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Crystal clear thinking pays off

The all electric Siemens Crystal building in east London is aiming to achieve the highest possible sustainability ratings using LEED and BREAM standards.

So what does it take to be a leader in terms of building sustainability, achieving a LEED platinum rating and a BREAM outstanding rating? The answer is a lot of planning, dedication, state of the art technologies and rigorous evaluation and documentation. For the Crystal Building in East London, which sits by the water at Royal Victoria Docks in the London Borough of Newham, the effort is paying off.

“We have got the design accredited, now it is a case of getting the construction data in to get the full certificate, so we can’t take our finger off the pulse,” explains Arup lead building service engineer Mark Plummer.


Smart thinking: Achieving the correct thermal performance of such a heavily glazed building required a great deal of engineering design.

Arup worked on the design of the £30M sustainability centre as part of a team led by Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will, with UK architect Wilkinson Eyre responsible for the unique crystalline look of the structure. It was built by construction services company ISG and cost managed by Turner & Townsend over 70 weeks, opening in September last year.

“Siemens is really into walking the talk. We are trying to meet certain energy efficiency standards in all our buildings around the world”

Mark Jenkinson, Siemens infrastructure and cities director

“There are two parts to the building, the exhibition area, and the area where we hold events and conferences,” explains Siemens infrastructure and cities director Mark Jenkinson.

“There is also an auditorium, meeting rooms and in the top floor we have our global competence centre for cities.”

He says that the motivation for the scheme was to create a centre for sustainability research and development that attracts city officials and world leaders in sustainability and at the same time demonstrates ideas and technologies that enable a low carbon future.

The building has been welcomed by its local authority, Newham Borough Council, for its potential regeneration benefits as the centrepiece of the Royal Victoria Docks green enterprise district.

To meet these wide-ranging objectives, the building showcases systems that are not often brought together in one structure. Measures include ground source heat pumps, photovoltaic solar panels, blackwater recycling, rainwater harvesting, solar thermal water heating, clever façade management, electric car charging points, and a management and control system that optimises energy use, ventilation and operations.

A key challenge from the outset was optimising building performance when the nature of the architectural design, creating the “Crystal”, meant using a lot of glass. As Wilkinson Eyre developed the exterior design, Arup would model the energy performance of the proposals. “We had five or six energy simulations modelling it at any one time,” says Plummer.

The resulting structure soars dramatically in two sections rising in opposite directions before reaching a crystalline apex. It is heavily insulated and uses high performance glass as well as optimising passive design as much as possible. Low cooling load areas such as the café face east and absorb heat, while offices with high IT loads and greater cooling requirements are more heavily insulated and positioned to reduce solar gain.

“From an architectural point of view it was about getting the reflectivity right to get the right aesthetic, and from and engineering point of view it was about getting the thermal performance correct and optimising the balance between solar gain and adequate daylighting,” says Plummer, explaining the challenge.

As a result the building uses six different types of glass, four of which are transparent and two of which are opaque. Thermal breaks were placed between the curtain wall façade and the steel frame of the structure to ensure no cold bridging. Although the building is not completely airtight at leakage of 2.4m3 per hour per square metre of building area, it outperforms building regulations by a long way with the team working to regulations at the time of 10m3/h/m2.

“It is four times better than the building regulations at the time of design and we were very proud of that. We decided from the start that there wasn’t enough benefit in being completely airtight to justify the cost of it,” says Plummer, raising an important point. Sustainability is economic too with Siemens setting a firm budget of £30M for the building.

A measure not often found in London’s buildings, thanks to the city’s extensive sewage network, is the blackwater recycling system.

All of the building’s wastewater is transferred into a storage tank, which can be transferred to the sewer system if required, but in normal operation it sends the wastewater to a centrifugal separation plant before undergoing biological treatment, filtration and disinfection.

The treated water is then sent to a non-potable tank where it is then diverted either for toilet flushing or irrigation.

At the same time, rainwater is collected via a drainage system and sent to a 60m3 storage tank under the building. This water can be pumped on for further onsite treatment. “We want to use this for drinking water and are waiting for the go ahead from Thames Water,” says Jenkinson.

Cooling and heating requirements for the building are satisfied with a dual heat pump system served by 36 bores, each 150m deep, plus 160 energy piles, which combine the 21m deep foundations with groundwater heating.

“The two 300MW pumps are unique in that you can heat and cool at the same time, so we can take hot water from rooms that are being cooled and take that hot water and recycle it straight back into the building, which is quite a new concept. We are not wasting heat, we are putting it back into the system,” says Plummer.

Inside the building itself the eight air handling units (AHU) in the exhibition hall have been installed vertically to reduce their footprint and seem like part of the exhibition. Just in front of the AHUs sits one of the uniquely shaped steel columns used throughout the building, which, from a distance, seems to twist.

“It is four times better than the building regulations at the time of design and we were very proud of that. We decided from the start that there wasn’t enough benefit in being completely airtight to justify the cost of it”

Mark Plummer, Arup

“It’s a really clever structure that reduces the amount of steelwork. You have columns that seem like they are twisting but they are not really - they are tapering in different axes at the top and bottom. The frames are three-pin portals and you can see where the forces are by the size of the section. At the bottom, the columns are wider to allow them to cantilever from the base, eliminating bracing in that direction. This way we could minimise the steelwork,” says Plummer.

Perhaps the most important aspect to the building is being able to monitor all of these technologies to ensure that it is living up to its potential. Siemens’ advanced building management system monitors and controls all of the building’s key parameters.

“The most important thing about designing a building like this is to prove that it works, and the only way that you can prove that it works is to monitor and control it,” says Plummer.

“As soon as you lose controllability of a building or create something that people don’t know how to use because the controls are too complicated you lose the ambition that you had at the start.”

The huge amount of data capture also has other benefits. “The metering gives us remote monitoring so someone sitting anywhere else in the world will be able to see where we are with regard to our consumption,” says Jenkinson.

In terms of transport connectivity the building sits aside the Royal Victoria Docklands Light Railway station but more uniquely it is also within metres of Transport for London’s Emirates Air Line urban cable car, which runs across the Thames from Royal Victoria over to the Greenwich Peninsula.

Such unique transport options have been good for visitors. The building has had 50,000 people through its doors since it opened at the end of September. Its interactive exhibition highlights issues facing cities of the future with regard to sustainable development and showcases the systems in use on the building. Understandably the structure utilises its owner’s technologies extensively, but Jenkinson says this was not the main purpose of building it.

“Siemens is really into walking the talk,” he says. “We are trying to meet certain energy efficiency standards in
all our buildings around the world.”

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