Environment- and user-friendly workplaces will define architecture, UK firm says
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Environment- and user-friendly workplaces will define architecture, UK firm says

Spencer de Grey, head of design at UK firm Foster + Partners, breaks down how tech culture is reshaping buildings

The facade of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, depicting neuronal connections in the brain. (Foster + Partners / Hebrew University)
The facade of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, depicting neuronal connections in the brain. (Foster + Partners / Hebrew University)

Environmental considerations and energy efficiency will be key factors affecting architectural design in coming years, Spencer de Grey, the head of design of the UK architectural firm that sired Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, California, said in an interview with The Times of Israel. Israel, with its advanced technologies, will be able to “assist” creating such buildings, he said.

“All buildings that are built today need to respond to the environmental crisis that is facing the world,” he said. “We need to be very conscious about ways you could improve the performance of buildings, balancing energy input with energy output” and at the same time catering to users’ well-being.

“The performance of a building in terms of its ecology and sustainability — but ensuring at the same time that you create a really positive and pleasant place for people to work and live — those are two very important factors as we move forward. If not, we are going to be overwhelmed by the sea,” he said.

Israel, with its advanced technology, has “the ability to use these technologies to assist” in these two areas, he said.

London’s 30 St Mary Axe in London — commonly known as The Gherkin, by Foster + Partners (Nigel Young, Foster + Partners)

De Grey is head of design at Foster + Partners, a UK-based international architectural studio led by Lord Norman Foster, which has constructed high profile glass-and-steel buildings around the world. These include Apple’s massive new HQ in Cupertino, California, nicknamed the “spaceship” — a symphony of glass, steel, stone and trees — and the newly completed Steve Jobs Theater at Apple Park, also in Cupertino, which has a lens-shaped roof that rests gently on a transparent 22-foot (6.6 meter) tall, 135-foot (41.1 meter) diameter glass cylinder.

The firm has also designed Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in London, called London’s biggest stone project for a century with world’s most sustainable office design; and architectural landmarks including 30 St Mary Axe in London, commonly known as The Gherkin, which dominates the London skyline.

In a phone interview from his office in London, de Grey spoke about how the organizational culture of high-tech firms is affecting the way buildings are designed globally (see related story). His firm has just completed the design and construction of its first project in Israel, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s new $58 million Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences research. The firm would be more than happy to get additional projects in Israel, he said, and may even consider setting up an office locally if there is a critical mass of work.

Bloomberg’s new offices in London by architects Foster + Partners (Foster + Partners)

“We would like to do some more work in Israel and we are looking at possibilities at the moment for that,” he said. “Tel Aviv is a completely different city from Jerusalem but also a very interesting city, with its modernist world heritage site at the heart of the city.”

De Grey was mum about his firm’s work in Cupertino — “I can’t talk about the Apple building” — but was happy to share insights about how the technology industry is affecting the way buildings are designed. The idea is to produce great working areas, but also the opportunity for “for more informal exchanges.”

“Increasingly, when people spend a lot of their day looking at the screen, working at the screen, which is a fairly self-contained, you are doing it on your own,” he said. “You need to balance that. You need the opportunities to meet people and talk to your colleagues in a more relaxed surrounding.”

“This combination of efficient well-designed working areas linked with informal get-together spaces is increasingly common now not only in tech organizations but nearly in every kind of office space, whoever uses it. Because everybody is using screens.”

Aerial photo of Apple’s new campus under construction in Cupertino, California (SpVVk; iStock by Getty images)

“That form of working we will see increasingly used for all kinds of workplaces, not just research or tech,” he said.

The concept of having a “breakout space” influenced the Jerusalem Safra building “very considerably,” he said. “It is a mixture of well-designed efficient laboratory spaces and these more informal comfortable armchairs, sofas, where you can sit and either work on your laptop or your iPad or engage in conversation with colleagues.”

The center is also designed to ensure that it reflects the interdisciplinary approach to research.

The building is arranged in two parallel wings around a central courtyard, the upper levels of which will house laboratories that are connected by “social hubs.” These hubs, which need to be crossed to get to the various labs, have areas where researchers can sit and chat. The aim is to encourage interaction and the exchange of ideas, according to de Grey. The labs will also be mixed, each wing housing researchers working on different subjects – theoretical researchers working in close proximity to cognitive psychologists, for example.

The courtyard of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s new Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences by Foster + Partners (Foster + Partners)

On the ground floor there are teaching facilities, a 200-seat auditorium and a library. Besides the labs, the 14,500 square-meter (156,000 sq. ft.) center includes classrooms, an imaging center, and areas for biological and pre-clinical research. Emphasis was placed on constructing an environmentally friendly building with a focus on conserving energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

“We were very excited when we were asked to design the Safra Building at the Hebrew U and we have enjoyed our experience working in Jerusalem — Jerusalem is an extraordinary city with great history, very fascinating,” de Grey said.

The facade of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s new Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences by Foster + Partners (Foster + Partners)

The Hebrew University is defined by its “beautiful landscape with buildings set in it,” he said. So the architects kept landscaping as a key element for the new center, with a big landscaped area in front of it and a courtyard in the middle of the building.

“The roof that encloses the courtyard which is at the heart of the building will be open to the sky for most of the year because the climate is so good, and when it gets colder in the winter the roof can close,” he said. “It lets natural light in still, for the trees to grow underneath, but the roof can be closed so that the environment inside is not covered in snow or rain. And it protects the people using the space. But once the weather gets better, then we open the roof and you can enjoy the very good weather that Jerusalem has.”

One of the unique features of the buildings is its façade, with its two 60-meter long flanks enriched with a shading system that is “an exact reproduction” of late 19th century medical drawings of the brain done by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, said de Grey.

A detail of the aluminium screen that is on two elevations of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s new Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences by Foster + Partners (Foster + Partners)

“He did these very beautiful line drawings of the brain,” de Grey said. The architects reproduced these drawings through the creation of an aluminum screen, “so when you approach the building you are very much aware that this is a building about the brain,” he said. “It adds a very delicate web of organic lines.”

Some 15 to 20 percent of Foster + Partner projects are for high-tech clients, de Grey estimated roughly. But “as a practice we work in all fields,” including hospitals, residential and cultural buildings, and railway stations.

“We have a very big cross-section of work, so we try not to specialize because we believe it is good to keep people working (for us to) keep moving to different types of buildings, so they approach the design in a fresh way – so you don’t spend all your time designing hospitals and offices. So, we try to keep a very broad spectrum of work. It is more enjoyable.”

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