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A Site Selection Web Exclusive, September 2014
WEB Exclusive story

Circles of Influence

A company’s sense of honor means this project only earned honorable mention. But it will pique the curiosity of any corporate office and R&D building designer, builder or occupier.

Holcim’s new competence center, designed by Christian Kerez (below), will allow for “a climate concept with a minimal technical installation with almost no core.”
Images courtesy of Holcim Foundation

By Adam Bruns

hat better place to build core competencies than a building with almost no core at all?

The Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction, run by the Holcim Foundation since 2004, are independent of the Swiss cement and aggregate company's commercial interests. The competition "seeks innovative, future-oriented and tangible construction projects to promote sustainable responses to the technological, environmental, socioeconomic and cultural issues affecting building and construction on a local, regional and global level.

The fourth cycle of the awards competition, culminating in the final global winners next May, has seen more than 6,100 entries from 152 countries. Last week's Holcim Awards ceremony in Moscow for the competition region Europe was the first presentation of winners in a series of events with others to be held in Toronto (for North America), Medellín (for Latin America), Beirut (for Africa Middle East) and Jakarta (for Asia Pacific). The projects that receive Holcim Awards Gold, Silver and Bronze in each region automatically qualify for the Global Holcim Awards 2015.

The European winners were led by an apocalypse-flavored vision for an ecological reserve and industrial site remediation project in Southern Italy, a flexible university building in Paris and an urban neighborhood in Vienna.

But it's a project that won't move on to the next stage of the competition that may garner the most interest from corporate real estate directors and space occupiers.

The reason? It's for Holcim itself, and it's moving on toward construction.

Innovation at Every Turn

A facility including research labs, office space and training facilities, with a state-of-the-art energy concept, received the first-ever Holcim Awards Honorable Mention. Designed by Swiss architect Christian Kerez, the project, to be located in Holderbank, "displays a series of outstanding features responding particularly well to most of the 'target issues' for sustainable construction - merging architectural and technical considerations at the forefront of the discipline," said the Foundation's description of the forthcoming Holcim Competence Center, under the moniker " Circular Voids ."

"The energy concept, for example, using cutting-edge surface geothermal heat-recovery, airboxes, and hybrid collectors, finds an appropriate spatial expression that would not be possible with standard systems," says the jury. "Here, architecture benefits from technological advances, without relinquishing its autonomy as an art form.

"Notwithstanding the project's contributions to the advancement of the field, the members of the jury unanimously agreed that it must be withdrawn from the competition due to a latent conflict of interest," said the statement. "The design was awarded first prize in an architectural competition organized by Holcim for its proposed new center for research and development in Switzerland. Considering the proximity between the company and the Holcim Foundation with its Awards competition, the jury decided to remove the project from the award procedure. Nonetheless, respecting the exceptional value of the project, the jury recommends that it should be conferred an "honorable mention".

This project to build a 15,000-sq.-m. (161,464-sq.-ft.) competence center features perfectly circular atria cut through ceilings and floors and criss-crossing the building, creating opportunities for employees and visitors to meet one another while also providing a sense of the building's size from within.

"Inner and outer loadbearing structures of the building are mutually dependent," write the judges in a description verging on Zen mysticism, where "voids and passive solar heating allow a climate concept with a minimal technical installation with almost no core."

One of the central points of the design is the air ventilation and climate concept, which allows through adaption of the whole system indoor climate control with almost no lines. "By reducing the need for technical installation, the structure has a dramatically reduced service core," says the Holcim jury. The building will fall below the requirements of the "2,000 Watt and 1-tonne-CO2" society, says Holcim.

In case you missed it, that society was first envisioned 25 years ago by thought leaders at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, with a goal of first-world citizens using only 2,000 watts of energy and creating 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide annually by 2050.


Among other technical benefits, the new center will create “opportunities for employees and visitors to meet one another.”

Let's Get Technical

The new facility in Holderbank might help us get there and might not, but it's beautiful to look at either way, and its design aims to make bills beautiful to look at too.

"The shape of the building has an excellent ratio of surface to volume. Together with the orientation of the building, the isolated and closed façade with around 60-percent glass, will reduce the use of energy to a minimum and will achieve the Swiss passive housing standard (Minergie P)," says the Holcim description. Here are the rest of the technical details:

"The circular fire escape balconies will create shading in summer when the sun is high. During winter, the elevated balconies will let the sun into the building, warming up the interior with direct sunshine. All windows and doors have efficient sun protection.

"The constant temperature of the building through the whole year will be achieved by activating the mass of the building (TABS). The concrete slabs are thermally activated and keep the basic temperature of each façade, which is possible with the two different ring line systems. The air ventilation of each space can be controlled depending on needs. The spaces will be controlled depending on the outdoor air volume and the air supply.

"Climate control of the whole building with high efficiency waste heat recovery (centralized and decentralized) and a heat pump with a very low flow temperature ensures that the energy requirement can be reduced to an absolute minimum. A geothermal network with a temperature of 12°C will source the energy system. Photovoltaic panels are placed on the roof with an optimal direction to the south and 35° pitch, thereby meeting a significant proportion of annual energy consumption of all technical installations and the heat pump.

"The building has a very good envelope to energy reference area ratio (Ath / AE < 1.0). The primary requirements Minergie P of the building envelope are fulfilled. There will be a detailed calculation optimization of the entire energetic system. According to the guidelines, the building will be ventilated with the efficiency of the entire technology optimized in the process of design. The opaque façade is built with a U-value of 0.16-0.13 W/m2K. The roof's thermal insulation will allow a U-value of 0.08 W/m2K. The windows are equipped with triple glazing that has an average U-value of 0.85 W/m2K."

Translation: Cool in summer, warm in winter. Whether it's as easy on the pocketbook as on the eyes will be revealed as the vision turns to reality.

First announced in 2008, Holcim’s new Competence Center is destined to light up the neighborhood in Holderbank, Switzerland, and also light up the local economy with more than 200 new jobs.

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