Located at the heart of London’s first Green Enterprise District, the new £30m Siemens Centre for Urban Sustainability (otherwise known by its more user-friendly name of the Crystal) is the latest development to open as part of ambitious plans to regenerate the south-east London ‘Olympic’ Borough of Newham.
The building – designed by Wilkinson Eyre Architects, with interiors created by Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will and engineered by Arup – is a sleek and striking piece of geometric architecture, but it’s the site’s environmental credentials that really make it shine. Conceived as one of the world’s few all-electric public buildings, the Crystal is targeting top ratings in the world standards for green design and construction – ‘Outstanding’ in BREEAM and ‘Platinum’ in LEED.
Owner Siemens is one of the world’s largest providers of environmental technologies, with around 40 per cent of its total revenue coming from green products and solutions. Stefan Denig, head of communications and marketing at the Siemens Center of Competence, Cities – the department now based at the Crystal – says: “The technologies used in the building are cutting-edge but they're also existing technologies that can be employed by customers today. We hope the Crystal will be a recognised centre for thought leadership on sustainable cities.”
The company says it conceived the 2,000sq m space as a global hub to promote environmental dialogue and research – and also as a multi-media visitor attraction (with an absence of Siemens branding) that shows the environmental challenges facing cities around the world. With 50 per cent of the world’s population currently living in cities, and predictions that this will grow to 75 per cent by 2050 – these are issues that are set to affect the majority of people in the future.
There are other hopes being pinned on the new building. For the London Borough of Newham, which is already riding high on the inward investment of the London 2012 Games and the future redevelopment of the Olympic Park, the Crystal is expected to be a magnet to attract other green businesses to its Green Enterprise District.
This 50sq m area, with its centre point based around the Crystal’s location in the Royal Docks near the Excel exhibition centre, is backed by the Greater London Authority, the District aims to put Newham at the heart of the capital’s drive to become a leader in the low-carbon economy.
Designed as two parallelograms linked by an atrium walkway, the Crystal is a building of two halves. One half is home to around 30 Siemens staff, with hot desks available for visiting experts, a large auditorium that can be hired out for green events, a ground floor café and soon-to-open waterfront restaurant, while the other half is dedicated to the public exhibition space at the heart of the visitor attraction.
The purpose is clearly not for Siemens to generate revenue from the attraction – it's currently free – although adults may be charged a nominal fee in the future. The building has, however, been attracting the public’s attention. Six weeks after its official opening in late September 2012, the exhibition space had already seen 10,000 visitors through the door and was well on its way to achieving its target of 100,000 visitors annually. This may, of course, be partly down to its rather enviable location at the foot of the new Emirates Air Line cable car across the Thames (also designed by Wilkinson Eyre) – which regularly deposits a wealth of curious visitors within a few metres of its door.
The Crystal may preach the environmental message to others loud and clear, but the building very much practices what it preaches, chalking up a long list of eco-efficient building materials and systems, some on show, some behind the scenes.
Externally, Wilkinson Eyre have created a façade that reflects the natural, angular forms of a crystal – and not something that needed to specifically stand out as a ‘sustainable building'.
Project architect Sebastien Ricard, director at Wilkinson Eyre, says the photovoltaic panels (created by Sanyo, with energy converted with Siemens inverters) covering two-thirds of the building's roof have been totally integrated into the roof design so that people – especially those with a bird’s eye view from the cable car – won’t even know they are there.
“The panels are very high performance and able to function well under London’s grey skies and also on the shallow slant of the roof,” he says.
Ricard admits the Crystal may be an expensive building per square metre, but the payback will come in terms of the knowledge and awareness of green systems that it can deliver both now and in the future.
He says: “We always like to push the boundaries in terms of the materials we use – we’re not saying it’s the most cost-effective building in terms of the payback period. This project is more of an exploration, a working laboratory, where everything can be monitored.
“Electricity is not currently the greenest type of energy, but with the introduction of renewable generation the grid is slowly decarbonising. This building is designed for the future – in 20-25 years it will be the only way to produce clean energy. The building is also ready for connection to the smart grid, which may happen in five to 10 years time.”
Inside, Siemens’ state-of-the-art building management system (BMS) means that every part of the building can be adjusted for optimum heat, light and ventilation and minimum energy consumption – even from the other side of the world. Every kw of electricity used and every litre of water consumed or generated can be measured within the building and compared with buildings internationally – with results being displayed on a ‘green screen’ in the exhibition hall.
Because of the extensive glazing used in the building, there is little need for artificial light in the daytime. When needed, automatic lighting controls constantly adjust every lamp according to time of day and occupancy. To create a comfortable working environment, both the office and exhibition spaces are naturally ventilated where possible, using motorised opening vents in the façades and roof.
There are even more high tech systems going on underground. Around 17km of ground source heat pump provides 100 per of the heat and majority of air cooling for the building. Heat is pumped from the ground into the building on cold days – and on hot days the cooler water is pumped from the ground to help cool the interior.Ricard says the high specification of the glazing (the building has achieved an excellent average of 1 U value) and insulated roof keep the interior at an optimum temperature. “Many people wrongly assume that glass is not a good insulating material,” he says. “Actually it’s usually the mechanisms used to join the panels of glass where most heat loss happens – and so this is something that we've worked on.”
One area of the exhibition focuses on the importance of water as a precious and finite resource, and the ability to conserve it and recycle it is practically exhibited within the building itself. The Crystal is one of the few public buildings to recycle rainwater, treat it, and use it for drinking water.
The building also has an impressive blackwater recycling plant underground, where 100 per cent of the building’s waste water is recycled for toilet flushing and irrigating the landscaping. A smart irrigation system can detect moisture levels in the soil and adjust watering levels as needed. According to Ricard, black water recycling is usually something that is undertaken on the scale of a borough, not commonly for a single building.
The exhibition space is a very extensive stroll through green issues. To begin with, visitors enter a cinema pod where they watch a series of three short films, which offer some stark statistics and striking imagery on the themes of demographic change, urbanisation and climate change.
To follow are eight attraction zones, covering areas such as Smart Buildings, highlighting the inefficiency of most buildings and how that can be addressed; Safe and Sound, which examines security issues in cities; and Healthy Life, which looks at the strain a growing and ageing population is putting on healthcare systems.
The topics may be sobering, but the space has been made interactive and fun, with a Tesla coil in the ‘Go Electric’ area, where visitors can create a lightning streak of electricity by moving their bodies. Another exhibit in the ‘Creating Cities’ space (reportedly much favoured by London Mayor Boris Johnson when he visited) allows visitors to be the mayor of a city and work with other ‘city experts’ to make decisions on how an imaginary city works.
Denig says: “Visitors often compliment us on how interactive the exhibition is and say they find it thought-provoking, which is great.”
A bespoke card system also means the exhibits can deliver information on two levels – one for general visitors and the other for visiting experts.
“One of the biggest challenges we had to overcome was making sure we successfully addressed a very broad, diverse range of audiences with the content of the exhibition.
“We hope we have achieved this with content that is fun and relevant for school children, linked to the national curriculum, but also more detailed case studies and research of interest to city experts.”
For any operators looking to build a highly sustainable building, a fact-finding mission to the Crystal would be a very good start.
As Denig says: "One of the reasons for building this is to show people that it's possible to create a sustainable building with all the latest technology that is also a pleasant place to be.”