RMIT's Design Hub, opened in 2012. That clever "scaffolding" look at ground level is actually scaffolding, required to protect pedestrians from falling glass
RMIT’s Design Hub, opened in 2012. That “scaffolding” look at ground level is actually real scaffolding, retrofitted in October 2014 to protect pedestrians from falling glass

RMIT University announced on Friday that its award winning building in Melbourne’s CBD, the Design Hub, is to “go solar”.

RMIT will begin a new phase for the Design Hub with a project to incorporate the latest breakthroughs in solar technologies into its iconic façade.

The University will replace all 16,000 glass discs to “deliver on the building’s original proposition for a ‘smart skin’ façade”. It says:

Technology has now caught up with the original vision for the Design Hub and we are excited to begin this next phase of the life of this landmark building…This latest initiative will enhance the building’s already strong ESD credentials as well as taking advantage of breakthrough innovations in Building Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV).

I expect many people will be surprised to discover that those discs aren’t already automated sun-tracking solar collectors. After all, what does the ‘smart’ in ‘smart skin’ mean? But no, none of them are; the University’s line is that the technology of 2012 wasn’t up to scratch so it chose to hold off until it “caught up”!

There’s more than a little spin in the University’s announcement. The real reason it’s replacing all those discs is discreetly acknowledged at the end of para four of RMIT’s media release, where it’s noted the revamp will also “address the issue of a small number of discs breaking since the building’s completion”.

The fact is all 16,000 discs are being replaced because some have fallen onto the footpath. That’s why there’s been scaffolding around the building for the last 18 months – to protect pedestrians against the possibility of falling glass.

RMIT isn’t saying how much but this will be a very expensive exercise for someone. The “smart skin” originally cost over $20 million to build, so manufacturing and retro-fitting 16,000 discs is likely to be costly. No doubt the lawyers for the various parties are already hard at work figuring out who’s liable for the bill.

But that isn’t the only spin. The claim that the discs weren’t originally built as solar collectors because the technology hadn’t “caught up” at the time is breathtakingly disingenuous.

Back in February 2012 RMIT claimed all the discs are solar collectors and, moreover, can track the sun. Here’s what the PR material claimed at the time:

  • “The glass cells track the sun via the building computer automation system to help shade and power the building.”
  • “The building’s ‘smart skin’ is made up of more than 16,000 sandblasted glass cells, which have the ability to harness solar power.”

As I pointed out then, these claims were manifestly wrong (see Are all green buildings really that green?):

  • None of the cells (discs) are equipped with solar collectors and
  • None of the cells (discs) track the sun – three quarters of them can’t move at all, and the other quarter only rotate horizontally.

A presumably embarrassed RMIT subsequently replaced both sentences in its PR material with the more accurate, albeit considerably less exciting, claim that Design Hub has “a double-skin façade with a unique external skin that incorporates glazing disks”. It’s a skin, but it doesn’t have much in the way of smarts.

So technological limitations had absolutely nothing to do with the failure to make the “smart skin” solar at the time of construction. It’s more likely it was a function of cost – perhaps connecting cables and switches to thousands of tiny collectors was more expensive than anyone had imagined?

It seems like RMIT is incapable of talking straight when it comes to the Design Hub. This time around I’m not taking the claim that the building is “going solar” at face value either.

I’m sceptical because the University doesn’t say how many of the 16,000 replacement discs will be solar collecters. Since it says the work will be done by next February it must know, but it’s keeping it vague.

All it’s committing to is: “sections of the façade will incorporate Building Integrated Photovoltaics”. It doesn’t say how much power they’ll generate or what “breakthrough innovations” they’ll supposedly incorporate.

The fact that the solar discs will also “act as an applied learning and teaching showcase and a research test bed, advancing practical solar research”, makes me wonder if RMIT is co-opting a modest solar research program into the task of marketing/hyping the Design Hub.

And that in turn raises the question of whether or not both purposes are compromised; disks that can’t be inclined to catch the sun might not make the most suitable test bed for research (or teaching).

In any event, I wonder if RMIT’s attempt to make the Design Hub an exemplar of solar energy use is akin to making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Its north face is the short side of the building; it’s overshadowed by new and proposed developments; none of the discs can be inclined to maximise solar collection; and using small collectors is an expensive way to collect solar power. I suppose none of that matters much if the objective is marketing.

RMIT is seeking to turn two embarrassments – 16,000 faulty discs and environmental claims that were shown to be exaggerated – into a positive. But unless it can show there’s real substance behind the latest “going solar” initiative, it risks yet another spin-induced embarrassment.