Copyright: David Lawson/Financial Times 1996
When tower cranes last walked across city centres there was little debate. People like our sweaty fund manager who paid for development demanded maximum comfort for potential tenants. That meant air-conditioning, a notoriously energy-intensive solution. But when building ground to a halt, research continued into alternatives. 'One advantage of the recession is that it gave us more time to study what we were designing,' says Tim Evans an associate with architect Sheppard Robson. Those investigations are now being fed into new designs.
Several landmark schemes have emerged even during this quiet period. The Ionica building, developed for the telecommunications company by St John's College, Cambridge, on its nearby business park, has become a totem. This uses existing technology in innovative ways to improve what is now called 'staff comfort' rather than simply energy costs. A good deal of research is also geared to monitoring whether, and how well, these energy-saving ideas work. 'It takes hard evidence to fight for changes in the way we construct buildings,' according to one of the designers, with the apt name of Tim Battle.
He has watched the focus move from pure research into practical application over the last few years with some satisfaction, after his firm, Rybka Battle, played a big part in pushing forward the arguments for more energy-efficient, user-friendly buildings. Several current developments could be crucial to further advances. The Building Research Establishment has created its own test-bed for the industry by constructing a complete office block at its Watford headquarters. The three-storey building is giving researchers chance to work on a live project right on their doorstep, according to BRE project manager Mike Clift.
It includes innovations such as natural ventilation via computer-controlled opening windows and solar-powered stacks. But a particular advance is the wave-shaped floor slab. This increases the concrete surface area, and thus the thermal mass. Fresh air brought in to pass through the channels, avoiding problems with blockage by partitioning. In summer, the night-cooled slab reduces warm air temperatures while in winter, the flow can be warmed by underfloor heated water pipes. This, along with other test systems such as low-energy lighting and external louvres to reflect sunlight aim to cut energy consumption by 30 per cent when the building is occupied later this year.
Those occupants will be as vital as the strain gauges and thermometers. They will provide interactive feedback on areas such as quality of light and comfort levels which researchers cannot determine from instruments. 'One of the most crucial areas of research today is defining comfort,' says Tim Battle. 'If we can move to a looser fit, then a host of changes can be made.'
The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) is co-ordinating various projects aimed at this goal, while the British Council for Offices has issued guidelines based on research into occupier demands. The industry will be keeping a close watch on findings by the University of Westminster Research in Building Group, which has won a 320,000 EC grant to monitor the BRE building. The team is also contributing to the project through its own studies, such as the optimal type of louvre glazing.
Meanwhile, another piece of living research is going on in the heart of the City. The Helicon, a glazed office block rising over Finsbury Pavement, is important because it is a speculative development. Owner-occupiers willing to pay for new technology have set the pace for change but developers such as fund managers need to be convinced if the research is to gain wider application. If the Helicon, backed by London & Manchester Assurance, proves a commercial success, it will influence future schemes. The £30m building programme is the culmination of several strands of research brought together by architects Sheppard Robson and environmental engineers Ove Arup. Most obvious are the louvred blinds, designed to control solar gain.
'This is what is termed an active facade,' says Tim Evans, of Sheppard Robson. the architects. 'It responds to the environment rather than just ameliorating it as a passive facade would.' In other words, the metal slats open and close in response to temperature and sunlight, sealing or opening a void between the office windows and an outer glazed skin. The combination of shading and and ventilation of this void is intended to cut solar gain by about a third. The technology was not based just on theoretical efficiency targets. 'We do a great deal of research into what occupiers want from to their workspace,' says Mr Evans. 'They like to feel part of the outside world, so we aimed for transparency.'
But occupiers are also increasingly demanding lower running costs. Research by property consultants Jones Lang Wootton shows that energy makes up more than a fifth of service charges for air-conditioned blocks. Together with heating and maintenance, this can reach more than 2 a sq ft, according to JLW's OSCAR annual report. Other innovations include a low-energy system called chilled beams. This is fairly old technology but rarely used in the UK. Arup did extensive research via its international offices into examples across Europe, modifying the system to suit the Helicon. It is now being considered for a wide range of other buildings.
Another landmark scheme by Arup is the 57m Lloyds Registry of Shipping on Fenchurch Street, managed by Richard Ellis and designed by Sir Richard Rodgers. This also involved a raft of research including detailed studies of climate, air quality and occupier needs. This resulted in a sealed-window system of air-conditioning, but it is significant that the designs allow for changes such as traffic restriction. Researchers have produced an optimistic view that our sweaty fund manager will one day be able to open his window without being deafened by noise.