The gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas, could soon be to home to an all-electric carbon neutral bunker for coral species under threat from climate change.

The incredible biophilic “living ark” inspired by a mushroom-like coral variety has been designed by Australian architects Contreras Earl Architecture, with leading engineering and sustainability consultants Arup and Werner Sobek for the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, a not-for profit marine conservation organisation.

As a protective hatch for coral, Contreras Earl Architecture director Rafael Contreras says

the $70 million “biobank” is designed to withstand whatever the climate throws at it over the next 500 years. 

Despite its embodied carbon content, concrete was selected as the primary material for its durability (there are plans to offset the embodied carbon) and its resilience to the elements.

The site, which was donated by the local council, is close to the coast so will likely be at risk of flooding as sea levels rise. As such, all essential services and the coral enclosures will be situated well above the once-in-a-hundred-year flood level.

While Arup associate principal Richard Vincent says it’s not feasible to make a building of this scale self-sufficient with existing technology – carbon neutrality will be achieved by generating some solar onsite on the roof and purchasing remaining energy needs from offsite renewables – the building is designed for self-sufficiency adaptations in the future, with plenty of room for battery power as this technology becomes more efficient.

Passive design in action

While some airconditioning will be required to keep the building cool in the North Queensland location, the engineers have pulled out all the stops to minimise its use through passive solar design.

There is minimal glass to ensure good thermal performance, especially on the lower layers where people rarely visit. There will be external shading devices that minimise solar heat gain.

It also borrows from Passive House principles with an airtight envelope and high-performance insulation and glazing, and efficient ventilation with heat recovery (low air speed ventilation.

People are welcome too

Protecting coral is the 6830 square metre building’s primary purpose but it will also welcome human guests to come and inspect the precious inhabitants. A multi-function centre will host exhibition areas, an auditorium and classrooms as well as advanced research and laboratory facilities over four levels.  

Contreras says that ability to host functions such as weddings and charge for museum tickets will help his not-for-profit client fund the ongoing maintenance of the building.  

It will also help bring the community together and educate people about the possibilities of coral extinction, which feeds into the project’s alignment with the Sustainability Development Goals.

With the building used for a range of different purposes, it has been divided into six climate zones to help control energy use. The system allows the research areas to be kept completely controlled and airconditioned but the spaces for visitors will be reliant on more multimodal cooling techniques, such as natural ventilation via operable windows.

It also means airconditioning can be easily shut down without impacting the rest of the building.

The underfloor air distribution ventilation system, which efficiently delivers air directly to occupants, is also fairly novel, although Arup has previously put it into a few buildings. 

Other innovations under consideration, according Vincent, include using sea water as a heat exchange source through a heat pump system.

There are also plans to leverage prefab components as much as possible to minimise wastage and time. The design team are also aiming for 6 Star Green Star v 1.3, Design and As Built.

Now to fund this thing

With the design completed, the Great Barrier Reef Legacy is now looking for funding from a range of different sources, including governments and private entities.

There is a chance the project won’t go ahead if it doesn’t secure funding, but Contreras is confident. For a start, the local government has been particularly supportive of the project.

“With their drive and enthusiasm, the team at Great Barrier Reef Legacy are not only going to deliver a world-class preservation project, but give Port Douglas another special attraction for visitors to enjoy,” Douglas Shire Mayor Michael Kerr says.

Governments are also looking for construction projects as a way to boost the economy post Covid, Contreras points out. 

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