What makes an office building green? By most standards, it would be energy efficient and have features like ground source heating and cooling, photovoltaic panels and rainwater harvesting. It would probably boast top marks from a sustainability assessment body like BREEAM or LEED. But there is a new, quite literal, facet to the “green” trend emerging; architecture with luxuriant plant life embedded into the design.
The latest built example is 18 Kowloon East in Hong Kong, which was completed late last year by international mega-firm, Aedas. On the bottom segment of the building, an open-air car park is wrapped with a band of greenery made up of vertically stacked planters and green walls – acting as a kind of lush podium for the 28-storey office tower looming above it. Working with landscape consultants, Aedas wanted the greenery to bring something new at street level. “Instead of providing yet another office tower with a cool exterior glazing amidst an urban pattern of concrete blocks, the design sought to inject a new sense of energy to the building as well as the neighbourhood,” says project architect (and Aedas executive director) Cary Lau. Kowloon Bay is an industrial area steadily turning into an office district, Lau adds, and the greenery is intended as a new landmark.
The development has been a source of some debate, because while it brings a blast of greenery to an otherwise grey streetscape, its overall eco-credentials have been questioned. The plants are concentrated at the bottom of the building to help filter air pollutants and noise from the street – a claim that has been challenged – though presumably the other, more straightforward reason for the design is the visual experience of pedestrians and drivers. Lau admits that there wasn’t a quantitative approach to measuring how much the plants improve air quality in the car park. The triumph, he says, is that they were able to convince the developer to spend the extra money on the facade and the “sky garden” – a communal floor covered in greenery that sits between the car park and the office floors. “Extensive planting is important. In Hong Kong, development has been getting higher and higher in the last few years, and planting is one of the ways to alleviate the density of that development,” Lau adds.
For Paul Hinkin of London-based Black Architecture, however, a green building has very little to do with greenery on the facades and everything to do with energy efficiency. His studio adhered to a set of stringent bioclimatic design principles for the headquarters of the Catholic Overseas Development Agency near Waterloo (onoffice September 2010) – clocking a whopping 72% reduction in carbon emissions for the building’s performance. “My biggest objection is that it’s all stylistically driven,” he says, speaking broadly about the trend for architects to design plantlife onto the exterior of buildings. “It’s driven by the image of what the thing looks like and a superficial green leafy aesthetic rather than any real in-depth analysis of how you could use plants beneficially in high-rise office developments.” The majority of buildings proposed using this type of “leafy aesthetic” (of which there are many, including the imminent Bosco Verticale towers in Milan by Stefano Boeri) are at best disingenuous, at worst hindering true innovation, says Hinkin. “People see a bunch of greenery and think, ‘oh that must be a green building’. But on that argument, a power station becomes a green building providing you plant enough ivy and Virginia creeper over it.”
But another camp of architects, led by Ken Yeang of Malaysian office TR Hamzah & Yeang (and, in the UK, Llewelyn Davies Yeang), believe a truly green building should be energy efficient as well as reflect the natural eco-systems and biodiversity of the surrounding area. “A green building could have any aesthetic, but personally I think it should have substantial greenery in it, whether its visible or not in the facade. This serves to balance out the inorganic and synthetic constituents of the construction,” says Yeang, who was one of the first to purport eco-skyscrapers interwoven with plantlife.
He first applied his vision to a tall building in 1986 with the headquarters of agricultural company Boustead Holdings in Kuala Lumpur. But the architect’s 15-storey Solaris office building in Singapore – completed in 2010 as part of Zaha Hadid’s Fusionopolis masterplan – is a more recent example. The facade is covered with sun-shading louvres and the building (up for Platinum certification from Singapore’s Greenmark programme) employs a number of green strategies like rainwater reuse and recycling, low-flow efficient plumbing fixtures, solar photovoltaic technology and use of sustainable building materials. But equally important, Yeang designed a continuous spiral of vegetation stretching from the basement to the roof, intended to absorb heat from outside and connect the office building to the natural environment. (Having said that, the lushness of the project renders don’t quite match up with the reality of what has been built.)
Success hinges on picking the right species of plant and teaming up with the very best biodiversity and landscaping consultants, says Yeang, and one senses that there are lessons he has learned with each new project. “A lot of people think that all we do is put vegetation on buildings. But we do much more than that. We create habitats within the building,” he says. “So we mesh certain species with certain habitats and we establish conditions that enable them to survive over the seasons of the year. In doing so the whole development becomes like a living system. This is what we should be doing rather than putting veggies on buildings.”
What’s more, Yeang points out that his version of eco-architecture can exist outside of tropical settings where climate control is a more pressing issue. Spire Edge, a high-rise for a New Delhi business campus (under construction) and a concept design for a series of towers in Vancouver, Canada – both temperate climates – use a ziggurat pattern of lush planting. However, the greenery in the Canadian project is enclosed during colder periods to create “winter gardens”; glass screens are partially opened during intermediate seasons and fully opened during summer months.
Dutch architecture firm MVRDV has gone down a similar route with the FlowerBed Hotel in Alsmeer, The Netherlands, which is the centre of the country’s tulip trade. The stacked volumes, containing hotel rooms, restaurants and a conference centre, will have a kind of greenhouse shell over the plants and flowers to protect them from the elements. It’s expected to have good energy performance despite sitting under a layer of glass because of windmills, underground heating and cooling storage and sun collectors. The hotel’s project architect Nathalie de Vries hopes that the types of plants under the glass will shift and change with the seasons, and makes a social case for the use of vegetation in architecture: “In a society where we keep on densifying and creating more and more built surfaces, we have to think of new ways to incorporate green. It’s not enough any more to just create a park. Sometimes there is not enough space, but we’ve shown that there are other ways to bring greenery in to our cities.”
Internet companies are vague and mysterious entities: it can be hard to work out what they actually do. Architects seem to be aware of this too, and when their client’s product exists in web space there is seemingly less to inspire them as a starting point. In the past they’ve adopted a number of approaches, from questionable node graphics to glassy meeting boxes and the obligatory exposed ductwork. Skilfully and thoughtfully weaving in some of these elements, Norwegian practice Eriksen Skajaa Architects reinvented a challenging space for website consultants Netlife Research. Located in downtown Olso, the building presented a myriad of problems. First off, the ceilings are limbo-dancer low, just 2.2m in places. Compounding this was a deep floorplate that swallowed up most of the sunlight. The architects alleviated the slightly gloomy space by laying a white rubber floor and painting the ceilings and steel columns the same colour. Capitalising on this perfunctory manoeuvre, they installed a series of light boxes that divide the space between the glass meeting rooms, creating a glowing ambience while also ensuring the necessary privacy for a business whose day-to-day work is testing and refining clients’ websites. “The repetition creates a lot of depth,” says architect Arild Eriksen. “They [the lightboxes] are quite visible from wherever you are.”
The glass meeting rooms appear to gently float between the ceiling and floor thanks to a strip-light running around the base, which helps create the illusion of space. Aware that too much white space could result in a sterile-looking environment the practice constructed monolithic black walls as a contrast. A closer inspection reveals frameless doors secreting more private meeting rooms. “The black space is quite strict; it’s quite cavernous,” says Eriksen.
With these foundations in place the architects moved on to the second part of the brief, the client’s need for a mix of creative and quiet spaces. “Our mission was to maximise the feeling of height and light, but also they wanted these different creative areas,” says Eriksen. They came up with four areas based around a garden theme: monastery, park, kitchen garden and forest clearing. Visitors experience the first of these, the forest clearing, upon entering the office. Clusters of vertically suspended wooden beams partially enclose a waiting area furnished with soft seating. Again experimenting with light and shadow, the architects hollowed out the trunks of these “trees” and, by installing lighting in each, beams of light shoot out across the floor. Green sofas and diminutive leaf-like tables enhance the forest feeling while the beams break up and define what would otherwise be a bit of a nothing space.
Most peculiar of the garden themes is the monastery, a wooden box smack in the centre of an expansive room. It’s intended for private phone calls and for serious thinking time, and, despite the nods to postmodernism, it’s a peaceful, almost solemn structure. “Monasteries are the best places to go to retreat and relax. The modernism of 2000 got rid of inspiration from classical architects,” says Eriksen. “We wanted to use something that was a contrast to all the glass boxes and all the black and white.” The exacting finish is the result of choosing prefab over on-site construction: “It was a nice way of experimenting with CNC wood cutting.” Green is a strong feature of Netlife’s branding, and so, for the kitchen garden area, Eriksen snagged some old grow lamps from a nursery and dangled them above a smattering of potted plants.
The architects extracted maximum use from the building. A long corridor, ordinarily negative space, was cleverly transformed by adding oak reading boxes to the window sills. Staff can perch here and work from their laptops. Although the client saw the benefit in these creative flourishes there were certain elements that didn’t make the cut. Originally the forest was to continue throughout the office with little clearings for the different workspaces – an intriguing idea inspired by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and Junya Ishigami, but ultimately discarded. “It pretty much would have filled up the space,” says Eriksen.
Most impressive, though, is this project’s timescale. From initial sketches to completion took just eight months, with any issues along the way exacerbated by Netlife Research’s swelling ranks – the company grew from 25 members of staff at the start of the project to 40 by its end. Maintaining quality control at this velocity was tough, admits Eriksen; on a few occasions the architects arrived on site to find that, in their haste, the builders got ahead of themselves. “We were drawing as they built and there wasn’t much time to discuss the details. We had to get them to tear down
a wall because it wasn’t drawn yet.”
Corridors really are the workhorses of the office design world aren’t they? While receptions have been sexed up and made multifunctional places to meet, greet, research and party in; canteens are the place you’re most likely to encounter the CEO in these days; and even the humble staircase is heralded as a place of chance encounters and encouraging movement in the office, the corridor has maintained its unremarkable mundanity.
At Yarn, a new shared office space at Darlington’s Lingfield Point completed by 3FOLD last summer, it’s the corridor’s chance to shine. The firm has transformed what was a fairly uninspiring space running right down the middle of the 930sq m space, with no natural light, into a focal point. This corridor is king now, my friend! It features an installation of nylon cord, which gives the space a rather sci-fi feel, moving to something a bit more homespun as it gives way to the word “Yarn” spelt out in giant cross-stitch. Both the name and the brand identity were conceived by 3FOLD, riffing on the fact that the space was once the ballroom for the factory of Patons & Baldwins, formerly a leading supplier of woollen yarn. The cross-stitch motif takes a number of different forms along the way using materials such as die board panels, climbing rope and coloured vinyl, keeping to the signature colours of red, grey, black and white.
“We thought about how we could make a visual impact with something that tells the story of the building and also that doesn’t cost the earth,” explains project designer Martin Cotter. “People love walking down the corridor now, it’s real talking point.” The deftly creative touch employed here was the catalyst for the rest of this workplace design project. Developers Marchday commissioned 3FOLD to produce an interior that set itself apart from the normal drabness found in multi-tenanted office spaces on industrial estates. As Marchday’s director John Orchard explains, “We’ve aimed Yarn at small- and medium-size businesses who want to be associated with something memorable and stylish. They may only want to pay for a small dedicated office space but they can have use of all the communal facilities.”
These facilities include a breakout space, which sits at a slight angle to the corridor to encourage greater usage. Here juicy red banquette seating in self-contained booths, combined with sculptural Bsweden pendants overhead, provide the perfect excuse to get away from your desk and give enough privacy without the need for a separate wall. The boardroom, meanwhile, with its perky Naughtone furniture and luxurious panelling has, says Cotter, a “light, fresh, quite punchy feel to it”.
Maintaining that connection to the building’s former use, 3FOLD has used large digital prints with images from Patons & Baldwins’ mid-20th-century heyday. Tongue-in-cheek domestic references can also be found in the lace-patterned window film, which helps to screen the less-than-enticing views over the former factory buildings. One of the challenges of the scheme – and the same goes for any shared office space – was that this space wasn’t designed for anyone in particular, but Cotter explains that his tactic was to make it “really enticing for people to take one of the units on”.
The units are all one level and range in size from 15sq m to nearly 280sq m. Leading up from the main foyer space are the large and medium-sized spaces, with a series of smaller units at the back of the building. There are also one- and two-person units in the Yarn Rooms, also at the back. Those signing on the dotted line for a lease include a variety of SMEs from software firms to healthcare providers, training companies and charities. Of those, some are expansions, others attracted by the skills-base in Darlington or they are home-based businesses taking their first tentative step on the commercial rental ladder.
Yarn tenants also benefit from a canteen, nursery, concierge service and business improvement workshops. Following 3FOLD’s work in 2008 on another Marchday-owned scheme on the same site, the Student Loans Company, they were the natural go-to guys for this project. The emphasis at the Student Loans Company on social space and working with rather than against the existing features of an industrial building is very evident in this newer scheme too. The hope for Yarn is that, with the boardroom and the breakout spaces positioned within easy access to the tenanted areas, these places (along with that corridor of course) will be where dialogue and cooperation between tenants happens. The designers used their knowledge from working on bar, hotel and restaurant projects to judge what makes people want to gather in a particular spot.
Marchday for their part, genuinely do like to do things differently from the build-it-high, convert-it-quick, rent-it-out-not-particularly-cheap approach of some developers. Its website blurb is full of talk of beekeeping on the Lingfield Point site, of them being inspired by community developments they have seen in Malmö, and their admiration of Wayne Hemingway’s similarly people-friendly approach to housing. It’s refreshing to find a good-looking, well-thought-out project like Yarn, especially in a property sector that, I would hazard a guess, is not exactly booming. Cotter says that “there are more and more office clusters of this type as they seem to work quite well.”
But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, is this simply too much towards the contemporary end of design for its audience? Would potential tenants be put off by such truly modern touches? With the best will in the world, this is Darlington, not Dalston. Hearteningly, though, most of the units are now occupied and Cotter’s having none of that argument either, saying that an ordinary fit-out wouldn’t have attracted the clientele it has: “We couldn’t play it safe.”
“We have known each other for a very long time and worked on many projects together,” says Joost Ector, partner at Ector Hoogstad, about his latest client, Rotterdam engineering firm IMd. So it must have felt a little like business as usual when IMd asked the practice to design its new office. In a way it was almost the repaying a favour – the engineers had acted as consultants for Ector Hoogstad’s own office revamp, and, impressed with the results, it asked the architects to work similar magic for its new headquarters.
On first inspection the derelict former steelworks appeared to be a pretty unremarkable brick pile, in an equally unremarkable place. Located on Piekstraat, a small peninsula in the river, it’s in an area that been largely been forgotten. On the surface it might seem an unusual choice for a company keen to put itself on the map, but it was arguably better than the generic office block that IMd had formerly inhabited.
Windowless, the structure hid within its brickwork an elegant steel lattice, with its industrial pulleys and hooks still in place. “Originally, there were no openings in the facade, only these skylights that would not do for daylight,” says Ector. “Also, the building is right next to the river so you have these very interesting views.” To capitalise on the scenery, Ector opened up the building by turning the entrance into double-height glazed portal and inserting large windows into the brickwork. Aside from the odd interior wall and a pile of rubble there wasn’t much going on inside, but the decision to keep the steelwork – the building’s soul – meant the practice had to create a first floor that folded around it. Linked by a combination of bridges, staircases and underpasses, it’s all part of what Ector calls a “playground concept”. He says that “the fun of working there is moving about this space, going up and down and seeing the changing perspective of this steel construction whenever you walk around the building.”
This would have been impossible for a larger company, but with only 40 employees in a 2,014sq m building, IMd had space to play with. With the steelwork dominating the central space, the obvious spot for the offices was along the shorter east and west facades in air-conditioned glass pavilions thereby allowing the central hall to be naturally ventilated. “It would have been impossible to insulate the existing building skin. With this concept there was no need to do that.”
The building’s heart is its ground-floor, hall, which features a multi-purpose space designed for lectures, exhibitions and parties. On the perimeter are private meetings, work areas and storage. More susceptible to changing weather, due to the skylights above and lack of air conditioning, the space was not perfectly suited for conventional offices. “It’s more for entertainment or relaxation or whatever. We could have a little fun with those spaces,” says Ector. Blurring the boundaries between inside and outside the architects plonked picnic tables onto a carpet adorned with grass and yellow flowers. The effect is emboldened by large potted plants dotted about the space (although not quite the tree-sized vegetation Ector hoped for). Dangling above the picnic area and throughout the building are large single light bulbs suspended on yellow cables: more for atmosphere, the bulbs appear as stars in the night sky once the sun goes down, Ector explains.
Yellow is used throughout as a unifying aesthetic. Its industrial connotations chime well with the materials used, which were chosen specifically to not betray the building’s heritage: roughly hewn wood for the stairs, clear glass and opaque plastic sheeting for the walls, which diffuses the sunlight from the skylight. “It has a dreamlike quality, like it’s not really there,” says Ector. “We wanted to use materials that were obviously new-looking, but on the other hand we didn’t want to make a very big contrast in atmosphere.”
Examining the project plans, it is striking how many different types of workspace have been included. Solitary, group, multifunctional and open-plan areas are detailed in the drawings. It’s the design language of an architect who understands the importance of flexibility. “Do you put together the people who do the same job on different projects, or vice versa? This office layout does not dictate either,” says Ector.
The project was a sprint: going from initial sketches to finished product took a year. Although working in the architects’ favour was a good understanding of their client, their ability to quickly find solutions to design problems was negated by red tape. Converting a structure not designed for office work meant protracted negotiations and careful planning, and the subsequent loss of momentum meant that IMd staff shared sections of their new home with the builders for a few weeks. “They had to put up with a little noise, but they survived,” says Ector.
If you haven’t heard of international architecture firm HASSELL yet, that is about to change. Founded in Australia some 70 years ago, it has more than 900 staff and 14 offices in Australia, China, south-east Asia and, as of a few months ago, the UK too.
It designs hotels, airports, research facilities, bridges, parks, rail stations and offices, among other things.
In China alone the company has 300 staff, working on mega-projects like the masterplanning of sustainable cities for 100,000 people.
And in Australia it currently has two AU$1.2bn hospitals on the way to completion, says Tony Grist, who is head of architecture at HASSELL and heads up the new London office. “We are also designing a number of major research facilities as well. That keeps us in a knowledge leadership position not just in Australia but internationally.”
At the core of HASSELL’s success is a collaborative, inter-disciplinary approach, and an ability to work holistically on a project from masterplan right through to architecture, interiors and the public realm.
Its non-hierarchical respect for all disciplines is shown in the backgrounds of its leaders, who are landscape architects or interior designers, as well as architects, by training.
At HASSELL’s new studio in Clerkenwell, Grist tells me about the practice’s workplace design philosophies. A great illustration, he says, is the ANZ Centre, the 85,000sq m HQ designed with global property developer Lend Lease for one of Australia’s main banks, located in Melbourne’s Docklands area.
“The three main conceptual ideas behind ANZ were permeability, diversity and sustainability,” says Grist. The ground floor, with its cafes, public art, a visitor centre, a daycare centre and a gym “is more like an extension of the city into the building,” he says, adding that this level of public accessibility has rarely, if ever, been seen before in a global banking HQ. “It says a lot about how ANZ wants to interact with its customers and be more transparent.”
The project, for which HASSELL worked on the architecture and the fit-out, has been showered with awards.
It is the largest and greenest commercial office building in the country (having been awarded the six-star Green Star Office Design rating by the Australian Green Building Council).
Water consumption is 60% less than the industry average and the building’s green roof and exterior shading help to reduce heat gain and loss.
Though it houses a workforce of 7,000, no staff member sits more than 11m from natural light. It uses ideas taken from urban design, with a concept of a town square with a main street – or an urban campus, as Grist puts it.
In this urban campus, putting an emphasis on how you move through a building is key, says Grist.
That means putting in stairs instead of lifts where possible, and bridges so you can see people moving around, “creating a village on a number of levels,” he says. “Psychologically, if you’re in a building and you’re going up and down in the lift you’re not as connected,” he says. “It’s a bit like using the tube versus using a bus. If you travel by bus in London you get a better idea of the city.” But it’s more than that. If you’re stuck in a lift you are cut off from the incidental interactions and connections during which important innovations and ideas are often born.
It may sound straightforward but the ANZ building, like most HASSELL workplace projects, was the result of an “iterative and collaborative approach to concept design”.
HASSELL took the client to see roughly 15 projects around the world, “analysing what was good and bad about each one and what the client did and didn’t like”.
Research into workplace behaviour was done with global workplace design consultancy DEGW, identifying things like the fact that senior people are at their desks the least, meaning less need for a private office or permanent space.
“This translates into a 30-40% floorplate saving over a traditional building,” says Grist.
The design focused on 44 individual hub spaces spread out over the building’s 13 storeys.
“Wherever you are in the building, you’re IT-facilitated,” says Grist, “and you’re never more than a few steps away from a power point and a coffee machine.” Creating zones and nodes, meeting spaces, breakout areas and collaboration spaces is how you create communities, even in very large footprints, he explains.
Another recurring theme for HASSELL is how the workplace and education sectors are increasingly crossing over as the former becomes more flexible and mobile through new technologies.
“The workplace is increasingly seen as a learning environment to develop people professionally on the job, a collaborative and interactive place where ideas are realised,” says Grist. “As new generations of technologically savvy workers arrive from university, their expectations of a workplace designed to offer a choice of settings for different work styles is having a great impact.” The flipside is that tertiary institutions are realising they need to make better connections with the corporate world, and that increasingly they will have to compete for students by providing state-of-the-art facilities, “so the education space is in turn taking cues from the corporate world in the design of their buildings.”
Combining the concepts of interaction and learning with play was central to the design of dtac House, the Bangkok HQ for one of Thailand’s leading telecommunications providers, completed by HASSELL in 2009. Formal meeting rooms are balanced by informal meeting spaces; locally sourced solid timbers and locally made cotton and silk fabrics are used throughout the fit-out.
Similar to a hotel, an entire floor is dedicated to staff recreational facilities including a gym, a running track, indoor soccer, a band stage, karaoke and two large outdoor terraces overlooking the Bangkok skyline. It’s the sort of office you wouldn’t resent spending time in, and that’s the point. Staff wellbeing, environmental sustainability and “social sustainability” as Grist puts it, are at the core of the design.
Before I leave Grist shows me photos of HASSELL’s own studios around the world.
Those in Shanghai and Brisbane are located in a former motorbike and bread factory respectively, and are striking examples of HASSELL’s workplace philosophies in practice.
What that means is a lot of communal spaces, places to gather formally and informally (many of which are outdoors in the Brisbane office, taking advantage of the balmy climate) and open access for their clients.
“It’s about enhancing the ideas of communication,” says Grist.
In a lot of offices you come to a wall and don’t know what’s going on behind it. When the client comes in they don’t understand how you’re spending their money.
“We like to involve our clients and bring them right into the centre of what we’re doing.” With this client-centred approach and their expertise in so many different project types and areas, the arrival of HASSELL in the UK and Europe is a breath of fresh air – can-do Australian air, at that. When I ask if they have any projects afoot in the UK and Europe already, Grist smiles and says, “We are already working on a number of projects. All I can say is there are plenty of opportunities.”