By Chris Morris for the Otago Daily Times
Figures behind Dunedin's waterfront development say it's not just a bunch of new buildings - it's also about saving the world.
Imagine a building that is good for the planet.
A design inspired by nature.
Built using recycled materials.
Wrapped in a cladding of miniature solar panels, providing power to its surroundings.
And full of the skilled workers needed to find solutions to the climate crisis threatening Dunedin and the world.
Now imagine not just one building, but a whole campus of them, clustered together on Dunedin's waterfront.
A cluster designed to an architectural master plan, pulling in tourists as well as new businesses, in a city striving to be great.
A centre of excellence that produces high-value jobs and intellectual property for solutions to sea-level rise that could be rolled out globally.
And think of the one word that underpins it all - sustainability.
That is the vision proposed by Damien van Brandenburg and Dunedin businessman Ian Taylor.
"If we are looking for a direction the city takes, that will guarantee its future, being the centre of excellence around climate change and sustainability is the best place to be,'' Mr Taylor says.
"It ain't going away.''
Now, stifle the scoffs and the eye-rolls, and instead get on a plane to China.
There, in the southern city of Shenzhen, another of Mr van Brandenburg's projects is already taking shape.
Work on the sprawling Marisfrolg Headquarters - being built for one of China's leading high-end fashion labels - began in 2008 and is due for completion in 2020.
Once finished, the 120,000sq m complex - roughly four times the size of Wellington's Te Papa - will house a boutique hotel and a mix of restaurants, clubs, stores and a spa centre.
Such is the scale and ambition of the project, it has already been declared a building of cultural significance in China, and tour buses are among the regular visitors to the site.
And, throughout the complex, the same design ethos proposed for Dunedin's waterfront is already on display, Mr van Brandenburg said.
The exterior of the Marisfrolg is made from recycled bricks, sourced by a dedicated procurement team that scours demolition sites elsewhere in China.
Smashed ceramic tiles - some discarded due to simple manufacturing defects - were also used in the construction, as was stone sourced strictly from the nearest quarry.
Together, the materials give the building an aged texture, while its shapes, including the giant leaf-shaped structures forming the roof, mimic nature's "architecture''.
The roof collects rainwater for reuse inside the building and to irrigate surrounding gardens, as well as supplying a pond that draws in the prevailing wind, cooling the entire complex.
Engineers in China initially dismissed the plans as unworkable, but techniques developed by Mr van Brandenburg in Dunedin reduced costs and delivered solutions.
And, throughout it all, the inspiration derived from nature was key, he said.
"If you think about what's evolved over millennia, the types of structures that nature has developed are not rectangular boxes that we now create as humans.
"If you apply that kind of thinking to architecture, that's what we've done with Marisfrolg,'' he said.
His approach was put to the test in September, when Super Typhoon Mangkhut slammed into southern China, forcing 2.45 million people to evacuate.
In Shenzhen, winds striking rectangular buildings created a swirling vortex, sucking out windows and flattening nearby trees.
But within the Marisfrolg site, Mr van Brandenburg's building was unscathed and only one tree was left "on a bit of a lean''.
The winds had funnelled through and over the Marisfrolg's organic shapes.
"It was designed by nature," he said.
It's the same approach Mr van Brandenburg now hopes to deploy in Dunedin, beginning with the $20m waterfront bridge.
Its design includes a barrier of leaf fronds jutting upwards, providing shelter from the wind and protection from the drop below.
The fronds would also be covered in solar panels, able to pivot to follow the sun, providing power to buildings underneath either end of the bridge's span, he said.
"That sets the tone for what the rest of the development needs to be like,'' he said.
The shell-shaped cultural centre - mooted as a potential home for Ralph Hotere's works, or parts of Te Papa's national collection - would also be covered in a new composite cladding of miniature solar panels.
The micro-solar panels and cladding are existing technologies, but combining the two will be new, and Mr van Brandenburg is already working on the concept with an Australian company.
The approach would turn the cultural centre into a solar power station capable of generating electricity for itself and surrounding buildings, including the five-star hotel.
A similar approach is being considered for new waterfront walkways, using a surface incorporating solar-powered lights - similar to the glowing stars decorating children's bedrooms - to illuminate public spaces.
The same technique was already in use at the Marisfrolg site.
The aim is to go beyond carbon-neutral thinking by returning power to the grid, he said.
"I think we need to be thinking like this now.''
The emphasis on nature would come in other ways, including a new Sustainable Futures building designed in the shape of a whale's tail.
The shape referenced the past, when southern right whales calved in Otago Harbour, and hoped for a cleaner future which encouraged their return, he said.
Green technology developed by new businesses on the waterfront could accelerate that, he believed.
More than 1000 trees would also be planted, providing shelter from the wind but also a new habitat for birds, he said.
The development would position Dunedin as an international centre focused on climate change, sea-level rise and sustainability.
That began with earthworks to lift the area, to ensure the development could cope with expected sea-level rise in the years ahead.
But the buildings would also provide a research and development base, generating solutions - and the associated intellectual property rights - for environmental challenges faced around the world.
The Sustainable Futures building could be a base for University of Otago and international marine scientists, closer than any other to the Southern Ocean.
It would also be in close proximity to South Dunedin, considered the best example in New Zealand of a community under threat from sea-level rise.
The resulting innovations would draw new businesses to Dunedin, creating high-value jobs and innovations with sustainable economic and environmental benefits for the city.
"People think we should be dealing to South Dunedin and not doing this. This is how we bring a global focus, as the city of sustainability, to the issues this city has.
"It will apply globally,'' Mr Taylor said.
It would also make Dunedin less reliant on outside entities - think Mondelez and Cadbury's - for its continued economic prosperity, he said.
"We're now not a manufacturer of trains and carriages or chocolates . . . we're a high-end, high-value, IP creation place, and we're putting a focus on things that are sustainable, because that's the biggest growth market in the world.''
The architecture would encourage a more sustainable approach to tourism in the South Island, he believed.
The connection between Mr van Brandenburg's striking Marisfrolg project and Dunedin's waterfront would draw tourists to the city, Mr Taylor believed.
Dunedin's waterfront project would diversify South Island tourism and allow for more sustainable growth, he said.
But there were still challenges to overcome.
One emerged last month, when it was revealed the waterfront plan was being modified to address commercial viability challenges.
Project partners, led by Dunedin City Council, were seeking a multimillion-dollar grant, potentially topping $50m, from the government's $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund.
But the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment required a business case showing the project was viable before funding could be unlocked.
The assessment centred on estimated development costs per square metre, compared with what people were prepared to pay, at present, for things like a building tenancy in Dunedin.
Changes included moving the location of new buildings inland slightly, which avoided the need to reclaim land, lowering the cost and side-stepping some consent risks.
Mr van Brandenburg said the change did not compromise the overall vision, and would actually improve the environmental outcome.
But more extreme changes to building designs - moving them back to a more "traditional'' design - had been resisted, Mr Taylor said.
That would not be in keeping with the message underpinning the vision, he believed.
Instead, the tweaks agreed to meant the project now met MBIE's requirements, setting a baseline which was commercially viable, Mr Taylor said.
And, without increasing costs again, Mr Taylor and Mr van Brandenburg said they had "no intention'' of being limited to the baseline.
Design innovations like those used on the Marisfrolg complex would lower construction costs and deliver an improved design.
One example was already on show in Queenstown, where Mr van Brandenburg had employed an Australian firm - which had switched from boat-building to architectural production - to fabricate non-traditional, curved forms at reduced costs.
"We believe there are ways we can do it without those constraints that retains the whole vision of the place,'' Mr Taylor said.
In the meantime, interest in the development continues to grow.
The DCC, University of Otago, Port Otago and Ngāi Tahu had all signed a memorandum of understanding supporting the project, and a new waterfront agency to drive development was set to be unveiled.
Council chief executive Sue Bidrose has said what was once a 30-year vision is now a "5 to 15-year'' one, and hotel developers were among those lining up to be involved.
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones has also lauded the project's potential to be "iconic and transformational'' for the city and New Zealand.
All of which made next month's application for a substantial growth fund grant grant a key milestone, although a cabinet decision is not expected until early next year.
If approved, the funds would pay for the extensive work needed to prepare the site for development - including seawall upgrades and lifting surrounding land.
"We only get one shot at this. By December, our application is in and we either win or lose,'' Mr Taylor said.
"We get this, and everything starts to roll.''
- This story first appeared in the Otago Daily Times.