‘Palmatraz’: Inside the Cubicles of the World’s Leading Green Tech Company

Sustainable energy, check; low emissions, check; hundreds of rows of parked cars, huh?

If you haven’t already heard of Abengoa, which is based in Seville, southern Spain, you soon will: it’s coming to the U.S. in a big way. The multinational tech company is currently building two major solar thermal power stations, both due for completion in 2013. One of these, Solana in Arizona, will be the largest of its kind in the world with a stratospheric budget of $2 billion. With an output of 280MW, it will be able to power 70,000 homes. It will also give a massive jolt to the local economy, and spur some new office space.

As you know, we love poking our heads into OPC (Other People’s Cubicles). What we’ve discovered is that high-tech companies these days tend to lead the way in offering quirky, stimulating workplaces for their employees. While the headquarters of this technology company gets the thumbs up in terms of sustainability, it’s not as creative as you’d expect for a modern, cutting-edge company. It also has some unexpectedly backwards policies in terms of fume-spewing and clock-watching.

Abengoa’s Campus Palmas Altas (meaning: Tall Palms) makes their own electricity using a variety of methods, including photo-voltaic panels, parabolic troughs, and a tri-generation plant (which produces electricity, heat and cold). In all, they produce 70% of the energy they consume. Impressive – this is 164,000 square feet of offices we’re talking about.

Their premises – seven low-rise blocks – are cooled using vigas frias (chilled beams), metal pipes that run through the ceiling, filled with cold water. The temperature of the liquid adjusts to the air, keeping the 2,500 boffins at a comfortable, constant temperature. That is no mean feat in Seville, where summer temperatures often top 115 degrees.

Other ways of dealing with the fierce Andalucian sun include self-shading. The buildings are arranged in a linear layout so that each block protects the next from those rays. But they make the most of natural lighting, thanks to glass walls; there are also horizontal shades, and some buildings have huge fixed-position glass screens, which cut the glare by up to 40%.

Such is the sustainable nature of this complex that’s been certified as LEED Platinum, the first to earn this distinction in Europe. It also won the Excellence in Design Award from the American Institute of Architects’ UK Chapter.

However, some aspects of the campus strike us as strange, from the uninspiring buildings to the wholly un-ecological transport situation. Unnerving, too: the monitoring of employees’ movements. I’m talking, spooky, Big Brother-type monitoring.

In terms of the building’s design, as award-winning and sustainable as it may be, it leans towards the prosaic rather than the stunningly visual. Architect Richard Rogers, Pritzker Prize winner, maverick designer of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and, closer to home, World Trade Center Tower 3, says the scheme “creates a new model for the business park, one that is… more compact and urban than conventional business parks”.

Moreover, since Abengoa required such a large site, the offices are located in a dead area next to a freeway. As such, public transport is virtually non-existent thus creating a major sticking point. How is that such an ostensibly green company could end up with a gargantuan car parking area sprawled out next to it? It’s as big as the campus itself and a visible reminder of polluting emissions and personal accountability thereof.

The spaces closest to the offices (under them, in fact) are for pregnant women, those with young children at the on-site nursery (highly innovative in backwards southern Spain), and those with mobility issues. Social awareness 10 points; pollution control, 0 points.

To be fair, the company is trying to implement various alternative transport ideas – cycle lanes, carpooling, free shuttle buses – but for a visitor, the first impression of this company, whose motto is “innovative technology for sustainability,” smacks of, “we heart fossil fuels.”

With an on-site gym and restaurants, Abengoa is doing its best to keep its 2,500 employees around all day – it’s very unusual in Andalucia not to nip home for lunch at ones mom’s place (most under 35s live at home) followed by a siesta. You might be thinking, and…so what? But for a Spaniard, that comes as a major culture shock. All activities, including restaurant visits and photocopying, are monitored by their electronic ID tag. Any and all transgressions are penalized.

These curtailments in movement have led to the nicknames “Centro Penitenciario Abengoa” and “Palmatraz” among staff.

Abengoa is a force to be reckoned with in the solar power world. They’ve just secured $400 million of funding from a U.S. private equity firm and are behind a $2 billion solar power project in the Mojave Desert. Indeed, they are showing us the way forward in the green economy. But let’s hope they sort out some buses soon – and advance their work/life initiatives into the 21st Century.

Images: Panal Lira; Mark Bentley Photography; El Mundo; David Aureo

Fiona Flores Watson

Fiona Flores Watson covers Places & Spaces for EcoSalon and currently resides in Seville, Spain.