When the New Zealand team of global sustainable development consultancy Arup decided to create new offices in Britomart’s 5 Green Star refurbishment of the heritage Hayman Kronfeld Building, they also decided their interiors should aim to complete the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous global sustainability tool. Here, Jeremy Hansen speaks to Richard Stokes and Laura Cowie from Arup’s Sustainable Buildings team about what their teams learned from the challenge, and how it is informing their latest projects. 

JEREMY HANSEN What is the Living Building Challenge, and what made Arup want to be a part of it?

RICHARD STOKES The Living Building Challenge is a globally recognised sustainability rating tool for the built environment: it sets the objective of having a net positive or regenerative outcome from the standard that it defines. It’s both a design standard as well as a performance standard, and then it’s got requirements throughout the life cycle of the project, rather than it being a hypothetical design exercise. So we’re still going through the process of making sure our fitout works and going through those inevitable teething issues – but that’s really good, because that’s when you know you’re making everything work properly, rather than just walking away when the office is complete. We’re pursuing it for a number of reasons. We like to experiment on ourselves, and it’s something we’ve done for a number of years. We really looked at what the next step can look like for our office design evolution, and we also liked that the Living Building Challenge could effectively package up everything – Green Star, NABERS and other ratings systems – into one tool. Our work in our offices here means when the next client opportunity comes along and they want to pursue the Living Building challenge, we can help create that with them, because we’ll be able to use the knowledge we’ve gained here. 

JEREMY What did it mean to be working in an existing heritage structure? What complexity and benefits did that add?

RICHARD The idea of working with an existing building is exciting for Arup. We definitely have a preference for it. The heritage aspects just bring character and really celebrate the local history. It also limits the use of materials within the fitout: because there was so much character already in the existing floorboards, it meant we didn’t need to carpet over the top of everything, for example. We didn’t have to put in a false ceiling. So, from a carbon perspective, there are probably more opportunities and savings for us. There’s also a large amount of calculated risk occurring. If we fail to meet the air quality test, we might never know what the contributing factor is. Is it something that was in the heritage building that we couldn’t get rid of? Is it something that someone sprayed on themselves that morning? It’s so complicated. There are so many risks. So, the heritage building can add to that layer of complexity.

JEREMY HANSEN Laura, you were on-site for much of this process. Did that mean you were working through unforeseen issues on a day-by-day basis?

LAURA COWIE Yeah, definitely. But there were also opportunities that I think you don’t get with a new building. We re-used the bricks from the base build renovation in our kitchen, for example. We left a lot of the brick walls exposed, which meant we didn’t have to paint.

JEREMY HANSEN Could you expand on that a little bit with some of the material choices you made?

RICHARD The Living Building Challenge is notoriously hard with regards to materials. It’s like when you’re buying clothes and you think, where is this made? What’s it made from? Am I supporting local businesses? Is it going to be horrible on my skin? Is it made by someone who’s not been paid enough? All those kind of considerations. And you’re bringing that through to your material selection. We also use the Red List, which is an international list derived by scientists about chemicals that are considered toxic – not just in your experience of them, but in the supply chain’s experience of them and what might happen at the end of their life. It’s thinking about where things come from and how humans or nature interact with those materials. We put a lot of pressure on everything that we specified to have a great degree of transparency, almost like an ingredients list on the things that you buy from the supermarket. It sounds obvious but isn’t always known. There’s a much longer list of things that the scientific world is telling us we should be avoiding but technically isn’t illegal, so we’re trying to avoid all those things as well. We’re also thinking about responsible sourcing, particularly for timbers, making sure we have that chain of custody all the way through. It’s also about sourcing locally. In our fitout, 50 percent of the individual items were assembled in New Zealand – the Living Building challenge criteria is 25 percent. There was a surprisingly large amount of stuff that was made in New Zealand that we could preferably prioritise from a selection perspective.

LAURA We used salvage products as well. The kitchen island bench is made from post-consumer plastic that can’t be easily recycled, so it’s been squished together at high pressure and high temperature. We also made our doors on site – it was an interesting thing because we were tracking the responsible timber requirements and we couldn’t guarantee that the doors bought off the shelf were 100 percent responsibly sourced. So our solution was to use the Strandboard timber that we knew had full FSC [Forestry Stewardship Council] certification and build our internal doors onsite from that. And as well as that, we also just purchased an old door from a building surplus yard.

RICHARD The use of salvage yards has really progressed well in recent years because everything’s catalogued online to the point where you can search doors to the millimetre as if you’re shopping online for something new. 

JEREMY I’m thinking about how the Living Building Challenge adds a whole layer of complexity to what is already a complex project. How do you stay on track with these ambitions when the project’s really heating up and timeframes and team members are under pressure?

RICHARD We’re learning as we go – we’re seeing these projects as ways of working things out for ourselves so that we don’t have to be as messy when we’re doing it with clients. We engaged Unispace for the design and build, so they were always thinking about building it when they were given the criteria to design it at the beginning, which really helped with continuity. We also put everything on this online platform called Trello, which broke down the email silos. 

LAURA It’s also about remembering what the intent is – the end outcome and how it’s going to impact the workers in the space. It’s about people understanding what we’re asking for and not just saying, ‘This is a green alternative’. We’re saying we don’t need to just go to the green alternative – just tell us what is the normal product, what is in it, where does it come from? And then we’ll decide if we need to change it to an alternative product. When we had to make quick decisions, we’d think, is this going to impact the air quality when we’re in the office? If it isn’t, and if it’s a small item, then maybe it’s okay if we don’t know exactly what is in it or exactly where it’s come from.

JEREMY Did you find that your collaborators and suppliers were sufficiently equipped with the information you needed?

RICHARD It’s getting better – and we’re getting better at asking the questions. I think a lot of the time product suppliers hide behind eco-labels when the questions we’re asking are actually quite simple: What’s in your product? Where’s it from? Have you tested that? They’re the fundamentals. If you don’t know what’s in it, then we don’t trust you. In some cases, it’s quite easy to get that information. But if someone responds just with their kind of default pack of information, it’s generally not good enough and it requires a human connection to find out what’s actually going on. It’s not our responsibility to design this space, so we’re the kind of advocates and the enablers and the people trying to guide and help everyone else navigate it. I think that’s what excites us about doing this sort of thing. It’s not just a little fitout, but it’s an opportunity for lots of impact.

JEREMY Could I ask you how the challenge affected your relationship with our organisation [Cooper and Company], who were managing the base build? Because presumably if the building owner is difficult, it could have scuttled many of your ambitions.

RICHARD I remember one of the early interactions with our project manager had him saying, ‘The base building’s asking us to do all these things for the Green Star rating, we need to push back on this’. My response was, ‘No, we’re exceeding all of these targets’. It was good that there were base building requirements. Generally the Living Building Challenge gives us a get-out clause if the base build makes it too hard.

JEREMY Could you talk a little bit about your waste diversion from the construction and fitout? Because your results look pretty extraordinary.

RICHARD We think our waste from the project was about 99 percent diverted from landfill. We began by reviewing our waste strategy and identifying all the items in our design that would generate waste – that included cutoffs from wires, carpet off-cuts, plaster board off-cuts. We then identified where all those different waste streams could go very specifically within the New Zealand context. I think that mindset of segregation on site really helped them unlock it, rather than combining all your recyclable waste and sending it off to a materials recycling facility. Once you do that, everything’s contaminated, and that’s when you hit the lower percentages.