Bay gears up for a new look to take city into the modern business age

Ever since the black gold of the South Wales Valleys turned Cardiff into the one of the busiest ports in the world more than 100 years ago, the Bay area has been the spiritual home of the capital's business community. But although the area of the city might have remained the same, the architecture of its commercial buildings are unrecognisable, as Rob Jones explains age


AT the turn of the 19th century, Cardiff was far from the bustling European capital we know today.


A market town making little use of its coastal advantage, its 10,000 residents would have been surprised to know what would come of their insignificant dwelling in just a few decades time.


Thanks to the coal unearthed by the miners of the Rhondda and the neighbouring valleys, the strategic port of Cardiff became a commercial centre of importance on the world's stage. 


And just as growing companies of the 21st century need somewhere to house their ambitions, the deal-makers of the day needed a suitably grand building in which to conduct the deals of the largest coal exporting town in the world.


The Coal Exchange was built in Mount Stuart Square between 1883 and 1886 to the designs of local architect firm James, Seward and Thomas. Its architecture befitted a place which would soon host the world's first recorded million-pound business deal.


Unique, paired Corinthian columns, an oak balcony, and rich wood panelling adorn the trading hall, which was magnificently reconstructed by Edwin Seward in 1911. It was in these distinctive, grandiose surroundings that Cardiff's leading businessmen – the owners of coal mines, shipping firms and of allied businesses met to fix their deals, often with far-flung countries.


Fast-forward 100 or so years and Cardiff's leading businessmen don't own coal mines or shipping firms anymore, but work in sectors as diverse as finance, IT, biosciences and the creative industries.

And just as with the changing professions, the shift in the look and feel of the buildings they inhabit couldn't be more different either.


Just yards away from the Coal Exchange, developers Aviva have offered a 21st century solution to the demands of today's business community. Whereas a century ago, opulent wooden veneers would have matched the extravagance of nouveau riche traders, the needs of business in the midst of the recession are different.


The green agenda has risen to be one of the most important motivators for businesses looking to make a statement when they choose a home in which to see their business grow. Green is most definitely 'in'.

Aviva recognised this with 3 Assembly Square, which opened this year at Cardiff Waterside, scoring an "excellent" on the environmental building grading system Breeam.


But the developers didn't act on a fad or a whim.


The reason green is "in" is because it's good for the financial return to the investor.

 M&A Solicitors and Gambit Corporate Finance are the first tenants to occupy the building on Britannia Quay.


Over the coming years the benefits of their surroundings to their business will be manifold.


They won't only benefit from the kudos of being based in an energy efficient building in a post-Copenhagen world where we all know we need to cut our emissions to meet targets.


Nor will they only benefit from the likelihood of winning more business from clients who favour greener firms. They'll also benefit from reductions in running costs.


Designed by architects Scott Brownrigg and sustainability consultants Arup, 3 Assembly Square's green features will see energy, water, maintenance and replacement costs slashed by 34% overall against a comparable building.


And businesses looking to move into green buildings needn't worry that they're going to be left with something that's not aesthetically pleasing.


Far from only being energy efficient, buildings like 3 Assembly Square really are setting the architectural tone for the next decade.


While the glass-fronted building doesn't feature a wooden trading floor, it does have a 22-metrehigh full-height atrium with staircase and lifts designed as a single sculptural form.


The traders of the Coal Exchange would have to shout loud to be heard from one end to the other of it.

That's if they weren't distracted by the panoramic views across Cardiff Bay.


Distinctive timber louvres and a free-standing brise soleil (or "sun-breaker" in French) shade the building from the sun, preventing the high-angle summer sun falling onto the glass facade but also allowing the low-angle winter sun to provide some passive solar heating.


And in a nod to the industrial history of the area, the atrium features an art installation called Pressure Makes Diamonds, in which 3,000 pieces of coal hang from vertical steel wires.


While the architecture might look several periods away, some of the methods used for making the building energy efficient aren't a million miles from practices of the past.


The building's bio-mass boiler heats wood pellets with the fuel lasting for six or seven weeks at a time, similar to the way buildings years ago would burn fires for heat, fuelled by the activities of the businessmen of the Coal Exchange.


It's the gas boilers that we've used for the past 40 years or so which have turned out to be inefficient.

And the grass-like sedum which covers the roof of 3 Assembly Square is another old fashioned way of insulating and cooling a building, acting like a blanket to keep the sun off and the heat in.


With other tenants sure to join the current occupiers at 3 Assembly Square in 2010, developers Aviva have the future of this Cardiff Waterside business district in their hands with outline planning granted for a further 400,000 sq ft of office accommodation within the development.


Don't be surprised if it's used to create buildings which we can't only be proud of architecturally but in the way they interact with the environment using methods once long forgotten, improving the bottom-line of tenants.


And although the Coal Exchange closed its doors in October 2007 that proposed scheme has now been placed on hold, with Macob, its owners now opting for a phased approach. In the meanwhile over 12,000 sq ft of office space is currently available for rent with plans for a lot more.


You can be assured that the traders that once stalked the floor of the grand old Exchange building would be pleased with both of these outcomes.


Rob Jones is a partner at architecture firm Knight Frank


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