Archive 2011

First Light House Third in USA Ken Collins Oct 03

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A few months back I wrote about the First Light House that was too have competed at the Solar Decathlon in Washington DC.

The First Light House team in front of their house in Washington DC (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

The First Light House team in front of their house in Washington DC (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

As a quick refresher, the US Department of Energy web site summarises the competition thus — ’The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges collegiate (University to us Kiwi readers) teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

It has been reported over the weekend that the team from Victoria University has come in third place overall!! A fantastic result considering they were up against some very highly respected universities from the US and around the world.

In the process, the team were placed 1st for Engineering, which is fantastic because Victoria University doesn’t have an engineering school, 1st equal for Hot Water and 1st equal for Energy Balance, as

Mike Moore visits, photo from the First Light web site

Mike Moore visits, photo from the First Light web site

well as 2nd for Architecture and 3rd for Market Appeal. For a description of what these mean, see the US DoE descriptions here.

This result has garnered coverage in international media and is now making news in NZ. It has been a demonstration of what is achievable with products that are commercially available in this country. Although at this stage the up front capital cost is still very high, but hopefully that will drop to the point of common affordability in the coming years.

Helen Clark visits, photo from the First Light web site

Helen Clark visits, photo from the First Light web site

The Dominion Post reported today that — ’The Wellington team will spend the next four days packing the house up and then it will be shipped back to New Zealand. The bach has been purchased by a Christchurch woman who is planning to purchase land somewhere in the South Island for the bach, for which she paid $326,000 at auction.’

For those who want to know more, see the First Light House web site, and this is a direct link to a video explaining the architecture of the ’bach’.

The Influence of Buildings Ken Collins Sep 16

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We sometimes get things appearing out of left field that proves to be thought provoking beyond its original purpose. And so it was with this video clip YouTube Preview Image of David Byrne (lead singer of Talking Heads for those old enough to remember back that far) that a friend sent to me.

In this 16 minute clip David discusses how music has been influenced by architecture. More specifically how musicians were influenced to write music that suited the building or environment they were going to be playing it in.

He explores how this has been true from the time of classical music in earlier centuries, through to modern times. One example given is the music that Talking Heads created while performing in the CBGB club,

The CBGB Club

The CBGB Club

which is shoe horned into a small downstairs bar. The music that sounds great there is lost in a big concert hall or stadium. As opposed to music that became known as stadium rock, where Queen’s ’We Will Rock You’ and ’We Are The Champions’ comes to mind.

While the clip in itself is interesting, the extrapolation of this is — how many of the things we do every day are influenced by the built environment we inhabit? And do we really create or modify buildings to suit the function? Especially when function and use changes over time.

Many of us have experienced moving into a new house, and then working out how we can fit our stuff in and how we are going to use it. Features like a big lounge for entertaining or a cozy sun drenched space that is ideal for reading, have subtle effects on the things we do, that maybe we didn’t do before.

Queen at Wembley Stadium

Queen at Wembley Stadium

Scale this up to an entire office building, a laboratory, a public space, and the influences can have a greater effect. Especially when the technology, or user needs change over time. We create work-a-rounds, or modify the scale of things to suit our built environment, often subconsciously or in subtle ways that are obviously apparent at the time.

That is until a critical point is reached where the cost of not altering the environment is greater than putting up with what we already have. Where the cost (not only in dollar terms) of a new building or a major refurbishment becomes justified.

Even buildings designed for highly specific functions aren’t immune. Think of court houses, laboratories, or sports facilities. Changing needs has an effect on all parts of our built environment, and vice versa.

The numerous unused petrol stations that now dot our roads are an example of how specialised buildings can struggle to find alternative uses, and those that have been found alternative uses sometimes seem to be an un-natural fit.

It has long been known that the built environment influences us all, to varying degrees. But to what extent, and how consciously, this happens is so often lost in the hum of daily life.

Pre-Designing Your Lab for Sustainability Ken Collins Aug 15

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VUW Coastal Ecology Lab

VUW Coastal Ecology Lab

A short time ago I was reading this article in the R&D Mag online. Titled ’Pre-designing your lab for sustainability’ it makes a number of relevant points when thinking about laboratory design. Although it appears to be aimed at university type projects the points it makes is certainly relevant to all laboratory facilities of all types. Especially where it confirms that laboratories can consume up to 50% more energy than office buildings of a comparable size.

As issues of sustainability, energy use, lifetime costs and environmental impact continue to increase in order of importance, the earlier these issues are discussed and incorporated into the working brief for any new or re-developed facility the easier they are to be realised in the completed building.

In the article it talks about the US Green Building Council ’LEED’ programme, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, as an internationally-recognized green building certification system. In New Zealand we have the NZ Green Building Council which runs the Green Star certification system for commercial buildings. This provides a similarly recognised way assessing and certifying buildings in the New Zealand context.

Certainly in my experience as a laboratory architect I would have to agree that the earlier all aspects of the laboratory design are incorporated into the brief the better the end result will be. This includes the need to carry out a full review of current and future needs, an analysis of space utilisation, commonality review where the ability to share resources is looked at, as well as consideration of the environmental conditions required.

The more information you have about your actual needs versus your nice to haves the more efficient the final result will be. Not only for the size and operation of the building but also for the science and functions carried out within this environment.

In the past we have conducted these reviews for our client as a part of the briefing process. Especially the need to establish the size, relationships and environmental conditions the spaces need. Equally we have worked with a number of clients who have the staff and expertise to carry out these sorts of reviews and analysis themselves as a part of their planning process.

Inside the Coastal Ecology Lab

Inside the Coastal Ecology Lab

However, what has become very apparent is that you need the right people with the right experience (or ability) to do this pre-work. Whether it be outside consultants or in-house staff, the biggest impediment to the success of a project has been the quality of the data that is used to inform the brief, that ultimately flows on into the facility design. Add into this a layer of energy and building efficiency and the importance of pre-design and preliminary design is increased.

As a result we have developed a very robust and comprehensive briefing process, which includes questionnaire sheets to ensure as much information as possible is extracted out of the client’s head and onto paper, so it can inform the design.

As I sit here watching the snow fall in central Wellington, one example of this comes to mind, which included thinking a bit outside the box,. The Coastal Ecology Laboratory for Victoria University, sits on the south coast, overlooking Cook Strait. Here they run numerous experiments using sea water inside the facility, which is pumped straight out of the sea across the road. This gave us the opportunity to install the first commercial sea water heat recovery system. Recycled seawater from the laboratory experiments is circulated through the heat pump to recover energy, which is then used in radiators throughout the building. Combined with other smart design features, the energy consumption is reduced by over a third.

Lab overlooking Cook Strait

Lab overlooking Cook Strait

At least with this system, it won’t shut down in extreme cold like heat pump air conditioning systems have a habit of doing.

The best advice is to ensure that you allocate enough resources to get the information needed to make informed decisions on the brief and design of the facility. It is a hang of a lot cheaper to incorporate features or make changes in the design process than it is when the building is half completed, or even worse, having to put up with issues that create operational problems for the lifetime of the building.

First Light on Energy Efficient Bach Ken Collins Jun 10

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First Light House render

A computer render of the First Light House, from the FirstLight web site

Its not often that Wellington City Council allows a bach (crib to you southerners) to be built at Frank Kitts Park on Wellington’s waterfront.

However, before Waterfront Watch get too alarmed, this construction was the live demonstration / test of the First Light house, developed and built by Victoria University School of Architecture students. This is their entry to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 — the only entry, ever, from the southern hemisphere.

The Solar Decathlon is run every two years, held in the National Mall of Washington DC, and involves 20 university teams competing over 10 criteria to demonstrate they have created the best clean-energy dwellings, by building solar-powered houses that feature cost-effective, energy-efficient construction, that incorporates energy-saving appliances and renewable energy systems.

This is a highly prestigious event to be invited to, let alone to hopefully win. It is a challenging exercise that not only provides hands-on training, it also inspires innovation and research, and provides a practical demonstration of the many benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

A group from our office visited the display a few weeks ago and we were genuinely impressed at the level of detail the students have gone to, and at some of the innovative thinking behind it all.

First Light House at Frank Kits Park

First Light House at Frank Kits Park, photo from the FirstLight web site

The contest is not to create a small windowless box, but inspiring architecture. This is expressed by the decathlon categories, which cover architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance.

In this respect the kiwi team have created a modern interpretation of the iconic bach, complete with living, dining and sleeping spaces, home entertainment system, full kitchen, shower and laundry.

The bach features R6 insulation in the walls, as opposed to the more usual R2.6 installed in most new houses in NZ. Triple glazing in timber frames, for thermal bridging reasons. Reverse cycle heat pump that is ducted into rooms, solar hot water heating, and an array of photovoltaic panels to provide power. The bach will be connected to the grid, but it will have a two way meter, with the idea being to have either zero or negative power usage during the competition.

Even with a mighty big skylight in the centre and big folding doors for that lovely indoor/outdoor flow we all hold dear, the inside temperature only lost 1.5 degrees during one particularly frosty night, without any heat input.

Apart from having all of the energy efficient features, the bach also needs to be demountable so that it can be transported half way round the world, and back again. That even means thinking about the timber cladding, where Canadian Cedar was used to avoid it deforming due to the different humidity in the northern hemisphere, and hidden fixings used (from behind the boards) not only so demountable panels could be made, but also to stop a thermal bridge at each nail or screw point.

To show that the buildings are functional, the team must host two dinner parties and a movie night during the competition, including all of the cooking and washing up. Plus they must wash and dry a load of clothes in less than 3 hours. In conjunction with Leap Ltd they have developed a hot water drying cupboard that works by using heated water pumped through a heat exchanger to heat the air inside the cupboard. Combined with hot water filled rails, the system dries the clothes quickly while a fan extracts humid air from the cupboard. The dryer uses only a small amount of energy to power the fan and the remainder is powered by solar hot water.

While the team have not announced how much this bach has cost to build (and they certainly have a deservedly large corporate backing to make it happen), all of the technology, control systems, and building systems are commercially available in NZ. However I suspect that the capital cost of the technology would not be palatable to most people looking to build a home at the moment, especially when it is scaled up to suit an average size house. That is not to say that this will be the case in the future, and hopefully the near future. I think we all look forward to the time when these systems and technologies are run of the mill, and comparatively affordable.

You can follow the Victoria University team’s progress at

More Power, Less Acceleration Ken Collins Mar 16

Time Ball Station Aerial_600x400

Lyttleton's Time Ball Station from the Stuff web site

Just a quick update today, following on from the theme of the last post, and the horror of the devastation Japan is now experiencing.

With the NZ government announcing a Royal Commission of Enquiry into the building collapses in Christchurch, it has been interesting to observe people’s perceptions, from politicians all the way down (or should that be up?).

The disconnect is partly in trying to understand why there was so much damage in Christchurch for a relatively small 6.3 magnitude quake, as opposed to the massive 9.0 quake seen in Japan.

So the follow on from my last post on ’Buildings are not Designed to be Race Cars’ where I talked about Peak Ground Acceleration (PGA), I thought it would be interesting to make some comparisons.

The Geonet map from the February quake is here and shows central Christchurch had a PGA of between 0.6g and 0.8g with up to 1.88g in the eastern suburbs and an incredible 2.2g at the epicentre.

Japan Intensity Shaking Map from USGS web site

Japan Intensity Shaking Map from USGS web site

The PGA maps from the U.S. Geological Survey show that in Sendai (about 130km from the epicentre), the PGA was 0.21g, with surrounding areas experiencing between 0.35g and 0.65g. In Tokyo the PGA was 0.17g. Have a look at the maps here and you can mouse over recording points to see the PGA expressed as a percentage of g.
eg 100% = 1g, 20% = 0.2g.

Even at these levels of acceleration it would appear that some buildings in Japan suffered structural damage as a result of the earthquake rather than the Tsunami.

So here’s the kicker. At the earlier reported magnitude of 8.9 in Japan (it has now been updated to M9.0) the energy released was 8000 times greater than in Christchurch, but the Japanese mainland experienced a significantly lower PGA than Christchurch did.

The Christchurch experience was reported as a short sharp jolt that was extremely violent. The Japan experience has been reported as a very long sway that just continued to build and build in intensity.

Location, proximity, soil types, rupture dynamics and many other factors mean that how each eathquake is expressed (and felt) at the surface is different.

And now back to the design of buildings. How do you best account of these huge differences so that you can structurally design buildings with some certainty? Can a building be made to reliably resist a PGA of say 1.5g (when a Formula 1 car accelerates at 1.4g)? Can older buildings be retrofitted to even remotely approach this? Assuming not, what level is an acceptable level to get older buildings up to? Will we ever experience that sort of PGA again in NZ? So is it worth designing buildings to resist that?

Engineers can now point to real life examples to answer many of those questions and scientists have more data to analyse than they have ever had before .

There are many, many newer buildings in Christchurch that did survive remarkably intact, despite the PGA they experienced (apparently) exceeding their design load state. For instance, a new-ish building around the corner from the CTV building hasn’t even a broken pane of glass.

Again, I must stress that I am not a structural engineer, and these are my thoughts as an Architect. But these are all questions that we have been discussing in our office, with no clear answer. The Department of Building and Housing and the Royal Commission will certainly have their work cut out trying to make sense of it all. And lets hope that sense does prevail.

Buildings are not Designed to be Race Cars Ken Collins Mar 04

Christchurch Earthquake trace from

Christchurch Earthquake trace from

Amongst the tragedy and ruin of last weeks Christchurch earthquake it hasn’t taken long for the blame game to emerge. Watching and reading the popular media over the last few days it is obvious that they want someone to publically flog for the terrible collapse of the PCG building and the CTV building.

Fortunately the Department of Building and Housing have already stated that their investigation will focus on finding the facts and it does not address areas of blame. That is the logical first step. If after that there are things that can be learnt, then that is good. If it is found someone was negligent than that needs to be addressed separately, in the fullness of time. However, I don’t believe that trying to find a blame hound now is very constructive.

I am not a Structural Engineer, so this is my opinion as an Architect, and below are a few relevant points as I see them, in order to provide some context.

Apart from the historic buildings, the two collapsed buildings were reported in the Dominion Post as being built in the 60s and 70s, and it is reasonable to believe that they were built to the relevant structural standards of the time.

In work our practice has done in the past few years, it has been identified that the structural standards for earthquake resistance has increased 3 fold since that time.

The structural design and design loadings standard NZS 4203 was first dated 1976, then 1984 and 1992. In the last few years AS/NZS 1170 has replaced 4203 and the structural requirements for earthquake resistance jumped up quite significantly in some aspects.

I know of one significant building in the Wellington CBD that was extensively retrofitted in the early 1980s to resist earthquake loads, at a cost of many millions of dollars at that time. Despite that work, the building has recently been assessed as being earthquake prone against current standards. The current owners are now spending much more to retrofit more extensive bracing and strengthening measures.

The often quoted ’Magnitude’ scale for earthquakes — as in magnitude 7.1 — gives a measure of the energy released by an earthquake, which is helpful in determining comparative size. However it does not indicate the shaking force or how violent a given quake is.

The general media appear to be stumped as to why a magnitude 6.3 quake produced so much more damage than a 7.1 quake. Apart from depth and location, the reason is ground acceleration.

We discovered the difference when we were designing a laboratory that you really don’t want to fall down when the big one hits. During the design phase the client asked what magnitude quake the building would resist. Oh, if only it were that easy sir, replies the structural engineer.

What the structural standards refer to is ground acceleration. How fast the ground moves determines how strong the building on top needs to be to either move with the ground or to resist falling over until the ground comes back to about the same location.

However, if the ground is not just going side to side but up and down as well, then it becomes increasingly harder to hold the big heavy hollow object together.

Referring to data from the web site it shows that during the September 4 quake the ground acceleration in Christchurch central was between 0.1g and 0.32g. g being the force of gravity.

In the February 22 quake the force was between 0.57 and 0.80g in the CBD area.

The highest shaking was recorded at Heathcote Valley Primary School at 2.2g, with readings of 1.88g at Pages Road Pumping Station and 1.07g at Hulverstone Drive Pumping Station!!.

For some perspective on this, a Formula One car accelerates at about 1.4g. Buildings don’t.

Those are huge forces in any language. Just in the CBD alone the ground acceleration was 2 to 3 times as great for a quake that was almost 1 order of magnitude less.

The map for the September quake is here and the February quake is here.

Early indications are that the Port Hills are now 400mm higher than before, meaning that the reverse faulting mechanism thrust the ground up some distance.

In short, as we wait to see what the technical reasons are for the two major collapses, the fact of the matter is that there is a point where we can not resist all of the forces of nature.

It is possible that the structural loading standards will be modified yet again as a result of the reviews to come. However you can only build to what is anticipated to be the likely expected ground acceleration. Before our places of shelter become — to quote Edmund Blackadder ’a small windowless building’.

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