Sustainability in the commercial sphere: RotheLowman's Michael Banak talks to Urban Melbourne

In light of Michael Banak's recent appointment to the role of Principal at national design firm RotheLowman, Urban Melbourne thought it an opportune time to chat with the Michael given his extensive credentials in sustainable workplace design.

Holding a membership with the Green Building Council of Australia and accreditation as a Green Star professional, Michael Banak also participated in the Australian Institute of Architects’ mentoring program. Partnering with fellow Principal Ben Pomroy, the duo will spearhead RotheLowman's expansion into the commercial office sphere with a view toward technologically intelligent and sustainable workplace solutions.

Encompassing topics such as RotheLowman's current commercial-driven workbook, evolving expectations and emerging sustainability trends, the chat transpired as follows.

Urban Melbourne: How many current commercial projects are in design on a national scale. Is commercial design a growing sector within RotheLowman?

Michael Banak: RotheLowman is currently working on 14 wide-ranging commercial projects from large-scale office to boutique and mixed-use commercial outcomes. These projects are at varying stages from concept design through to construction across our three national offices.

Our collaborative architecture and interior design teams are specialists at embedding organisational culture into our architectural solutions and as a result it’s a sector that’s expanded in our business. My recent appointment combined with the existing knowledge of our established commercial team has allowed us to provide an increased offering specialising in business spaces.

UM: RotheLowman is particularly strong in residential design in Melbourne. Are there any commercial projects in Melbourne on the radar?

MB: We are also working on a major office development in South Melbourne pending town planning. This project will showcase the firm’s commercial knowledge through an innovative design featuring flexible and efficient office space; green roofs and break-out terraces; atrium spaces with communication stairs that frame key city views; and cutting edge mechanical and lifting systems.

Richmond-based East Edge Botanicca is in planning; cutting-edge strata offices settled amidst the beauty of the Yarra River designed to elicit the professionalism of a tightly held corporate hub. Offices and communal spaces transition the outdoors in using light interplay and generous balconies, while sleek finishes, restrained warehouse-inspired design and communal green hubs facilitate professional interaction.

East Edge Botanicca. Image: RotheLowman

We have recently completed a refurbishment of the RPM Real Estate Group headquarters for a company that has experienced a 370 per cent increase in revenue over the last four years, and has sold 25 per cent of all residential lots available across Melbourne’s metropolitan growth areas over the 2014/2015 period.

The design reflects the people-oriented, sophisticated and approachable nature of the RPM business in a unified manner that overcomes the physically divided office and high proportion of dispersed workers.

UM: Advancing technology has become more prevalent in commercial design. What are the current prevailing technologies influencing green building design?

MB: New technologies I’ve observed in green office buildings, firstly, include connectivity. Ease of communication between workers provides efficiency and therefore reduced use of environmental resources. These technologies allow greater user control of their environments.

The user for example can dial into the office before or after work and control lighting, heating and sound, this can be set to change for different times of the day, moods or seasons. Other technologies that I’ve begun to see regularly integrated include low emittance windows and smart glass; cool roofs and photovoltaic (solar) cell technology that can be used as a thin film applied to glass.

UM: Net Zero commercial buildings. Are they viable, should or will they become the norm via legislation? Is the onus on the architect or the developer to create such an outcome?

MB: Net zero buildings are grid-integrated buildings capable of generating as much energy as they consume through advanced technologies and on-site power generation. This includes power generated from the sun, wind or earth to exceed demands of the building.

To meet our energy reduction targets this type of development is inevitable. It needs to be legislated and supported by government to be successful, in the same way Green Star was supported in the early days by government for all government commercial projects. This paved the way for Green Star rated commercial buildings to be the norm.

It is the architect’s responsibility to promote net zero buildings, to protect the environment and provide a business case to the developer to support this. Generally, a developer will only entertain this idea if they are looking for a long-term investment.

UM: You are a Green Star accredited professional and a member of the Green Building Council of Australia. What benchmarks in design are required to fulfill the requirements as outlined by the two bodies, and are these requirements often changing to meet evolving expectations/benchmarks?

MB: The Green Star accreditation requires further education – I undertook a course and spent six months studying to pass the exam. I ensure that I undertake Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirements each year to maintain my accreditation and stay up to date with current trends.

The CPD requirements for the accreditation cover a range of areas including Green Star sustainable developments, rating tools, case studies and innovation. Memberships to the GBCA also provide access to events and resources to ensure that my practice continues to lead and innovate.

UM: How have workplace interiors changes to suit evolving tenant needs/requirements and how do you think they will further evolve into the future?

MB: The emergence of remote working has widespread implications for the traditional commercial office. Technology allowing us to work less at our desks has increased our office mobility, reducing the space required for a typical office.

Architects are now able to design non-designated office space where a mobile workforce can plug in on their days in the office. The trend towards hot-desking has been refined through trial and error – a scaled, team-based version of hot-desking is now most common in project-based commercial offices, rather than an all-encompassing model.

The reduction in use of paper has also meant less storage is required and therefore spaces can exist with a smaller footprint. Activity based work settings are popular at the moment, and I envision in the future that workplaces will incorporate greater control for workers, enabling them to dictate the ambient conditions of their workplace instantly, wherever they choose to be.

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