Scribbler in Seville

Solar power and Moorish pools

Buildings of Campus Palmas Altas, headquarters of Abengoa.

Yesterday, as part of Architecture Week here in Seville, I went on a guided tour of the main offices of Abengoa, the technology company which has used innovative new methods to build ground-breaking solar power stations, such as Solucar, near the city. This platform uses a “power tower” system, where hundreds of mirrors reflect the sun’s rays onto a main tower, where the concentrated solar energy produces steam, which is used to drive a turbine. If you’ve ever driven from Seville towards Huelva, you’ll have noticed the other-wordly, James-Bond-villain deadly-weapon-light emanating from three very tall, thin towers just down the hill from Sanlucar La Mayor. That’s solar power visibly in action. And they’re also building the world’s largest solar plant, Solana, in Arizona: budget 1.5 billion euros.

Parabolic trough on the roof of Palmas Altas - the sun's rays hit the long, curved panel, and the solar thermal energy produced heats tube of oil behind it; the heat then produces steam, to drive a turbine.

Being in the business of renewable energy, it is only natural that their buildings are constructed to the highest standards in terms of sustainability and low emissions. With solar-energy-producing parabolic troughs on the roof, as well as photo-voltaic panels and a trigeneration plant (producing electricity, heat and cold at once), the offices produce 70% of the electricity they consume.

Screen to reduce glare from the sun. The evening pink tone adds a nice touch, don't you think?

Massive screens reduce the glare from the sun on blocks’ south-facing windows by 40%, while the offices have plate-glass windows to allow maximum natural lighting. The seven blocks are also positioned so as to shade each other. The complex, which also features Arabic-type gardens, with long, low, rectangular pools featuring fountains and shady trees, was designed by award-winning British architect Richard Rogers. It achieved the LEED Platinum certificate, the highest rating possible for environmentally-friendly structures, from the Green Building Association.

Outdoor living (or working) in Abengoa's sunken gardens, complete with flat fountains.

Arriving at these offices, called Campus Palmas Altas, very close to Seville’s ring road, and the massive Quinto Centenario bridge, you see a huge sprawling car park, with vehicles parked haphazardly in every possible spot, including on roundabouts. Each block also has parking spaces underneath; these are reserved for pregnant women, parents with children in the on-site nursery, and those with mobility issues. But shouldn’t an ostensibly green company encourage its 2,500 employees to leave their cars at home, and take a less fume-spewing, energy-chomping means of transport to get to work?

There is a “study” being made currently, I was told, into the feasibility of various options such as car-sharing; a bus lane has been built, as well as a pedestrian bridge over the SE30 to a park (awaiting permission to open from the City Council). There’s a Metro station nearby, and free shuttle buses are available to take employees from various points of the city centre. But it’s hard to get people to part with their own personal private transport, especially when arriving to such a relatively isolated location. A ver que pasa.

Pedestrian bridge connecting Palmas Altas to the city. Looks nice, but until the licence comes through it's not much practical use.

What I found spookiest about this place, apart from the cold, sterile white office furniture – desks, shelves, even bins are all blindingly snow-coloured – was the passes. With gates like those in a metro station, you have to use your pass to get into, and out of, the campus. You also use it when you order your lunch at one of the site’s restaurants and when you make photocopies. So they can keep track of you. Big brother etc.

Co-ordinated effort: sparkling white desks, filing cabinets and bins.

Working hours are 8.8-30am to 5/5.30pm, with workers strongly encouraged to be off-site by 6pm – you don’t get paid any extra for working late. Lunch is one hour – no breakfast break at 10am, no two-hour lunch break followed by a siesta. That must have been some shock to the system for the slack Sevillanos, who aren’t known either for their punctuality, their observance of working hours, or their industriousness.

You can’t over-emphasise how radical all this is for Seville – staying onsite all day, eating in a canteen, working from 8.30 to 5.30, being closely monitored. The gardens can be used to meet colleagues – there were chairs arranged in small groups in many of the gardens, which was a nice touch. But still, they are very much kept under the company’s close eye.

Inside the offices, workers aren’t allowed to stick anything up on the walls of their workstations, although I did see a few mavericks had snuck in calendars. Risque. If I worked there, and I had an east-facing window, I wouldn’t be able to stop staring out of the window at the amazing view of the Quinto Centenario bridge, which crosses the Guadalquivir river. Especially at night.

Quinto Centenario bridge, with helipad in foreground. Handy for a short heli-hop if the the bridge is snarled up at rush hour, as usual.

This is the sixth of my I-must-be-barking-mad A Post a Day for October. Six down, 25 to go. I think I need to learn from my fellow blogger (and the one who got me into this) Digamama who has been doing some great picture-posts (so to speak) – check them out.

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