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Wed 13 May 2009 04:00 AM

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Persian Pioneer

Architect catches up with Maan Al-Salloum to get an exclusive look at Studio Cowi's vision for Tehran's first green building.

Persian Pioneer
If it’s chosen, the UCB Building will be Tehran’s first green building. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
The building is contemporary and modern, yet it retains classical elements and language. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
Studio Cowi studied traditional Islamic structures to understand how to better use the space. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
Studio Cowi chose Site A. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
The building aims to transcend any boundaries between public and private space. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
Building elements and a storey breakdown of the UCB Building. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
Studio Cowi’s results of its sunlight study for the site. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
One pattern that inspired the design of the façade. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
Technical drawings of the facade and elevation of the UCB Building. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
UCB’s green roof will offer insulation and absorb CO2 but won’t support users. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
Just seven storeys, the building will include 100,000 PV panels on its façade. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
Some of Studio Cowi’s first inspirations for the design. (Studio Cowi Images)
Persian Pioneer
According to Studio Cowi studies, the PV panels shown here will receive around 8 hours of direct sunlight everyday. (Studio Cowi Images)

Architect catches up with Maan Al-Salloum to get an exclusive look at Studio Cowi's vision for Tehran's first green building.

At the time of writing, 1200km away from Architect's offices in Dubai, United Colors of Benetton is holding a design competition for what will become the newest representation of the brand in Tehran.

Despite Benetton's history of pushing the sociopolitical envelope with its cutting-edge advertisements and organic business strategy, the architecture arm of Denmark's Cowi Group, Studio Cowi, has submitted a project that has the potential to knock the proverbial socks off the well-known Italian fashionista.

The brief was simple: Benetton wanted a six or seven storey building that would include retail, commercial, parking and a limited amount of residential space. In fact, the brief was so flexible that the client proposed two different plots in Tehran and allowed the architects themselves to choose the site which best lent itself to the architect's creative vision.

As Tehran is not known for possessing an overabundance of innovative environmentally-friendly architecture, Benetton included nothing in its brief about the new building being green. But, for Studio Cowi and Cowi Group's long history of eco-engineering and environmental consultancy, providing a green building was not only desirable but integral to its business philosophy. If chosen, Studio Cowi's will be Tehran's first self-sustainable building.

"The green design was something we decided to go with," explains Maan Al-Salloum, head of architecture and lead designer for Bahrain-based Studio Cowi. "The brief asked for a 6-7 storey building that included a variety of different space for different functions. The rest was up to the designer. The green bit is our specialty.... It's very much a part of everything we do. It's a part of our architecture. It's an attitude that resonates in every design."

Past informs present

From its orientation to its shape to its design, Studio Cowi's design draws very heavily on classical elements. Considering, for example, some of the Benetton building's geometries, according to Al-Salloum, those patterns aren't especially prevalent in that area of Tehran. "Our facade is a response to a classical element that has largely disappeared from buildings in the area," says Al-Salloum.

To understand the functionality of traditional Islamic buildings, Al-Salloum drew on his own Iraqi background and his team began studying traditional homes and how they use space in unique ways to protect the history and tradition of their users.

"The courtyard in a traditional Islamic house is a place that provides privacy but also serves as a gathering place for everyone inside," explains Al-Salloum. "Our courtyard in this building has very much become the modern cafeteria and public space. It very much becomes a public space that blends both social and retail space. Because the user in the street can access that public space, this building tries to erode any sort of boundaries that may exist between public/private space."

In order to be successful, Studio Cowi knew it needed to offer Tehran something special. It knew that a traditionally Islamic building with domes and arches would be inconsistent with the Benetton brand, but that something that bends, twists, sings and dances-similar to some of the monstrosities that can be found in cities throughout the region-would do a disservice to the surrounding context. While Al-Salloum knew he didn't want something more appropriate for Star Trek, but he also knew he didn't want traditional Tehran.

"We've evolved the idea of the courtyard and we've borrowed some popular Islamic geometry to create a sort of contemporary language," says Al-Salloum. "The building is a contemporary modern building, but I think it fits very well in the context because it includes that classical language as well."

According to the Studio Cowi proposal, the design ambition of the building can be summarized in two terms: integration and modernity. The design combines both the Iranian culture and the way Benetton's modern designs integrate with that culture and surrounding context. The skin of the building reflects the Islamic architecture that is prevalent in Tehran by employing the symbols and motifs and applying them to the building's facade.

"Our proposal embraces and highlights Iran's culture and nature," says Al-Salloum. "The biomorphic shape takes it's inspiration from the mountains surrounding Tehran. This language and cultural identity is visually and conceptually applied to the skin and the spatial planning of the building." In Tehran, how green is green?

While time-honored concepts and culture influenced the design, there is nothing antiquated about the elements contained within the building. Studio Cowi's sustainable concept encompasses multiple strategies, integrated through the design for efficient consumption and production of energy.

For example, the organic shape of the building reduces the impact of wind and its orientation shields the southeast and western facades from direct sunlight, which limits solar gain. The hyper-efficient skin of the facade simultaneously provides building structure, thermal mass for insulation, shading for natural cooling and enclosures for green spaces.

"We did an initial shading study before we began designing. We looked very carefully at the positioning of the sun during the day. After that it seemed natural to have the PV cells incorporated into the facade and have the building open up and use glass to the north," says Al-Salloum.

Moreover, the skin is embedded with more than 100,000 polycrystalline PV cells. The energy stored in these cells will be utilized by the building and on the exterior skin to crate the signage for the shop during the night through the use of LEDs. Passive heating and cooling systems, designed with the Venturi effect in mind, are encouraged by using double glazed multi-ventilation windows and cavity walls. The green roof and living wall will help reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions, while recycled grey water will be used for irrigation.

In terms of architectural technology, there is a strong trend in the industry to move toward transparent buildings and in an urban setting. The rationale being that transparency in buildings helps to develop a social and cultural interaction with the building. "[Transparency] is not always the right thing to do in a climate like this. If you consider the traditional architecture, you want small windows and thick walls to counteract the sun," says Al-Salloum.

The Studio Cowi ethos has always revolved around the idea of putting passive environmental elements at the forefront while using a much smaller percentage of mechanical solutions to gain energy efficiency. Evidence of its commitment to passive solutions is in the building's orientation and shape. According to Al-Salloum, the form of the building can almost be completely attributed to the results of that initial shading study.

The design of the building represents a dynamic combination between the modern, the traditional and the ecological. "If you look at traditional Tehran...it is designed to counteract the natural elements around it. Internal courtyards, small windows and thermal responsive thick walls are ideas that are inherent from the local context. The Benetton building is a contemporary version of some of those classical ideas; it's an evolution."

Studio Cowi is suggesting that the building will satisfy the criteria for LEED Gold certification but, of course, that will only be determined after the challenges of assessing energy-efficiency in Iran can be fully understood. According to Al-Salloum, LEED Gold is a conservative guess. "We've identified it with LEED Gold, but we hope it'll be even greener than that. We'll do a carbon profile of the building and move forward with that when we adjust and refine aspects of its ‘green-ness'," he says. Challenges

The site on which the Studio Cowi design stands is just one of two that Benetton offered. Studio Cowi chose Site A because it sits on the corner of a major thoroughfare in Tehran and because of its proximity to Tajrish Square, one of the city's largest and most vibrant social spaces.

"The street itself is a vibrant place. It's a major connection point to Tajrish Square, which is one of the most vibrant and lovely places in the city," says Al-Salloum. "The actual street leading up to Tajrish Square is very long and it services a big part of Tehran. I think there is a plan to rejuvenate that street eventually."

The biggest challenge faced by Studio Cowi was to design something that harmonised with its context but also adhered to what Benetton sought. "United Colors of Benetton gave us the opportunity to do something special. As a brand, they've always been very cutting-edge and they've always pushed boundaries," says Al-Salloum. "That type of ethos greatly influenced the original design. They are very cutting-edge; very multicultural; and the brand has a certain identity.

A final word

For Al-Salloum, one of the most important things in this design was to ensure that it was contemporary and practical but based around some of the prevalent themes in Islamic architecture.

While he is an advocate of progression in architecture and society, his concern is about preserving those elements that make cultures vibrant and unique and living and building smarter with the resources we have. "With all of the new technology available and design ambition, I think we as an industry, need to decide very quickly about how we want our cities to look in the future. We need to think about what sort of cities we're leaving to our children and grandchildren," he says.

"Do we continue to deplete the world's resources at the rate we are?" asks Al-Salloum. "50% of carbon emissions can be attributed to buildings. As designers of cities, we can play a big part in how we move forward as a society and an industry."

At one stage, Al-Salloum told Architect that Benetton gave him and his team "a chance to do something special". While Benetton will undoubtedly receive a selection of impressive entries in its competition, it seems that championing the first eco-friendly building in the capital city of one of history's most celebrated cultures, and at the same time, ensuring that that building is cutting-edge in both tradition and technology, would certainly qualify as something special.

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