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BP SA's green headquarters in Cape Town
Reproduced with kind permission of The Property magazine
Words: Carola Koblitz Photography: Warren Heath

IN 2002 BP coined the tagline 'beyond petroleum', establishing four key words to demonstrate its brand values – innovation, progressive, performance and green – a significant departure from traditional petroleum-based industry values, and one that the company immediately took to heart to minimise not only the environmental impact of its global activities but to begin to house its staff in eco-friendly, energy-conserving environments.

When BP Southern Africa sought new accommodation in line with the new eco-friendly philosophy, it tasked Alex Robertson (of Alex Robertson Associates – Architects) not only to assist with the selection of a site for the new office complex (for many years the Revel Fox-designed BP tower block in Thibault Square was both the company's Africa HQ as well as a well-known Cape Town landmark), but also to develop the brief and act as the development consultant, space planner and interior designer once the project broke ground.

In a nutshell, the brief Alex developed called for a 'low-rise campus type sustainable building set in a green environment with inspirational open-plan office space.' Twenty-seven original sites were considered before the Portswood site in the V&A Waterfront was chosen – coincidently right next to BP's old tank farm in the harbour.' You could say BP's come home,' notes Alex.

At the same time, as environmental consultant, Arup (Pty) Ltd's South African arm (Arup being a global group of designers, engineers, planners and business consultants) was tasked to compile the Resource Efficient Design (RED) brief, which targeted – among other criteria –the use of recycled materials as well as those which minimise pollution.

The roof top with photovoltaic (solar) panels and pyramid skylights Finding an architectural firm that would not only understand but deliver on all aspects of the project was pivotal to its success; the BP team decided to hold an architectural ideas competition in which 10 firms were initially invited to participate on an interview basis, and from which a shortlist of six were chosen to proceed with the competition at the end of 2002.

The competition was judged by a team of assessors made up of David Jack (former MD of the V&A Waterfront), Barbara Southworth (urban designer), Evon Smuts (architect), Adrian Campbell (engineer and the author of the RED brief) and Alex. It was eventually won by KrugerRoos Architects & Urban Designers, who then entered into a BEE association with Joshua Conrad Architects.

With the theme of Green Architecture at its heart, the three-storey R115-million building opened in 2005, and within weeks won the South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA) 2005 Award in the category of innovative office developments.

The building consists of three wings in a T-formation. Ventilation stacks at the building's outer edges allow not only airflow but also for the double-glazed windows to be deeply-recessed, reducing solar heat in summer while enabling sun penetration in winter. In addition, light shelves in the recesses provide extra shade from the heat while at the same time allowing light to be bounced deep into the interior.

 

Cognisant of the fact that the top of the building would be visible not only from the elevated heights of nearby Signal Hill but from residential buildings and streets in the Green Point vicinity opposite the V&A, the roof is treated as a fifth elevation. Lines of glass pyramids run across the centre of each wing, providing natural light for both the human inhabitants below as well as for a forest of African mahogany trees planted on the ground floor.

 

Photovoltaic cells and thermal solar panels (developed by BP's solar division) also cross the roof in eye-pleasing, angular lines and provide 10 per cent of the building's electricity when the sun shines. Annual energy consumption is thus set to be 115kWh/m² as opposed to the average 350kWh/m² which any other building this size would use. This is aided by movement-sensitive, low-energy lighting throughout the interior which turns off as soon as staff leave their work stations or vacate meeting rooms, ensuring that empty parts of the building are not lit unnecessarily.

The building also boasts a 1.3-million litre underground water tank that stores run-off from the roof area and is used to provide water for irrigation and ablution. An average building of the same size would use around 15,000kl/annum of municipal water, whereas the BP building uses just 3,600kl/annum of municipal water.

Interior office space is open-plan and centred around a triple-volume internal 'street'.

Accommodating 600 staff members, the workplace environment in the building falls under a BP philosophy referred to as 'Blue Chalk' in which the open-plan offices have been designed to allow for highly flexible modules or clusters of workstations, which are uniform throughout the company for every employee, bar the chairman and the business unit leader – the only employees with private office space behind four walls.

Split over three levels of open plan space, the main staircase leads down to the internal 'street' on the ground floor 'Open plan isn't new,' explains Alex. 'Burolandschaft or office landscaping as the term was coined was introduced by the Germans in the 1950s. But what everyone has here is exactly the same ergonomically-designed workstation made up of a desk, a flat-panel computer screen, a credenza and a drawer unit.

If staff need additional filing then that's provided elsewhere on the floor in centralised cabinets. Multi-functional stations which print, copy and fax alleviate the need for these in individual workspaces.

'In effect, the Blue Chalk strategy focuses on a shift in ownership from an employee "owning" his or her own workspace to the concept of instead owning the entire work environment.

Therefore, the low degree of personal workspace is countered with communal breakaway spaces known as "pause" areas (informal collaborative meeting spaces) and the cafeteria as well as access to outdoor gardens and balconies.'

With lounge-type furniture and café-style seating these pause areas offer employees everything from a break away from their desk areas for a cup of coffee or tea on tap, to informal meetings or a chance to catch up on the latest cricket scores via strategically placed TV screens. Many of the pause areas also lead out onto open balconies – some of which are designated smoking areas.

Viewed quite sceptically at first by a number of BP employees accustomed to the highly private spaces of their old office tower (a bit of a rabbit warren in its time!), the Blue Chalk strategy has proved highly successful in encouraging communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation, which has been positive for overall performance.

The results have even been published in a report conducted in the United Kingdom by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and the British Council for Offices (BCO). The report notes (from a survey conducted by Sun Microsystems) that through the Blue Chalk strategy 'statistically significant benefits were achieved in four areas: 13 per cent greater performance, 15 per cent greater communication, 18 per cent greater collaboration and 10 per cent increased creativity.'

Alongside the establishment of BP's new values system behind the 'beyond petroleum' concept, was the company's global Green Office Initiative. 'Ultimately this is to get staff into an entirely paperless environment,' explains Alex. 'And BP are pretty far down the track in achieving this.'

The Green Office Initiative was complemented locally by a document known as 'The Waterfront Directory – a new way of working' compiled by a workplace change team. The directory establishes both the principle of working towards a paperless office, as well as instilling a recycling ethic in every aspect of the work day: recycling bins (for paper, glass, metal, plastic and organic or wet materials) in central areas take the place of waste-paper bins at individual workstations.

The RED brief stipulated that along with the use of recycled, durable, low-maintenance materials with a 'high growth' content, materials used throughout the building had to have a high local content and in particular were to be sourced wherever possible from the Western Cape.

Carpets for example are made from 100 per cent recycled material, and even new artwork has been commissioned locally, among the most impressive pieces being the 6m-high aloe wall-hanging at the entrance. Designed by Adri Schultz, the wall-hanging was made from waste cotton fabric woven by a women's group living in the Cape township of Khayelitsha. Beautiful Rosegum wooden floors throughout the central 'street' of the building and on the stairs come from sustainable forests in Zimbabwe.

However, along with it's eco-friendly award-winning design, per-haps the best news about the building is what it cost to build.

'Other than the photovoltaic cells (which are very expensive), what we set out to do is to ensure that the rest of the building should not cost more than an average A-grade office building'' explains Alex.

'We put our money into other places: we didn't use glass balustrades on our staircases! We used as little imported material as possible because in this building local is lekker. But above all else we wanted to create a very nice environment for staff, because that's really what it's all about.'

BP's energy-saving office tips

  • Leaving a computer monitor on overnight wastes as much energy as making 800 A4 photocopies.
  • A dripping tap can waste enough water in a day for a five-minute shower.
  • Lighting an empty meeting room overnight can waste enough energy to make 1,000 cups of tea.
  • TVs and video machines left on standby continue to use at least half the amount of electricity they use when they are turned on.
  • Overfilling an electric kettle can waste enough energy to run a TV set for 26 hours.
  • Recycling rain water and grey water (from showers and wash basins) can reduce consumption by up to 90 per cent.
  • Recycling one ton of paper (400 reams) saves 15 trees, 2.5 barrels of oil, 4,132kWh of electricity, 2.26m of landfill space, 31,319 gallons of water and prevents 26.8kg of air pollutants from reaching the atmosphere.
  • Making paper from recycled fibres uses 70 per cent less energy than from virgin fibres.

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