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Irish Times: UN starts to 'walk the walk' on eco buildings

A computer-generated image of the planned United Nations building in
Podgorica, Montenegro - it is to be the UN's first zero-energy standard building

The UN's new building in the capital of Montenegro - to be built to zero-energy standards - could mark a radical departure for the agency.
  
writes Frank McDonald Environment Editor
 
Thursday, July 3, 2008  -  GETTING THE United Nations to go green was like "turning around the Condoleeza Rice supertanker", according to Dubliner Garret Kelly. But construction work is about to start on its first "eco-building", in Podgorica, capital of Montenegro, where he headed the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) until last week.
 
"The UN has been a global leader on climate change policy and adaptation for years, but until now it has never had a country office anywhere in the world which is being built to zero-energy standards," he said. "It's taken five years to get to this point where they're finally walking the walk rather than just talking the talk." Kelly, a leading figure in Students Against the Destruction of Dublin 20 years ago, has been based in the Balkans since 1996, when he served as an election observer in Bosnia. After marrying a Bosnian, he changed his surname to Tankosic-Kelly; he now lives in Sarajevo with his wife Tanya and their two children.
 
Even before he became director of the UNDP in Montenegro, he came up with the idea of building an environmentally-sustainable new headquarters for all four UN agencies with offices there. As he keeps pointing out, Podgorica is fortunate to have 265 sunny days per year - so solar energy clearly has great potential. Kelly was aware that Austria was a trail-blazer for eco- architecture and had an interest in the Balkans because of its own history, and he managed to persuade Vienna's ambassador in Belgrade to fund an architectural competition - limited to Austrian architects - for the project on a prominent riverside site in Podgorica.
 
The site, right beside the city's Calatrava-style Millennium Bridge, was donated by its mayor, Miomir Mugosa, and the project is being funded by the government of Montenegro, whose foreign minister took part in judging the competition two years ago; the winner was a relatively young Innsbruck architect, Daniel Fügenschuh. He envisaged a single-storey building, embedded in the landscape, that would present itself as a horizontal counterpart to the adjoining bridge, Podgorica's newest landmark. Solar panels floating above the roof slab act will as a shading device while providing enough energy to meet the building's annual energy demands.
 
Water from the River Morac will be used to cool the building in summer and heat it in the winter, with the aid of a solar-powered heat pump. The single roof slab will be perforated with large openings to provide both natural light and ventilation for the building's 1,400sq m (15,070sq ft) of office space for UN agency staff. Construction of the building, which is expected to cost €5.5 million, will be paid for by the government of Montenegro, in line with its unusual constitutional commitment - adopted in 1992 - to be an "ecological state".
 
Indeed, this exemplary project was seen as an opportunity for the country to "put its money where its mouth is". What's also unusual - and in the UN's case, unprecedented - is that the Austrian Development Agency is contributing €900,000 to cover the cost of all equipment for environmental technology and building services; this is the first time any member state of the United Nations has part-funded a UN building outside its own territory. Austrian ambassador Florian Raunig said the Montenegrins needed money and "psychological support" to move the project forward, and Austria was happy to provide this.
 
He noted that there was a "strengthening market" for solar cells throughout the Balkans, but such a "payback" was not his country's primary concern. "The reason we are doing this is because environmental protection and energy efficiency is one of main sectors of Austrian co-operation in the region," he told The Irish Times. "We have experience in this field, plus the political will to introduce these techniques into the Balkans."
 
There are still Austrian fortresses in the mountains of Montenegro. "When the building is finished, it can serve as an example all over the region and could also have an effect throughout the UN system," the ambassador said. "Even [UN secretary-general] Ban ki Moon has spoken about it, so perhaps it will be adopted as future policy - not only talking about climate change, but doing something."
 
The UNDP's is funding consulting engineers King Shaw Associates to work on the project as well as providing construction supervision. As Garret Kelly said: "This has been an enormous learning curve for people here, so we need quality control to ensure that it will be among the top 10 per cent most eco-friendly premises in Europe." Certainly, many of the new buildings springing up in Podgorica amidst the construction boom that's now gripping the city could not be said to reflect Montenegro's commitment to be an "ecological state".
 
Flashy vulgarity is the prevalent style, and it's hard to imagine that the developers paid any attention to "zero carbon" notions. One notable exception is the Hotel Podgorica, which was originally built in 1967 on the riverbank by a renowned Montenegrin architect, Svetlana Kana Radevic. Terraced in form, it was renovated a few years ago and now has rooms that meet the expectations of visiting business people, many of whom come from Russia.
 
Even the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Urban Planning concedes that around 80 per cent of new buildings completed over the past decade in Montenegro were erected illegally. These include the vast Hotel Splendid in the Adriatic resort of Becici, another Russian venture that was promoted by the government. The Kombinat Aluminium plant - Montenegro's biggest industry, and the source of 40 per cent of its exports - was established by Tito, but it's now owned by a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska; he had his visa to travel to the US cancelled last year because of an FBI investigation into his alleged links with organised crime in Russia.
 
Podgorica was once called Titograd, but reverted to its original name in 1992. The Yugoslav leader's principal legacy to the city, which was extensively damaged during the second World War, was to have it rebuilt on Socialist lines, with boulevards flanked by apartment blocks and shops, restaurants and bars at street level. Though quite far inland, the city has a Mediterranean atmosphere and its public spaces are full of life, particularly in the evenings. What people will make of the new UN building is anybody's guess; it has already been likened to a laptop because of the flat roof covered by solar panels. But it should make them stop and think.
 
Irish Times,
Thursday, July 3, 2008