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Debbi and Paul Brainerd, the visionaries behind Camp Glenorchy

Camp Glenorchy digs up diamonds

Photographs of Camp Glenorchy don’t really do it justice. They capture the many elements of design, historical nods, artworks and stories, but the owners would rather encourage you to visit and soak it all up for yourself.

Camp Glenorchy, the first ever guest accommodation designed and built to operate under the principles of the Living Building Challenge™ (LBC), opened in March. A combination of thoughtful design, healthy materials and sustainable practices, its founders hope guests will embrace some of these ideas in their own homes, workplaces and communities.

The design of Camp Glenorchy makes efficient use of available space to meet both Living Building Challenge criteria and resource consent conditions

Stretching to meet the construction criteria for one of the most rigorous sustainability standards in the world is one thing, but doing so at the northernmost end of Lake Wakatipu in the Southern Lakes region is another.

Four years in the making, Camp Glenorchy is a treat to the senses and sensibilities. It’s also a highly sophisticated construction project that’s worked hard to incorporate innovative sustainable technology designed to achieve net zero energy status.

Collaborative creation

Camp Glenorchy is the vision and collaborative creation of Paul and Debbi Brainerd, philanthropists who have previously established environmentally-sensitive, community-based education projects in North America. Visitors to New Zealand for more than 20 years, they bought the old rundown campground and general store property in Glenorchy in 2014, with the vision of creating a triple-bottom-line business designed for environmental, financial and community sustainability.

Seven cabins, two bunkhouses and eight powered RV/campervan sites now sit comfortably on the site alongside gathering spaces for up to 70 overnight guests that include an impressive outdoor scheelite campfire shelter and a large homestead building with shared kitchen, dining, relaxing and meeting spaces with a state-of-the-art AV system and free wi-fi.

A rich array of natural textures, materials and artwork links Camp Glenorchy and its guests to its place, community and geology

Offering guests an innovative take on New Zealand’s traditional camping experience, the cabins are cosy and compact all year round, which is especially relevant when temperatures can fluctuate between below zero in winter to mid-20s in summer. The facilities can be configured for a wide variety of uses, and will appeal to solo travellers, couples, families and corporate groups keen to connect with one another and the natural environment.

In contrast to a typical building project which blends a team of architects, designers and engineers, Camp Glenorchy’s approach also included artists, craftspeople and energy management specialists.

Sophisticated energy management

A stunning stone mosaic pathway reflecting the meeting of the Dart and Rees Rivers at the head of Lake Wakatipu flows through the site, and a rich array of natural textures, materials and artwork links Camp Glenorchy and its guests to its place, community and geology.

Jeffery Bale and his braided river in Camp Glenorchy’s homestead building

Beneath the mosaics, landscaped areas and buildings is a complex web of infrastructure linked to a sophisticated energy management system using more than 1600 discreetly installed meters and sensors tracking energy and water use.

“Camp Glenorchy is the embodiment of thoughtful design, healthy materials and sustainable practices,” says Tricia Love, sustainability consultant to the project. “The commitment to achieve net zero energy use means embracing clever technologies to make sure we don’t use any more energy than we can create onsite using renewable resources.”

The onsite solar garden is arguably the South Island’s largest, and together with rooftop resources presents 585 solar photovoltaic panels to the sun to generate the energy needed to achieve net zero energy status. The energy produced onsite is enough to power 25 typical New Zealand homes, and the combination of smart lighting, ground-source heat pumps, 75 m deep heat bores and solar thermal collectors means Camp Glenorchy will gain almost $4 worth of energy for every $1 spent.

All cabins use up to 60% more insulation in walls, floors and roofs than required by the New Zealand Building Code, and the 310 mm thick exterior walls have been built using a traditional timber frame and an additional layer of highly insulated structurally integrated panels (SIPs). Even on the coldest days, triple-glazed windows with argon-filled cavities keep cabins and shared amenities warm.

Light tubes channelling natural light brighten rooms, reducing the need for artificial lighting, and the LED lighting used is so efficient that the lighting load for each three-bedroom cabin is equivalent to a single 200 watt light bulb. Buildings are connected to a guest booking system allowing rooms to be heated only when needed, and the right amount of water stored for the number of people in each room.

“Guests that wish to know more can look at an in-room smart tablet to choose and monitor their energy use, and all onsite visitors can learn about passive solar generation, ecologically-sound wastewater treatment, composting toilets, organic food production and other aspects of living more lightly on the land,” says Tricia. “This information can then be applied to their own homes, workplaces and communities.”

It’s all in the water

The LBC includes a water criteria component, and Camp Glenorchy aims to use 50% less water than similar facilities by collecting rainwater, treating it after it’s been used, and using it responsibly. Rainwater is the main source of potable water, with 60,000 litres of underground storage treated with UV filters to ensure water quality meets everyday needs.

State-of-the-art odourless, all-natural composting toilets are expected to save about 300,000 litres of water per year, and greywater from bathroom sinks, showers and washing machines is treated using plants and microorganisms in three wetlands.

Blackwater from the camp kitchen, existing staff houses and excess leachate from composting toilets is pretreated using an activated waste pretreatment system located underneath the solar garden before joining the greywater for processing in the constructed wetlands.

Camp Glenorchy has also strived to create a safe and healthy environment for guests, staff, the community, and all those involved in the construction. The homestead building was built as an ‘importance level 4’ building in terms of seismic resilience, and Camp Glenorchy can serve as a civil defence resource for up to 100 people for a week in case of emergency.

Reuse and repurpose

Many thousands of hours were spent researching and selecting building materials and products that contain only healthy, non-toxic ingredients to meet LBC criteria, and all building materials were checked against the LBC’s ‘red list’ to avoid ‘worst in class’ chemicals and products.

More than 650 materials were researched and 370 were found to be LBC compliant: 28 products with the LBC’s ‘declare’ label were used in construction. Camp Glenorchy has posted its materials register online – the first time in New Zealand that an LBC building has publicly shared its materials list.

Speaking of materials, recycled and salvaged materials were given preference over new ones, significantly reducing the carbon footprint. An extensive amount of wood utilised within the build has had a life before Camp Glenorchy, and recycled timber is used in every building across the site.

Many of the big hardwood beams and columns were sourced from demolition yards handling materials collected during post-earthquake recovery in Christchurch, and timber sourced far and wide has been given a new lease of life as wood beams, new linings, desks, signage and artworks.

“I can put my hand on every piece of recycled timber and tell you where it came from,” says David Osbourne, Camp Glenorchy’s construction manager, who spent hundreds of hours scouring the local region for materials to reuse and repurpose.

Challenges and difficulties

Using items not purchased ‘off the shelf’ had its challenges and difficulties too, like working with timber that didn’t prescribe to standard building dimensions or wasn’t sourced to fit. A great deal needed to be re-sawn or split, which meant checking for hidden nails to avoid damaging saw blades and removing any lead-based paint. This took time and patience.

All materials brought on to the Camp Glenorchy construction site were reused, recycled or repurposed in some way. Collection points for paper, cardboard, plastic and glass were established, and any unused new materials, such as leftover wool insulation, were returned to the original supplier. Materials that might otherwise have been destined for landfill have been used to create useful items and onsite art.

Building through winter also had its charms. When a massive snowstorm in October last year brought down lots of trees on nearby land owned by the Paradise Trust, Camp Glenorchy asked if they could have some. The new spring branches became hooks for doors, handles for window shutters, door stops and coat racks. Paradise reborn.

The outdoor scheelite campfire shelter is just one of several gathering spaces for overnight guests

Benchmark for design and construction

“I have no doubt that Camp Glenorchy will be a benchmark for design, construction, eco-tourism and philanthropy for many years to come,” said Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) Mayor Jim Boult at the formal opening.

“This facility … is a near-perfect reflection of both the council’s economic development strategy and the overarching vision of our recently released ten-year plan. At QLDC we have aspired to achieve economic development that protects and enhances our district’s unique environment and have recognised the people’s strong desire for vibrant communities and enduring landscapes. Camp Glenorchy [ticks] these boxes through hard work, endless hours of research, no doubt trial and error and a very committed approach to sustainability.

“In realising the goal to become New Zealand’s first net zero energy campground, [the] wider community has benefitted too. Over 300 trade suppliers worked on this project during its construction, many adapting and perfecting their skills to meet [the] vision’s very high standards.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Bill English echoed similar sentiments when he spoke at Camp Glenorchy’s opening on 13 March, his last official day in office. “There would have been 101 reasons not to do this, including the first – that no one knew how to do it,” he said. “[Camp Glenorchy] is a huge opportunity for a small community. And who knew that it would be a bunch of tech heads from Seattle who knew how to do it.”

Mr English also quoted a line from the poem ‘Lead’ by Selina Tusitala Marsh – one he had previously used on the first day of his last political term. “We have to ‘lead and dig up diamonds in those around you’, and that’s what we’ve seen here at Camp Glenorchy. The Brainerds have huge hearts that in every respect have dug up those diamonds.”


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