High-tech building works with nature

Ever imagined enjoying a cup of filter coffee and breathing in clean air while seated under a real tree on a rainy day in wet, wintry Cape Town?

Sound impossible?

Well, it's not for the 575 Capetonians who work in the new BP head office at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. They can do all of that without stepping out of the office.

This ultra-modern facility, with its open spaces, large windows and airy interior, was officially opened on Tuesday, but its inhabitants have already been working in style since the beginning of March.

This latest addition to the V&A Waterfront's property portfolio was completed to a tight schedule and made ready for its tenant to move in, the latter satisfied that their landlord had met the stringent requirements they set for an environmentally friendly home that is unparalleled in the country.

The building bristles with the latest in eco-friendly technology and creature-comfort design features, all with a view to improving productivity by presenting employees with the best possible working conditions.

The technology and architectural design have combined to create an environment which allows for easy communication and staff interaction, while sound levels remain well within comfortable limits.

Aesthetically, the interior follows typical Waterfront design, with extensive use of steel construction, complete with railings for decks and staircases.

But it is the airiness and the buzz of ordered activity, visible from the main entrance, that gives this building its special character.

It is quite evident that it has been designed with people in mind - and that the people do not have to submit to the building.

A tree-lined "mall" with floors made of wood from a sustainable commercial forest in Zimbabwe, leads invitingly from the main entrance through security turnstiles to the various sections of open-plan office space.

"The building has been designed to make the most efficient use of energy," said facilities manager Deon Sims of the management company Johnson, which is contracted to BP.

"For example, the lighting is automatically regulated according to the natural light from outside. On a dark, rainy day, the lights inside the building go brighter to make up for the reduction in natural light coming from outside. But as the day brightens, the interior lights will dim to save energy."

The building has a series of unique, pyramid-shaped skylights and large double-glazed windows that are set back into the outer walls.

Each window has a horizontal solar deflector that prevents too much direct sunlight from entering the building, while letting through plenty of natural light.

The fact that direct sunlight is kept to a minimum has two obvious advantages. Firstly, radiated heat is excluded, allowing the air-conditioning in the building to work optimally at low energy levels.

Secondly, the natural light entering the building is effective, without being too bright.

Sims explained that the building's air conditioning was, as far as possible, supplemented by natural systems to reduce energy use to as little as possible - all for the sake of reducing the building's contribution to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

A special panel in the entrance hallway shows that since the building's completion at the end of February, the system has "saved" 17,5 tons of carbon dioxide.

To aid the air conditioning, special bulbous extractor fans on the roof use wind power to help remove stale air through ducts leading from the interior.

While working mainly on the principle of hot air rising, the fans are also turned by Cape Town's well-known south-easter, north-wester or south-wester breezes to speed up the extraction of stale air.

The skylights also have exit points for stale air, and fans can be run on electricity to speed up extraction, especially in the event of a fire, when smoke or gases have to be removed rapidly.

Much of the materials used in the construction of the building have been recycled, Sims said. One example is the long stretches of carpeting used in working and resting areas.

"We have a grey water tank in the basement where we store all rainwater run-off to use for the flushing of toilets and the irrigation of the gardens around the premises," said Grant Cochrane, an independent project manager who took care of the interior fitment of the building.

"We already have about 850 000 litres of water in there. On the roof, there are a large number of drains that feed the rainwater into the grey water tank."

On the subject of toilets, the "restroom" facilities have also been designed with environmental savings in mind. The toilets have a dual flush mechanism, while urinals only flush optimally after having been used. Taps at the wash basins cannot be left on as sensors detect hand movement under the spouts and then only trickle enough water for a hand wash.

But if the idea is to save energy, one should be making some of your own, too.

That is why the building boasts the largest solar panel farm in the southern hemisphere, located on its roof.

This solar energy production unit can generate enough electricity to power the building's lower underground parking area if needed, but instead the power is fed into the building's grid to supplement mains power.

Different types of panels are used, including a flat panel that is incorporated into a special grid that forms an architectural feature above the main entrance.

Also on the roof are several solar panels used for heating water for showers in the building.

Architect Pedro Roos of the firm KrugerRoos said the building was "definitely" a first for South Africa.

"There have been a number of people playing with the idea of passive energy, but in most cases the price premium has put people off," he said.

"We have, however, managed to keep that to a minimum. Final figures are still being compiled but at the moment it seems we have managed to stay within a premium of five percent above the price of a normal building.

"Standard buildings use about 250 to 300 kilowatts of power for every square metre a year, but this building will use about 115, which turns out to be a huge power saving."

"We had a very good quantity surveyor on the job and we have forsaken the expensive finishes such as marble and stainless steel in order to reach that."

It works. The use of wood and carpets inside the building contributes positively to the warm atmosphere. After all, the "new office" principle, although not as fully implemented in South Africa as it is in other parts of the world, is meant to give an employee a "home from home" feeling while at work.

While everything is open-plan or clear glass, except for the suites of the very senior executives, there are different levels of privacy. Staff are free to move around from their desks to pause areas, huddle spaces and conference rooms and even a comfortable cafeteria if needed.

And the last person to leave at the end of the day does not need to go around switching off lights - movement sensors switch them on and off, so no power is wasted by lights left burning.

  • This article was originally published on page 16 of Cape Argus on May 31, 2005

Article by: Henri du Plessis - Cape Argus