The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineSlideshow: Australia plans sustainable ‘living’ structure to help conserve world’s corals

Slideshow: Australia plans sustainable ‘living’ structure to help conserve world’s corals

By Robert L. Reid

  • aerial of a circular building with vertical fins on its facade that is located on a diagonal intersection near the sea shore and surrounded by greenery and trees
  • cross section of circular building showing it's interior floors
  • a series of coral aquariums are set up in a large, cavern-like white room

The world’s first conservation facility dedicated to preserving hard corals is planned for Australia’s Port Douglas, the Queensland town often used as a base for exploring the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef. Called the Living Coral Biobank, the project will feature laboratories, specimen tanks, aquariums, and other research and education facilities designed as a living “coral ark” to preserve more than 800 species of hard corals so that they can continue to be studied by future generations.

The live fragments, tissue samples, and genetic material of the corals will all be housed within a highly sustainable building that will use recycled material in its construction and rely entirely on renewable energy sources for its operations to try to achieve a self-sufficient, carbon-neutral structure.

The building envelope will feature two shells: a permeable, translucent glass shell on the interior and a durable exterior shell made from glass-fiber-reinforced high-performance concrete elements capable of resisting the potential corrosion caused by the subtropical seashore climate.

The exterior of the building will resemble a mushroom coral, a type of hard coral with distinctive radial fins. A series of seemingly organic undulating concrete fins clustered closely at ground level will visually appear to “twist and unfurl” as they progress upward, “allowing natural light and ventilation of the upper levels while providing solar shading,” explains a press release from the project’s architect, Contreras Earl Architecture, which is based in Sydney.

The 3D features of the exterior shell will be created using computer numeric control molding technology.    

Inside the building will be one basement level for mechanical systems and various storage systems and four above-ground levels that house wet labs, research areas, aquarium displays, and exhibition spaces. A viewing platform that overlooks some of these facilities will enable visitors to closely examine live specimens, learn about coral ecosystems, and “observe coral husbandry experts going about their daily work,” explains the Contreras Earl Architecture press release.

The international engineering firm Arup — especially through its teams in the Queensland cities of Cairns and Brisbane — is the project’s engineer and sustainability consultant. Werner Sobek AG, based in Stuttgart, Germany, is the facade engineering consultant. The client is the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, a Port Douglas-based nonprofit charity focused on marine conservation.

Made primarily of concrete, the 6,830 sq m building will most likely feature a combination of reinforced concrete and post-tensioned concrete for the walls, floor slabs, basement raft slab, and foundation pile system, notes Robert Donnan, an Arup associate principal based in Cairns.

Because the site is located adjacent to a marine inlet with very soft ground, the building will be founded on 20 m deep concrete piles and pile caps that will likely be part of the basement-level raft slab, Donnan says. The raft slab will take all the vertical wall and column loads and transfer them to the piles below while the reinforced-concrete columns and walls will continue up to support the structure’s various levels.

Transfer structures will be used where columns need to terminate or change position, Donnan adds, and three elevator and stair cores will run the full height of the building, working with the external perimeter walls to provide lateral stability for the building. The system will be designed to accommodate cyclonic wind loads and earthquake loads.

As part of the project’s focus on sustainability, the concrete aggregates used in the building materials will be recycled from existing building demolitions and the steel is designated to come from recycled sources that relied on melting and refinement processes powered by wind turbines or similar renewable energy systems, notes Richard Vincent, an Arup associate principal based in Brisbane. If necessary, carbon offsets will be purchased to achieve a carbon-neutral construction phase, he adds.

Designed as an all-electric building that uses no fossil fuels on-site, the facility will meet its energy needs through a variety of means, including rooftop photovoltaic cells, battery storage systems, and off-site renewable sources.

Operable windows will provide natural ventilation while an under-floor air distribution system will deliver air directly to occupants. The building will be divided into six climate zones, each with its own dedicated mechanical systems, while a sensor network and real-time monitoring system will help minimize energy consumption.

Rainwater will be captured and stored for reuse, seawater will be used for cooling systems, and solar thermal panels will generate hot water.

Summing up the project, Vincent states in the news release that the “landmark building will offer state-of-the-art facilities, with innovation and sustainability at its heart, creating a resilient development that will benefit research and make a fundamental difference to the survival of one of the natural wonders of the world.”

The $80 million Australian dollar (approximately $61 million) project is expected to open in 2025.

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