Friday, March 23, 2007

Green office building opens in Canberra

Back of Australian Ethical Investments green building with bike racks, water tanks, light wells, chimney and evacuated tube solar hot water systemThis morning Senator Bob Brown opened Australian Ethical Investment's (AEI) new environmentally friendly office in Canberra.

AEI refurbished Block E of Trevor Pearcey House in the Bruce Technology Park. It has:
* hydronic heating and cooling
* designated parking spaces for small cars and motorbikes
* bicycle racks for staff and visitors
* double glazing on windows and increased shading
* skylights
* added insulation and
* water tanks and water saving toilets and urinals.

From: Treavour Pearcy House, AEI
AEI are aiming for a 75% reduction in energy use (and consequent reduction in CO2 greenhouse gas). What is most impressive is that they have done this within the restrictions imposed by an existing building which has to still fit in with the other building of the technology park.

The building has been clad in insulation to reduce heating and cooling needs. But you can't notice the difference with the building next to it. If you look closely the AEI building looks smooth, whereas the one next door shows a rough painted brick surface. The AEI building actually looks slightly higher quality as a result.

It is a shame AEI couldn't make the building's green technology more visible from the outside. The back of the building is far more interesting than the front. The front looks like a bland technology park building. The back has the bicycle racks and water tanks. On the roof you can see the light wells and solar chimneys, as well as the evacuated tube solar hot water system. The Micros
oft Technology Center in Cambridge UK made the bicycle racks a feature of the building (and easier to find when I wanted to park my bike). The energy and water efficient homes at the "Eco-living Exhibition" in Canberra made a feature of the solar chimneys and panels.

Australian Ethical Investments green office with suspended low energy lights, exposed cableways and heat sink concrete ceilingInside the suspended ceiling of the building has been removed on the ground floor to allow the concrete underside of the first floor to act as a thermal mass: providing cooling in summer and heating in winter. The concrete has been mostly painted white, with low energy light fittings suspended. Power and computer cables are in suspended cable ways. I have seen a similar arrangement at IBM's Centre at Ballarat University.

Offices in the center of the AEI building have conventional suspended ceilings. The architect has decided to leave the edges of the ceiling exposed, to allow natural ventilation. This is perhaps taking the industrial esthetic a little too far. It makes the building look half finished, with a rat's nest of cables and insulation exposed. Some sort of grille could have been used to cover the gap, allowing ventilation but providing visual continuity.

Conduits for power and computers are simply stuck to the concrete of the ceiling in most places. Having spent many hours with my head in ceilings and floors running computer cables through tiny holes, this is a great improvement. However, the architect might have done better to leave the concrete ceiling grey and used the hanging lights and cable ways to create a virtual ceiling. Looking up, you would see the bright white of the light fitting s and cable ways and not tend to notice the grey concrete above.

The building aims to maintain a temperature of 19 to 26 degrees C, which should be comfortable. The requirement for government buildings is 22 degrees plus or minus 1 degree and this tight range greatly increases energy consumption and cost, without providing much extra comfort. In fact the cold office on a hot day might not be as comfortable for the occupants.

The building uses a computer controlled system to open the windows at night in summer to cool it. I might see if some ANU students would like to do a project to interface the system and report the building status on the web (or even a mobile phone). The AEI building is by the same architects as the ANU's Ian Ross engineering building.

At the launch I bumped into Keith Price, who works on computer systems for the Centre for Australian Ethical Research. CAER are one of the occupants of the building and undertake research for AEI. The environment and ICT were an emerging theme at the ACS Conference last week. I suggested to Keith that perhaps we needed to form a Special Interest Group to address this in Canberra.

I am an AEI shareholder and have money in their ethical super fund. But while AEI's green credentials may be good, it can be frustrating difficult to put money into their fund. With other super funds I can simply use BPAY to electronically transfer money. AEI want me to set up a bank transfer and fill in a paper form. This is error prone and unnecessary and I suspect they are missing out on a lot of funds as a result. If you think e-payments are a trivial system see my discussion of the eighteen character problem.

ps: Apart from ICT for the environment, there is another computer connection to the AEI building. The building is named in honor of Dr Trevor Pearcey, Australian computing pioneer and one of the founders of the Australian Computer Society. In 1993 I took part in a future study for Canberra and wrote "Canberra 2020: World Information Capital" (published in Informatics Magazine, September 1993). This featured Trevor Pearcy House.

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