“I don’t know of any more ambitious project anywhere in the world that’s doing these things. It’s pretty impressive” – Mulpha’s zero carbon “City of Tomorrow”

EXTENDED CASE STUDY: Mulpha has gathered a premium design team to deliver its zero carbon mixed-use “City of Tomorrow” at its huge Norwest Norwest Business Park, in The Hills district north west of Sydney. And some of the features may set a new national benchmark if not individually at least in aggregate. Among them an airconditioning system that experts say should be mandated for its ability to minimise heating outdoor spaces, a zero waste supermarket and water recycling.

The 377 hectare development hopes to be one of Australia’s first urban masterplanned precincts to deliver life-cycle sustainable design principles from conception through to construction and long-term performance.

To try and set a new benchmark for sustainable neighbourhoods, the developer worked with environmental sustainability firm Finding Infinity, urban heat researchers from Western Sydney University, architects Bates Smart and Smart Design Studio, and urban designers and landscape architects Aspect Studios and Terroir.

The $1 billion Norwest Quarter will consist of two buildings; the 115 apartment Banksia (designed by Bates Smart and to be launched off-the-plan on 5 March), and the 81 apartment Lacebark (designed by Smart Design Studio and launched a month later), spanning the 9450 square metre site and providing 196 apartment homes, gym, grocery store, medical services, restaurants and landscaped resident and community amenities.

Apartments in the Norwest Quarter will be all-electric, gas-free, featuring rooftop solar, recycled water, integrated waste systems and community food gardens, and with EV charging points as well as several car shares plus an electric vehicle for residents to book on site (with more to be provided in the future if demand indicates).

The developers claim that residents will be able to consume two thirds less energy than a typical code compliant apartment building, and cut energy costs by up to 25 per cent.

When complete the Norwest Quarter will transform 3.8 hectares of greenfield land into a precinct home for 2000 residents, with 70 per cent of land retained for landscaping.

The Business Park currently accommodates more than 800 national and international companies, providing over 30,000 jobs, with growth projected to see over 2000 businesses, 15,000 residents and more than 60,000 workers.

Sustainability at the forefront

As well as targeting climate change and tackling urban heat in the precinct, the zero carbon goal will lower energy bills while increasing resident well being by delivering liveability, better air quality and more access to nature, the developer says.

“Sustainability is one of the most important principles for Mulpha, and we apply these principles from small and low density all the way to high density vertical projects like Norwest,” said Tim Spencer, head of developments at Mulpha.

“This project offers wellness, connection to nature and biophilic design,” Mr Spencer said.

But what really excites him about this project is the opportunity to shake things up with regards to sustainability. “If you serve up the same old systems, then I’ll start to get bored.

Ross Harding from Finding Infinity said, “This project is doing a lot of simple things all together. It is innovation through simplicity.” Mr Harding spent the past two years working on the $100 billion zero carbon strategy for the City of Melbourne, New Normal.

Jan van der Bergh, senior development manager said, “It is the sum of all these little initiatives that make it so special. There’s no bleeding edge tech, it’s all been done before. We are bringing it all together.”

In an interview with The Fifth Estate, Mr Spencer said, “You can’t just tick the box, you need to lead the consumer change – that’s what excites me. We are contributing to social change and thought leadership, with Jan on the innovation and environment side. It’s technically difficult, so you need to get right into it and get into the nitty gritty.”

Future proofing in design

The developer chose to make the buildings carbon neutral because it believes that zero carbon will be the design norm of the future, he said.

“It’s important that when we bring a project to market it is aspirational and leading, so that we can lead others.

“If you were to design a building and for it not to be zero carbon, by the time it gets to the market it would be redundant. Zero carbon will become normal very soon. The world is accelerating into it and that is why it’s so exciting for us.”

Mr van der Bergh said that the team worked with environmental consultants before the architects were even engaged, and that brief went out to every designer.

“We got engaged at the beginning of the project, before even the architects and engineers,” Mr Harding said. “We told them, let’s cut the crap and do exactly what needs to be done environmentally. It’s very objective and technical. We agreed on the ideas upfront, and that was then given as the brief for the architects and designers.”

He added that extensive work was done to assess what initiatives and design considerations would be recommended for the development to minimise energy, waste, and embodied emissions on site.

“Mulpha is going ahead with almost every initiative that we suggested. I don’t know of any more ambitious project anywhere in the world that’s doing these things. It’s pretty impressive,” Mr Harding said.

What about green certification?

Mr Spencer stated that Mulpha chose not to certify the buildings, because to do so “would have cost us a quarter of a million dollars, and we’d rather put that money into the sustainability of the project”.

“We benchmarked ourselves equivalent to Green Star, the Living Building Challenge, and NABERS, to plug any holes in the development.

“I don’t know of any more ambitious project anywhere in the world that’s doing these things. It’s pretty impressive” – Mulpha’s zero carbon “City of Tomorrow”

“We are more interested in real world outcomes than meeting ratings,” said Mr Harding. “We meet all the compliance requirements, but our focus is beyond it.”

Sustainability right down to the refillable pouches of body wash and a zero waste super market

That includes the whole precinct, including future businesses which will be in the space, aiming for sustainability right down to long-term liveability.

“We have a focus on waste and passive design,” said Mr van der Bergh. For example, the team is in talks with zero waste store Zero Co to supply refillable pouches of body wash, and reusable food containers so that local businesses can avoid disposable plastic waste.

“We have a zero waste supermarket on site to make it as easy as possible for people not to produce waste,” said Mr Harding.

Zero Co will provide sachets and containers for residents to refill on cleaning supplies at a discounted price, and an on-site electrolysing water system supplied by E Water will provide environmentally friendly, toxin-free, low-cost, produce-cleaning solution to refill within the premises. Electrolysed water is an industrial-grade cleaning technology. It uses electricity to change the chemical structure of salt and water into disinfectant approximately 50 to 100 times as effective as bleach but without the harmful chemicals. This sanitiser can be used to spray down fresh produce to prolong shelf life, Mr van der Bergh says.

“We can create cleaning products on site and avoid waste plastic on site. Residents and retailers will be able to refill their containers with this electrolysis water, that due to the low pH, can be used as a cleaning product,” Mr Harding said. The team is in talks with Who Gives A Crap to supply toilet paper to the building. Mr Harding says the environmental consultant is trying to push for an anaerobic digester (waste to energy plant) on site.

Waste is separated inside the building, and there will be worm farms in the podium for organic (food) waste. The “worm tea” will then be used to fertilise the productive gardens in the residence too – full of fruits and vegetables. Organic waste from the food businesses within the precinct will be used to feed the worms, too. But it is not enforced.

“All retail curation and selection will be governed by sustainability. It will be easy for retailers to do the right thing,” said Mr van der Bergh.

Airconditioning systems make all the difference

The precinct will be “all electric, with an efficient airconditioning system that’s twice the efficiency of other airconditioning systems.” That’s because the system will be a VRF (Variable Refrigerant Flow) system, which uses water to cool the air – instead of cooling the air directly. Mr Harding says that the building is already passively designed to minimise heating and cooling needs. The airconditioning system has a coefficient of performance of 5 – that’s 40 per cent more efficient than what would typically be in an apartment building, he said.

“I don’t think it’s far off that this airconditioning system will be mandatory,” Mr Harding said. “There are other more efficient systems, but they’re not suitable for apartment buildings because you can’t turn them off individually for each apartment.”

Depending on where the sun is, the system will take the heat from one side and “push it” towards the other.

This will mean the airconditioning system won’t contribute to urban heat, because it doesn’t blow hot air to the outside of the building. It results in lower bills for homeowners too, possibly around 25 per cent less below standard.

Urban heat in the area can reach 40C so the team worked with UWS urban heat researchers to peer review and assist with how to reduce heat, including installation of sensors to understand the micro-climate of the areas.

Unsurprisingly energy will be provided by rooftop solar panels – but those solar panels only have the capacity to provide 5 per cent of the electricity for the precinct. The remainder comes from a 100 per cent renewable group agreement with an embedded network operator negotiated at a lower rate from the green power provider, Benergy.

Residents have the ability to opt out, if they wish, but the centralised airconditioning and water heating is locked in, at an expected energy saving of about a third compared with regular systems.

“It’s a win-win because it reduces operating costs for residents and feels better to live in, and has significantly lower environmental impact,” said Mr Harding.

Both the developers and the environmental consultants admitted that none of the organic waste or zero waste initiatives will be enforced, and the electricity plan is not locked in. However, they say that simply by providing sustainable alternatives as the automatic default, homeowners and businesses in the precinct will find it easier to stick to the sustainable practices and initiatives.

“We can’t control people, but we help them do the best they can,” said Mr Harding.

Sustainability and community

“Interior designers and architects are being constantly pushed to always think about sustainability, said Mr van der Bergh. “For example, when we were designing the lobby we thought, ‘how can we get this space to do more?’ We want to encourage low waste and community interaction. So we decided to have a community library in the lobby, and a share and repair centre for residents to mend things that are broken.”

This innovative concept is also complemented by landscaped urban spaces both in the grounds of the development, in the shared interior communal spaces, and vertically along the facade.

“Our precinct plan is 70 per cent landscaped urban space. And that needs a lot of water, so we need to be efficient.” said Mr Spencer.

Water recycling

“We have a water tank that captures rainwater to irrigate our vertical gardens,” explained van der Bergh. On the ground level, all flora will be native, while above ground the vertical gardens will showcase a mix of international varieties chosen for their adaptation to the local microclimate and “by how we can welcome more local fauna into the site.”

Water for toilets will be supplied from a water recycling plant at the precinct boundary, in a separate line from the potable water.

Premium positioning for sustainable living

The developers have owned the site since the 1990s, where the mixed-use 377 hectare district was cow paddocks. Since then, the developers have witnessed the establishment of a community, and its growth.

“Other large developments have brought down the overall value of precincts, so we are working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen here,” Mr Spencer said.

Being a boutique developer, Mr Spencer says that the developer is aiming for upwards of premium positioning, with a price point sitting around 20 per cent higher than competitors, he said. Asking prices for one bedroom apartments, plus a study, are expected to be $705,000, while for two bedroom plus study they are $1.18 million and three bedroom plus study, $1.48 million.

Potential market demand was tested through a series of working groups with locals, previous buyers and potential buyers, and this resulted in a positive response for sustainability.

“People expect new developers to push the bar on sustainability. Sustainability is the big selling point.”

The development will be situated on productive livestock land that was previously used for cattle. “We had our own in-house cowboy,” Mr Spencer jokes. “He was with us for 20 years. The residents would have loved to keep the cows, but they’ve moved up the coast now.”

Construction is expected to begin within the next few months, in the second quarter of this year. Buildings will be completed and ready for use in late 2024.

Due to the strong sustainability bent, buyers of the apartments may also be eligible for discounted sustainable home loans from Regional Australia Bank.

Mulpha says it also has another sustainability-focused development in the pipeline at Menangle, NSW.