Stephen Kieran of Kieran Timberlake tells Hattie Hartman about the design and planning process behind the US Embassy at Nine Elms
What is the most important aspect of the Embassy’s design?
There have been two central thrusts from the outset: one is sustainability – we always thought of the building as a diplomat for the environment. The second was the quality of the workspaces in terms of creating an efficient environ for the Embassy to conduct its business in.
What have you modified since the competition?
The design in all its general terms, as presented in the competition, remains but is different in detail. We had a programme to get the building ‘stair-stepped’ up to a really high level of environmental performance that has been fleshed out since the competition. In more specific terms, by the time we understood all of the detail requirements of an embassy, we found ourselves in an energy deficit in relation to baseline US codes (ASHRAE) of about 9 per cent. There are so many security issues of an embassy – you can’t, for example, use natural ventilation or mixed mode ventilation for obvious reasons.
Has the process differed from what you anticipated?
No, the process and methodology were pretty clearly mapped out. Certainly the London planning submittals have been huge. We met regularly with constituencies and made regular presentations.
How would this building be different if it were in America?
The whole planning process there is completely different. Things tend to be more prescriptive in terms of zoning, here it is all negotiated. You also have a vast array of requirements, such as right to light, that are not typically written into US law.
Has it had a knock-on effect on other work in your office?
Sure. We have full-time research staff and the majority of work they undertake is environmental research and development of products. There has been a knock-on effect on many fronts. With this project, we were able to integrate some photovoltaics with the external envelope and that’s actually quite an advance, which we’ve been able to develop with fabricators.
What do you consider the most innovative element of the building?
The really innovative aspect of this is the totality of it and the complete integration of all these systems together. Nothing is added without being integrated with everything else – things as simple as stormwater management, for instance. We are collecting water off the building and from the site and storing it in the pond. This is also a central part of the mechanical system of the building; it is the heat sink for the cooling from the building. And on and on that goes, that story of integration.
So things that are most often disaggregated and not used holistically are used in a way that is very synergistic in this building. And that is why we are able to step the environmental performance of it as much as we are because we’ve been able to use things in multiple ways so they don’t just do one thing. The pond collects storm water, helps manage energy, creates habitat, etcetera.
Stephen Kieran: ‘A diplomat for sustainability’