World Wildlife Fund
Where The Wild Things Are: From architectural shapes to mechanical systems, the WWF’s Dutch Headquarters harmonizes with nature
When he was 10, a benzene explosion temporarily robbed Thomas Rau of his ability to walk. During the year-long convalescence that followed, Rau recalls, “I had to think about what I was doing on Earth” and decided on a path of selflessness. As an adult, that translated to an early career in dance that included work with foster children and—more recently as an architect—a 16-year-long preoccupation with ecologically responsible buildings.
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Rau has engaged sustainability with a no-time-to-waste verve for experimentation. The Artur Woll Haus, which Rau’s eponymous architecture office completed for the University of Siegen in 2002, directs incoming ventilation through an old mine shaft in order to moderate the air temperature. A forthcoming four-star hotel on Amsterdam’s shoreline will run entirely on water, heating and cooling the building via Lake Ijmeer using a proprietary technology that draws energy from it. “We are so serious that not everybody wants to work with us,” Rau says.
The Dutch branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) never doubted Rau’s earnestness. In 2003 it chose Rau from nine candidates to design its new headquarters in Zeist, Netherlands. The building, completed in 2006, is another example of the Amsterdam-based architecture studio’s avant-garde greenness.
WWF Netherlands, established in 1952, is a success story of the burgeoning environmental movement. The conservation group’s membership has grown from 400,000 to 900,000 in the last 15 years, says spokesperson Clarisse Buma. Staff size has expanded in concert with the rising involvement, forcing WWF Netherlands to vacate offices in a converted villa in Zeist. Determined to stay in the small city, the nonprofit ultimately chose to occupy an abandoned cattle-breeding facility in nearby Park Schoonoord. “The park was a perfect place for us,” Buma says. “Using this laboratory and renovating it in a very inspiring way was a huge opportunity for us to show people what can be done with sustainable buildings.”
Rau says that few entrants in the WWF Netherlands’ competition to design the new headquarters felt the same way, instead proposing to demolish the old structure. Adaptive reuse appealed not only to Rau’s do-good inclinations but also his spreadsheets. “The floor heights in the lab are about 2 feet more than a regular office building’s,” he says. “It was impossible to realize this same floor height in a new building with their budget.” The laboratory would be stripped to its concrete structure.
The building, essentially a two-story east-west bar, had its shortcomings too. “For me, a building always has a personality. So when I came there the first time I said, ‘He needs both a girlfriend and therapy,’” Rau recalls of the straightforwardly rectilinear volume. In order to provide the existing architecture with contrast and brand identity, then, Rau also decided to demolish the center portion of the lab and erect an organically shaped, three-story volume in its place. Today, that amorphous volume is covered in tile made from local river clay. Known as “the blob,” it is the aesthetic signature of WWF Netherlands’ new home. Its north elevation sprouts a shingle-clad press and conference-center volume accessible by skywalk.
As for therapy, the blob solves problems. Departments rarely interacted in the previous headquarters, and workers in the call center felt isolated. By relocating the building entrance to the blob and devoting its interior volume to exhibition programming, reception, and call center, Rau allows employees to mingle at the start and close of the workday, or whenever employees move between east and west wings. A gently curving staircase, which features a guardrail decorated in crisscrossing FSC-certified bamboo reeds, also provides the blob with socially interactive vertical circulation.
In reconstructing the existing portions of the agricultural lab, Rau installed triple-glazed windows with louvers on the south elevation, felt for acoustical dampening and other finishes with high-recycled content, and roof-mounted solar and photovoltaic arrays. Adhering to the WWF’s conservation mission, portions of the building, such as bricks in the east facade, include nesting habitats for swifts and bats. Another retrofit was comparable to the aesthetic derring-do of the blob: a capillary heating and cooling system that Rau only had deployed in new construction. Ceilings were laced with mats comprising tiny polypropylene capillary tubes that channel water, and plastered over in thick layers of mud to prevent the tubes from experiencing extreme swings in temperature. The network is like a miniaturized version of geothermal heating and cooling. Rau explains, “Body heat warms up the mud and the mud warms up the water in the tubes, or if it is too warm, water is pumped through the tubes [to a central heat exchanger], which absorbs the heat, and then is flushed.” Although conventional wisdom states that this pumping process requires a lot of energy, according to a spokesperson from the project’s engineering firm, Delft-based Navos Klimaatechniek, resistance in the capillary tubes is lower than in radiant-floor heating. Rau also notes, “About 85 percent of the year we keep the temperature at 70 degrees,” and a 16-well geothermal system kicks in during extreme temperatures. After ironing out some kinks, the climate system and the building have been performing according to expectations since fall 2008; the design team will release its energy data at the one-year anniversary.
In the meantime, Rau says of his climate-control accomplishment, “All we need is humans in the building.” But the statement equally applies to the socializing that takes place inside the blob, or to the winged creatures flying around the premises. The involvement of all occupants has made the WWF Netherlands design a success.
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