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Thirty years of Dublin city’s Green Building — a structure ahead of its time

‘I think the 30th anniversary does suggest some sort of celebration and an explanatory note … to explain its genesis because it has a future’

If you stand at the bottom of Georges Street facing Temple Bar and look up, you’ll see two arrays of solar panels on the top of a building. So far, so 2024. What is more surprising is that the same panels have been up there for 30 years, supplying electricity to an A-rated building that was a big novelty when it opened its doors, but whose innovations are only now being implemented on a national scale.

The Green Building was conceived in collaboration between Tim Cooper, then director of buildings at Trinity College, and Murray O’Laoire architects. Cooper had become aware of global warming as a student. “I was a numbers person and it was clear to me that the planet was going to overheat because of the overconsumption of fossil fuels.”

He was inspired by the Museum Building in Trinity, which had been built in 1856. “It’s a remarkably energy-efficient building. What look like chimneys are actually stacks of ventilation devices. It has a central atrium, and the holes in the ornamental stonework are to ensure it is ventilated naturally. It had high thermal inertia; it took a week to heat up and a week to cool down.”

Cooper used it as the basis for the brief for a green building, for which there was a European grant going under the Thermie programme. He and Murray O’Laoire architects went around various developers, but the only ones interested were Temple Bar Properties.


Bernard Gilna was the project architect on the building. “It fitted their agenda to do to do something that was a bit left field. They were willing to take the risk that other developers weren’t, because obviously it was an experimental building and things may go wrong. And things did go wrong!”

“It was a collision of circumstances and fate”, says Sean O’Laoire who led the design team. “Some of the themes in my mind, besides the issue of energy, were themes that are still very important and challenging; how do you create places for people to live and work, how do you create streets that work.” The final design consisted of two retail levels, at basement and ground level, an office level, and three residential floors with eight apartments in total, all built around a central light-filled atrium.

To get the European grant the case had to be made based on reduced C02 emissions. It was designed to have high thermal inertia, with the maximum use of renewable energy. Apart from the solar panels, three wind turbines were placed on the roof, as well as solar thermal collectors for hot water.

Cooper had been involved in experiments with Trinity, testing boreholes in Dublin city centre, and knew there was potential for ground source energy using a water-to-water heat pump. A borehole 150m deep was dug under the building. Water circulates through the system, extracts heat from limestone as it ascends, and supplies the building’s underfloor heating.

Because the streets are so narrow, the Green Building does not stand out as much as it might in another location. With frontage on two streets, Crow Street and Temple Lane, the most notable external features are the doors and balconies, which involve artwork featuring recycled materials.

“There was a collective view, for better or worse, that the language of the building should be at least novel, if not different,” says O’Laoire. “Hence the Remco de Fouw door which is a fantastic piece of work. On the other facade is a door by Maud Cotter made with found materials from computer plants and rubbish dumps, so there was a kind of polemic that you could use precious resources which otherwise would return to the earth or God knows where.”

Inside the atrium, the hubbub of Temple Bar melts away. It is full of plants, which play a key role in reconditioning the internal air, and the roof opens in summer.

Ricardo da Silva has lived in it for three years and says friends who rent elsewhere in Dublin are very impressed. His livingroom has one of the semi-circular bay windows, which move around to create a small balcony. “For me, working from home, and being from Brazil, it’s really important not to feel that I live in a box. And with the underfloor heating, I can walk around without shoes. It’s really comfortable.”

As for the noise from Temple Bars pubs, he says he doesn’t hear much but is very happy that the bedrooms are on the inside facing the atrium.

While the building opened to significant acclaim, its experimental nature led to some teething problems, particularly involving ventilation and window insulation. The biggest issue was the wind turbines, which generated vibrations that led to too much disturbance for the residents. “We demonstrated pretty conclusively that small wind turbines don’t work in urban environments,” says Cooper, who admits it was a massive relief when they were finally taken down.

On the other hand, the project led to a breakthrough that went on to have an impact on national policy. Initially, the solar panels were off-grid and connected to batteries. However in 2006 after a lengthy and complicated application process, the building became the first solar PV [photovoltaic] project to be connected to the national grid. Cooper went on to help draft the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland standards for residential microgeneration which came into effect in 2022 and which along with new grants has led to the current boom in solar panel installation.

The 2006 grid connection also meant the building became a wholesale supplier and customer, and to this day it can buy electricity at a lower rate particularly when surplus wind power is available.

The building’s renewable energy output has been monitored throughout its existence, helped by the fact that Cooper bought one of the apartments and remains centrally involved. An independent report on the water-to-water heat pump carried out in 2021 concluded it was consistently outputting 27.4 kilowatts (kw). Based on that figure Cooper calculates it has prevented 140 tonnes of CO2 emissions over its lifetime, as compared to the use of a gas boiler at 90 per cent efficiency. The electricity cost to run the heat pump for the entire building is less than €1,000 a year.

The solar PV system has been remarkably stable, with an average output of 2,820 kw/h per year, preventing an estimated 27 tonnes of CO2 emissions since installation. It supplies about a quarter of the building’s demand and also exports surplus electricity to the grid.

The project has also been generating data of a more alarming nature. Cooper measures the temperature of the groundwater at the bottom of the borehole once a year, just before the heat pump is switched back on after the summer (to avoid its operation being a factor). It has risen by 2.5 degrees from the baseline of 12.5 degrees he measured in 1993.

“I can’t think of any other reason apart from climate change that it would be so much warmer now than 30 years ago. We know that global temperatures are increasing but it is shocking to see it.”

What is also shocking is that it has taken 30 years for heat pumps and solar panels to become mainstream. “I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed,” says Cooper. “What drives the construction industry is money. Until recently energy has been too cheap, and it has resulted in a lifestyle and a building fabric dependent on fossil fuels.”

“It was ground-breaking, but people now are astounded that it wasn’t carried on and repeated again”, says Gilna. “It was looked on at the time as a bit extreme, more hippy than hipster. Things slowly evolved to where we are now, but it was a long time coming.”

O’Laoire believes the 30th anniversary should be marked in some way. “I’m generally very proud of the achievement at the time, in terms of urban fabric, mixed use, energy performance and the integration of artists. I think the 30th anniversary does suggest some sort of celebration, and an explanatory note on the building to explain its genesis, its current status and its aspirations for the future, because it has a future.”

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