Ecology at work

As we invite entries for this year's Green Building of the Year Award, David Nicholson-Lord visits an inspiring example xxxxxx
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By the time you've arrived at the front door of the Eco Centre on the banks of the Tyne near Newcastle, you've already taken a trip through industrial history. In the short walk from the gates, you'll have trodden on ground reclaimed from colliery spoil and on tarmac made from power- station slag. You will have walked past walls of reclaimed bricks festooned with old tennis and fishing nets pinned together with clutch plates from deceased Ford Transit vans. Inside, the pace hots up. There's matting from recycled car tyres, a reception desk made of old washing machine doors and, holding the roof aloft, defunct railway lines from the Tyne and Wear Metro. The roof, by the way, used to be drink cans - two tons of them.

The Eco Centre is one of Britain's newest and most unusual buildings and, as will by now be clear, it makes something of a fetish of recycling. If it were a Lottery-inspired environmental demonstration centre, this might be nothing to marvel at. But it's an office block, inhabited by white-collar mortals who like their creature comforts. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of its right-on environmentalism though is its reassuringly ordinary character.

Opened late last year, the Eco Centre is an attempt to combine the best current ideas about planet-friendly architecture and technology under one roof. Hence the array of resource-efficient gadgetry - a wind turbine, solar panels, compost toilets, ground-water heating and cooling through 60- metre boreholes, green trelliswork on the facade, systems that recycle rainwater and "grey" water from sinks and basins. Hence also the emphasis on reclamation, from the interior plasterboard, made of gypsum residue from a power station, to the trelliswork net supports, which look like wood but are reconstituted plastic bottles. Thanks to pounds 95,000 worth of Lottery money from the Arts Council, the objets trouves are happily integrated into the design - the washing-machine-door reception desk, for instance, was the work of a local craftsman.

The pay-off is environmental and financial. At around pounds 1.5m, the Eco Centre cost 10 to 15 per cent more to build than a conventional office block but running costs are estimated at between a third and a half less. It was originally intended to be wholly self-sufficient and although this proved a dream too far, Lionel Hehir, director of Groundwork South Tyneside, the environmental organisation which built and owns it, believes that "we are 90 to 95 per cent of the way there."

Rainwater, for example, feeds the fire sprinkler systems and, mixed in a 10 to one ratio with urine from the toilets, is distributed in underground pipes to feed and irrigate the gardens. The compost, human waste mixed with wood shavings, should, when ready (in about three years' time) provide a bucket of manure a week. The gardens will need it too - on a point of principle, no topsoil was brought in so the earth, battered by decades of tipping, is hostile. However, much of the ground will be landscaped with wild flowers, which prosper in poor soil conditions. Thanks mainly to the wind turbine, the Eco Centre should also end up as a net "exporter" of energy to the National Grid.

But the building is also meant to be a commercial letting proposition. Since last year, 2,000 of its 15,000 square feet - arranged on two floors around a glass-roofed atrium - have been occupied by Ground-work staff. In June, with half the remainder let, the first tenants, an advertising consultancy, moved in. Other space has been taken by an employment agency, a security firm and a public relations consultancy. For an office which, on Hehir's own admission, is a "bit nowhere-ish", this is progress.

Anything above a gentle breeze, and the disc in the complex metering configuration that governs the balance of power with the outside world stops moving, indicating that the Eco Centre is selling surplus energy to the Grid. (Hehir has developed a keen eye for the flapping of trees.) But the turbine needed a windy site - hence the somewhat out-of-town location, on an exposed southerly bank of the Tyne, between Bede's monastery at Jarrow and what remains of the Tyneside shipyards. There are good views though - notably of the river and its shipping - and lots of fresh air.

Reg Lumsdon, the first tenant, and formerly head of an environmental policy unit at Berghaus, the outdoor equipment company, decided to move his consultancy from nearby Gateshead for reasons ranging from car parking and road access to the atmosphere and image of the building. "We like the concept, we like the ambient atmosphere, the rooms are bright and airy. But it was a very interesting building for us because of our association with outdoor companies, so it seemed a natural step to come here. It really is a building of tomorrow."

Groundwork staff, who have been in residence for six months, speak of fresh air, abundant daylight and the views of trees and sky through large, low-silled windows. All use computers, many work with plans and drawings, and a number had suffered eye strain, headaches and nose and eye irritation in previous offices. These have now cleared up, they say. Even in winter, according to Annabel Price, a landscape architect, the artificial lighting "rarely" had to be switched on. "There is a very free feel to the place," she says.

Simon Nott, community wildlife officer, says there is none of the dry, hot, stuffy atmosphere common in conventional buildings. "It lets a lot of light in. Even if you've been working inside all day, you get a sense of the sunshine, you know what the weather has been like." He also mentions the compost toilets, and the satisfying knowledge that "you are only using a couple of cupfuls of water when you use it - you're not flushing gallons away." Tony Adey, a project officer, speaks of being able to open the windows "and knowing you are not letting out heat and wasting money ... There is no fear of anyone getting sick building syndrome as the fresh air is continuously circulating, even in winter." There is also much praise for the glare-free low-energy lighting, variously described as "superb" and "fantastic", which is so unobtrusive that you have to stand underneath it to be sure it is switched on.

Part of the aim at the Eco Centre was to demonstrate that planet-friendly design is also people-friendly. According to some studies, sick building syndrome, a mixture of minor ailments ranging from headaches and rashes to respiratory infections, may affect up to four-fifths of modern office buildings and although its causes are unclear, there are several suspects. Air-conditioning systems can recycle stale air and germs and generate a stressful background hum. Deep-plan, supposedly energy-efficient, offices shut out natural light. Synthetic materials and solvents produce minute amounts of unpleasant, sometimes toxic vapours. Psychological factors may be important, too - an authoritarian management, the sense of being a cog in a big corporate wheel or the loss of contact with the outside world that comes from long hours spent crouching over a computer in an artificially-lit twilight.

The Eco Centre is furnished with a mixture of natural and recycled materials - organic paints, woollen carpets, linoleum floors. But the trick in green architecture is to balance heat and light. Too much energy efficiency may add up to stuffiness. Too much daylight can mean a surfeit of overheating and dazzle. Computer simulations have been used to help orient the Eco Centre towards the sun and to maximise light but minimise heat and glare - hence its five-sided shape. On the walls outside, deciduous plants such as vines and honeysuckle will grow up along the windows, which when in leaf in summer will act as a shield against dazzle, but letting in the light during the leafless winter. Instead of air-conditioning, there is a continuous current of fresh air, drawn in through vents in windows and louvres in interior doors and then up through the atrium to an aluminium roof stack, which acts as a kind of chimney. Heating is supplied by what Hehir calls "people and kit" - computers and human occupants - and an underfloor heating system which uses heat extracted from groundwaters brought up by a bore hole from a depth of 60 metres. The water is returned to the aquifers after use.

An impressive range of visitors has in recent months made the pilgrimage to the Eco Centre, from Japanese professors of architecture to environmental commissioners from Chicago. The compost toilets have generated much discussion, one distinguished civil engineer lamenting the absence of pipes and declaring, says Hehir, that the toilets represented "a return to the Victorian era". (Staff, can't see what the fuss is about.) An opponent of windpower, from the Country Guardian pressure group, arrived in hostile mood but left much mollified and "quite supportive", remarking that turbines might be justifiable in some urban locations.

There have also been the inevitable teething troubles. The electricity company miscalculated its metering and initially overcharged Groundwork to the tune of pounds 6,000. The compost toilets were less than fragrant for a while - the result of a faultily angled pipe. The wind turbine, because of a faulty sensor connection, had to be switched off. And in one window, paper has been stuck up as a temporary measure to prevent glare on computer screens.

Will it all work? We can't really know the answer for another three or four years, when the vines and honeysuckle have grown, the compost has matured, and the array of green technology is complete - current plans include a water cascade in the atrium, to moisten the atmosphere, and a back-up generator powered by "bio-diesel" (oilseed rape). Hehir is optimistic, however.

"Three years ago a building like this would have been viewed as very radical. We were seen as cranks, brown rice and sandals people. Some bits of the building are a little quirky but the construction techniques are fairly traditional. All we have done is use the best of existing technology. But attitudes have changed. We reckon we were two years ahead of the game. If you proposed such a building now, I think it would be more widely accepted." !


Entries for the Green Building of the Year Award, sponsored for the sixth year by the Independent on Sunday and the Heating and Ventilating Contractors' Association, should be submitted by 12 September 1997. Details and entry forms are available from Caroline Horne, HVCA, Esca House, 34 Palace Court, London W2 4JG, tel 0171 229 2488.