By Tom Bosschaert, Founder & Director, Except Integrated Sustainability –
Innovation communities bring together individuals and organizations to build upon and share experience, knowledge, and new ideas. The building that houses such a community must convey this philosophy and evolve with its users.
Energy use is critical, but sustainable buildings are so much more. They must also incorporate circularity and passive and adaptive design to ensure beauty and functionality that stand the test of time. These concepts were central to the design of UCo, Except’s innovation community in Utrecht, the Netherlands – the inspiration and model for ViCo, Vietnam’s first innovation community for sustainability.
Renovation of older buildings
It’s relatively easy to achieve “green” buildings starting from scratch. However, renovating and converting current buildings for sustainability is much more challenging, though arguably more critical.
For over a century, UCo functioned as a locomotive workshop and hub for European train crews – the renovation ensured the main hall was restored to its original, spacious nature. Large glass doors where the railway track used to enter remind users of the building’s past. When paired with the north-facing roof windows, UCO’s shared office spaces are bathed in daylight, reducing lighting energy use by over 80%.
Energy neutrality and circular materials
Because UCo is a heritage-listed building, there were limits to modification – this particularly affected insulation. Aside from us wanting to retain them for their beauty and historical value, the external walls and windows needed to be preserved. Our solution was to insulate the inside of the outer walls, ensuring moisture could escape via a unique breathing system. A central heat pump running through a concrete-core-activated floor system ensures UCo stays warm and carbon-neutral.
In the summer months, UCo utilizes an ‘adiabatic’ cooling system – the first of its kind in Western Europe. The innovative design cools through the evaporation of water and saves enormous amounts of energy.
We reused nearly all the building’s original materials, transforming them into things like stairways and a central podium. Local tradespeople and artisans made or refurbished most of the furniture and interior. We used old hospital windows from a nearby demolition for plant-covered ‘climate walls’, and luckily rescued several spectacular Persian carpets from going to landfill. When we needed new materials, we utilized locally grown renewable timber to reduce carbon footprints and ensure circularity.
As a heritage-listed building, UCo retains much of its original form. The adaptive design allows for diverse and flexible workspaces, and ease of modification as needs change over time.
Designing the nature of a space
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Headquarters in the US, completed in 1939, greatly inspired UCO’s design. Since completion it has been widely regarded and adored by many, however, it was initially plagued by concerns that its open and shared space would be noisy, lack privacy, and not conducive to work.
Similarly, UCO’s large central hall faced similar issues. We overcame this by using custom planter boxes and cabinets. These block views and create privacy when sitting, but allow easy communication when standing, creating a balance between connectivity and seclusion. The office stays quiet – yet there’s always a energizing buzz in the office. If you need a more private space there are meeting rooms, booths, or my preferred place, the outside garden.
UCO has an adaptive design, meaning it can be altered over time to suit changing needs. Office spaces can be made smaller, extended, or rearranged for another function entirely. Likewise, the use of each area can change too. For example, as online meetings have become more common, we are currently redesigning a hallway into additional private call spaces.
Scattered throughout UCo are hundreds of plants and a few large mature trees. These help purify the air, create a garden-like space throughout the seasons, and positively impact users’ well-being and productivity. It’s such a pleasant space that people rarely avoid coming into the office – many even come in on weekends to spend extra time here.
Sustainable Renovations will be key
UCO’s restoration took a formerly dilapidated warehouse and into one of Europe’s most sustainable buildings. Going beyond the demands of standard certifications proves sustainably modifying older structures is feasible and at no extra cost than typical renovations. ViCo, being in Ho Chi Minh City, will require a slightly different approach, but building on lessons learned with UCo, promises to be even more transformative.
All views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the individual authors and comments on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual contributor.