Ken Livingstone did not want Building to revisit his ‘Beehive’ City Hall three years after completion. Could it be that this 21st-century landmark has not achieved its low-energy targets?

Five-star ratings

Functionality ***

City Hall contains all functions of local government, from debating chamber to administrative offices, in a single compact building. These operate efficiently, although noise prevents the central ramp from being used when the assembly chamber is in action. And the distinctively shaped building is supremely unadaptable to change.

Impact ***

Mayor Ken Livingstone now seems to be bashful about the building he once proclaimed to be a sustainable landmark for London. Both internally and externally, it still stands as an unmistakable, breathtaking icon of 21st-century local government, but its occupants complain of dungeon-like committee rooms and offices that are either too hot or too cold.

Build quality ***

City Hall does not meet its target of using one quarter of the energy for air-conditioning required by comparable office buildings. Last year, it came in at 8% above the government’s good practice guide for total energy usage, partly because the building is used more intensively than originally intended. Even so, it still undercuts a similar prestige office building by 34%, and it exploits the renewable energy sources of ground water for cooling, and in the near future, photovoltaic cells for electricity. The building has also suffered several glitches such as shattering glass panels, toilet breakdowns and filthy windows.

(Evaluation criteria of the Construction Industry Confederation’s design quality indicator have been adopted by Building’s Revisit series.)


Diverse uses squeezed together

All the GLA’s public and private functions – from the assembly chamber, civic hall, committee rooms and public restaurant to the administrative offices – are shoe-horned into one compact building. “It’s a perfectly clear functional building that serves its needs,” says Mike Tuffrey, the Liberal Democrats’ environmental spokesperson on the assembly.

The downside is the friction that occurs where the different uses rub together. The ramps were conceived so that the public could see democracy in action by looking down at assemblies in progress. But in practice, when the assembly chamber is in use, people are barred from using the spiral ramps or even opening or shutting doors leading on to them because of the distracting noise.

Within the office spaces, the political parties have expressed concerns about being snooped on by their neighbours, from whom they are separated by clear-glazed partitions.

Another problem in the open-plan offices is lack of storage for all the documentation staff acquire. Denys Robinson, the Lib Dem’s transport researcher, stores his files on the floor under his desk.

Unadaptable form

Both internally and externally, the building is supremely inflexible. Given that elected government organisations inevitably grow, shrink and transform themselves as victorious regimes try to erase all manifestations of their predecessors, such inflexibility is a hostage to fortune.

Internally, the configurations of the bowl-shaped assembly chamber, the spiral circulation ramp and the rings of offices are obstinately resistant to any change of use. Externally, the free-standing lop-sided beehive shape is even more resistant to extension. This a serious problem, because in the first three years of its life, the number of building occupants has grown to 650, well above the 426 the building was designed for. The only way to fit them in has been to pack them into the office floors at higher density.

The Conservative party says it has been asked to give up some of its office space for administrative staff but has refused. Suggestions that additional staff could be moved into a new office building at Southwark, one mile distant, have been curtly dismissed by mayor Ken Livingstone.

City Hall basics

London’s City Hall was purpose-built in 2002 to house the newly constituted mayor of London and the Greater London Authority. Sited on the South Bank facing the Tower of London, the 10-storey 18,000 m2 building takes the unprecedented shape of a lop-sided beehive, with each floor displaced slightly beyond the floor below. The assembly chamber on the first floor comes with a double ramp spiralling through a void above it right up to roof level. Seven horseshoe-shaped floors of offices embrace the spiral ramp and are topped by a civic hall dubbed “London’s living room”.

The building was developed by More London and leased to the GLA over 25 years. Designed by Foster and Partners, with Arup as structural and services engineer and Davis Langdon as quantity surveyor, it was built with Maceas construction manager.


Secret exemplar

City Hall has been proclaimed by Livingstone and the GLA website as “a new landmark for London” that sets standards for sustainable low-energy buildings. But repeated approaches by Building to carry out an even-handed appraisal of the building in use were rebuffed by the mayor’s office.

Instead, Building has used the Freedom of Information Act and accepted invitations to visit by the Conservative and Lib Dem parties. Written answers to our enquiries said that: “To date we have not received any building-related complaints”. But Tony Arbour, Conservative assembly member, says: “To be blunt, they’re not telling the truth” and refers to complaints about internal temperatures and filthy glazing.

Unmistakable public icon

“The principal advantage of the building is that it is instantly recognisable, and it does personify London government just as much as the old County Hall,” says Arbour. “This is quite significant.” The building’s iconic impact is borne out by the constant stream of tourists who stop outside for photo opportunities as if it were on a par with the Tower of London.

Internally, the assembly chamber and the public ramp that spirals up around it are even more awesome and together represent in built form the transparency of the democratic process. Likewise, London’s living room, with its 10th-floor panorama of Tower Bridge and central London, “works well for big set-piece occasions”, according to the Lib Dem’s Tuffrey.

But Liberal Democrat employee Richard Stokoe points out that the front door, which issues visitors into a gloomy pit below the council chamber, is not welcoming.

“Members of the public don’t realise they can just walk in, and that’s a pity because the chamber and ramp up above are breathtaking,” he says. And Tuffrey reckons that the cafeteria-like public dining room in the basement leaves much to be desired. “I wouldn’t dream of giving visitors lunch there,” he says.

Attractive civic spaces

The building is surrounded by publicly accessible external spaces that are paved in charcoal-grey limestone, exploit the riverbank site and project a suitably civic character. To one side lies a shallow amphitheatre, or “Scoop”, which can be reached from both the riverside walk above and the basement restaurant below. Tourists and local office workers find it an inviting bowl in which to take a break. Free musical events at lunchtime and dramatic performances in the evening are regularly staged to audiences of up to 1000 people. The Scoop is bounded on two sides by an external exhibition area and a model of the world.

Radiant halls, gloomy dungeons

The people working in the building have to contend with a mix of uplifting and depressing spaces. The office spaces are enhanced by ample daylight and panoramic views through the window wall, but the bright, fresh effect is undermined by filthy, streaked glass.

Arbour is exhilarated during assembly meetings by “the absolutely magnificent views” across the river. But the Tories and Lib Dems are united in condemning the 10 internal committee rooms in the basement. “They are like dungeons down there,” says the Lib Dems’ Tuffrey. “They are soulless, grey, artificially lit and deadly dull for all the scrutiny work we have to do.”

Blowing hot and cold

“The internal environment is very comfortable, given how much glass there is,” says Lib Dem employee Richard Stokoe.

But Tory employee Jan Henderson describes the internal environment as “vile”. “The air is blown up from the floor and down from the ceiling, and I’m constantly complaining,” she says. “Nobody is ever comfortable, and we keep extra scarves and jerseys in case it gets too cold.” Her colleague, Tory assembly member Roger Evans, adds: “The temperature differential between one room and another can be vast.”

The dissatisfaction may partly derive from the low-energy, mixed-mode ventilation system, which is operated by an uneasy combination of automatic electronic and users’ manual controls. Office users are free to open or shut the manually operated ventilation flaps that are fitted directly below each window at desk level. But users complain that when they open a flap, they are disturbed by the noise of a mechanical fan that switches on at the same time, and others complain of cold draughts.

And Evans comments: “We were told by the facilities managers not to the open the vents because it turns off the entire air-conditioning system.”

Bright but noisy

As it is surrounded by window walls, the building has plenty of daylight, which is complemented by artificial lighting mounted in the ceilings. Even Henderson, who is so critical of the bulding’s internal temperatures, concedes: “The lighting suits me fine.” The daylight can be regulated by occupants through manually controlled horizontal louvres set in the cavity of each panel.

In addition to the noise of people using the ramps disturbing assembly meetings, acoustic problems are posed by the narrow curving strips of open-plan offices.

“It’s difficult to have conversations,” says Richard Stokoe. “Sometimes I have to shout, and this disturbs everyone. And sometimes it is difficult to have intimate chats without being overheard.”

A low-ish energy building

City Hall does not live up to the loudly trumpeted claim by the GLA that it would use just one quarter of the energy for air-conditioning of a comparable office building.

The facilities management department gives total unit energy in gas and electricity consumed during the financial year 2004/5 as 376 kWh/m2 of treated (that is, environmentally controlled) floor area. By its own admission, this is 50% above the energy consumption target of 250 kWh/m2 set at design stage. It is also 8% above the DETR’s good practice guide for prestige office buildings including national administration centres, although it is 34% below that of typical ones.

The design team’s intention had been to cut energy consumption by a novel combination of architectural form and natural energy sources. The building’s efficient spherical shape reduces the external envelope by 25% and the south-facing overhangs cut solar gain in summer.

The environmental system combines displacement and natural ventilation and perimeter heating. Cooling is provided by chilled beams that avoid conventional refrigerants and instead draw naturally cool water from two 50 m-deep boreholes. The building was credited with an “excellent” rating for design, operation and management by the BRE’s Energy Assessment Method, or BREEAM.

The FM department blames the higher-than-anticipated energy usage on the building’s higher-than-anticipated occupancy level. In a written response to the Lib Dem’s Tuffrey, it said: “City Hall now houses around 650 staff [an increase of 53% on original projections] and due to its use as a conference and event venue for large numbers of guests, is being operated for over 50 more hours a year than originally envisaged.”

Conscious that City Hall has been using 50% more energy than originally planned, the GLA now plans to increase its sustainable, renewable energy sources without carbon dioxide emissions.

In September it decided to install photovoltaic solar energy panels on the roof, as had originally been planned. Costing £500,000 (including a £270,000 grant from the DTI), the photovoltaics should generate up to 81 kW.

Shattered glass

Eleven large panes of glass in the building have shattered since it opened. The Conservatives claim that four glazed internal partitions on the seventh floor spontaneously shattered in one week alone in 2004. “They showered us in glass,” says Tory assembly member Bob Neill.

A GLA spokesperson said: “For the internal panels, the problem was traced to a nickel sulphate inclusions, and for the two external panels it was a range of factors, including vandalism.”

Filthy windows

The bright, fresh daylit interiors behind the wrap-around window wall are marred by filthy windows. Not only is the external face of the triple-glazed window wall visibly blotched with dirt, but many of the internal panes bear unsightly streaks left over by dribbles of dirty water.

Conservative party employees claim that the external surfaces are cleaned about every six months, even though the 25-page manual for the building’s window and fabric maintenance recommends that the glass be cleaned once every two months. The longer intervals between cleaning follow an accident last year, when a cleaning platform on a mobile crane toppled over, smashed through a sixth-floor window. This led to the evacuation of the whole building.

Lift and toilet breakdowns

“The assembly chairman, Brian Coleman, was stuck in the lift when it broke down,” says the Conservative’s Arbour.

“Afterwards he asked why it took them so long to come and help him, and he was told the alarm button in the lift went to an external call centre.”

The toilets throughout the entire building break down for days on end every six months or so, claim Conservative employees.

User involvement discouraged

A help desk is run by the FM department, but reaction to it is mixed. Veronica Nicholas of the Lib Dems says: “They are quite efficient in dealing with complaints,” but Tory party staff are more critical. There is also an FM user group of staff members, but the Conservative employees dismiss it as “a complete waste of time”. Building maintenance is contracted out to EMCOR Facilities Services.

Even assembly members admit they have little impact on how the building is run. “It’s not really our building,” says Arbour. “It’s Ken’s building.”