Powerhouse Company’s office for the Global Center on Adaptation on Rotterdam’s Maas river offers a blueprint for the future of the sustainable workplace
Uncontrollable forest fires in the Mediterranean, devastating flooding caused by freak summer rainfall in Germany and China and deadly Category 4 hurricanes in Central and North America. The series of natural disasters witnessed across the world in recent months shows that global climate change is not a theory or something of the future, but is happening now and requires action, including from architecture. But what should we do? A possible answer floats in the former industrial harbour, Rijnhaven, on the south of the Maas river in Rotterdam. It’s a wooden building, three storeys high with balconies all around that protrude ever so slightly upwards like a pagoda. As if it were the first animal stepping on Noah’s Ark, a bright red rhinoceros – an artwork by Joep van Lieshout – sits at the end of the terrace that wraps around the building.
This is the Floating Office Rotterdam, designed by Powerhouse Company as the headquarters for the new Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), an international organisation that describes itself as ‘a solutions broker to accelerate action and support for adaptation solutions’. Excluding cruise ships it is the largest floating office in the world and is the epitome of how the organisation aims to adapt to the accelerating climate change situation. If sea levels rise, the building will move with it; if the power fails (temporarily), the building can provide for its own energy consumption. Solar panels on the roof supply the building’s electricity, the water from the harbour is used for the cooling system. It goes without saying that the 3,500m2 building is made using sustainable materials, according to the principles of circular economy construction and it has been awarded BREEAM Outstanding certification.
The building has been receiving other acclaim too. It was opened on 6 September by the king, Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, alongside the chairman of the board of the GCA, Ban Ki-moon, and the CEO, Patrick Verkooijen. Nicknamed FOR, the Floating Office started as an initiative of the Municipality of Rotterdam in response to the call by the then UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, for a climate centre following the Paris summit in 2015. During that conference, three goals were formulated: reduce CO₂ emissions, invest in climate policy, and adapt cities and different living environments to the consequences of temperature rises. In line with the latter goal, Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders founded the GCA in 2017.
Among them was the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, who proposed accommodating the new GCA in what he called the ‘climate adaptation country’, the Netherlands. With much of the country lying below sea level, the Dutch have never done anything other than adapt to the climate. The GCA’s research building is in the north-east of the country in Groningen, while Rotterdam managed to acquire the head office on the promise of a sustainable, floating building in the Rijnhaven, which is simultaneously being redeveloped into a new mixed-use urban area. The building was scheduled to finish in time for the hosting of the Climate Adaptation Summit in the Netherlands in January 2021, although that ultimately took place online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When there was still no plan by January 2020, however, Rotterdam practice Powerhouse Company took the plunge and submitted an open proposal to the municipality: let us build that office. ‘We have been working on plans for the transformation of the factory site on the other side of the harbour since 2015,’ explains architect-director, Nanne de Ru. ‘We knew the area and saw a challenge: to create an absolute showcase for GCA, Rotterdam and ourselves.’ What made his proposal even more attractive for the municipality was that De Ru offered to develop the project through his development company RED Company, which he founded in 2015, partly prompted by the construction impasse during the economic crisis.
De Ru’s colleague Albert Richters thinks that the dual role of developer-architect is a rewarding one. ‘It ensures that we, as initiators, can now shape these kinds of design assignments. And it results in a new way of developing, in which ideas are explored early in the process that may not immediately seem realistic, but turn out to be possible.’ For example, an (almost) completely wooden, movable office that produces energy.
GCA’s brief was for a 1,000m2 office, but to make the business case financially feasible, De Ru calculated that a building of 3,000m2 was needed. ‘The floating foundation, which was made at three locations due to the required speed, and had to be supplied by water, entails additional costs,’ he says. So at that point Powerhouse Company decided to move into the building itself. GCA is located on the top floor, the architectural office and RED Company are on the first floor and the eastern side of the ground floor. On the west side, on the ground floor, there will be a restaurant that will operate a freshwater swimming pool constructed in the harbour.
The foundation of the building, consisting of fifteen concrete shells, each 25m x 6m, 4.5 m high, which are anchored to each other in the width direction, is probably the least environmentally friendly part. ‘We thought of steel or wooden shells,’ says de Ru, ‘but that is not possible because you have to take it out of the water every five to 10 years to put on a coating. Concrete can be in the water for at least 50 years. Furthermore, it offered the option of cooling the office.’ Within the floors of the concrete shells, a pipe system has been included that functions as a heat exchanger. Heating is done with the same system, via the ceilings in which the lighting and installation technology have been included. The ‘empty’ space in the concrete shells, which gives the building its buoyancy, has partly been used for the installations.
The building is constructed with Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), a sustainably produced, renewable material in which CO₂ is retained, but also an obvious choice for a floating building because it is light, says Richters. It can also be prefabricated and easily screwed together on site, which was essential as the building had to be built in six months. The project was also limited to three storeys because if it would ever need to be moved it would need to pass under the Rijnhaven Bridge. This allowed the practice to make the elevator cores with CLT too. ‘If you build higher with wood, the construction must be reinforced with concrete due to fire safety requirements,’ explains De Ru.
The CLT slabs rest on a frame of laminated beams and columns, placed within a 6m x 6m grid; the width of a float. There are unobstructed views of the water and the city from De Ru’s new office on the first floor through huge 6m x 3m three panel windows . ‘I notice that people are happy with the daylight, the generous entrance area and the terrace from which you can jump into the water after a day of work. With this building, we want to show that it is possible to design something with nature in mind that is good for the planet, but also pleasant to use, and elegant.’
The office’s location on the water offers a special quality. If you walk from the Wilhelminapier, with its skyscrapers, via the footbridge and the newly constructed floating park, and onto the terrace, you are suddenly in a different part of the city. Although the sounds of the harbour are audible, it exudes tranquility. The architectural firm has a large restaurant and meeting rooms on the ground floor, stylishly designed with Brazilian marble and pink quartz table tops. Vintage furniture gives a kick to the minimalist interior (which is not quite complete for photography). A wooden grandstand staircase that doubles as an auditorium leads to the workplaces and the office archive on the first floor. The GCA office on the second floor is furnished by the organisation itself.
Inside, the wooden skeleton determines the atmosphere; due to the grey coating applied to the wood, it almost looks like béton brut. The beams protrude through the facades to support the balconies. The cantilevers of the balconies and the roof minimise overheating from the direct sunlight. At the top, the beam structure bends upwards to form a saddleback roof, which is covered with sedum on the visible quay side, while the other side to the south is covered with 800m2of solar panels.
Due to the height limitation, the service installations like electrical cables and pipework had to be incorporated into the beams, running inside channels within them. This prompted an intense discussion with the municipality about how fire safe this solution would be. ‘The transits have been tested, the sleeves of the pipes have been tested as well, but the combination has not,’ says De Ru. In the end, the municipality told them to prove that it would be possible. ‘Only a day before delivery did we receive permission to use the building. In that respect, we were “burdened” by building with wood, because regulations are often based on concrete. It conflicts with stimulating innovation.’
In addition to the short construction time, the innovative floating construction and maintaining the circular principles, De Ru found the financing the project a challenge. Traditional investors were reluctant. The ABN-AMRO bank, which has a green fund, was willing, but then the coronavirus came along, which threw it in the air for a while, although they did ultimately agree to finance a loan. Nevertheless, RED Company and the owner of the Codrico factory invested a lot of money to get the project off the ground. They own the building and lease it to the GCA and Powerhouse Company.
Any lessons from hindsight? ‘I would rather have solved the sewerage in the building, then it would have been more self-sufficient. Because of the short construction time, we did not do that; it is connected to the city sewer. A connection to the land is needed anyway, as you are not allowed to construct
a building in the Netherlands without a connection to the electricity grid.’
Floating Office Rotterdam will remain in its place for the time-being. From the office, De Ru and Richters can follow how their plans for the factory site and the city’s plan to transform Rijnhaven into a hub for sustainable innovation, are becoming reality. Richters: ‘It is exciting how the area will develop with the realisation of more floating buildings and parks. We really have to make something of this, that responsibility is felt in the office.”
Kirsten Hannema is an architecture critic based in the Netherlands
Architect Powerhouse Company
Developer RED Company
Client Global Center on Adaptation, Municipality of Rotterdam
Financing ABN Amro
Project management DVP
Contractor for building VOF (consisting Bouwbedrijf Valleibouw and Bouwbedrijf Osnabrugge)
Contractor floating foundations Hercules FC
Structural engineer Bartels & Vedder