Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Sexy, civilised and true-blue green
Lend Lease’s radical new building is cool, eco-friendly and there’s not a hairshirt in sight, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
A prime minister or two ago it might have been a compliment. But a 2004 shortlisting for the Prime Minister’s Environmentalist of the Year Award from the man who killed Kyoto for Australia could feel just a touch ambiguous in the morality department like getting the PM’s Award for Humane Treatment of Refugees.
Engineer Che Wall is unfazed as he is by his own profession’s deaf-mute response to the honours and accolades heaped upon him by the architects. If you want an engineering award in this country, he shrugs, “you’re up against a bridge. Engineers tend to get obsessed with scale.”
Tell us about it.
Whereas all Che Wall has to pin up, this week, is Australia’s first five-star-rated eco-sustainable office building, the new Lend Lease headquarters, 30 The Bond, on Hickson Road, Millers Point. And they said it couldn’t be done.
At 30 The Bond there are no offices, only workstations; no air-conditioning, only chilled-beam technology; no back wall, only the wet convict-hewn sandstone.
At 50 metres long and four storeys high, the cliff comes complete with running water, weedlets and the occasional Millers Point rat, directly descended, no doubt, from the bubonic versions of 1901. That’s biodiversity.
Lend Lease has a history of taking risks on architecture or had such a history back in the glory days of Dusseldorp and Australia Square.
That was 40 years ago. Lately it’s been more the rhetoric of risk “daring to be different”, “thinking outside the square” while reality has sunk back into the cosy risk-aversion that is the Sydney development industry’s pathology of preference. For a decade or so, all the daring all the risk-taking went into other fields, other countries, other catastrophes.
So now it’s sea change time. The ’80s, bless them, are finally over and Lend Lease, share price notwithstanding, has done it again. Taken a big fat risk, come up triumphant. Only this time it’s not about scraping the sky; not even close to the bigger-louder-longer mentality that most of us still associate with architectural innovation. This is more a software kind of thing. The building has done for eco-design what Tarantino did for pulp fiction: made it hot, cool and sexy.
Until now green architecture in Sydney has been divided into two types the hairshirters and the green-screeners. The hairshirters expect you to brace for life in a sunless, viewless, jokeless world and pay for the privilege, while the screeners simply settle for the look, shrouding a building in greenwash and garnishing with cosmetic vegetation on the basis that style is substance. No wonder eco-talk makes us reach for our babble detectors.
But the Bond, designed in-house with Peddle Thorp collaborating, is different. Here, for the first time, we have a building with succulent visuals, spatial invention, commercial cred and a five-star green rating. Even with the numbers fully crunched there’s no government subsidy, no cost impost, no hairshirt and, as far as one can tell, little or no eco-babble. How did they do it?
A handful of deeply determined people is the answer, and an energetic, first-principles approach. Dominic Snellgrove, Lend Lease’s main designer on The Bond, trained at London’s fearless Architectural Association and had worked on a low-energy building for British Gas. Che Wall, also British, (and yes, he was named after Che Guevara the parents, he explains, were hippies and his brother is Timothy, as in Leary) had engineered buildings for Norman Foster and the sci-tech Future Systems, also strongly linked to the association. Unlike so many engineers, he learned to regard architecture with delight, not suspicion, and to regard sustainability as an asset, not a threat. Arriving here, he expected all engineers to show comparable curiosity and all architects to combine vivid imagination with ruthless analysis.
Nice thought. What he found were two professions almost entirely beholden to a profoundly conservative market. You might expect Australia healthy, wealthy and wide-open democratic to be a team leader in eco-design. Sadly, it’s not so. The first chilled-beam building in Britain was Shell House, on London’s South Bank, which used Thames water in radiant cooling. That was 1962. Since then, chilled beam technology (they’re not really beams, but water-cooled ceiling panels, and it’s not really radiant cool, so much as heat-sucking, but you get the point) has become one of the most common cooling systems in Europe. But that didn’t stop Sydney’s development industry, decades on, regarding any proposal negatively with head-shaking and tut-tutting and habitual can’t-be-doneism. How wrong they were.
Lend Lease had been antsy for a while. From the handsome but rigid stacked hierarchy of Australia Square, which had execs on level 45 and the rest in the grumpy old Pitt Street building, it was looking for a large-floorplate fringe location that would be “churn”-friendly, “bump”-friendly and eco-friendly (read flexible, open and green). Churn (as in turnover) had become a problem, feudalism was rife and consultation among the younger staff identified sustainability issues especially greenhouse as crucial to their ongoing loyalty. They also valued smart design, flat hierarchies and connectivity to light, air, transport, technology. It was all the impetus Snellgrove and Wall (now with the engineering firm Lincolne Scott) needed.
They persuaded the hierarchy to countenance low-greenhouse design so long as there was no change in the budget. Jose de la Vega had sold the site to Lend Lease (keeping the residential development next along), but Lend Lease, true to its name, decided to sell on to Deutsche Property Trust and lease back 80 per cent of the space. So budget blowouts were not to be tolerated. This became the discipline. And since chilled-beam technology adds about 30 per cent to the capital spend on mechanical engineering, clawing it back made hard yakka. But there are flow-on savings in floor height, plan efficiency and facade costs, giving a more or less zero-sum in capital terms, and that’s before you get to savings in use. Design-wise, the spin-off is a taut, lean building catwalk chic, with not an ounce of flab.
The heart of the building is its airy four-storey atrium. But this is no corporate corpse-space, replete with stick-on marble, dead air and front-room pretentiousness. Snellgrove was determined to make it a vital, working space so much of the organisation is visible here; glass meeting pods, coffee spaces and folded-plate steel stairs cantilever off the open work-floors; glass lifts ferry people between levels and the great stone wall helps stabilise temperature while also providing a gentle background trickle of water.
The workstations themselves and yes, even the CEO has one are kept away from the perimeter, freeing both harbour side and atrium side for shared uses, including the fresh-air winter gardens, conference rooms and lunch spaces. The boardrooms are on level four: on top, traditional boardroom territory, is the function/training space and a stylish roof garden, available to all and sweetening the view of the neighbouring apartment dwellers. The air is fresh, the feel light and open, the design smart-casual, but with the emphasis on the smart. And at street level, opening soon, is the in-house child-care area, designed by Tony Caro architects.
It’s all very civilised so civilised you’d be forgiven for suspecting a space warp into some pocket of Scando-enlightenment. So civilised it makes you suspicious, period. But if happy workers equal higher share price, as it does (say) in Finland, Lend Lease should be very pleased with itself indeed, prime ministerial approval notwithstanding, for daring at last to be different, and for doing it brilliantly.
ILLUS: A building that dared to be different .
30 The Bond in Hickson Road.
Photo: Stephen Baccon