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The bolt-on flagship: Wilkinson Eyre's Crystal

The Crystal has been turned into a low-carbon exemplar project with add-on technologies, writes Hattie Hartman. Photography by Edmund Sumner

Located on a spectacular site at the west end of the Royal Victoria Dock in Newham, east London, the Siemens Crystal contradicts all the fundamental tenets of green building design. It’s lightweight and all glass. Wilkinson Eyre initially conceived its crystalline form - an adaptation of two parallelograms - for a different site without a clearly defined brief. This is not ‘fabric first’ site-specific passive design. The Crystal’s environmental credentials result primarily from active bolt-on systems, supported by a ruthless agenda of passive design applied to the building once the original concept was in place.

Nonetheless, it is a highly performative building with an ambitious change-making agenda: thought leadership in urban sustainability. It’s also all-electric: no fossil fuels are burned on site.

A clear progeny of the Olympic effect, the Crystal is a flagship building for Newham. Clive Dutton, executive director for regeneration, planning and property at the London Borough of Newham, describes Siemens’ commitment to the borough as a ‘game changer’. Part of an arc of high-tech industries stretching from Old Street through the Olympic media complex to the Royal Docks, it paves the way for the 20-hectare Silvertown Quays and further development on Royal Albert Dock. Wilkinson Eyre director Sebastien Ricard describes Newham as a ‘very progressive and positive borough’, which streamlined all the approvals for the Crystal. The programme from inception to practical completion was just 29 months.

The building, which is part exhibition-cum-conference centre and part corporate pavilion, is on target to achieve both BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum ratings. Interestingly, Siemens ramped up its aspirations for the top environmental ratings once the building was on site, according to Chris Brandon of Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will, lead designers on the project, who invited Wilkinson Eyre to collaborate at competition stage.

As the brief for the 7,300m² building became clear, Siemens resolved that it should also be an exemplar of sustainable design, showcasing the latest technologies, many manufactured by Siemens.

With over 13,000 employees and a £4.4 billion annual turnover in 2010/11 in the UK alone, Siemens, unlike many clients, was determined to hold fast on all the sustainable technologies even at tender stage when value engineering often strips out the non-essentials.

The 2.2 hectare site was not without its challenges. A 40m-wide utility corridor fronting the dock meant the building had to be set back from the water and ruled out using the dock as a source of heating and cooling. A flight corridor for a proposed expansion to City Airport dictated a no-build across the southern end of the site. Chris Wilkinson of Wilkinson Eyre notes that these constraints made the site ideal for a ‘cultural’ building.

Indeed the messaging of the exhibition is more science museum than corporate marketing and Siemens anticipates an annual footfall of 100,000. According to Roland Busch, chief executive officer for infrastructure and cities at Siemens, the Crystal is intended ‘to help find solutions for making the world’s cities more sustainable. It will serve as a centre for dialogue, learning and discovery.’

The projected audience ranges from mayors and other city decision-makers to planners and architects, as well as school children and post-graduate students. Visitors will receive a key to view the exhibition according to their profile - all rather high-tech.

This is precisely what Siemens was after in the building too - a high-tech landmark. Wilkinson supports Siemens’ approach. ‘I believe we can only solve the world’s problems through technology,’ he says. ‘We won’t solve it with straw houses.’

The building is essentially a glazed shed. A three-storey atrium separates the exhibition centre to the north and the conference centre to the south, and links to a vehicular corporate entrance to the rear of the building. The exhibition crystal is a full-height void while the conference crystal encloses a gigantic red auditorium pod with 300 seats, and meeting rooms and office space on the upper floors.

The exterior comprises three types of double-glazed units. Transparent panels, positioned to capture desirable views and daylight, make up 39 per cent of the envelope. Translucent panels are used where light is desirable but solar gain must be controlled and opaque insulated panels make up the remainder. Further efficiencies are achieved by raking the facade to reflect solar gain and self-shade parts of the building. Parallel-opening panels - 1m x 3m - are the most unusual element of the mixed-mode ventilation system. This was considered optimal because it allows the maximum amount of air volume per opening. Full natural ventilation is possible when outdoor temperatures permit.

An impressive array of renewable technologies sit above (photovoltaics and solar thermal), below (almost 200 geothermal pipes) and behind the building (an energy centre with heat pumps that convert the geothermal energy for heating and cooling and a backwater recycling plant). With all this technology, the building should operate efficiently, increasingly so as the UK grid is decarbonised. Real-time energy and water monitoring inside the exhibition is a promising move towards transparency of reporting operational loads. However, it is worth pointing out that no whole life embodied carbon analysis was performed on the building. You can’t help but query the embodied carbon inherent in this high-tech approach.

The faceted form of the interlocking crystals sits comfortably at the dockside, defining a welcoming public entrance. Equally impressive and perhaps most revealing about Siemens’ commitment to the Crystal and Newham is the landscaping by Townshend Landscape Architects, which includes an extensive area for community gardening south of the building. The overall effect is a building which reflects varying weather conditions, though the dark palette of the glazing lends the exterior a Darth Vader quality. This vanishes inside, where the combination of rooflights and carefully positioned vision glass results in well-lit interiors.

A big plus for the Crystal is its location - just five minutes from the DLR and three minutes from the Emirates Air Line, also by Wilkinson Eyre. The day I visited, picnickers lounged on the grass mounds (irrigated by harvested rain water) in front of the building and the cable car had a considerable queue. It looked like it was all meant to be. The Crystal is also less than 15 minutes from two of London’s most frequented venues - the ExCel Centre and The O2. It doesn’t require much of a leap to imagine visitors to Excel popping out to see the exhibition or even The O2 concert-goers allowing time to check out the Crystal. Meanwhile, anyone who rides the cable car has a crystal clear view of the pavilion, especially the PVs.

ENVIRONMENTAL PERFORMANCE DATA

Estimated annual CO2emissions (kgCO2/m2/yr)

  • Whole building: 91 kgCO2/m2/yr
  • Office: 23 kgCO2/m² / year

Design EPC rating A

Heating & hot water load

14kWh/m²yr (not including reduction due to renewables)

Electrical base load (kWh/m2/yr)

  • Whole building predicted consumption: 212 kWh/m²/year
  • Office energy predicted consumption: 83 kWh/m²/year

IT and small power (kWh/m2/yr)

  • 136kWh/m² - Maximum predicted consumption that can be minimised with good user management management

On site energy generation

  • 17.5% generation from PV panels

Overall area-weighted U-values

  • Façade = 1W/m²K

Average for walls (W/m2/K)

  • Insulated panels in office = 0.23 W/m²K
  • Insulated panels in exhibition = 0.16 W/m²K

Average for windows (W/m2/K)

  • Centre pane U-value of the glass: 1.1W/m²K.

Average for ground floor (W/m2/K)

  • Ground slab = 0.22W/m²K
  • Roof = 0.18W/m

Airtightness

  • 5 at 50 Pa m3/h.m2

     

Summer thermal target for energy reduction (oC)

  • 25±2°C during mechanical conditioned mode
  • Internal temperature should not exceed 28°C for more than 1% of the occupied hours during a year in natural ventilation mode

Server room cooling systems and sources (oC)

  • 24±2°C

Mains water consumption (m3/occupant/yr)

  • 0.4m³/person/yr (1.1 litres/person/day) mains water use (offices only) – the remaining 5.25m³/person/yr (14.4 litres/person/day) is provided via treated rainwater and recycled blackwater.
  • 150m3/year of the water demand for the development is met by mains water and the remaining 95% (2650m³/yr) of the demand is met using alternative water sources- blackwater recycling and rainwater harvesting.

Proportion of floor area with daylight factor >2% (%)

  • 74% of permanently occupied spaces have a daylight factor greater than 2%

Proportion of floor area with daylight factor >5% (%)

  • 34% of permanently occupied spaces have a daylight factor greater than 5%

Background and wall-washing illuminance (lux)

  • Lighting levels for office are designed to 300lux
  • Wall washing illuminance is approximately 100lux

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