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India without aircon

Chadwick International and Buro Happold have dispensed with air conditioning at Xchanging’s new offices near Bangalore, says Hattie Hartman

Since 2005, India has approved almost 600 Special Economic Zones. Over half are IT-driven and rely on outsourcing to lower operating costs by taking advantage of India’s well-educated English-speaking workforce. The projects presented on these pages offer two radically different architectural solutions for the burgeoning outsourcing industry around Bangalore, South India’s answer to Silicon Valley and with a population of over eight million, it is India’s third largest city.

But severe infrastructure strain has made energy efficiency a pragmatic necessity and government policy supports decentralisation to smaller ‘Tier 3’ cities such as 300,00-strong Shimoga, located in an agricultural region some 150 miles north-west of Bangalore, with its first airport currently under construction.

Shimoga is home to recently completed offices for outsourcing the company Xchanging, designed by London-based Chadwick International with Buro Happold. The norm in the region, according to Buro Happold’s Dan Knott, is ‘to build a glass box and stuff it full of aircon.’ What’s remarkable about this project is that it has no air conditioning in a climate where average temperatures hover in the 34-36°C range for three months of the year. Shimoga’s climate is not hospitable and an unsealed building, harking back to vernacular traditions, is nothing short of revolutionary. Above all, it’s cheap.

‘India is all about cheap,’ says Andrew Chadwick. Entering Chadwick International’s 11th floor office in Holborn, two features stand out: a wall in the lift lobby emblazoned ‘Chadwick International, Management Architects’ and a breathtaking view. Before I have time to reflect on the meaning of a ‘management architect’, I am bowled over by the incredible view, described by Andrew as ‘the best in central London’. Global maps and images of Chadwick’s 20-odd projects for Xchanging line the conference room walls, and I learn that Xchanging is an outsourcing business founded in 1999 by David Andrews, formerly of Accenture. Using space-time modelling in the mid-nineties, Chadwick had orchestrated the relocation of Accenture’s Paris office from La Défense to a prestigious address on the Champs-Elysées with significant cost savings. The project was an early example of a non-territorial office.

Chadwick identifies and quantifies trapped value, thereby reducing both capital and operating costs, as well as energy demand. The practice performed a similar sleight-of-hand at Sheppard Robson’s Salvation Army Headquarters in Queen Victoria Street, completed in 2005. Space-time modelling revealed that the Army did not need to occupy the full building, and over 8,000m2 of lettable office space were provided in the new building, which meant that the client acquired the new building at a fraction of the cost.

When Andrews founded Xchanging, he appointed Chadwick to oversee the company’s global property portfolio. Over an 11-year span, Chadwick’s five-strong office space-planned over 125,000m2 of office space worldwide for Xchanging, from Leadenhall to Bangalore. Andrews led Xchanging’s explosive growth to a FTSE 250 company with close to £1 billion in annual turnover, while Chadwick rode the wave, earning a reputation as something of a space planning guru and a jury invitation to World Architecture Festival 2009. He funded four years of research on the subject at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and authored a book. ‘Chadwick: Space Economy + Design’ is the current tagline on the website.

In 2011, when a profit warning signalled a change of fortune, David Andrews’ downfall was ‘brutal and swift’ according to the Financial Times, and the Xchanging headquarters in Shimoga, completed in July of last year, proved to be the Andrews-Chadwick team’s first building and last hurrah. Before Shimoga, Xchanging already had a significant Indian footprint, with 80,000m² split between Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai. ‘India prides itself on being the cheapest place to do business in the world,’ says Chadwick. But Xchanging was keen for even greater cost savings. Saving the planet was not part of the brief, but Chadwick’s sleight-of-hand this time was to eliminate air conditioning, the single costliest line item (approximately 40 per cent of capital cost, according to Chadwick). He challenged Buro Happold to get rid of the air conditioning.

From that moment, a marriage of space planning and building physics shaped the project. Buro Happold’s Daniel Knott describes the project as ‘dead simple’ because the building is bioclimatically optimised in its fixed form. There is no building management system and ‘nothing can go wrong’. The brief was to accommodate 1,000 people at any given time, or 1,300 people on a shift pattern of 1.3:1. Occupancy works out to under 6m² per person, compared to the British Council for Offices guideline of 10m2 per person, recommended in its Guide to Specification 2009.

Another radical premise of the building - which could and should be adopted more widely in less extreme climates - is adaptive comfort. This allows temperature fluctuation within a set range, provided there is good ventilation. On the Shimoga site, optimal solar orientation did not align with the prevailing winds, so the building was rotated 20° to control solar gain while maximising the potential for natural ventilation, critical in the humid climate.

Two parallel wings of 15m-deep office accommodation (the optimal depth for cross-ventilation) sit on either side of a full height atrium, whose roof forms four enormous wind scoops. Parametrically calculated brise-soleils, up to 3m deep on the south facade, eliminate all direct solar gain on the glazing. Originally specified to control heat gain via conduction, double glazing was eventually value-engineered out. Solid-insulated endwalls with narrow slit windows face east and west. With all these passive measures, the building is predicted to reduce ambient temperature on peak days by as much as 5°C.

Operable windows were deemed important for occupants’ perception of comfort, and the exterior envelope is comprised of sliding windows with high fixed louvres above. Up to a third of the exterior envelope can be opened up. Chadwick says: ‘We approached the design from a non-doctrinaire point of view and allowed our hand to be guided by building physics. I am not a tree-hugger, but this approach is attractive because its premise is that buildings can work for themselves. Lots of M&E is not the answer. Sustainability is not about box-ticking; it’s about economics and common sense.’

According to Buro Happold’s calculations, the savings from building 1,380 ‘Shimogas’ in place of glass boxes would equal the construction of a 1GW power station. Such environmental savings cannot be ignored, particularly in the developing world.
However, architectural quality is more than just building physics. While generous 4m floor-to-ceiling heights and good quality daylight go a long way to creating a pleasant indoor environment at Xchanging’s Shimoga office, the building exterior lacks similar finesse - a reminder that architecture is about commodity, firmness and delight.

Project data

Client Xchanging plc
Start on site January 2011
Completion July 2012
Gross internal floor area 6,837m²
Total cost £3.5 million
Cost per m² £414
Form of contract Item Rate Contract
Architect Chadwick International/Venkatramanan Associates
Structural engineer PM Group
Environmental engineer Buro Happold
Landscape consultant The Landscape Company
Project manager Moorthy Subbiah Pillai and Xchanging plc
Construction management group AN Prakash Construction Project Management Consultants

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