The Crystal

A sustainable cities initiative by Siemens, exploring the future of cities

Built in the heart of London’s Green Enterprise District, the Crystal is an exemplary sustainable building housing both an exhibition centre and a working office for Siemens’ Centre of Competence – Cities.

With its crystal shape, glass covered structure and state of the art technology, the building is resolutely focused on the future. It is a place for Siemens to test and demonstrate new systems developed to create sustainable, efficient buildings and cities, with reduced carbon footprints. It was designed so that it “sets the standard for future buildings”, in Siemens’ words, and is the first to achieve the highest sustainable building accolades from the world’s two leading accreditation bodies, LEED and BREEAM.

Half of the building is an office for around 150 Siemens staff. The other half is home to the world’s largest permanent exhibition centre dedicated to urban sustainability. The Crystal, however is here the main exhibit as all the technologies and principles shown in the exhibition are applied in the building itself, and are an integrative part of its design.

Maximum comfort, minimum consumption

It is an intelligent all electric building, where everything can be adjusted for maximum comfort with minimum energy consumption. The features have been embedded into the design in such a way that they influenced everything from the shape of the building to its structural frame. Thanks to these characteristics, the Crystal’s CO2 emissions are about 70% lower than those of similar office buildings in the UK.

For example, the building has been conceived so that it is naturally ventilated, via automatic opening vents in the roof and facades. They are controlled via the building management system, which maximises free cooling and minimises air conditioning. The air conditioning is primarily done via a ground source heat pump, which provides 100% of the heat used to warm the building and 80% of the cooling.

The design of the building’s structure provides additional insulation: the glass used is a high performance solar glass that allows 70% of visible light through but only 30% of the solar energy. The advantage of using glass is that it permits maximum use of daylight. Each lamp and LED is also automatically adjusted for brightness and colour according to the time of day and occupancy.

Water is also carefully managed. Rainwater is treated for use as drinking water, while black water is treated in-situ for toilet flushing and irrigation of the green spaces around the building. The landscape was designed with drought tolerant plant and tree species.

Forces of change

The exhibition is centred on the theme “Forces of change” and it is promoted as a place for the “public, customers and students to meet and explore the innovation required to achieve a low carbon society”. Visitors entering the exhibition are directed to the mezzanine level where the central theme is introduced through a series of short films showing the different challenges our society is facing and how the processes of change are taking place as a consequence.

The ground floor is filled with touchscreen-dominated exhibits about the future for cities contending with global climate change, population growth and rural-to-urban migration. A range of potential technological solutions (not all developed by Siemens) are shown through films, animations and games, engaging visitors’ curiosity and challenging their set ways of thinking. You can create your own sustainable buildings, test your knowledge about safety and emergency issues; see how you could improve your water consumption, etc.

In the Go Electric zone a gesture-operated exhibit includes a Tesla coil spark display within a Faraday cage, while the Clean and Green zone features a living wall as a backdrop to present the effects of waste and air pollution on our environment, as well as ways to improve air quality, waste management and CO2 emissions.

The last zone of the exhibition is centred on a rather optimistic “City of the Future”, which shows how cities could look and operate if ideas presented in the Crystal were applied.

Technological sustainability

The Crystal’s building monitoring system is incorporated into one of the exhibits, with real-time data about the building’s energy consumption and water usage. The rainwater harvesting system is shown in the zone dedicated to water management.

However, most of the Crystal’s sustainable features remain hidden from the public view, although they would enrich the messaged conveyed throughout the exhibition by showing that the technologies on display are not just conceptual ideas but actual, perfectly working systems.

Indeed, the building’s environmental performance is a testimony that sustainability is within our technological reach. What we need now is to change some of our ways of thinking and habits in order to achieve it.

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