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Monday, 8 October, 2001, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Sorry saga of Euro showpiece
Berlaymont graphic
The new building has a revolutionary air cooling system
Ten years after it was closed for a refit, and with hundreds of millions of euros spent so far, the European Commission's home in Brussels is still not ready. BBC News Online's Chris Summers investigates the spiralling costs and speaks to the architect whose vision for the new Berlaymont is being frustrated.

Once upon a time it was the showpiece of the European Commission.

TV reporters used to stand outside the distinctive X-shaped building - built in 1969 - as they reported on the events in Europe.

The Berlaymont
The Berlaymont remains a landmark in the centre of Brussels
But in 1991 around 3,000 workers had to be evacuated from the Berlaymont complex in the centre of Brussels after 1,400 tonnes of asbestos in the walls and ceilings began degrading and floating around the offices.

The Belgian Government owned it and the European Commission were their tenants.

Demolishing it would have had a detrimental effect on railways, roads and buildings nearby and would rob the city of a landmark so the Belgians decided to remove the asbestos and refurbish it.

Award-winning design

A special firm, Berlaymont 2000, was set up and architects Steven Beckers and Pierre Lallemand were given a budget of 8bn Belgian francs (200m euros; 124m) to redesign the shell of the building.

Budget bulge
1991: 200m euros
1997: 375m euros
2001: 625m euros
What they came up with, in 1996, was a plan so visionary it won a coveted award for environmentally-friendly architecture.

The new Berlaymont should have been ready to open in January 2000.

But the asbestos removal took three times as long and cost three times as much as estimated, partly because the Belgians ignored reports that the contractor chosen was already bankrupt.

The glass louvres
The revolutionary louvres are designed to save energy
Last year a row between Berlaymont 2000 and air conditioning sub-contractors 4D halted work inside the building.

The most optimistic estimate now for the opening of the building is late 2003.

Mr Beckers told BBC News Online: "What I've heard is the end of 2003 but every time I ask they add six months. It's very frustrating."

Fraud squad called in

In the mean time the costs have spiralled and in December last year European Commissioner Neil Kinnock called in the European Union's anti-fraud unit to look at some of the building contracts.

Revolutionary design
Water, cooled, by a giant iceberg in the basement, cools the building
Specially designed louvres regulate heat and light from outside
95% of building's water is processed and re-used
A 5,000 square-metre multi-media press centre for journalists covering the Commission's work.
The Belgian newspaper, Le Soir, recently discovered the final cost was likely to be nearly 25 billion Belgian francs (625m euros; 386m) - three times over the original budget.

Le Soir reporter Daniel Couvreur said 4D had now lost part of the contract because they had "not been working as fast as promised".

The Belgians are still in charge of the project and, when completed, they expect to hand the building over to the European Commission, who will foot the bill.

Mr Kinnock has until the end of this year to agree a price with the Belgian minister responsible, Rik Daems.

Neil Kinnock
Neil Kinnock has some tough negotiating ahead
A European Commission spokesman told BBC News Online: "The commission is a potential buyer for the Berlaymont but only if the conditions are right."

He said: "We will not pay for any management errors" and added they would not pay a penny more than the 15bn Belgian francs (375m euros; 230m) agreed in a 1997 Memorandum of Understanding.

Le Soir said either Belgian or EU taxpayers were going to have pay for the mistakes made.

Conservative MEP Chris Heaton-Harris, who sits on the budgetary control committee, said the Berlaymont was a "typical European Commission disaster".

He said: "The Berlaymont signifies what is wrong with the Commission."

He said Mr Kinnock, who has the unenviable task of negotiating with the Belgians, was doing a good job.

'White elephant'

But Mr Heaton-Harris said: "At the end of the day he is going to be handed the keys to a building which the Commission no longer wants and he will be asked to pay a huge sum for this enormous white elephant."

Chris Heaton-Harris MEP
Chris Heaton-Harris MEP: "This is so typical of Europe"
The new Berlaymont, when it eventually opens, will have a series of energy-saving systems which the architects say will make it 50% cheaper to run than a normal office building.

A revolutionary air cooling system involves a "giant iceberg", measuring 200 square metres, in the basement. It will be frozen using cheap off-peak electricity, and ice-cooled water will be piped around the building during the day.

A "second skin" of computer-controlled laminated plastic shutters, or louvres, will regulate the temperature within the building and reduce the need for unnecessary heating or cooling.

When the sun is shining rays will be deflected away and when it is overcast the angle will be changed to maximise the amount of light and heat coming in through the windows.

A filtering system will allow 95% of the new Berlaymont's water to be recycled.

'Not luxurious'

In 1997 there was a huge row after a Belgian MEP discovered that offices in the new European Parliament building in Strasbourg were being kitted out with luxury showers costing 12,000 each.

The new Berlaymont will house Commission President Romano Prodi and many top commissioners.

But Mr Beckers said while it would have a high standard of comfort, it would not be "luxurious" and there would be no marble or gold leaf.

Luc Kint, who took over as chief executive officer of Berlaymont 2000 in June, declined to comment on whether there had been management errors in the past but said: "I don't think they had good luck when they chose the contractors."

But he told BBC News Online: "I look to the future and the future is good."


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