Lingering challenges for UN Geneva’s H Building one year on
Amongst issues with the SHP project, The Geneva Observer revealed in early 2020 a severe litigation opposing Implenia, the company mandated for the new construction, and one of its subcontractors.
A year after its official inauguration, the UN Geneva campus’ newest building remains plagued with problems. From heating challenges to supply chain issues to problematic sub-contractors, the initial CHF 836.5 million budget continues to rise. However, details remain opaque, and files are kept confidential. The facades of the H Building may be all glass, but the building’s ills are anything but transparent. Since its presentation to the press on November 1st, 2021, what can be said about UNOG’s H Building, a 24,000-square-meter sustainable office building that houses 1,500 staff? It seems the promise of an exciting new workplace has not, of yet, convinced staff active behind the building's scenes—a place where the press is no longer welcome, according to the guards stationed at the musty-smelling entrance. In the Strategic Heritage Plan’s (SHP) latest report, a list of recommendations made by the Board of Auditors was still “under implementation.”
Grey areas that add to the CHF 35 million of overspending were pinpointed by the Office of Internal Oversight Services, Internal Audit Division (OIOS) at the end of last year. The 11-page document also identified other weak spots of the global renovation of the Palais des Nations complex, such as risk identification and management, lack of funding for audiovisual changes, and insufficient SHP staff.
“Supply chain issues, global market uncertainty, inflation, and change management may continue to further affect the project schedule and costs,” acknowledges Rhéal LeBlanc, UNOG’s Chief of Press and External Relations. “Since the date of the financial information reported in the December 2021 OIOS report, several successful mitigation actions were taken to reduce costs and delays, including resequencing the renovation work to mitigate delays to the extent possible and implementing value engineering measures. These mitigation actions have contributed to a considerable improvement of the final cost forecast of the project in the Secretary General’s 2022 report to the General Assembly, compared to the figures noted in the 2021 OIOS report.” “Mitigation actions” remain unknown to the public. “UNOG is ensuring that the as-built (H) Building information modeling models are accurate and complete by the requirements of the contract. Such files cannot be shared, as this is confidential information,” apologizes LeBlanc.
SUBCONTRACTORS AND CLIMATE CHANGE PROBLEMS
Amongst issues with the SHP project, The Geneva Observer revealed in early 2020 a severe litigation opposing Implenia, the company mandated for the new construction, and one of its subcontractors. How has the problem been dealt with? “Substantial completion of the H Building was achieved in October 2021, and the contract has entered the two-year defect notification and warranty period. During this time, the UN is working collaboratively with the contractor on settling all outstanding financial and contractual issues,” insists LeBlanc. During H Building’s inauguration phase, several functional issues with the building’s heating system were brought up and seem to have been confirmed; employees have complained off-the-record of H’s open spaces being either too hot or too cold. With heat-retaining patches of vegetation on rooftop areas and large open spaces inside, the construction relies on mechanical ventilation, a technique involving ducts and fans rather than open windows or holes. “The summer heatwaves surely have an impact on the buildings and their energy consumption, which can be mitigated thanks to a connection to the lake water network run by the local utility company Services Industriels de Genève (SIG),” LeBlanc tells us. “This offers more stability in the costs incurred for keeping the interior spaces within an acceptable comfort range and avoids relying on electricity for actively cooling the building, which would be a less sustainable way to proceed.” He concedes: “The rapidly changing climate conditions put the buildings and their technical installations under stress and put the focus on the need to consider the energy performance of the buildings as early as possible in the design process, to reduce the needs at source and make sure that the indoor comfort conditions are ensured with the least energy use.” While we couldn’t predict the Ukrainian war and its impact on the global economy, climate change is a known and highly documented reality, which begs the question: Why weren’t extreme temperatures factored into the building designs?
FLUCTUATING STAFF AND OPEN SPACES
The H’s open-plan design was also under recurring critique from UN staff members relocated to the building, many of whom have only used the space temporarily up until this point. “The majority of Building H is currently being used as swing space during the renovation of the historic building ahead of the permanent moves of OHCHR in 2024 so the number of occupants is currently fluctuating as entities move in and out,” says Rhéal LeBlanc. “Building H serves the Secretariat of the UN; specialists in several different areas, including the Office of the Director-General, OCHA, UNECE, and the UNOG Division of Administration.
Working from home compliments and supports flexible working.” How many people actually occupy temporary desks daily and how many will make the permanent move to the space remain unclear. LeBlanc concludes: “UNOG is currently working on a post-SHP maintenance strategy that will ensure the optimal operation of the entire Palais des Nations compound, including all its buildings and infrastructure over the long term while protecting all investments made. The majority of staff moved in during a period when there were COVID restrictions imposed by the UN and host country, and as these have slowly lifted, it’s been great to witness the building coming to life and being used in the way it was intended. This state-of-the-art construction has been designed as a healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving office building that is fully aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals principles.” Is a building state-of-the-art when it can’t deal with foreseeable climate change? Can open spaces promote a fruitful work environment, despite a multitude of experts—including the Harvard Business Review—stating otherwise in the recent past? The H Building still has a long way to go before being fully adopted.