Europe is Building

A building boom is underway in mainland Europe, including a whole village made entirely of wood. But for London’s newly opened, highly sustainable Bloomberg European HQ, after 10 years in the making, would it have happened in the UK post-Brexit? Stephen Hitchins reports

The Brexodus is well under way. The European Medicines Agency is moving to Amsterdam, the European Banking Authority to Paris. London’s other losses have been Dublin’s gain. It lost out with its bids for those two agencies but a raft of insurance and financial services firms have opted to open offices in the Irish capital. All five of the ‘magic circle’ big commercial law firms in the City of London have registered hundreds of solicitors in preparation for merger and acquisition work and strategic representation, and international investors are snapping up the luxury blocks of flats going up on Dublin’s quays.

Frankfurt is gearing up to take relocated workers. The city is anticipating a boost to the tune of 10,000 jobs in the wake of Brexit; all of them high rollers. Praised in 2017 by the chief of Goldman Sachs, Germany’s financial capital is in pole position to gain banking jobs from the UK. Seven international banks have announced they are either making Frankfurt the new hub of their European operation or at least relocating individual departments there. Goldman Sachs has already made its mind up and will split its business between two European hubs, Frankfurt and Paris.

They are building in Paris. Fast. The city hopes to cash in on Brexit, attracting up to 10,000 Brexit-related jobs plus a further 10,000 indirect jobs, according to Valérie Pécresse, president of the Île-de-France region. So the message is being pushed: France is reformable and there is a new state of mind. Crucially, for companies who pay their employees’ school fees, the international schools – with bilingual classes – will be free. There are indications that French expatriates are already returning to France from the UK, and other evidence suggests some scientists are considering quitting London for Paris. Brexit is ‘a slow earthquake – it started the day of the vote and it continues very slowly, but with earthquake effects,’ said Paris’s deputy mayor Jean-Louis Missika, in charge of economic development.

Already a collection of new buildings is taking shape, ready to accommodate new and returning workers.

The centrepiece of the new Bloomberg European HQ building in London is a spiralling ramp spanning some 213m and six floors

The centrepiece of the new Bloomberg European HQ building in London is a spiralling ramp spanning some 213m and six floors. Photo Credit: Nigel Young/Foster+Partner

Tour Triangle by Herzog & de Meuron
There are a couple of glamorous icons going up, with the 180m-high Tour Triangle by Herzog & de Meuron backed by property giant Unibail-Rodamco, and will go up near the Porte de Versailles. The Tribunal de Paris, located in the Clichy-Batignolles urban development zone, is a series of stacked glass volumes totalling 5,500 sq m of space and topping out at 160m that brings together all the various activities of the capital’s judicial system from April. Each of the volumes is only 35m-deep, allowing natural light to reach the core. The scale of Renzo Piano’s stacked-block formation, a long, low pedestal building that houses 90 law courts with three 10-storey blocks perched on top forming large planted terraces, nevertheless reawakened old yearnings for a return to the city’s skyscraper height restrictions. The Tribunal has solar panels, rainwater collection and natural ventilation in an attempt to make it a benchmark for energy consumption in a tall building. But it will not be a match for the new Bloomberg European headquarters building, opened at the end of 2017 in London.

Bloomberg European headquarters
London mayor Sadiq Khan declared that the building ‘sends a clear message to the world that the UK remains a centre for global investment’. ‘London is open’, he continued, ‘open to business, open to investment, and open to some of the best design in the world.’ But speaking before the opening, Michael Bloomberg said that, apart from the election of Donald Trump, Brexit was the ‘single stupidest thing any country has ever done’. He admitted: ‘Would I have done it if I knew the UK was going to drop out [of the EU]? I’ve had some thoughts that maybe I wouldn’t have.’ Bloomberg also joked in his opening speech: ‘Some people say the reason it took us almost a decade to build this is we had a billionaire who wanted to be an architect working with an architect who wanted to be a billionaire.’

Overview of the Arboretum, to be built in the Paris suburb of NanterreOverview of the Arboretum, to be built in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. 
Image credit: laisne roussel et François Leclercq/Weiss Images

Once it opened the PR machine went into overdrive. Modest to the point of being discrete, the building is scrupulously ecological and then some. The entrance is understated and its clever inside is well hidden. Its curvaceous reception is timber-lined. The floors of the vast offices, on which up to 6,700 people can work, are also timber. Open, column-free floors combine with a wellness centre and spaces for reflection and even prayer, in order to achieve a well-balanced workforce in an open and non-hierarchical workplace. The budget has not been made public but no one has denied a figure of £1bn. It operates a net-zero-to-landfill policy and aims for zero net water consumption.

It has vacuum-flush toilets. It harvests its own rainwater. It is a ‘breathable’ building, with fresh air passing through bronze fins in the exterior walls and leaving through vents in the roof. Its half a million LED lights are 40 per cent more efficient than conventional alternatives. A nine-storey block with a frame hewn from 9,600 tonnes of Derbyshire sandstone and accented with hand-patinated Japanese bronze fins that reference the architectural language of the historic buildings that surround it, the stone was engineered into prefabricated composite sections, and has been seamlessly assembled.

Timber walls are micro-perforated for acoustic reasons, the floors fixed to magnetic plates so they can be lifted easily to access the wires and pipes underneath. The ceilings are made of 2.5m-long aluminium ‘petals’ that skilfully contain the requirements of lighting, cooling and acoustic absorption. Bloomberg says the building saves 73 per cent in water consumption and 35 per cent in energy consumption ‘compared to a typical office building’.

Inside the Arboretum are a variety of attractions and facilities, here the epicerieInside the Arboretum are a variety of attractions and facilities, here is the epicerie.
Image credit: laisne roussel et François Leclercq/MORPH

The building also received a 98.5 per cent score on the BREEAM sustainability assessment method – the highest achieved by a major office development. It is a great building with lots of green features, but there is more to sustainability than a high BREEAM score. Bloomberg stated: ‘We believe that environmental-friendly practices are as good for business as they are for the planet. From day one, we set out to push the boundaries of sustainable office design, and to create a place that excites and inspires our employees. The two missions went hand-in-hand, and I hope we’ve set a new standard for what an office environment can be.’

It certainly sets new standards, most of which will doubtless go unmatched for years to come, but the most sustainable? No. For example, the PowerHouse Kjørbo, an office building outside of Oslo designed by Snøhetta is one that produces far more energy than was used for the production of building materials, its construction, operation and disposal. It actually pays back its embodied energy. The Nanterre Arboretum, firmly focused on environmental quality and integration of new ways of working, will be the largest project ever built from wood in the world. Built for BNP Paribas Real Estate and Woodeum, on a continuation of the Notre-Dame / Arc de Triomphe / La Défense axis, the project has been designed by François Leclercq et Associés and Laisné Roussel architects.

Construction begins this year. An industrial wasteland will be transformed into a 124,860 sq m campus of low-carbon office space set within 9ha of parkland beside the Seine. The planning includes reed beds, canal gardens, meadows, a rare-plant species enclosure, vegetable gardens, two amphitheatres, greenhouses, orchards, fitness trails, sports fields, sports centre and swimming pool. Eight restaurants, library, small medical centre, three auditoriums, management centre, and reception building with banking facilities and shops make up the overall mix.

It is the largest service sector project under development in the Île-de-France region. Once a magnet for major commercial activity, the Seine valley has seen de-industrialisation of heavy industry on an enormous scale since the trente glorieuse – the three decades of economic prosperity, high wages and high consumption in France that followed the Second World War. Now, it has become a reservoir of biodiversity with a very different identity. The reopening of the site, once home to the Seine Paper Mill, is of major economic importance to the regeneration of Nanterre.

The materials, construction method, use and development of the buildings have all been designed with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the life of the buildings, together with maximising its overall resilience. Use of bio-sourced materials, bioclimatic design and the new generation of renewable energy, both photovoltaic and geothermal, should make the site a model of sustainable development. The site is a neighbour of the Université Paris Nanterre, close to a major motorway junction (A14/A86) and the railway, and located on a gently sloping landscape with views of the embankments bordering the Seine and the Île Fleurie and looking across the river to the Carrières-sur-Seine (painted by Monet in 1872).

The Arboretum’s auditoriumThe Arboretum’s auditorium.
Image credit: laisne roussel et François Leclercq/MORPH

Leclercq has built a number of projects in wood for a wide range of uses: offices, housing, educational facilities and sports complexes. The 60-person practice won the Prix National 2015 for the largest-ever educational building in France to have been made from wood, the Lycée International Nelson Mandela de l’îlede-Nantes, which reflects the industrial naval architecture of the area.

Laisné Roussel started to practice in 2003, the same year as Leclercq. The firm has a similarly impressive record of building in wood, including a block of apartments in the Rue Rebière in Paris. The firm also designed the l’Arbre Blanc in Montpellier – a housing project now under construction - with the Japanese firm Sou Fujimoto. Laisné Roussel has also designed a 10,000 sq m polytechnic building in Saclay south-west of Paris, a 10,000 sq m development including a wooden structure office building in Bordeaux, and several more major projects.

But the wooden scheme at Nanterre dwarfs all of these earlier projects and anything else built in wood anywhere in the world to date.

The firm behind the project at Nanterre, Woodeum, was only started in 2014 by Guillaume Poitrinal and Philippe Zivkovic, and already has 25 major wooden projects underway including housing, hotels and offices. The financial muscle comes in the shape of BNP Paribas Real Estate, an international real estate service provider with 900 employees working in 36 countries.

Everything wooden is the word. It seems that in France, and elsewhere around the world, improving the sustainability of buildings in a range of diverse ways is the flavour of the moment. Above all, engineered timber is the buzz. The message is simple: if you look at timber you can see the future of homes and business. It’s not unusual, it’s historic, it’s energy efficient, it’s light, it’s fast to build, its visual impact on the landscape is beneficial, and it is aesthetically pleasing. Despite being widely considered unsuitable for certain types of building due to the risk of fire, its susceptibility to changes in temperature and the force of the wind, the development of cross-laminated timber over the past decade has changed all that, making it more viable for a wider range of construction. On top of which its carbon footprint is half that of concrete.

Wood has been hitting the headlines from award-winning projects to experimental schemes across a whole range of building types. Kevin Flanagan of PLP presented an 80-storey tower building to the London Assembly in 2016. An elegantly tapered building designed to house up to 1,000 people, it was the centrepiece of a research project at Cambridge University.

The Eco Park Stadium near Stroud in Gloucestershire for Forest Green Rovers by ZHA will be the first all-timber sports ground with almost everything made from sustainably sourced wood. Waugh Thisleton has used timber for 15 years, designed a 29-unit residential block for Telford Homes in 2009, and more recently one of 121 units for Regal Homes, and has worked on timber office buildings.

Lendlease has completed a 10-storey apartment complex in Melbourne, Australia the first timber high-rise completed in the country having concluded it would generate 22 per cent lower global warming emissions over its lifespan than a traditional concrete build. Now, the firm is involved in a government-backed research project on the potential for timber construction in Singapore. In France, the architect Jean-Paul Viguier has three wooden towers of apartments going up in Bordeaux, one of which – when it is completed in 2020 – will be the world’s tallest timber building, part of 17,000 sq m of business and residential units being built for the city. (Shigeru Ban has unveiled a taller project in Vancouver, but that is only a hybrid structure, the core will be concrete and steel.)

There is a 14-storey tower in Bergen with 62 apartments, and in Sweden the developer Folkhem has projects at 22 sites around Stockholm, amounting to 6,000 homes in total. A waterfront site at Strandparken comprises two eight-storey timber towers with 64 apartments, and there is also a mixed-use development with four 20-storey towers. In Brisbane a 52m-high office tower is under construction that claims to be the highest commercial timber building, only the latest in a flurry of engineered wood towers in Australia.

The GalerieThe Galerie.
Image credit: laisne roussel et François Leclercq/MORPH

HKA, Hermann Kamte & Associates, a Cameroonian firm, has not only won an American architecture award and the inaugural World Architecture Festival Award for its wooden residential tower in Lagos, built on the roof of Abebe Court, but also produced affordable housing units built of wood for the homeless in Chicago. Designed as part of an international competition in 2016, Kamte said of the Lagos tower: ‘Our first goal was to build a new approach to urbanisation and population growth. Our second goal was to incorporate Lagos’s extraordinary cultural diversity. Our final goal was to introduce the concept of wood construction into a landscape dominated by concrete buildings. Nigeria benefits from the tropical rainforest in the central to the southern part of the country. So, why continue to confine our city to concrete?’ Important for its structural properties, aesthetic, and cultural impact, Kamte also considered wood ‘a sensible, warm and soothing material, as well as a powerfully emotional symbol for the city of Lagos’.

Even in India and China, where wooden buildings have been built for thousands of years, at last commercial developments are looking at wood rather than steel and concrete. The Tangshan Organic Farm designed by Archstudio is a processing workshop and packaging facility for produce, designed as a magnified traditional courtyard plan, the 1,720 sq m made up of four distinct areas entirely constructed from wood, giving a warm natural atmosphere to the whole place. Architects can improve the sustainability of our cities in diverse ways, with wooden construction finally making a significant impact. Timber is topping out all over.

Feature image: laisne roussel et François Leclercq/Weiss Images

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