Architect Ron Bakker Talks About Sustainable Building [video]

sustainable building - skyline

I’m Ron Bakker, and I designed this building, and I did not do that by myself. I did it with lots of colleagues, and the team grew and grew and grew, and there are millions of conversations that made this building. And actually, communication is what sets us, as people, apart from the animal kingdom. We are the ones that can talk to each other, and through history, we’ve made places, special places for people to communicate.

It feels to me that with an additional amount of information, additional amount of communication that we are all part of these days, we have the opportunity to add a layer of richness to cities and buildings; and I think this happened in this building, and I think it’s a wonderful thing. And there’s a huge future for it.

I was born in Ireland and my mother used to walk me in Park Sonsbeek, and Park Sonsbeek, of course, is this wonderful sort of almost-natural place that touches the very centre of Arnhem. Not unlike, in my mind, the most intelligent and the most sensitive architect I have ever been totally inspired by… and the biggest thing, for me, is that he managed to put a layer of interest and information on top of each other, and it all sort of turned, overlapped beautifully and turned into this beautiful building. And the pavilion is almost a place that anything could happen in, really, but the space, the roof, makes this place where something might happen very exciting.

The best way to draw a circle

Now, I was reminded of a lecture he gave in 1987, and thank God to modern technology, we can now watch this still on YouTube, and you should Google it… it was a lecture he gave in Delft in 1987, he said some incredibly important things.

One is, if you want to draw a circle, and he’s perhaps the architect with most circular buildings, I don’t take a compass… and if you use a compass, there’s a point in the middle of the circle, and once you have a point, it sets up a place for a cross to appear, and the cross might turn, and turn this circle into a bunch of triangles… and falls apart, and the triangles are probably, in their spirit, the most removed from the spirit of the circle. It’s the wrong way to do it, so if I have to draw a circle, I’ll go to the kitchen. I’ll find a cup or saucer or something that I can use to describe only the outside of the circle.

So if you look at a ring, there is no point in the middle. There is nothing in the middle of a ring. If you have a disc, there’s just the outside and space in the middle. And the realization that this space in the middle is so full of possibilities, of options, of future, then that is for me, you know… if you boil down architecture, that is for me architecture, making spaces that have potential and promise, and it’s wonderful thing to do.

Buildings with stories behind them

So I moved to London, I met these people, I was a partner to Kohn Pederson Fox, we worked in all over Europe and started PLP Architecture six years ago. We did loads of buildings off tour in The Hague, this wonderful building in L’Ile-de-France in Paris, Heron Tower; these are office buildings, but they all have a story behind them that have to do with the way people meet and the way people talk to each other. These are not usually part of the brief—the brief, the program the architect gets on for day one, says make 25,000 square metres of office space, make sure people can escape from the fire escape, it’s all of these things, it needs to be efficient.

But once you start laying out as we did in the Provincie Zuid-Holland, the office space around an urban plaza, and that was connecting the building to the city of The Hague, we placed the exits to different parts of the building to the centre, and this centre became a heart.

And that wasn’t what we intended to do, but it sort of happened like that, and when the building was built, people started using this space. If they went from one department to the other within the building, they would cross it, they would meet each other. When the weather is nice, people sit outside, they bring their work, they have meetings. Why sit inside if we can sit under a tree? It really became almost like a square.

The space was used for big celebrations, this is Queen Beatrix opening the project, the space still is used very much in the way we did not intend it to be used… this fantastic, if buildings turn out like that.

We are building at the moment for the UK Cancer Trust, and it’s Europe’s largest biomedical laboratory. It’s 100,000 square metres of small labs full of scientists developing all sorts of new things in the field of biomedics.

What they figured out, years ago, is that each large advance in biomedical research can be traced back to a meeting between two people that didn’t know each other, whose fields slightly overlapped. And it’s in this little overlap that ideas came that then later turned out to be big advances in biomedical research. So making places for these things to happen, having symposia, meetings like this, making space within buildings that people could meet each other, and have place to do that is crucial for the functioning of businesses in the world.

Now, if you talk to the Microsoft and the Googles, they know this… they create work spaces that are really for, they’re like hotel lounges. You know, people hang around, it seems like they have no work to do, but in fact, that is where the work is, and nurturing these ideas, these little ideas, making sure that they can go somewhere, it’s what makes companies successful these days.

The Edge in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

So here we are in this building, in fact you are there, right in the tippy-top. If you’d look out of the window without these screens, you’d see all the little church towers in Amsterdam, you’d see the Docklands behind the screen; it’s very energy-friendly. It’s a building that opens itself to the north, closes off to the south. Sunlight is bad, daylight is good, and if you calculate electricity and energy use in a building, that’s how the building is designed.

But the floorplate, in effect, is a very, very efficient, well-working two and a half thousand square metre floor plate that can be used in a large variety of functions, and just like Provincie House, it has its circulation pointing at the space in the middle.

In fact, this happens on more levels in the building. It keeps going on the first, second, third, fourth floor, the bridges on the sixth and the ninth floor, there are circulation places connected to the central space of the… this building and it becomes its heart. So we now have a place that is, as you can see when the building is used, active at all times of the day on 3-D levels… it’s a 3-D plaza. It goes up into the sky. It’s a wonderful thing.

Significant technology and data

Now, the technology, which plays a huge part in the way all these peoples are connected… just imagine this fellow who comes to work in the morning, and the arm barrier to the carpark goes open by itself because it reads his number plate. He… comes from his client, it’s 11:00, the building is full of people.

He has to decide what kind of work he needs to do, right, so he picks a space, the building helps him pick a space that is suitable for the work he wants to do. He wants to have a telephone conversation for an hour; the building says, well, you go there, that one’s free on the sixth floor, go sit there. It makes his workplace almost perfect from the moment he walks into the building, ’cause it’s suited for his task.

He comes there, the… he gets his desk, the temperature will have dropped by 4 degrees because the building knows he likes it cold, the lighting levels will have dropped ’cause he’s going to work on his emails. Everything in this building is connected, and everything is kind of helping people understand how this building functions.

The building generates an enormous amount of data, and we’re only really starting to figure out how we can use this data, and I love talking to your data analytics people because they are trying to figure out how they can use this data to create better workgroups. What kind of people are best suited to work in a group together? What are the dynamics? And all this, all this information will help create a better workplace, so somehow, in this building, this… the network is adding a layer of interest and of intelligence to the way we communicate with each other.

The lift problem

When the first lift was built in a building in 1857, it meant one Otis lift going to five floors of shopping space. First time you could go to the fifth floor to go shopping, that’s a huge change in the way we look at cities, because 75 years later, we built the Empire State Building. It has 73 lifts, it gets you up to the 102nd floor.

The problem with this is that if you walk into the Empire State Building, there are 38 lifts on the ground floor, the whole of the ground floor is a little strip of space. The building is mostly made of lifts. It’s a problem. So now that we’re going, making buildings in the cities in Asia, in the Middle East, then cities will make buildings of a 500 metres tall. They’re really difficult, they flap a bit in the top, you really don’t want all the weight of the building in the middle, in these lift course.

So we did this study to see what would happen if we think of these lifts in a different way. Maybe there are small trains that run up the building around the perimeter, and there are six or seven tracks, and each of these tracks has ten or twelve of these little pods that go around that have only ten people, and they are part of a system that is connected to people’s lives and to the public transport system in the city through people’s smartphones.

So the timetable gets adjusted 10 times a second to make sure the train is there at the right time at the right place. When you come, we can make buildings over a kilometre high in this way, because they have the weight on the outside. If you come to the building in the morning through your smartphone, the building knows that you want to go to the 78th floor to get your cup of coffee, and after that, you want to go to the 125th floor, because you have a meeting with Mr. Such-and-such.

So the building can be incredibly efficient in the way of moving people around, and it gives us an opportunity to make buildings that are almost like vertical cities. They’re well-organized transport systems that will create opportunities to make our cities even more dense, but also, in a way, more livable and more workable.

A “new world”

There are worries, of course. If I have a son who’s 15, and like every parent of kids of that age, we worry that the kids are addicted to screens, and they cannot do anything without looking at a screen… in fact, my son talks to 50 people every day, he has groups of people that deal with football, groups that deal with Nike shoes, groups that deal with music; he has groups that he discusses these issues with day-to-day, and he communicates so much more than I did when I was 15, and it’s… there are opportunities there.

I’m not so scared of this new world. So, back to this building, and when we take this photograph, I often think of it as something that is quite warm at the base of the building. Of course, we picked these colours to make an atmosphere around the atrium, and the rest of the atrium is filled with daylight; but in fact, it almost reminds us of this image of the cowboys, where you have this warmth that people sit around and the blue evening skies beyond it.

I am entirely excited about this idea of adding a layer to the cities that makes our spaces richer, and our experience of cities more livable and more workable. Thank you. [audience claps]

To watch another video about sustainable building in urban areas, visit Sustainable City: Reconnecting Montreal’s Ecosystems»

video: TedxAmsterdam; feature image: Pixabay

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