The practice’s first office building in Russia, the RCC (Russian Copper Company) Headquarters in Ekaterinburg, reimagines the conventional cellular workplace to set new standards in quality, comfort and flexibility. The 15-storey building’s innovative modular office units are enveloped in an advanced, triangulated enclosure that is highly energy-efficient and also provides a distinctive architectural symbol for the organisation.
The crown of the building intelligently integrates RCC’s new logo – a gesture made possible by the company’s graphic rebranding having evolved from the architecture itself. The article looks at the innovative design development and complex fabrication and construction processes that led to the creation and installation of this sustainable, eye-catching and technically challenging facade.
Designing from the inside-out
The starting point for the office floors was to rethink common ideas about what a generic headquarters can be and provide a more focused and bespoke approach. This was led by the Russian company’s request to avoid the large-scale and open-plan workspaces of many conventional developments in favour of more tight-knit collaborative spaces and intimate, domestic-scaled offices. (In fact, the word for headquarters in Russian ‘штаб-квартира’ can be literally translated as a ‘house for staff’.)
This approach evolved from numerous collaborative reviews with the client and in-depth studies of their working practices and preferences. The design team carried out an analysis of the client’s operations and ways of working, which concluded that a combination of focused offices, suitable for teams of four and six people, would best serve their operations. The challenge was then to find an arrangement that would allow all workspaces to have an optimal and uniform distribution of natural light while also enabling rapid construction.
These two basic typologies – the four- and six-person office units – were therefore at the heart of the innovative modular system that underpins the design, placing the experience of the staff at the centre of the architectural approach of the entire building.
The team developed a two-storey module from these units, with the smaller four-person workspaces stacked on top of the larger six-person ones. The modules are then arranged in rows on either side of a central hallway, which functions as a breakout space, with lounge seating and views of the city through the fully glazed end wall. A bespoke Y-shaped staircase anchors this central space and provides access to the mezzanines that run alongside the upper units.
Furthering the design’s modular approach, six of these two-storey floor modules were then stacked vertically to generate the building’s primary office levels. Developed in conjunction with the practice’s in-house engineering teams, the building’s modular layout is expressed externally through the double-height facade units that clads each module.
The design of the facade is, therefore, derived directly from the client’s specific ways of working, with the two-storey elements reflecting the tightly integrated and human-scaled workspaces that repeat up the building. With this user-focused foundation, the design team then developed the facade into a visually rich, materially complex and energy-efficient detailed design, in response to the unique context and climate of Ekaterinburg.
Climatic context and response
The city of Ekaterinburg is known for its short, blisteringly hot summers and long, freezing winters, not to mention the significant rain that falls throughout the year. The annual temperature range is between 30 degrees Celsius in the summer and minus 30 degrees Celsius in the winter. This brings a particular set of challenges, as the facade had to be designed to perform well at either temperature extreme. It also had to prioritise abundant natural light due to the normally overcast conditions throughout the year, but without blinding occupants during the sunny summer months.
As such, the distribution of solid and glazed areas across the facade is a careful balancing act. The team started out with a pair of windows for each two-storey module, one for the upper four-person office, and another for the lower six-person office. These were scaled to provide a 1:1 ratio between the opaque wall and transparent glass across the whole module; this would provide an optimal equilibrium between light and shade and minimize heat loss through glazing.
However, simply punching bright central windows in the dark walls would produce uncomfortable levels of contrast and glare, even in the usually overcast conditions of Ekaterinburg. Working with the practice’s Specialist Modelling Group, the team began to explore different options for a facade with a 1:1 glass and wall ratio, including one successful iteration where the entire height of the two-storey facade module is divided vertically, with glazing on one side and solid wall on the other. In this option, the external wall was then tilted outwards, and the angled form worked exceptionally well by bouncing natural light onto the opaque portion of the facade and spreading it more evenly through the interior. This reduced the contrast between wall and glazed portions and provided the added benefit of directing the window area out to views of the city, acting like a bay window.
Furthering this design in response to sun-path analysis, the direction of the divide between solid and glazing evolved from a vertical line to a diagonal one. The upper of the two resultant triangles was set as opaque, while the lower was glazed. This diagonal design, with its broadest areas of glazing at the units’ lower levels, allows in more low-level sun during the winter months, while protecting against the heat and glare of high, direct sunlight during the summer. Additionally, the opaque portions of the facade were capped with a sloped canopy to further minimise solar gain during the summer.
Every facade model features triple glazing with a light grey coating on the glass to reduce heat gain. The opaque portions are clad in durable, micro-ribbed stainless-steel panels, coloured to mimic the tone of copper, in keeping with RCC’s industrial roots, while avoiding that material’s tendency to oxidise and turn green in the open air. The result is a warm, burnished metal facade of repeating, angled modules, cut dramatically with facets of glass.
In total, 160 facade modules envelope the entire building. The standard two-storey, ten-metre-by-six-metre module, weighing 8,500 tonnes, is used across the majority of the tower, while the lower-most modules, wrapping the building’s double-height ground-floor lobby, are slightly taller, measuring 12 metres.
Such scale and complexity meant that construction and installation of the facade posed the design and contractor teams a number of challenges, both geographic and operational, which catalysed further innovation and a series of ‘firsts-of-its-kind’ in the Russian building industry.
Given the intricate geometry and composition of the repeating facade panel, there were several mock-ups built to test its performance, both in factory conditions and then on-site.
To certify the bespoke facade for air tightness, fire rating, water tightness and acoustics, the cladding consultant produced a performance mock-up that consisted of two full facade modules and two quarter modules. This was then rigorously tested to assess the design, engineering and construction details such as the material junctions.
The modules were prefabricated in a purposed-built factory in Russia, before being shipped to Bielefeld, Germany, where three main tests were carried out to assess water and air tightness. The facade modules were built onto the back of a sealed chamber, so the assessors could amend the pressure and record the performance of the facade modules’ cladding and structure during the dramatic warping and deflections caused by the pressure changes. The team were pleased to witness the modules pass with flying colours.
Due to the import restrictions in Russia, the fabrication and assembly of the facade had to be carried out locally. The design team and our local collaborators together rose to the challenge and developed dedicated manufacturing units to make the unique panels for the building. Using specialised 3D plasma cutters and robotic welding arms for the stainless steel, the complex geometrical junctions of the frame were carefully fabricated to a tolerance of three microns per metre in a bespoke factory unit. The frame was then transported to an on-site hanger, where the external stainless-steel panels and glazing were affixed, and the completed module was installed onto the building.
The demanding testing and prototyping enabled the design team to continuously refine and develop the facade throughout the design and construction process. The result is a one-of-a-kind integrated modular facade that performs for the building’s users, responds to the region’s climate, and offers a new architectural symbol for RCC in Ekaterinburg.
The project exemplifies the practice’s commitment to technical and material innovation, energy-efficient and sustainable design and people-centric spatial and environmental architecture. The integrated team developed a holistic vision that is rooted in the way RCC operates as an organisation and prioritised the wellbeing of the company’s staff. Through this process, the project has also revolutionised and rehabilitated a traditional idea of cellular office working and created a flexible modular system that responds to the changing patterns of work and seasonal cycles of nature.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazine’s Summer 2021 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Luke Fox is a head of studio at the practice and part of the Design Board. He leads a team of designers in London, Hong Kong and Beijing on a wide range of international projects. He is originally from Sydney, Australia and studied architecture at the University of Sydney. After graduating he worked in New York and he joined Foster + Partners in 1998.
Luke has worked on many signi cant projects varying from infrastructure and o‑ ces to hospitality and residential. His recent schemes include new o‑ ces for Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba, in Shanghai; Jeddah Metro, where the practice was appointed to develop the architectural vision for Jeddah’s city-wide public transport plan; Sydney Metro’s new station designs; the design of four Haramain High Speed Rail stations in Saudi Arabia, connecting the cities of Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah and the developing King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC); Lusail Stadium in Qatar, the iconic venue for the 2022 World Cup; Murray Hotel, a new luxury hotel in Central Hong Kong; a new Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of Makkah for Jabal Omar; a new Headquarters for RMK in Russia using high quality exposed concrete structure; new developments in Russia, China, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam; the Slussen masterplan in the heart of Stockholm, Sweden and mixed-use residential schemes in Lebanon and Kuala Lumpur.
Client: RCC (Russian Copper Company)
Collaborating Architect: P.M. VostokProekt
Structural Engineer: Foster + Partners (Conceptual Design), VostokProekt, OOO
Environmental Engineer: Foster + Partners (Concept), VostokProekt, OOO
Landscape Architect: Hyland Edgar Driver
Lighting Engineer: Jason Bruges Studio