How a shuttered London Underground station became a model for green energy

Bunhill 2 Energy Centre in north London. (Credit: Paul Raftery)

This article appears on CityMetric courtesy of Blueprint magazine.

On the corner of a north London street, a world-first energy centre provides a blueprint for decarbonising heat in London and major cities around the world.

Bunhill 2 Energy Centre reuses waste heat from the London Underground system to power 550 homes, a primary school and a leisure centre. What’s more, this groundbreaking facility tucks neatly into the urban landscape, with a compact structure devised by Cullinan Studio, which signals its arrival and its civic intentions with a cladding of copper-hued, perforated aluminium panels.

Bunhill 2 was funded by Islington Council and developed in collaboration with Transport for London and the Mayor of London, with research assisted by a grant from the European Union’s CELSIUS project. The newly completed energy centre is a key part of Islington’s strategy to be zero carbon by 2030. Islington-based Cullinan Studio was in on the project from its gestation, having heard about the proposal in 2014 at a meeting of Islington’s Sustainable Energy Partnership, of which it is a member. Having just completed the University of Warwick’s Cryfield Energy Centre (2014), the practice volunteered its expertise, and was enrolled to work with the Islington Energy Team to help bring this project to fruition.

The scheme entailed the refitting and repurposing of an old London Underground station, City Road, which closed in 1922. Flanked by roads and social housing, the energy centre had to be housed within the existing footprint of the old station and its ventilation shaft, which now houses a huge underground fan that extracts warm air from the Northern Line tunnels below. This air is used to heat water that is then pumped to neighbouring buildings through 1.5km of underground pipes. 

“We were very restricted on where we could put anything – on this building everything had a purpose and a specific requirement,” says Cullinan Studio partner Alex Abbey.

The design evolved over the better part of a year and, as the Islington team got up to speed with the new technologies, different elements were tweaked and added – for example, a thermal store, so hot water could be retained and then distributed as needed.

Every element required adjustments, says Abbey: “We always knew there was a gas turbine going in, but then there were heat pumps going on to the roof and they were noisy, so we had to get acoustic advice, and then right to light issues meant we had to adjust the profile of the building, so it wouldn’t affect the adjacent residents… It was very much form following function in the end.”

However, the client was enthusiastic that the building should make a civic statement – unlike many urban energy structures which either hide their purpose behind large walls or within a boring box.

“They want it to be a celebration of how our cities will function,” says Abbey. “It’s about local providers producing power, reducing carbon, pollution and the energy losses from the grid – there is a huge amount of power lost just from transporting it along the wires.”

The resulting structure is a trapezoid shape, wrapped around three shipping containers placed on a steel shelving system. These house the above-ground plant and machinery and need to be easily accessed at any time; the containers can even slide out and be replaced as technology and maintenance requires. So the exterior facades comprise removable, anodised aluminium perforated panels, with stairs and access points neatly incorporated into the frame.

Credit: Paul Raftery

The perforations follow both an aesthetic and engineering logic: the engineering requirement was to provide greater ventilation the higher up the building you go.

“The panels get more and more perforated, because the chillers on the top need lots of air around them,” says Abbey. “That dictated the patterning. We could have done it in a very rudimentary fashion with a rising amount of perforations, but we wanted to make it more interesting… We had to look at loads of precedents. It came down to an idea of thermal currents, trying to get across the idea of warm air or heat rising. If you look at it closely, it starts off quite chunky and in a diamond pattern and then it interlaces and gets smaller and then gets smaller again, kind of tree-like.”

At the corners, the panels switch to an expanded metal mesh, “purely to differentiate between the corner and the flanks,” says Abbey.

In inserting the building into the street, the Cullinan team adhered to good urban planning principals. “We were trying to respect the building lines of the original station along the street,” Abbey explains. “We tried to give it some scale on the street corner, and stacked it higher there, so it has a bit of presence”.

With a large social housing block immediately behind it, and residential towers (at the time unbuilt) scheduled to arrive across the road from it, “we knew it would be a little thing surrounded by giants”, says Abbey, “but as a result, we wanted to have quality, and give it a quiet sense of purpose and power from the street corner”.

Islington’s brief stipulated a base that was vandal-proof but also attractive. “That set us up with the idea of a plinth and a top,” Abbey says. “So we had some fun with the client looking at old precedents for the site – for example, the original underground station had the classic oxblood tiles on it, and there are a lot of buildings in the London Underground with vitreous enamel panels, which are really tough and good against graffiti.” In the end, Cullinan came up with a two-part base: There is a skirting board of black glazed brick, and above that, black vitreous enamel panels. Set within these are Scottish artist Toby Paterson’s work – his cast aluminium panels with coloured enamel insets are based on the internal layout of flats in the nearby King’s Estate.

Credit: Paul Raftery

With the design finally finished and approved in 2015, the project was handed over to executive architect McGurk Architects. The finished building is “pretty much as we proposed,” Abbey says.

This energy centre substantially boosts the capacity of the existing Bunhill Heat and Power district heating network, which was launched in Islington in 2012. Between them they provide power to 1,350 homes, with the potential to heat up to 2,200, plus the primary school and two local leisure centres. Furthermore, the two-metre fan can be reversed to draw cooler air from above and funnel it into the underground system in the summer months. Heating bills for connected council tenants will be cut by 10% compared to other communal heating systems, which apparently already cost half as much as standalone systems heating individual homes.

“We are very proud to be part of it,” Abbey says. “As a practice we have pushed the agenda of sustainable design for decades. But you can only do so much with a building. The usual power station typology is something that sits on its own, and takes rather than gives. Whereas this building gives, which is great. And it’s providing real change socially, helping to eradicate fuel poverty.”

He concludes: “Hats off to Islington: they went with it and were prepared to pay for high-quality materials. They now have a little jewel on the corner there.”

Veronica Simpson is a senior contributing editor at Blueprint Magazine.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.