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A Crystal Clear Vision: An Interview with WilkinsonEyre

Crane your neck towards the sky in any one of the world’s major cities and you are likely to see a brainchild of WilkinsonEyre. The architectural practice (owned by Chris Wilkinson and Jim Eyre) has spent the last 34 years designing some of the planet’s most iconic buildings, including the imposing Guangzhou International Finance Center and the Crown Sydney Hotel in Australia.

The company’s magnum opus, however, is arguably a lot closer to home. We are, of course, referring to our very own building, The Crystal. Designed by WilkinsonEyre as both an exhibition centre and think tank, The Crystal exemplifies sustainable design.

We were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Sebastien Ricard, Director and lead architect on The Crystal project, and learn how he and his team challenged the conventional ideas on sustainability.

Sebastien has led projects all over the world, working on everything from the Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, to a one-kilometre-long viaduct near Basel. This is what he had to say…

Take us back to The Crystal ideation phase: what was the architectural approach?

SR: We knew that the brief was to create a very sustainable project, and we also knew that it was for a highly technical/technologically orientated client. So what really excited us at the time was the idea of being able to use technology get a better building. I think that was the first key element: to create innovative technology within a building to see if we could produce a ‘better building’ – and what I mean by ‘better building’ is more sustainable. We couldn’t just look at the design in a traditional way. It was how we were going to control the systems and monitor the energy consumption within the building.

The other key aspect was the fact that a tight urban site is very different to the middle of the countryside. So, in other words, thinking of sustainability as in ‘Oh, it’s a carbon-neutral building and I’m going to create all my own energy on-site’ – which on paper seems to be a great idea, is in fact, not necessarily something you can apply everywhere. For instance, if you are in a very dense area in central London, or any capital city, it’s very hard to say that you will create all your own energy on site and be carbon neutral. It doesn’t mean that the building can’t be highly sustainable, it just means you have to measure its sustainability credential differently.

The Crystal operates entirely on electricity and its CO2 emissions are about 70 per cent lower than those of similar British buildings. Was this the main sustainability issue you were trying to solve when designing The Crystal?

SR: There wasn’t one specific sustainability issue we were trying to respond to. The Crystal was built more as a prototype, and that was always the idea. In other words, no one is claiming that this should be what every future building should look like, but more testing a series of sustainability initiatives which might be applicable in the future to most buildings in various forms and different contexts. Why? Because this was more of a research project from all perspectives with Siemens. For instance, we have a full blackwater recycling system in the building, which is usually designed as a system for a city or a borough, due to its cost, complexity and level of filtration system needed. So, it was exciting to explore doing it at the scale of one building. That’s just one example of the components in this highly sustainable project.

In terms of electricity, it was about being able to create our own energy and have the capacity in the battery room to be able to store it and reuse it when we need it. We also wanted to show that we could send it back to the grid when it wasn’t needed (enabling the building to be connected to the “smart grid”). The control system also allows you to monitor the consumption of electricity in the building – so if it’s higher than it should be, the smart metering system lets you see what is causing it. One of the best ways to be sustainable is by having an intelligent system which can override human error (window left open, link in the water system, light not switched off….).

How does Wilkinson Eyre measure sustainability, and how do you think that is likely to change in the future?

SR: That’s a very good question and a difficult one to answer. There are some monitoring systems we use, such as a green review, where we measure how green our buildings are, as well as test their credentials based on façade treatment/ energy consumption/ thermal mass initial study/ material use/ specific sustainability measure applied etc. We have software in our offices that calculate emission levels on projects. We have in-house metrics which allow us to predict the sustainable quality of a future project beyond BREEAM and LEED ratings, as well as benchmarks.

The reality is it differs from one project to another. The challenges or the appetite of the client could be very different, and so could the financial context. We try as architects to push the limits of our clients on the sustainability front, but some clients are more receptive than others.

Tell us your favourite feature of The Crystal.

SR: What I think is particularly interesting about The Crystal is that it is highly sustainable without looking like a typical sustainable building, where there are classic recipes used such as thermal mass through the use of thick concrete walls, limiting glazing to the south elevation and using green roofs everywhere. In a way, I don’t want to point out just one feature.

I think the best outcome of the project is that we created a sustainable building. Yes, there are many amazing features, like the blackwater recycling system and the photovoltaic roof panels, but the fact that we integrated and cut the PV panels to suit the shape of the roof was a great achievement – when you board the Emirates cable car and look at the top of the roof, it looks like it is a part of the building. So the integration of all these great technologies is, for me, the best achievement. The fact that it’s there, but people don’t necessarily know it’s there, is great.

Was there any technology used in the Crystal project that you hadn’t encountered before?

SR: Oh, yes. Many. I had never created a battery room before. I had never dealt with such an intensive PV panel system before. I had never worked on a building with a blackwater recycling system. So, of course, there was an awful lot of components that were new to me. Never have I ever before had to go into that sort of depth to make sure we had all the credentials necessary to be as sustainable as possible. It was an enormous learning curve.

How do you see The Crystal working with other environmental initiatives in the future?

SR: As I previously said, the Crystal was designed as a prototype. As such, a key part of the brief was to create a building which is flexible and can evolve in the future. So, in other words, the building has been designed in a way that you can add new technology into it, or a new system into it, or build on top of the existing system. I think this is really important. The great thing about The Crystal is that it can be used as a testbed for new technology. When Siemens have a new idea, it can be fully tested within the building.

We wanted to avoid designing The Crystal in a way which made it look like a sustainable building. Instead, we wanted to create a nice, elegant building which responded to the brief. We wanted to change the mindset of what a sustainable building might look like.

Wilkinson Eyre has done fantastic work with educational establishments such as the University of Bristol and the University of Cambridge. How do you see sustainability and technology changing the face of our educational institutions in the future?

SR: I think there are different components to this and different responses. In recent years, the benchmark has been on durability and the quality of the architecture itself, but now the benchmark has moved to sustainability. This has meant that we are now using better materials and better technology within the building industry, and it shows: the new generation of educational buildings look extremely different to the older ones. There is different technology and a different set of components, better control of the installation and systems, and better quality of workmanship. All these elements put together will change the look of our buildings going forward.

How will the architects of tomorrow have to adapt to keep up with sustainable design?

SR: It is our duty as architects to judge a building not only by its composition but also by its sustainable credentials – this is very high on the agenda of any decent architect. In order to keep making buildings as sustainable as possible, you have to be in touch with all the new technology and tools necessary to measure what is best for the environment.

The other element which I think is very often forgotten is: if a building is very good – and what I mean by ‘good’ is a building which requires very little maintenance and is still standing after a long period – then by definition, that is also a sustainable building. I think this is something which has been forgotten along the way. I think quality, full stop, is one of the most important things about sustainability. If you design a building for the short term, or if it lasts 25 years and then a new developer knocks it down, then that’s not very sustainable. I believe the architects of tomorrow will need to think about quality and longevity, not just technology. It’s a combination of both, really. As architects, we still need to be aware of all the latest technology out there, for instance, PV panels – which for years were not very efficient – can now be used even if a roof is not facing south or a building is in a clouded region. It’s about being able to integrate this kind of technology with quality components.

Why not see WilkinsonEyre’s creation up close? Find out more about our interactive exhibition, today.

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