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The way forward is Crystal clear

Author : Tim Fryer

30 November 2012

A new landmark in London’s Docklands claims to be the world’s most sustainable building. Tim Fryer was given a tour of The Crystal prior to the official opening

First impressions of the aptly named Crystal are that here is an excitingly different building, a worthy home to the sustainability debate - but would it be one of those buildings where style has won out over substance?

Given its varied goals, one of which is to inspire, I was left with the impression that it will prove to be a great success. The Crystal represents an investment in the region of £30 million by Siemens and is the flagship of Siemens’ Infrastructure and Cities Sector. The structure will be home to Siemens’ global ‘Center of Competence Cities’, a team of multi-disciplinary urban experts, who aim to encourage the growth of sustainable cities through partnerships, research and expert collaboration on solutions.

Siemens has been active in London for nearly 170 years, so the siting of the Crystal in London, rather than Germany, is not that remarkable. Besides, as Stefan Denig, Siemens Head of marketing and Communication, commented: “London is a global hub – if we are wanting to reach out to a global audience then London is the perfect place to be.”

Inside the Crystal is the world’s largest exhibition on the future of cities covering 2,000 square metres. The interactive exhibition will guide visitors through the urban infrastructure of the future, focusing on possibilities for sustainable mobility, building technologies, power and water supplies, and healthcare. Does this pitch the Crystal at the same level as places like the Science Museum? A place to inspire young people? Or does the exhibition area, which takes up one of the two ‘interlocking crystals’, meet the needs of a more professional audience – FMs for example?

Definitely the latter, as Denig explained: Each visitor will have their own ID card and it will identify that visitor as a member of the public with more general interests or as an expert with more specific interests. They will have access to deeper layers of content, more understanding about sustainable buildings. That was one of our challenges in the exhibition – that we would have two different groups with different expectations and different levels of understanding of the topics. We are always trying to act on two levels – the interactive and playful along with the need to supply information. I think we have succeeded but it has been a big challenge.”

Denig was at pains to point out that The Crystal is not a Siemens showroom: “This is not a product showcase – we do not talk about specific products. Siemens has always been a major player in the field of green technology and sustainable urbanisation. We have always been part of the debate and we have created a platform for that debate here. Technology plays a vital role. If we don’t make our cities more energy efficient we will not win the battle against climate change considering cities consume around two thirds of all energy worldwide and two thirds of all CO2 emissions. So technology is a vital pillar of sustainable development and that is our business. We want to have a debate with mayors, with landlords, about what needs to be done and about what can be done. We want to be part of that debate to share the word about what technology can do.”

Jack Pringle, is principal and managing director at Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will, lead consultants on the project. He commented: “I don’t think this is a place where facilities managers will come and see specific off-the-shelf things that they can take away with them, but this is where they will come and have a conversation about the future of facilities management. The building can be used as an exemplar and tours can be arranged to show what is happening with the technology in the building, not just in the exhibition but in the real building itself.

In the exhibition there is a real-time information board that shows how the building is performing. How much electricity has been generated, and how much energy saved, how much water has been recycled and so on. Assuming it is accurate it provides a fascinating representation of how much a building consumes and how far it can go in providing those resources for its self.

Some of the technologies employed at the Crystal include:

 Building Management
The Crystal implements an integrated, art building management system (BMS) where everything can be managed from one or many locations. Intelligent analytics, advanced fire sensors, occupancy detection and comfort sensors enable the spaces within the building to be adjusted for maximum comfort (heat, light, ventilation) plus minimum energy consumption. 

Natural Light and Smart Lighting Technology
Natural daylight is utilised wherever possible and features include constant light control with automatic adjustment of each and every lamp and LED for brightness and colour, according to time of day and occupancy. For the majority of spaces, artificial light during the day is not required and when it is, there is no waste. Glazing is placed strategically for maximum daylight and minimum unwanted solar gain. Even paving and tarmac materials have been chosen to reduce street light energy use.

Low Energy Ventilation System
When seasonally possible, the building will be naturally ventilated, using motorised opening vents in the roof and facade. The BMS maximises free cooling, avoiding the use of air conditioning where possible. The air conditioning cooling is primarily taken from the surrounds via the ground source heat pump. During hot days, it takes the heat from the building and puts it back into the ground keeping the building cool and returning the energy to the ground. During cold days it takes heat from the ground and puts it into the building to keep it warm. 

Intelligent ‘All Electric’ Building & Energy Centre
A significant part of the electrical power produced in this all electric building will be generated by photovoltaic roof panels. An intelligent Energy Centre manages heat recovery and the sun’s energy will also be used to heat the water used in the restaurants and WCs using solar thermal panels. Energy in the Crystal is monitored so extensively that every kW of electricity used for heat and cooling and every litre of water consumed/generated can be measured to ensure that efficiencies are maintained. Battery storage balances load and demand to intelligently control when power is taken from the grid or any surplus can be exported. E-car charging stations supply green power to electric vehicles (EVs).

Rainwater Harvesting and Black Water Recycling
Rainwater is harvested and treated for use as drinking water. The Crystal will use water efficient appliances, low use taps and sanitary fittings. A connection to the city’s water system ensures a sufficient supply in dry seasons. A black water recycling plant will reuse 100% of the water used in the building (including toilet flushing) to re-flush the toilets and for watering the landscaping around the building. Finally, the Centre uses a sustainable urban drainage system that minimises discharge into the sewer system.

During the project, ambitions were raised in terms of the Crystal’s sustainability rating (from BREEAM Excellent to BREEAM Outstanding as well as the addition of LEED platinum rating) and more ambitious targets for waste-water recycling were confirmed.

This commitment to its purpose is evident everywhere in the building, but I believe the Siemens could not have achieved its grander objectives without the building itself being so striking. I can imagine schoolchildren being inspired in it, and I can imagine facility managers wanting to debate the future of buildings in it.

Contributors to the Crystal include:

Wilkinson Eyre - lead architect
Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will - lead consultant
Arup - structural services designer
ISG - building contractor
Turner & Townsend - project and cost managers
Event Communications - exhibition designers

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