It is winter. Clouds and wind change the light patterns as the sun works to thread its way between cumulus clouds or hazy vapors rising from treetops. On rare days the sun shines bright in a clear sky. Traffic always picks up on those days as people find excuses to justify getting outside their cubicles and homes to see the sun.
The ability to observe the changing patterns of weather and see the day wax and wane helps humans feel connected to life and provides perspective to our tiny bubble of day-to-day concerns.
Architects in some colder climates have made it possible for people to experience that connection while in the work and retail space.
Notice in the first photo how the building has an outer skin that acts like a greenhouse to shelter the building from wind while letting in warmth and light.
The second photo is an exterior view.
This is the Unilever headquarters building in Hamburg.
Unilever is a multinational corporation with a philanthropic mission. They own such brands as Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Dove, Lipton Tea, Vaseline and a variety of European home care, personal care and nutritional products.
Notice in the third and fourth photos how the interior is lit from the outside.
Unilever's headquarters, designed by Behnisch Architekten, houses retail shops on the lower levels and office space above with a central atrium in the middle. "The building follows the principles of holistic, sustainable architecture. While implementing technologies that help save resources, the energy concept adheres to the principle of avoiding technical solutions wherever possible."
To put it another way, the building structure does most of the work of heating and cooling with little need for additional mechanical processes.
For example: "The office area is cooled by means of thermally activated reinforced concrete ceilings. A single-layer film facade placed in front of the building's insulation glazing protects the daylight-optimized blinds from strong wind and other weather influences."
Where needed the office spaces themselves are lit with a newly developed survace mounted device - light emitting diode (SMD-LED) system "deployed both for the building's general lighting and for workplace lighting. This system is up to seventy per cent more efficient than conventional halogen or metal halide lighting."
The building was completed in 2009 and is 409,000 square feet. It is located in Hamburg, Germany on the river Elbe, an important shipping hub. Additional photos are available on the Behnisch Architekten website.
Business owners, employees and residents of Seattle, Portland and other major metropolitan areas would benefit if innovative designs such as this became the new standard in building design.
The benefits would include a reduction in energy needs, reduction in cost of operation and maintenance and increased employee productivity and comfort. Some progress has been made with the help of progressive ideas from local architects such as Mithun, but much can be learned from our European allies.