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Good call: integrating architecture and environmental control, this new call centre civilises a mundane building type.

Call centres are a scourge of modern commercial life, a twenty-first-century version of the mill or factory to be built as cheaply and expediently as possible. So this new call centre in Galway by Dublin-based Bucholz McEvoy is that rare thing; decent, environmentally conscious architecture, that humanises the workplace. There is a commercial upside to such virtuousness, in reduced running costs and low staff turnover, but it also acts as a powerful retort to lowest common denominator impulses and instincts. We need more good examples of bad building types.

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The client, SAP, is a German software company. Its new contact centre deals with technical queries by phone from around the Western hemisphere. To cover different time zones, the 360 staff work in three shifts, so typical building occupancy is around 18 hours, from 7am to 1am. As each staff member toils at an individual workstation rather than hot desking, different parts of the building are occupied at different times of day. The staff age profile is young, between 21 and 30. For some, it is their first experience of office life and the working environment will condition expectations and performance.

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Because of the more variable occupancy patterns, heating, cooling and ventilation requirements change with shifts and seasons. So Bucholz McEvoy developed an integrated approach that exploits passive techniques of environmental control and minimises mechanical systems, but is also flexible enough to respond to these changing conditions.

The site is on a business park east of Galway, a typically featureless edge-of-town condition. Two three-storey blocks of offices flank a central glazed atrium. The shallow 13m wide office bars are orientated on a north-south axis to minimise thermal insolation. The atrium acts as a buffer space both socially and environmentally. A soothing internal landscape of birch trees, pebble beds and timber benches gives workers visual and experiential respite. A herringbone grid of thin plywood beams supports the glazed atrium roof.

Offices and public areas are naturally cross ventilated through the external facades, with the atrium acting as a supply and exhaust air volume. Ventilation and heating functions are housed in and controlled by narrow panels set at 1.5m centres between fixed glazing, giving the facades a strong vertical rhythm. Each panel has radiators at low level, manually operated vertical ventilators at mid height (so staff can adjust their own comfort levels), and heat recovery fan units at high level. The fan units, developed specially for the project, help to propel fresh air to the centre of open plan areas, reducing reliance on direct window ventilation. The atrium is ventilated by natural convection with vents at the top and bottom of the space. Under windy conditions (the site is both exposed and elevated, and Galway has a windy microclimate), the atrium functions as an exhaust system, drawing air from offices via high level vents run by the building mananagement system.

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Exposed precast concrete slabs maximise thermal mass which evens out the temperature gradient generated by long periods of occupation and heat gains from equipment and lighting. In summer, the slab is cooled by night ventilation and in winter the slab absorbs and retains casual heat gains, reducing the requirement for morning pre-heat. Planning and orientation maximise daylight penetration with solar gain tempered through the use of cedar brise soleils. Uplighters integrated into the concrete structure provide ambient, diffuse light when daylight is insufficient.

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Beyond the familiar strategies of passive environmental control, the architecture manifests a sensuous, tectonic pleasure in how things are made and put together, clearly reflecting human thought and skill. To Bucholz McEvoy, this is just as critical to concepts of sustainability. As they perceptively note: 'In our increasingly digital culture, we feel that expressions of human creation must reflect the humanity in their making.'
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Title Annotation:call center of SAP AG
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jul 1, 2005
Words:643
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