A new building in east London’s Royal Victoria Docks aims to change public perceptions of green architecture – while trialling some new sustainable technologies and approaches at scale. There’s not a green roof or thick insulated wall in sight. In fact, the structure, which is called the Crystal, is everything we’ve come to believe a sustainable building shouldn’t be: lightweight, angular, glazed from top to bottom and with a roof made out of steel.
“Contrary to popular belief, glass is one of the most flexible materials you can get”, explains Sebastien Ricard, a director at London-based Wilkinson Eyre Architects, the practice commissioned by electronics giant Siemens to design the £30 million building. Its exterior is made up of two interconnecting crystalline forms, covered in six different types of double-glazed units. These range from transparent and translucent to opaque and insulated, and are angled to let maximum light in where it’s needed, and keep the sun out where it’s not.
Part office space, part interactive exhibition about the future of cities, the building is intended as a living experiment in sustainability that business leaders, politicians and the general public alike can learn from. “The building is a great demonstration of the ‘art of the possible’”, says Martin Hunt, Head of Networks and Partnerships at Forum for the Future. “It’s refreshing to see an interactive exhibition that visualises what our cities could be like – based on high quality research and thoughtful benchmarking. It brings the big issues of urban living – such as water and energy consumption, public health and safety – to life in a way that engages people and inspires them.”
The Crystal uses both solar power and ground source heat pumps to generate its own energy, drawing no power from fossil fuels. Two-thirds of the roof is covered in photovoltaic panels (providing 17.5% of its energy), with excess electrical energy stored in a giant battery for a cloudy day. A 17km network of geothermal pipes has been fitted underground for heating and cooling, as has intelligent lighting and controlled ventilation systems. Rainwater harvesting and on-site blackwater and greywater treatment and recycling plants will supply 90% of its water needs.
Hattie Hartman, Sustainability Editor at The Architects’ Journal, believes the Crystal addresses a wide range of sustainable design issues in an exemplary way, from operational carbon emissions to water recycling and community gardening. “Of particular note is Siemens’ commitment to transparency, reporting energy and water use through public displays in the exhibition hall”, she says. But the one glaring omission at the Crystal is a failure to measure the whole life carbon in the building’s extensive high-tech kit. “Without looking at both operational and embodied carbon, it is impossible to assess the building’s overall sustainability credentials.”
– Giovanna Dunmall
Photo: Edmund Sumner