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The new Dutch Institute for Forestry and Nature Research shows how we can build sustainably without special financial incentives for green architecture.

When the Dutch combined three formerly separate bodies as a single Institute for Forestry and Nature Research, they decided to make a serious example of ecological planning following the aims of the Rio Summit. [1] No special funds were provided: it was to show that environmentally-conscious architecture can be achieved within normal cost limits, and although the building was to represent the ecological concerns of the institute, empty Eco-rhetoric was to be avoided.

The site was a field to the north of the town of Wageningen which had fallen into a depleted state through intensive agriculture. Its restoration was part of the institute's work, and the surroundings would both allow space for the development of experimental ecological gardens and create a green corridor between the Rhine valley and the Hoge Velwe Park. Such corridors allow links between ecologically protected areas, so that plants and animals can spread from one to another and form a network. The handling of water within the site could also be studied, and has included a sophisticated grey water cycle for the building using rain-collection and a sequence of ponds. An invited competition was held with three entrants, and Stefan Behnisch and his architects won with a design based on minimizing embodied and consumed energy, saving water, avoiding toxic products, and allowing for eventual recycling. This meant that choice of forms and materials was often dictated, or at least severely limited, by ecological an d economic considerations. Thus the building is deliberately principle-rather than image-driven, the image being the result of the process.

Behnisch was also concerned not to compromise on providing the humane type of office environment for which the practice has long been known, and to provide a degree of participation in the planning process. Although the result is in some ways reminiscent of earlier works from the firm run by his father, such as the famous Diakonie in Stuttgart (AR June 1985), the architectural language is more restrained, even deliberately unshowy. Cranked angles and colliding details are few, the building being almost entirely orthogonal, and a pragmatic order rules. The ecological commitment was Stefan's, and shows a new direction which the city branch of the firm is taking under his leadership, [2] for though present in an advisory capacity and as partner, his father Gunter had no great interest in ecological matters.

The three-storey building allows for compactness without reliance on lifts, though there are two for use by disabled people. The parti is based on a continuous spine on the north side containing laboratories, from which three wings of double loaded offices extend southward. This articulates the two basic accommodation types and allows a straightforward economical construction grid, extendable if necessary by lengthening the spine and adding more wings. The major architectural innovation lies in the treatment of the two spaces between the office wings, which serve both as ecological gardens and as climatic buffers. Cheaply covered with a standard single-glazed Dutch horticultural system, these courts are not indoor spaces in the full sense, as the office windows and terraces looking into them had to be fully protected and double-glazed as external facades. Since place of work regulations set a minimum temperature of 16 deg C, they cannot be officially included in the building's circulation system although the y are always so used: the official route is via the spine.

As gardens, the courts house ecological experiments while also providing views and recreation for the workers. The plants within them humidify and cool the air in hot weather. As climatic buffers they serve as solar collectors in the cooler part of the year, night re-radiation being prevented by reflective blinds pulled across under the glass roof. If the temperature is high enough, heat is transferred to the offices by opening windows, but even when it is low, heat loss is reduced. In summer the blinds are closed to cut solar input while the large roof vents are opened to provide a thermal chimneys, cool air being sucked in through the crawl space of the north wing. The adjoining offices to each court can then be cross-ventilated via open doors and windows.

Exposed concrete slab ceilings in the office wings act as heat stores, stabilizing the temperature of the working environment. In winter they can be gently heated. In high summer, daytime heat build-up is dissipated at night by through draughts, exhausted via the open roofs of the courts. As a result of all these measures, the office wings could be left without air conditioning, and it is avoided everywhere else in the building except the laboratories, where the nature of the work compels it. Beside saving electricity, avoidance of air conditioning reduces capital outlay on mechanical services, and it sidesteps the bacterial problems known as sick building syndrome. It also meant that no space needed to be left for ducts, so floor-to-floor heights could be reduced by around 300mm. For a low-energy building there seems to be a lot of glass, but thanks to wooden frames and double glazing, heat retention is high, while strong daylight reduces the need to burn electricity for lighting. The relatively shallow pla ns are also vital in this respect, their central corridors being partly daylit by high-level glazing. As in other Behnisch buildings, generous daylighting is inspiring, and even on an overcast day the place seems bright and cheerful: many of the photographs published here were taken when it was raining outside.

Despite the rigid and repetitive construction grid, the institute is a lively and varied building spatially because of the many variations played against the core rhythm. The courts have developed in contrasted ways with varied internal watercourses, terraces and types of planting. Equally effective is the varied treatment of the stairwells between office wings and spine: one is a spiral, the second has two skewed flights, the third is a dogleg. These variations not only help with orientation, they also provide much needed spatial accents within the general structure. More prominent still are the specialized social areas of the ground floor, for the three wings contain respectively the library, conference suite and cafeteria. Though planned each time around the column grid which carries offices above, they expand beyond the narrow wings to project as bays into the courts, providing terraces for the offices above.

The main entrance is at the west end next to the library, and is tied to it by a drum-shaped reception counter. A meandering route runs through from here across the two courts, linking the three social facilities. Most of the time this irregular route, along with the bridges and stairs which connect it to higher levels in the courts, take over from the spine as the main circulation. There are places for people to stop and meet for a chat as they come and go, and those in surrounding offices can enjoy the spectacle of life in the courts.

In constructing the building, every attempt was made to reduce embodied energy and potentially toxic products. Doors and windows were made from local larch and robinia cut in small sections and relatively short lengths, using wood which is normally wasted. Because timber is regenerable, Behnisch also wanted to use it in massive form in place of concrete for the office floors, supported on a minimal steel frame. Despite the considerable quantity needed, this promised a lower embodied energy figure, meeting structural, acoustic and fire performance, while calculations of thermal mass also looked promising. But in the end, this unconventional form of structure was regarded as too risky by the client. Attention was also given to the environmental impacts of incidental materials, including for instance, the avoidance of standard PVC electrical conduits in favour of chlorinefree plastic pipe. (This caused unforeseen difficulties because the new pipes lacked the lubricant which helps the wires through.) Scrutiny of all materials showed how difficult it is to avoid environmental damage: ecologists at the institute regarded even the use of galvanized steel frames for the glazing as unfortunate, because of the gradual run-off of toxic zinc salts.

The economics of building are usually governed by immediate figures on the balance sheet: cost of site and construction, running costs such as gas and electricity, payback periods on loans and so on. Longer term maintenance costs are a lower priority, while demolition costs are usually completely ignored, along with disposal of site debris. The energy cost of extracting or producing materials, working them and conveying them to the site, is generally hidden within the more general construction costs, so that comparisons between more and less energy-rich solutions are not made. Differences in immediate or later toxicity also go unremarked, provided they do not contravene safety standards. All in all, judgements about costs to the planet are hard to make, and architects are generally too busy to bother calculating them on their own behalf.

Behnisch's institute shows that by bringing this issue into the foreground, the overall cost to the environment can be cut from around 150 and 200 per cent of the initial investment -- the figure for most current buildings -- to around 127 per cent [3] This is achieved by considering embodied energy, operating energy, local resources and recycling. In the realm of office building Behnisch's design suggests a radical alternative, both more flexible and more sustainable. Putting up with a little temperature variation can result in considerable saving of energy, and parameters can be less strict if people are empowered to change local conditions themselves. It is also healthy and psychologically beneficial to remind ourselves of the differences between day and night, summer and winter. And instead of planning buildings indiscriminately and then using mechanical systems like air-conditioners to squeeze the result into certain norms, we could be more intelligent in our initial choices, building to welcome sunligh t and daylight and providing adjustments against excess. Everything remains on the surface of our small planet to be reused in some way, and every place has to be cared for.

(1.) The competition was launched in 1993, the building completed in 1998.

(2.) Gonter Behnisch split his office in 1989, with the original branch in the Stuttgart suburb of Sillenbuch and the new one in the city centre. Since 1990, Stefan has headed the city office, since 1992 as a partner in Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner, which, at that time, were called Bshnisch & Partner, Buro Innenstadt.

(3.) Statement issued by the architects on the basis of a study performed by the Dutch government This and much more information is also given in a Dutch/English book by Egbert Koster entitled Notuur onder orchitectur (Architecture for nature) and published by Schayt & Co, Haarlem 1998.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:the new Dutch Institute for Forestry and Nature Research
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Jan 1, 2001

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