Rail Industry Focus


Bringing architecture to life

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Jun/Jul 2012

Howard Penstone, Network Rail’s development manager for the Quadrant:MK and Tim Morrison, director of building services at URS, tell RTM about the latest in sustainable architecture.

A building that breathes has been designed to adapt to today’s environment and look to the future. Employees started moving into the Quadrant:MK, Network Rail’s sustainable new national centre on June 11 – and it has been noted as a leading example of intelligent architecture.

Network Rail’s development manager Howard Penstone and Tim Morrison, director of building services at the project’s environmental consultants URS, described what makes the centre stand out, and how it marks a turning point in attitudes towards environmental innovation.

It wasn’t any one special feature that makes the Quadrant:MK different, Morrison said, but the very concept of working with nature.

“Rather than particular components or bits of technology, what sets this apart is the building itself.”

Passive design

He described how passive design techniques were used to reduce energy consumption, keep capital expenditure down and bring benefits through the life cost of the building. The Quadrant: MK has about 25% of the typical office consumption of energy, and around a third of typical water consumption.

Morrison explained: “Passive design is about orientation of the building, optimising how it sits on the site that allows it to harness all the prevailing winds and the direct solar gains, allows us to maximise the daylight. We did a lot of high-end analysis to test lots of different ‘what ifs’.”

Working together closely to “blend the engineering and the architecture” allowed the development of an unusual building that Morrison described almost in terms of a living organism; breathing, thinking and adapting.

Achieving the right balance of glazing and solid materials were “simple moves that make a massive impact on how the building performs,” he said.

These materials allow heat and daylight to be centrally controlled, based on the changing external environment. The site layout offered the opportunity to explore different ways to configure the building and optimise performance.

He added: “It’s a very different geometry inside.”

The building is naturally ventilated, with atria space acting as ‘lungs’ to draw air in from outside through an operational façade, which is controlled automatically or by the staff themselves to a precise degree, millimetre by millimetre.

“The building breathes through the atria space. We draw cool summer air in overnight and charge it [the concrete slabs] with ‘cool’ for use the following day. When it’s warmer outside the following day it stays cool inside because we’ve charged that concrete,” Morrison said.

The building has been designed to take advantage of these natural changes and adapt appropriately. Temperature, sunlight and wind are constantly measured to maintain an optimum working environment inside.

Shifting attitudes

Such design seems so intuitively beneficial; it is astonishing that it is not more commonplace. The reason for its rarity, Penstone suggested, was simply down to human reluctance to act differently and attempt new ways of working.

He said: “The investment market for buildings has become quite used to office space being fully air conditioned. It’s what tenants expect from their space. That was okay in the 1970s, but we’re living in 2012, where we’ve got some real challenges with sustainability to address.

“Over the last few years people’s attitudes have been shifting and in years to come, especially in locations outside of London where it’s possible to open your windows without smog and dust coming in, naturally ventilated buildings such as ours will be the norm rather than the exception.

“Developers have been slightly resistant to it because it’s not the norm, it’s the exception and they go for the safer thing.”

With rising energy costs and the way people perceive corporate social responsibility changing, Penstone believes that soon people will realise a more sustainable office building pays off in financial and non-financial ways.

Morrison added: “Behaviour and tradition in this market are significant drivers. It did take ambition to make it happen because it would have been a very easy route to just put another glass box there.”

Sustainable living

Given this resistance, it could be questioned whether awareness of sustainability in the rail industry is growing quickly enough, yet Penstone highlighted how Network Rail is actively encouraging further uptake of sustainable development all the way down the supply chain.

“The Quadrant:MK is a place where a lot of people in our supply chains, TOCs and FOCs will visit and [it] can hopefully be a great example of good sustainable design which is delivered cost effectively and on time.”

He added: “I think the people whose lives are being touched by the building will certainly accelerate that rate of change.”

But the Quadrant:MK is not just a building – it is at the centre of a whole new way of life for many people who have uprooted to base themselves there. Many of Network Rail’s senior leaders have talked about the behaviour and cultural changes they hope the building will produce.

Encouraging and educating people about the capabilities it encompasses is an integral part of the success of the project.

Penstone said: “This is a different kind of environment; most people aren’t used to working in a naturally ventilated building, so that’s probably our first challenge.

“We learnt a lot of lessons for how people are educated in the use of the solution and how well this is done ultimately determines how successful the solution is in terms of the environmental quality of the building.”


The Quadrant:MK is certainly ahead of its time, but with technology advancing at breakneck speed and environmental pressures heightening, the design also needed to consider future developments to continually adapt and remain truly sustainable.

Morrison said: “Whilst it’s designed for the here and now and particularly for Network Rail, it’s also been designed to be adaptable for future generations.

“It could be a different occupier. It’s a true reflection of the building’s intelligence if it can be used for other purposes, way into the future.

“It will be able to cope with climate change, different usages, as things move forwards. We’ve made a robust building and spent the time and energy thinking about how we can safeguard the space.”

He identified how the space could be changed to meet future requirements, such as installing PV cells on the roof, change energy source to bio-fuel and install the latest cleaning equipment.

“There is more that can be done in the future, there’s a crackingly good foundation there for this building going on and on and on.”

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