Bloomberg’s European HQ Wins RIBA Stirling Prize

©. James Newton via RIBA

But is it "the last flourish of a high-resource approach to design and construction"?

Bloomberg's new headquarters in London, designed by Foster + Partners, has just won the RIBA Stirling Prize as the best new building in the UK. The judges call it "a once-in-a-generation project which has pushed the boundaries of research and innovation in architecture." Michael Bloomberg says, "When we embarked on this project, we wanted to create a cutting-edge design that would push the boundaries of what an office building could be, which meant setting new standards for openness and sustainability."


© Nigel Young Foster and PartnersI was ambivalent about this. For one thing, I deeply admired one of the other short-listed projects, Waugh Thistleton's Bushey Cemetery. But I also believe that the Bloomberg building's claims about sustainability were overhyped, writing 'Please stop calling the new Bloomberg HQ the world's most sustainable office building'. It's not.

I acknowledged that it has the highest BREEAM (a European standard) score ever, but Americans don't do BREEAM and the Bullitt Center's Living Building Challenge certification is tougher. Then there is the PowerHouse Kjørbo, designed by Snøhetta, which "generates more energy than what was used for the production of building materials, its construction, operation and disposal." It actually pays back its embodied energy.

triple helix ramp

© James Newton via RIBA

I am not alone in questioning the lavishness and embodied energy of the Bloomberg Building. The Stirling Prize jury’s sustainability adviser Simon Sturgis calls it an extraordinary building, but hopes it is "the last flourish of a high-resource approach to design and construction." He is quoted in the Architects Journal:

The embodied carbon footprint of the finished building is going to be a significant multiple of a standard high-quality office building, even taking longevity into account. Buildings that exhibit true innovation in sustainable design will be made from low-carbon long-life materials with high recycled content. They will be durable, flexible, easy to maintain, deconstruct and reuse. They will of course be ultra-efficient operationally.

Sturgis challenges Foster to "publish the embodied carbon footprint and the calculation data of the completed building, including fit-out, both to build and over its whole life cycle, i.e. a 60-year period."

the vortex of the building

© Nigel Young Foster and Partners

Kate Murphy of Foster + Partners defends the building in the Architects Journal as one that is built to last a lot longer than 60 years, and its billion pound price tag.

We live in this culture nowadays that is very throwaway. Everything lasts two years, everybody buys inexpensive furniture which looks horrible after four years. You throw it away you buy something else. If you buy a beautiful piece of classic 1950s rosewood furniture you are going to keep that for years and hand it down through generations. Yes, we had money to spend but we’ve tried to use it in a way that added value and used it in a way that’s more sustainable. So the exterior is stone. We are not going to have to repaint it or reclad it.

But still, there is all that bronze and stone brought in from Italy and India. There is all that concrete. With the tough deadline set by the IPCC, sixty years is too long to wait to prove a building's sustainability. As Phineas Harper writes in Dezeen,

..the sharp truth is that simply making the status quo more efficient, rather than shifting to a fundamentally different paradigm, is a doomed strategy. This is an enormous conundrum for architects everywhere, cutting to the heart of any claim to social or ethical practice. Are we really content to continue in this trajectory? Do we think that enough carbon savings can be made elsewhere from transportation or agriculture that construction can continue unfazed? You may have cut out meat and cut down flying (and if you haven't, what the hell are you thinking?) but if you're still specifying concrete frames and demolishing, rather than upgrading old stock, you're firmly committing us to three degrees and more.
greenf eatures

© Bloomberg/ Green features

The Bloomberg building is, in many ways, a vestige of another time, another way of thinking about sustainability. As I noted in an earlier post, we not only have to think about Efficiency but also Sufficiency: Do we really need this? Simplicity: Can we keep this operating? And Frugality -- which this certainly isn't.

But it is still an exquisite monument to sustainability, and may well be the last of its kind. That's worth a prize.