Culture and Climate Change – Architecture and Urbanism

Common Sense for the World

Hanghaus 128, Stuttgart, architect: Werner Sobek © Roland Halbe Coal, oil and gas are not only becoming increasingly scarce, but are also accelerating a sensitive global crisis to boot – climate change brought about by unchecked CO2 emissions. We, the human race, must rethink and change tack. People always focus on cars and aeroplanes as the culprits, yet there is another area which is much more critical even than them: 80 percent of CO2 emissions are caused directly or indirectly by building and construction. Architecture in our cities will therefore have to adapt to the post-fossil age. Or, to put it more clearly, houses and entire urban districts will have to generate their own energy – even residential homes will become power stations!

Berlin, 27 March 2009. In the building in Berlin which today houses the Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development and was originally built in the 19th century as the State Geological Institute and Mining Academy, people have always focused on the country’s natural resources. It is no coincidence then that precisely here, in the painstakingly restored atrium, the first of many thousand German architects signed a manifesto on building culture in times of climate change: the manifesto is called Common Sense for the World and states: “Architects, engineers, town planners, landscape architects and interior designers call for principles and perspectives for their professions which will ensure responsible use of the earth’s resources. Protecting the climate demands a new mindset, a new determination and new solidarity across all borders”.

Like all other responsible segments of society and professional groups, architects too must recognize that global warming and the problems that it entails force us all to rethink and take action. Germany’s political resolutions that have come to be known as 3 x 20 – consume 20 percent less energy, use 20 percent renewable energies, ensure a 20 and perhaps even a 40 percent reduction in CO2 emissions – are forcing architects and engineers to rethink the way they build their houses.

Architects intend to make a crucial contribution to the ecological turnaround through intelligent and forward-looking design of our cities and buildings. Existing solar and insulation systems are not sufficient. The manifesto calls for a conceptual approach that gives equal consideration to questions of location, choice of materials, use of technology, aspects of mobility, recycling requirements and energy use. Common Sense for the World is to serve as a touchstone for the fundamental ethical attitude of architects and engineers in their everyday work and will be put forward as the German contribution to the UN Climate Conference 2009 in Copenhagen.

Consequences for the renovation of older buildings

What consequences does this sort of manifesto have in the everyday work of architects – when it comes to older buildings, for instance? Before modernization, an old building consumes more than 400 kilowatt hours per square metre annually for heating alone; even for an average house built in the 1980s, this figure is over 200. A “passive house” that achieves the subsidized German status KfW 40 (named after the Reconstruction Loan Corporation, abbreviated in German to KfW, which allocates such funds) consumes just 40 kilowatt hours, while a zero energy house consumes no energy at all, leaving aside electricity for light and hot water.

It is not always easy to bring old houses up to date in terms of energy consumption while at the same time preserving their period charm and character. Any attempt to make older buildings more energy-efficient should follow the “think not insulate” approach, urges Berlin architect Wilfried Brenne. Otherwise, the houses would simply be bundled up in more and more packaging and not achieve the quality that architects should ensure for them: “We must undergo a new process of realization. We must learn to give thermal insulation materials an architectural slant”. The calls for a rediscovery of architectural quality comes at a time when all that often seems to count is to come up with the ultimate thermal insulation system in purely mathematical terms, with an external shell that looks like traditional rendering but in reality is a combination of many different synthetic materials. It often masks all the intricate elements of the original architecture; it appears solid yet reveals itself to be hollow when tapped ...

There are many ways to avoid design uniformity. One is to find genuinely sustainable materials. Wood, a natural and renewable material, is right at the top of the common sense agenda. Mineral-based building materials like stone and concrete are regarded as sustainable, though only if they can be used for a house with a long life, as the large amount of primary energy required to manufacture these materials means that they only make sense in sustainability terms if they are used for long periods. Ultimately, sustainability means examining a building’s entire lifecycle and extending it beyond the 20 to 25 years that are usually expected today. If the primary energy invested in manufacturing and demolition is factored into the equation, it is often worth considering preserving an old building rather than insulating blindly.

Despite listed building regulations, many older buildings risk losing their historical appearance for reasons of cost if their owners are not given good advice. The signatories to the manifesto Common Sense for the World have made a promise to provide good advice. In Germany, however, law-makers sometimes have to become more liberal and open. If, for example, the many owners of single-family homes continue to be forced by the German “energy passport” and other regulations to act solely in line with energy-specific principles, a number of ornate wall details will disappear under thermal insulation facades, making our environment a good bit more boring.

The new face of cities

So how should new buildings be constructed in the 21st century, in this era of climate change? Is there already an “aesthetic look” for energy-conscious and sustainable building and urban development? “Yes”, claims Professor Manfred Hegger, who in 2007 won the renowned international student competition Solar Decathlon 2007 with his team of students, beating worldwide competition. He believes that: “Energy-efficient building is also an aesthetic challenge”. In the area of “energy efficiency in building”, his institute at Darmstadt Technical University is one of the leading members of a movement that calls itself the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) and whose president is Stuttgart Professor Werner Sobek. Ten years ago, Sobek already used his hill house R 128 to demonstrate that his construction principle, which he dubbed Triple Zero, can achieve three zeros: over a year as a whole, the house must use zero energy more than it can itself generate using the photovoltaic system on the roof and the heat exchanger on the ground. It is supposed to emit zero carbon dioxide, and it must be suitable for complete dismantling and recycling so that, one day, virtually zero waste remains. And because R 128 can be controlled and regulated entirely remotely, it has become an icon of modern architecture that is also climate-friendly.

Manfred Hegger is also already building houses that are much more efficient than the German energy-saving ordinance demands. Hegger wants to achieve the Plus Energy House, calling for residential homes to serve as power stations that generate their own power both to meet their own demand and even to earn money. As a result, says Hegger, this could “open up new images” of cities and buildings that generate their own energy – in a safe, environmentally-friendly and liveable way. By this, of course, he means high aesthetic standards.

Like a magician, architects can make the energy-saving features disappear – on roofs, in foundations, in facades and of course above all in high-quality building shell elements, i.e. windows, walls, roofs etc. with high insulation values. The changes to the architecture are hardly noticeable as a result. On the other hand, it is also possible to make the energy-generation idea part of the building’s aesthetics, putting energy-producing elements centre-stage and showing that the house approaches the environment differently to the way we usually do.

What this looks like can be seen at the Mont-Cenis Academy in Herne-Sodingen in the Ruhr area of Germany, which became an early flagship project of the movement. With dimensions of 100 x 400 m and a height of 12 metres, the huge wood and glass container designed by French architects Jourdan and Perridon, who received energy-efficiency advice from Manfred Hegger, looks like some sort of UFO. In actual fact it houses a self-sufficient small town – with a district library, restaurants, a hotel and an academy of the Ministry of the Interior. And most importantly of all, the photovoltaic systems on the roof allow the building to produce twice as much solar power as it consumes. The people who live in this former mining suburb of Herne-Sodingen have come to really love the unusual building: where coal was previously used for heating, the power house now virtually covers its own energy requirements, and even methane can additionally be pumped from the depths of the old mines and used to heat the building.

The winner of the Solar Decathlon House 2007 award, with its elegant wooden facade and slatted doors, is a much more modest example in terms of dimensions and size (56 square metres of living space). To squeeze as much room as possible from these compact dimensions, all furniture is integrated into the floor platform and can be folded away completely if necessary. The enclosed core with kitchen and bathroom is reduced to the smallest possible size – when needed, it can be extended and used for showering or for cooking more complex meals. Priority was given to renewable, natural and recyclable materials, and all the energy needed for day-to-day living has to be provided by the sun.

Researching and experimenting is the order of the day, just as the 2013 International Building Exhibition (IBA) in Hamburg is doing, for instance. An “IBA laboratory” on the subject of architecture and climate change has already spawned some interesting designs, such as The Plug for the new centre of Wilhelmsburg; designed by young Hamburg planners, the houses are reminiscent of wind machines and turbines. This may not quite reflect typical Hanseatic tastes, but is indicative of a visual world of architecture that once again promises exciting new departures. It is interesting to note that the tougher the requirements are, the more imaginative the architectural responses become. In the meantime, building competitions have been staged and in some cases already decided for the centre of Wilhelmsburg with an energy concept that features not only the use of regenerative and CO2-neutral energies but also a combined energy system. Experimental residential buildings are being produced, among them green-clad towers and plus-energy houses, “smart” prefabricated houses and hybrid houses that are supplied by a variety of alternative energy sources and also supply other houses.

City, country, and energy flow

One more thing is becoming clear at the IBA’s numerous congresses, seminars and workshops: architecture in times of climate change is much more than merely an architectural issue; it is also a matter for developers and investors, and above all it is a matter for city planners. Deciding how we build and plan is becoming more and more of a joint task because, for example, regenerative systems can be better marketed and utilized jointly. There is likely to be a literal “coming together”, as single-family homes, however much people love them, simply consume too much space, too much primary energy, indeed too much everything – even if heating and cooling requirements inside the building have now been mastered. Climate-friendly cities and districts will thus become more densely populated. This does not necessarily mean an end to the single-family home, but people wishing to build new homes could and should join forces in order to produce and sell regenerative energy together.

This is also something people are thinking about at the IBA, whose director Uli Hellweg summarizes architecture and climate change as follows: “We find ourselves right on the brink of a new post-fossil age. The transition will take decades, but then again the transition from an agriculture- or manual-based economy to the industrialized economy also took 100 years. We are at a similar point just now, and we will find ourselves facing new landscapes and new architectures. For architects and planners, finding a new post-fossil aesthetic is of course a huge challenge.”

As IBA director, Uli Hellweg is also responsible for the German contribution to the 8th Architecture Biennale in São Paulo 2009. A third of the exhibited projects are dedicated to the “ecopolis” under the slogan City for Everyone. Visions and resources are shown and how they can be optimally used for sustainability, while actors and heroes like Manfred Hegger and Werner Sobek are presented. The projects range in size from “S” to “XXL” – from a seven-storey wooden building in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district (by architects Kaden and Klingbeil), for example, to ideas of how to use Berlin’s Tegel Airport when its life as an airport ends. In a project entitled TXL+: Showcasing an energy-plus city, Hamburg architects Gerkan and Marg, who originally designed the airport in the 1970s, plan to use the old terminal buildings for a kind of eco-trade fair and turn the runways into river channels framing a new energy-efficient city. The project was already featured on 27 March 2009 in Berlin as an example of best practice in line with the climate manifesto.
Dirk Meyhöfer
lives in Hamburg. He is a town planner, freelance university lecturer, journalist and architecture critic, author and curator.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V. 2009, Humboldt

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