades so will be less likely to demolish in 30 years time."

The sustainability manager at Jasmax (architects for the new University of Otago Dental School), Mr Partington will visit Dunedin next week  to train architects, building professionals and polytechnic students in the ‘‘living building’’ programme. He will also give a public lecture on Tuesday.

Only 35 buildings worldwide have received full or partial "living building" certification since 2006, though about 400 are registered and hoping to follow suit. These include a net zero energy home in Auckland which was the first project certified outside of the United States ( and Te Uru Taumatua — Tuhoe’s $12 million headquarters near Whakatane.

Camp Glenorchy, scheduled to open later this year, is expected to be New Zealand’s first net zero energy camping ground, while Otago Polytechnic is using the living building philosophy to guide the design of its student accommodation, which opens early next year.

Meeting the requirements around materials is one of the toughest parts of the programme, Partington says. Not only must participants calculate and offset the embodied carbon, source mostly local products and services and use only Forest Stewardship Council-certified, reclaimed or windblown timber, they have to show how they will avoid dumping anything during the building’s design, construction, operation and demolition. All "worst in class" toxic chemicals on a so-called "red list" also need to be avoided.

This last requirement can benefit not only those who occupy the building, but those who refurbish it and those who make building products in the first place, he says. During the Tuhoe project, a firm which made concrete spacers and used formaldehyde in the moulds as a release agent, decided to no longer use the carcinogenic compound.

The programme also has a "Declare" eco label, which he likens to a food ingredients label for building products: "It tells you where it’s made, what’s in it and what to do with it at the end of it’s life."

Architect Jason F. McLennan calculated people could build a "living building challenge" home for the cost of a double garage, Partington says, but New Zealanders still focus on how big buildings are and what they look like rather than how they perform in terms of health and resource use.

The New Zealand Building Code, which is the "compliance" level most people build to, is "not very aspirational" and results in "incredibly inefficient" homes.

Many people have also "caught the development financial bug" and see homes purely as short-term investments.

The rest of the world is "cracking on with green building", but New Zealand has only recently started producing building scientists in its universities so there is a lack of understanding about how buildings work.

And while many countries have moved to high-quality prefabrication, New Zealand has tried to fix an old method of construction — the timber-framed house — rather than starting from first principles.

Insulating buildings properly and making them airtight requires a different approach, he says, describing how insulated precast-concrete panels his firm used at a West Auckland school resulted in warmer, drier classrooms.

"We have all the technology we need to design incredibly efficient, healthy homes. We just need a bit more will and a little education."

Chairman of the non-profit Living Future NZ, Mr Partington accepts that the requirements of the "living building" challenge are onerous but says that is what creates change and innovation.

So the message he will deliver on his Dunedin visit will be one of optimism but also "a bit of a reality check about the path we’re on".

"The amount of time, money and land that’s invested in the development sector in New Zealand is huge but are we getting long-term value from that investment? There’s a question we need to be asking ourselves."
Hear him

Jerome Partington’s free public lecture, "Why living buildings are transforming our world", is on at The Hub, Otago Polytechnic, Forth St, on Tuesday at 6pm. The short presentation will be followed by a panel discussion in which he will be joined by Otago Polytechnic campus project manager Tracey Howell and project manager Brett Nairn.

Otago Daily Times

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