Total Package

Using BIM to apply a whole array of green strategies, UN Studio
creates a stunning office complex that may provide a template
for smart buildings and integrated design.

Designed by UN Studio, the Education Executive Agency and Tax Office located in the northern Dutch city of Groningen packs pretty much the entire early-twenty-first-century architectural agenda into a single structure. Sited between a highway and a patch of forest, the office building looks like an ultramodern cruise ship, its curved and tapered facade wrapped with a band of white fins. The product of a new public-private partnership, the high-performance building was created with the latest integrated-design software and is flexible enough to change functions over time.

Commissioned by the Government Buildings Agency, the structure served as a pilot project for a program the Dutch government launched a few years ago, following a price-fixing scandal in the construction industry. DUO2, the consortium selected to head the project—consisting of the construction company Ballast Nedam, the developer John Laing, and the construction management firm Strukton Integrale Projects—is responsible not only for the design, construction, and financing of the building, but also for its “life-cycle management”: the operation and maintenance of the structure. The government retains ownership and pays the consortium a periodic fee. Meanwhile, the building’s performance is monitored continually; if the group fails to properly maintain it, payment will be cut. “The performance payments stop after twenty years,” Strukton’s Sandra Bakker says. At that point, “the government will then determine if the contract is renewed, or if the building gets another function.”

In order to ensure that the Education Executive Agency and Tax Office could be easily converted, should its function change, the architects treated the core of the structure as a residential building. “The problem is not so much the facade as the placement of the elevator shafts and stairs, the structural grid, and the depth of the floor plates,” says Ben van Berkel, UN Studio’s cofounder and principal architect. “Most offices are so deep that not enough daylight penetrates for housing purposes. But these floor plates are relatively shallow. And the floor plan is flexible enough to accommodate apartments along the facades and at the ends of the building, with terraces along the inside.”

UN Studio dispensed with the grid of linear hallways leading to dead ends that’s typical of commercial buildings, in favor of open floor plans with islands of workstations, and space in the middle for meetings and social interaction. This will make any future conversion to other uses considerably easier. And even though it features two unconventionally shaped towers, the building is supple enough that it can be used as a combination of commercial and residential space.

The form of the building, the result of extensive sun and wind studies, was determined by the requirement that the strong, prevailing northwesterly winds be directed over the neighboring woods, so as not to not disturb the local environment, including a bat colony (additionally, a nesting area for the local crest falcons was provided on the roof). The fins are made of coated aluminum that looks either white or silver, depending on the angle of the sun. They play a role in bringing in daylight, providing shade, controlling winds, and reducing energy consumption. In the summer, they deflect direct sunlight, thereby reducing the need for cooling. In the winter, they reflect light into the interior; sensors then dim the artificial lighting, saving energy. The fins’ shape and width vary with their location on the facade. To the north, on the highway side, the windows are bigger and the fins are narrower and more pointed; the fins on the south side are the widest, at almost five feet across. On the 11th floor, near the computer servers, a high-pressure ventilation system draws in fresh air through gills in the exterior and up a main shaft, greatly reducing the energy load.

“This building is an example of a fully integrated, intelligent approach to sustainability,” Van Berkel says.

“In the 1990s, architecture was in danger of becoming relegated to designing pretty facades. Now, we are moving back to the nineteenth-century model of being involved on all levels, both aesthetic and technical. That is possible thanks to today’s design software.”

Indeed, Building Information Modeling (BIM) played such a crucial role in realizing all aspects of the design that the architecture and engineering software company Bentley gave its annual Be Inspired award, for innovation in building, to the project. “It addresses pretty much everything: energy, shading, wind control, daylighting, natural ventilation, and operational management, even predesigning key systems and configurations to accommodate future repurposing of the building,” says Huw Roberts, Bentley’s vice president of core marketing. “This goes well beyond the basics of BIM and coordinated drawings.”

These digital tools are now a key component of Van Berkel’s contemporary practice. “Sustainability is so complex that no one party can do it all themselves,” he says. “If architects want to keep control over their work, it’s essential that all aspects of design and building are integrated. BIM kept everyone up to date on all changes. And the more compact the communication and the transfer of knowledge are, the more room there is for design. The holistic nature of design now makes it a more public process.” The future of architecture, Van Berkel believes, centers on knowledge management: “That’s what drives innovation now. Software not only helps make buildings more intelligent, it also brings people together.”

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