by Meghna MehtaMay 20, 2020
Coral ecosystems are amongst the most important living systems on the planet, and also among the vast number of ecosystems that have been brought into immediate, real danger because of global warming. Their continued, sustained activity is instrumental to the continued sustenance of life as we know it. The Living Corals Biobank, located at the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, then comes as a first in the conversation about the decay of coral habitats, particularly in the Southern Pacific oceanic region. Commissioned by the Great Barrier Reef Legacy and designed by Australian practice Contreras Earl Architecture, the building aims to secure the long term future and biodiversity of corals worldwide by providing a habitat to nurture nearly 800 species of the world’s hard coral. The centre has been envisioned akin to a ‘living ark’ itself. While ‘ark’ may draw as well on the biblical implications of the term with respect to harbouring corals, it is also designed to be a self-sustaining building employing next generation renewable energy, creating optimal conditions for coral storage while minimising energy consumption and solar gain.
Apart from being an important conservation project at its heart, the Living Corals Biobank is also intended as an environmental landmark for public awareness, educational tourism, and incorporating a unique visitor experience along with being a worldwide research destination for corals. The 6830 sqm multi-function facility will thus host exhibition areas, an auditorium and classrooms, and a 200-person event space, along with research and laboratories pertaining to its coral population over four sprawling levels, enabling patrons and visitors to witness first hand the live specimens of corals in aquarium displays, engage in exhibitions and events to learn about coral ecosystems, and observe coral husbandry experts at work in a protected wet lab environment. The corals are primarily located in a special concrete vault that has been carefully designed in order to be able to face adverse weather conditions.
The building’s external form is also responsive to the vivid organisms it provides a habitat for. Influenced by the mushroom coral that is characterised by protective radial fins, the Living Coral Biobank’s façade too is evocative of the very sculptural qualities of the hard coral. The distinctive vertical fins, organically shaped, flow in concrete over the building’s shell. The fins are closely clustered at ground level for mitigation against adverse tropical conditions including floods, and spread out farther, unfurling along the four levels to successively allow for natural light and ventilation at the upper levels, while also proving to be effective means of vertical shading against the horizontal sun. This morphology also responds to the need to conserve the corals at lower building levels in a highly controlled environment as well as the requirement for biosecurity to prevent cross-contamination.
Within the free flowing interior spaces of the biobank, the emanation of light on various levels and its manipulation by the built form (and the unbuilt) play a significant role in defining the visitor's journey. Patrons enter through a vast entry plaza, described as a terraced forum space, providing a suitable buffer for transition, continuing to the central viewing platform on Level 2 via a grand stairway. From here, visitors can freely observe the wet lab specimen tanks in a protected environment below. A central atrium visually connects all public spaces across the building’s main levels, and through this centrum, the designers have attempted a uniform illumination to evoke the surreal luminescence of the depths of the sea. At the lower levels, the wet lab tanks contribute to the lighting scheme in shades of blue, added on to by the cool light of the aquarium tanks on Level 3. The irradiating blues and whites are complemented by the fluorescence of the corals, giving the space an otherworldly quality that is still reminiscent of the ocean, the coral’s natural habitat itself.
In order to fully commit to the realisation of its sustainable vision, Contreras Earl Architecture has collaborated with engineering and sustainability consultants ARUP and façade consultants Werner Sobek to design an integrated, holistic system for energy conservation in the building. Over the four levels, the centre has been tactically divided into six compatible zones with adjacencies minimising the usage of energy resources. The project is focused on achieving a zero-carbon footprint and has been designed in accordance with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. To that end and to ensure carbon neutrality, some of the measures the building incorporates into its design and function include calibrated external shading for façade optimisation and minimising solar heat gain, high performance glazing and insulation, an air-tight envelope, high thermal inertia (exposed concrete interiors), night time radiant cooling using sea water, an efficient central cooling and heating plant, underfloor air distribution and desiccant air handling units, which use solar energy for its regenerating heat coil for maximum HVAC efficiency, sensor networks and real-time monitoring to manage active and passive energy strategies. The building thus aspires to the biosystems of coral reefs themselves, seeking to be self-sufficient and carbon neutral.
When asked about how the Living Coral Biobank was emblematic of the work of Contreras Earl Architecture, Monica Earl, director and co-founder of CEA, states that “nature is more clever than humans and we believe that by analysing nature we find solutions that can be translated into architecture. It is a building designed to protect nature, and in order to design it we studied corals and how they operate. They are very self-sufficient organisms, and our building needed to be the same”. Sharing the building’s vision, Rafael Contreras, co-founder of CEA, states “this project brings with it a profound responsibility to consider the impact of architecture and the construction industry on the natural world. The Living Corals Biobank is an opportunity to set a global benchmark for sustainable outcomes and zero-carbon goals as well as creating a world-leading conservation and education facility. The ambition for this project is to create a beacon for environmental awareness – a centre of hope, learning and wonder”.