To begin my look about Australia, I decided to head home to Albury. Through my mum, Sally, who works at Charles Sturt University (CSU), I’d heard bits and snippets over the years, about the Thurgoona Campus. Apparently they had mud brick houses, and composting toilets, that sort of jazz. So it seemed to be a good place to start. Also I don’t think my parents would’ve been to happy if I didn’t spend some time with them and say goodbye before heading out for 4 or so months.
So on an overcast Thursday I headed out to Thurgoona. I caught a lift with my mate Simo. He’s in his final year of teaching. Anyone got a job?
First person I met was David Mitchell. David is adjunct professor at the School of Environmental Sciences. He has been involved with the design and development of the Thurgoona campus, since early on in its inception. David was brought on board to the development team by architect Marci Webster-Mannison, to help develop a waste water recycling system for the site. David’s background has included directing major research establishments such as the CSIRO Centre for Irrigation and Freshwater Research in Griffith and the Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre in Albury. The Thurgoona site, prior to being developed into to the CSU campus, the site had a few research labs for the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre, but was mainly disused farmland.
David explained to me, that his initial involvement was when Marci approached him to assist in the water design plan. Together they put forward a proposal to have composting toilets onsite at CSU. These were approved for a pilot test in 1999, and proved to be a success. By utilising composting toilets, it cut out the need to process raw sewage. This meant less water was needed as well as less infrastructure in the form of extending the sewage system. The system itself is pretty similar to use as a conventional toilet, all that is needed extra is to add a cup of sawdust down the hole once you’re done, and close the lid. This helps the composting process. It doesn’t even smell, I can tell you that from personal experience.
Look at that! First post in, and I’m already talking about composts and shit. Don’t worry there’ll be a variety of projects, not all with such a 70’s feel. But also that’s the thing. This is more of a refinement of practices and processes, still with that hippy hangover and connotations to them in wider circles, but in reality have moved on some distance.
Anyhow back to it. As well as composting toilets, all the grey water on site, so water used for cooking, laundry, washing etc., is recycled on site, via a system of artificial wetlands. A series of wetlands have been built on the lower part of the site, where grey water is directed. The idea was to slow the flow of water by use of gravel beds and aquatic plants, to allow time for the water to filter through, and for nutrients to be absorbed. The wetlands work on a cyclical basis, to allow the flow time to meander through. Initially council required the purified water to be diverted into an evaporation pond, as there were worries about the end water quality. However after testing it was discovered that the water quality was safe enough to recycle with stormwater runoff. This is pumped from the lowest reservoir, via a windmill and solar powered pump, to a high point, allowing for easy distribution around the campus. The water itself is used for landscaping.
The other major bow in CSU’s hat for sustainability, are its range of low energy buildings. David showed me around the School of Environmental and Information Science Precinct. Within this was a collection of different generations of buildings, each an ongoing working experiment.
The first is constructed from rammed earth, utilising recycled and plantation timber for framing. The lighting system attempted to make use of harnessing the natural light, with minimal artificial light. The heating and cooling is adjusted by using water piped through the building. This water is rainwater runoff that is stored in large tanks, attached to the building. In summer, the water flows through the pipes, absorbing heat, which is dissipated at night, through solar collectors. As well at night, vents around the exterior of the building are automatically opened to allow the cool night air in. In the centre of the building is a thermal chimney, also with vents at the top. The idea being the cool night air forces the heat built up over the day, out into the night, cooling the building. In winter this system works in reverse. The solar collectors heat the water, which then passes through the pipes, dissipating heat through out the building.
In practice, the building’s heating and cooling cycles can happen too slowly for some. David said that these buildings work best when people dress for the season. May sound obvious, but how many people are used to wearing the same clothes to work, especially office work, all year round? These buildings reflect the seasons more so then your regular a/c office with a steady 23 degrees all year. In practice this has caused some issues at the highs and lows of the seasons. I found this building a little bit warm and dim.
A recent addition has been the School of Business and Information Technology building. This building has taken a different tack, but utilising concrete walls that have chemical beads dispersed within. These beads are used to help in regulating the temperature, along with vents and thermal chimney set up mentioned earlier. How the chemical beads work is, that as the building heats up, they absorb heat and liquidify. This prevents the interior of the building from heating up as much. Then as it cools at night, the beads solidify, releasing the heat, which is flushed out via the thermal chimney. This building was much lighter, utilising more glass surfaces and artificial lighting. It was also cooler.
Another interesting addition, is the face of the campus, and major lecture theatre. It’s referred to as The Cave, and is built into the side of a hill. It is of rammed earth construction, and has a grass roof merging down to the centre commons. The lecture theatre itself is cooled by a series of misters which cool the air as it enters into the building, forcing the hot air upwards and out. However this doesn’t always work as well as it should, with one student commenting, ‘it’s nice if you want to keep you feet cool’.
After chatting with David, I headed over to meet Wes Ward, CSU’s media officer. Wes is a family friend as well and has lived for a time in the South Pacific. We began chatting and got onto talking about a friend of mine who recently has been working India, trying to teach communities about waste disposal and other stuff. I was talking about how difficult she found it to get across the reasoning behind the infrastructure they introduced, to the locals. She’d recounted how one of the team returned a few weeks after the project had finished to find the systems they’d built, not in use and broken. Wes, who has had experience on similar projects, said the key was to get local people onside and to understand, so that they could then explain it to the wider community. Without this local link, then it is very difficult to get any lasting change. The same goes for sustainable development. Wes spoke of how this is true also with the sustainable systems being built on site at CSU. Establishing continuing education on how to use the buildings and systems was as important as constructing the buildings in the first place. Wes stressed the need to document problems and solutions overtime to create a reference for future care takers, and also to learn from the developments. For this reason, throughout all the buildings are a range of monitoring devices, recording data on all facets of the buildings. Its from this data that real progress is able to be made, and has opened up a plethora of research opportunities for students and staff alike.
However its not all about the buildings, there are actually students there, funnily enough. Currently CSU is in a transition phase to move all of its Albury campus out to Thurgoona. This means there will be a marked increase in traffic of all sorts on campus. Currently the design of campus is to encourage pedestrian use with only one way traffic allowed. However the culture is still to drive to campus. Albury you can say is not known for its public transport. With the recent completion of the internal bypass (you can work out the logic of that one for yourself), one upshot is there is now a brand new, flat bike path connecting central Albury all the way out to Thurgoona. The recently completed on campus residences have beds for 200 but only parking for 160. So there is the expectation and opportunity to encourage cycling and also public transport as an attractive and viable option for students and staff commuting to Thurgoona.
While there only being an hourly bus at the moment, Wes believes its more of a behaviour change that is needed, rather then infrastructure. This will be needed once there is the demand for it. For cycling, there are proposals to build a shed to store bikes securely, and even have a workshop to allow for small jobs like fixing punctures and such. There are already facilities onsite for say taking a shower before heading to class or work, but as Wes says, the key is to knowing about these opportunities, and making them more well known. This once again comes back to the importance of having the means for greater education and communication in place before or along side building the golden wonder. It should be interesting to see how campus life develops, for a local at least…
Are you a student at CSU Thurgoona? What do you think about all this? How do you feel being part of a working experiment? Let me know, jot it down below…