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aSPIRE Tower

Half building, half tropical savannah, Paragon's new project is helping to keep Uganda and MOGAS green.

aSPIRE Tower
aSPIRE Tower

Half building, half tropical savannah, Paragon's new project is helping to keep Uganda and MOGAS green.

Designed to radically alter conventional thinking in contemporary architecture, Paragon Architects' aSPIRE Tower, the new headquarters building for Multiplex Oil & Gas (MOGAS) in Kampala, Uganda, is a furry green beast of a building.

Set amidst the undulating hills of the Kampalan landscape, aSPIRE Tower easily assimilates with the vegetation of the surrounding tropical savannah.

Conceived to challenge certain conventions of design, the building takes informed risks with its innovative and ecologically responsive facade. It urges viewers to rethink both form and function of traditional buildings.

"Although Paragon, as a firm, has always had a keen interest in 'green' architecture, we have always believed that creating a 'sustainable' building has a lot to do with simply applying good design principles," says Estelle Heuseveldt, project architect and associate at Paragon.

"The building will talk to people and people will talk to it," said Reuben Mutiso, chairman of the committee of judges who oversaw the 2007 MOGAS design competition. "Greenery at every level and the harnessing of water from rain to be utilised naturally are only a few of its benefits.

"What makes this project unique, is that we really tried to start with a clean slate, rethinking basic principles and expanding our minds in terms of how we perceive architecture," adds Heuseveldt.

The concept

Large expanses of glass and the complex geometries of the varying facades afford a variety of view and landscape experiences, but the functionality of aSPIRE Tower doesn't stop with eco-friendly elements; it serves to connect inhabitants with their natural surroundings.

"We wanted activity to counter perceived negative environmental effects of oil companies' work," says Geoffrey Rugazoora, CEO of MOGAS Uganda. "Being responsible corporate citizens we wanted a sustainable building to be able to save and conserve energy as much as possible."

According to Paragon, the ability to step outside of one's office into a high-rise jungle garden promises to be a very unique experience. Moreover, MOGAS appreciates the combination of both open and enclosed walkways and bridges, which connect its employees to the landscape of Kampala's seven surrounding hills.

While important domestic and international business negotiations may be conducted within, Paragon suggests that the immediacy of nature outside, "takes the edge off corporate life, supports people's willingness to communicate and introduces the awareness of seasons change into everyday life."

Green machine

While the aSPIRE concept is impressive and its aim of challenging contemporary architecture is ambitious, the most laudable aspects of the building are the eco-friendly elements contained within.

"From the site plan the rest of the building grew, opening up and closing in, shading and screening, scooping light and encouraging air movement," says Heuseveldt.

Marketing and PR messages aside, aSPIRE Tower is very much a green machine.

The building grew out of its surroundings-it became what it needed to be; working with nature, not against it," says Heuseveldt. Short of recent designs within the industry that propose towers that actually mimic the biological functions of trees, aSPIRE Tower is one of the most ambitious ecologically responsive buildings being developed today.

A roof garden spans the entire roof and acts as a space for social interaction. Perhaps more importantly, a roof garden reduces heat loads and heat transmission by day, and assists in cooling the building through evaporation of moisture by night.

Roof gardens are often incorporated into urban centres to filter pollutants and heavy metals out of rainwater and to reduce the urban heat island effect.

While the roof garden filters air and protects the roof from pollutants, a similar 'tree belt' surrounds the base of the building to achieve the same effect. The dense tree belt is designed to limit noise, dust and pollution from nearby streets, and as the trees grow, more floors of the building are protected.

Plant screen walls-which filter pollutants, dust and CO2 out of incoming air and screen the building from direct sunshine-protect walkways on the eastern side of the building and drape the entire western facade.

With Uganda receiving up to 2000mm of rainfall per year, water harvesting is the most efficient and effective form of water conservation. To that end, aSPIRE Tower incorporates water collection mechanisms on the roof, balconies and terraces.

The rainwater is collected and stored in tanks that are located onsite but adjacent to the building. Once filtered, the water is then accessed to fulfil all of the building's water requirements, with the exception of drinking water.

Intelligent lighting systems will dim lights according to ambient light levels or turn them off completely when artificial light is unnecessary. Every room of the building will be equipped with movement and daylight level sensors to maximise energy conservation.

With both lighting solutions installed and operational, aSPIRE Tower could reasonably expect electrical and maintenance savings in excess of 55%.

Orientation and series of façades

Due to its relatively small site, large parking requirement and customised sustainable facade technology, the building will be oriented to maximise north/south facades and limit the area of heat-collecting east/west facades.

Three different facades have been designed for the building depending on the area's potential for direct sunlight and high thermal/sun-shading performance.

The ground and first floors are wrapped in a continuous skin of vertical louvres, which, together with the dense tree belt, provide a shaded perimeter on the north, south and east facades. The ground and first floors of the western  facades are shaded by the natural landscape of the site and an existing forest.

Precast concrete panels, possessing no glazed elements, will be fixed to the narrow east  facades to reduce heat gain from the morning sun. The largely concrete  facades will also aid in releasing heat at night. Easternmost walkways and corridors will be further shaded by plant screens.

The maximum possible amount of clear glazed glass has been used for the north- and south-facing  facades. Clear glass allows for significant levels of harvested natural, but not direct, sunlight in the building and also provides expansive views of the Kampala landscape.

Floor-to-ceiling heights of 3000mm-instead of the industry standard 2600mm-maximise light transmission into the office floor plate. Horizontal louvres shade and manage the potential heat gain from the added window space.

Balconies have been implemented throughout the north-, south- and west-facing  facade to act as passive shading components. Planters will be installed beneath balcony boxes to contribute to the greening of the building, soften the  facade and provide shading to the offices below.

Planter boxes will be irrigated by natural catchments and, when necessary, from stores of harvested rainwater. The planter boxes extend up the entire western  facade of the building.

Three separate  facade, planter boxes, vast expanses of glazed glass and creeping vines certainly make the aSPIRE Tower a unique form on the Kampalan landscape.

Half building, half tropical savannah, the G+14 structure raises questions of whether it was designed for energy efficiency or simply iconic status.

"The form was something that evolved from the specific site shape and its environment. Working within the normal parameters that make an office building commercially viable, we had to maximize the floor plate size on a rather small and irregular shaped site," says Heuseveldt.

"Coupling [commercial viability] with all the environmental factors, including building orientation and natural light penetration, this plan shape really made the most sense," she adds.

The final word

In an era when 'green' has evolved from a colour scheme to a bona fide architectural concept and platinum, gold and silver garner as much status for buildings as they do for jewellery, gimmicks and false promises run rampant.

In the case of aSPIRE Tower however, an oil producing company is acknowledging its own massive carbon footprint and is proactively taking steps to reduce it.

In terms of materials procurement, green components for buildings are expensive and difficult to justify to bottom-line-centric boards. MOGAS seems willing to bear those initial expenses if it means aSPIRE Tower can deliver on its eco promises.

But, despite the challenge-and embodied energy-of sourcing and importing materials for its construction, aSPIRE Tower is setting a new standard.

"In reacting to sun, wind, temperatures, humidity, culture and community, its distinctive form developed as unique to its specific landscape. In this sense, I believe that this building is the way forward for Paragon and, in fact, for all of architecture," says Heuseveldt.

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