The sun worshipper

Britain's 'greenest' building lives on solar power, writes Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Online
AS COMMUTERS wend their way up the A19, one of the highways of the North, their sunsets will now have an extra sparkle: myriad twinks of light from 400,000 glittering photovoltaic cells incorporated in the windows and walls of one of the newest claimants to the title of Britain's Greenest Office.

The Solar Building, as it has provisionally been christened, is the latest environmentally-friendly workplace designed by Akeler Developments, which has masterminded an entire futuristic business park, Doxford, on a greenfield site near Sunderland. Prestigious clients include Nike, Barclays, One-2-One and Royal Sun Alliance.

The firm's co-founder and creative brain is Trevor Silver, a civil engineer who designed hydro-electric systems in Western Samoa before returning to the UK and setting up in business with Mark Glatman, a lawyer, 10 years ago. Mr Silver is one of the most passionate proponents of the need for British businesses and property developers to take energy provision into account at the start of a project, rather than at the tail end. He has written a consultation paper for the Government on the subject.

"The industry may think I have lost the plot, or that I'm one of the open-toed sandals, 2CV brigade, but that's not where we are coming from," he says wryly. "In this country, the way that it has always worked is that you buy a site, build a building, throw some architecture at it to make it pretty, and right at the end you throw energy at it to make it habitable. That's increasingly not sustainable. The working environment should use as little energy as it can."

His approach is holistic: he aims to please occupiers by building flexible, durable and healthy offices. For the park, ornamentation and ostentation were out: in came the demands of the burgeoning information technology era. Each building has access to 10 ducts through which to feed cabling "without digging up all the nice roads". Then there were simple innovations such as floor and ceiling voids to allow the occupier maximum room for manoeuvre.

The park has room for 4,500 employees, says Mr Silver, who beat 43 others to develop the site. The Solar Building, as yet unlet, has been one of his biggest challenges. His determination to use solar power was sparked by the work of Bob Hill, a professor at Northumbria University, who had built a photovoltaic wall as part of his research. When Mr Silver found his innovations would cost an extra pounds 1.5m he applied for European energy funds and got them; just as well, for although he estimates the cells will save occupants pounds 600,000 in electricity over 10 years, it wasn't quite enough to offset the costs.

Layout, orientation and climate were key factors in designing the V- shaped building, which can house up to 400 staff and includes a 66-metre facade and internal "street". Its three-storey atrium uses air vents to distribute cool air. Mr Silver needed to maximise sunlight while avoiding dazzling A19 drivers, and to use wind pressure to cool the building but also insulate it to minimise heat loss in winter. Ironically, many buildings cost more to cool in summer than to heat in winter.

Surplus energy is exported to the National Grid at cost, while back-up energy can be supplied from that source, although tenants - up to six of them - will be encouraged to operate the "passive solar" mode. The cells themselves, made of scrap silicon from computer chips, are integrated into south-facing window panels, which slope at 60 degrees. The effect is dappled, rather like being in an orchard, says Mr Silver. "It's sparkly, blue, metallic."

Office windows are divided into three, with a fixed bottom section. The middle part can be opened, and the top part is linked to a computer system and electronically operated to regulate heat. Mr Silver hopes to develop an artificial intelligence system which will "learn" how to keep the building at its best at every time of the day.

Another technique, which Akeler has used in other buildings, mostly in London, is ground-coupling - keeping a building cool or warm by drilling into the ground below and feeding a pipe into the depths. "You can extract heat from the ground in winter to preheat a building, and dump waste heat in summer," explains Mr Silver. "The beauty of the ground is that the temperature is constant."

His other ideas include the use of massive sprinklers - necessary in case of fire, but mostly unused - to move and store heat, and the development of wind power. "If I was doing Doxford again, I'd put a wind park in," he says.

His latest project is a building just off the M4, incorporating an even larger number of solar panels, capable of generating 300 kilowatts of power. And Akeler is also working with Security Capital, a US firm, to develop "green" buildings with short-term leases, an attractive proposition to occupants.

Mr Silver is evangelistic in his zeal to promote a new era for property developers: he believes they need to develop a green "tool-kit", and proposes a system of tax credits for those who conserve energy. "If, as seems the case, half the noxious greenhouse gases come from buildings, then as an industry it's something we have to address as a matter of urgency. Occupants mustn't have their work spoilt by this stuff; you shouldn't know it's a low-energy building. It should just feel like a pleasant place to work."