A New Base for Urbanism
The City of Helsinki’s new Urban Environment House brings together all the city’s departments of the built environment under a single roof. The new building also signifies a change in planning culture.
Architects ILMARI LAHDELMA and TEEMU SEPPÄLÄ, how did Lahdelma & Mahlamäki architects become involved in the design of Urban Environment House?
IL: This is the city’s own project, and before our involvement JKMM and KVA Architects had drawn up a project plan for the building. According to the city’s procedures, implementation planning is tendered separately. The local plan had already been drawn up; in other words, the building’s footprint had already been decided upon. The work environment had also been planned a more in detail than usual.
It is, of course, an unusual and even challenging starting point for an architect when, as it were, the entire crew is changed during the project, but at the same time the expectation was that the new team will bring their own expertise to the table. As client representatives of the city, architects Erja Erra and Reetta Amper strongly guided the design process through discussions.
What starting points were you given for the architecture?
IL: The building’s location in Verkkosaari district, next to Kalasatama and Teurastamo, was the starting point in terms of the cityscape. The town plan required a uniform appearance, so brick was the main material. The design process was also guided by the project plan’s assumption that a large building requires a higher ceiling height than usual, in order to bring natural light deep inside the building frame.
TS: The fact that the building was designed for the use of professionals in the building sector led to an architecture where structure and materiality are clearly shown. It was important to pay special attention to the scale of the large building, so we divided the building up further into parts.
The new building was linked to the restructuring of the City of Helsinki, where the previously scattered departments in the building sector are brought together under one roof. Our aim was to reduce physical boundaries and ensure that the different floors are not separated from each other.
IL: Throughout the building there are tall spaces linking the floors. There is no large central lobby connecting everything together. In a service building, the patron takes centre stage, so the service lobby is spacious and opens outwards, yet doesn’t want to show off.
What kind of collaboration did you have with the future users of the building?
TS: We had many discussions about work environments and service concepts. For example, we received comments about the connections between floors, and we added internal stairs between floors. Our conversations with the urban planners and the building inspectorate were also rather fun because they didn’t just act as civil servants, but they also had a personal relationship with the building.
Urban Environment House is an “almost zero-energy house”. What were the means for achieving energy efficiency?
TS: The most important thing was the longevity of the solutions. When a building works well in different situations, it reduces the need for change. The property was developed by the City, but then sold to an investment company. The building is divided into segments, so, if necessary, it would suit several operators without major changes.
IL: Even in its current use, the different units, if necessary, will be able to either take up more space or reduce the size of their operations.
TS: All contemporary solutions have been implemented in order to achieve a high BREEAM rating. Its location in the urban structure is, of course, of great importance, but the building has, among other things, heat recovery, and sunlight penetration is controlled by blinds.
A research project is currently underway on the green roof. Those people in the building working in the environment department will be able to study, for example, the stormwater detention on the department’s roof. Also, pollinator boxes and solar panels were placed there.
The City of Helsinki aims to be carbon neutral by 2035. Could the building for the City’s own department have been even more ecologically ambitious? How can an architect influence this?
IL: When we joined the project, the decision whether to research something new or implement the already tested solutions, had been made. In this situation, our perspective was that the architect’s expertise would be spatial design: to create space that is as sustainable and durable as possible, without wasteful changes.
TS: You can now see in the early stages of projects that there has been a major change in the design culture in terms of being ecological, and everyone is participating in the discussion. It is not just up to the architects or the client.
What kind of new thinking do you personally believe the building represents? Why was it interesting as an architect to be involved in this particular project?
IL: Because we were creating a building shared by the various branches of the building sector, as architects we wanted to show the historical perspective of construction, yet at the same time create a clearly modern building. The modernity starts from the interior, from the new work environment and its expression. As a material, brick refers to history, but it is also in line with contemporary values.
In terms of the cityscape, there is a nuanced variation in the facades, with the same brick treated in slightly different ways. Three outdoor terraces were formed between the different parts of the building, each with its own pavilion, intended for the use of the staff. They are at the same time part of the building’s expression and add subtle touches to the brick environment.
TS: For me, what is special is a certain unexpectedness in the spatial structure. It is exceptional that such a diverse environment was created for 1,500 employees. Often, in multi-functional environments, one looks for the smallest common denominator that would work for everyone. Also, the location is interesting – a new square will form next to it when the buildings opposite are completed. How will it affect the urban structure, and how will the people make the place their own? As a whole, expectations are high. ↙