On Wednesday, February 17th, in the library of Tromsø, a very special breakfast was served. Along with crispy canapés and fragrant coffee, one could listen to a talk on green architecture. The breakfast meeting was one of the seminars under the umbrella Green Restructuring of the North organised by The Future in Our Hands. The speakers, Øystein Dale, development manager in Tromsø Municipality, Stig Tore Johnsen, regional manager of Peab and Rune Langseth, architect at Asplan Viak, discussed the efficiency of green buildings, their costs and how they see the development of green architecture in the High North. Before we get into details of the talk, let’s have a look at what green architecture is.
Text: Michalina Marczak
Are solar panels or high energy efficiency enough to call a building eco-friendly? Well, specialists in the field are still struggling with the ultimate answer to what specifically makes a building green. Ecological design should certainly combine environmental technology, resource conservation and aesthetics, but these categories are not easily defined either. This is why several rating systems were established in order to confirm the sustainability of buildings. Among the most popular are the American-based LEED and the British BREEAM. They both assess a building’s level of compliance with environmental laws and regulations as well as its design, construction, operation and maintenance. In order to be considered green, a building must reduce its impact on the environment. Such reduction is often approached through optimizing energy and water efficiency, usually through employing alternative energy sources and introducing plants as integrate part of the building. Appropriate location and structure is no less significant in order to create an environmentally-friendly construction. Use of low-impact building materials, which means those that are (among other criteria) recyclable, reflective, and non-toxic, reduces waste, and again, makes the building more efficient. A green building usually integrates different technologies and ideas in order to eliminate negative environmental impact. Its design takes into account the location (both geographical and siting) and relies on local high-quality low-impact materials. It looks for ways to produce renewable energy and reduce energy consumption. What is more, the construction fits aesthetically into the natural surroundings and the interior meets the postulates of psychological well-being.
From mud to mud
Green architecture is by no means a new invention. Interestingly, history seems to have made a full circle here – from subterranean villages of Shensi in China, through Turkish Cappadocia and sun-baked mud towers of mosques in today’s Mali, architects began rediscovering indigenous materials anew in 1960’s. The ages-old structures had several things in common – they were durable, made from ecologically friendly materials, perfectly used the siting and did not consume much energy for heating due to the insulating properties of mud and their earthen enclosure. At the same time they remained beautifully composed with their awe-inspiring surroundings. Following the growing awareness of environmental destruction in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, people started looking for inspiration to address the environmental issues. Some radical environmentalists moved out of polluted cities and started experimenting with constructions based on indigenous people’s minimal impact on the land; but it was academic theorists who pioneered and spread the idea of green architecture, among them the philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford, landscape architect Ian McHarg and independent scientist James Lovelock. It is Frank Lloyd Wright, however, who is considered to be the father of modern sustainable housing. His work shaped the principle of blending the structure with its surroundings; in the beginning of 20th century, however, long before the word ecology was in common use, he was way ahead of his time and his ingenious ideas fell out of favor in the shadow of the upcoming wave of Modernism. Meanwhile, the grassroots environmental movement slowly grew in numbers, accelerating from the 1970’s onwards (along with growing human pressure on the environment, sadly) and green architecture gathered more and more momentum. Independent think-tanks and architects developed the ideas of using regional materials as well as relying on decentralized renewable sources of energy, permaculture and waste-free constructions. American architect Malcolm Wells promoted the idea that not only should the architecture have minimal impact on the environment but buildings should also be minimally visible. Hence his return to underground and earth-sheltered constructions which, despite their use of high-techs, resemble the tranquil ancient earthen dwellings.
Green buildings in the North
As much as earthen houses and indigenous environmentally friendly constructions might serve as inspiration, the issue of green architecture must be primarily addressed on contemporary terms. If green architecture is to help solve environmental problems, it should be presented from practical perspective rather than through the myth of sustainability of past cultures. First of all, there is a difference in efficiency between green buildings and traditional ones. Of course, specific energy use depends on the type of building. A green office building is about 38% more energetically efficient than an ordinary one and, when speaking of commercial buildings, the difference in energy use between green and traditional constructions is larger than 45%. According to a study conducted in 2011, buildings in Norway use on average 225 kWh/m2 which indicates that Norway still has a long way to go in order to improve the energy efficiency. Building green is usually more expensive than constructing a traditional building. Øystein Dale, from Tromsø Municipality suggests that it pays off in two cases. The first one is when one wants to rent out space to companies or organisations that have a strong environmental policy and are therefore willing to pay more for a green office. This phenomenon is steadily on the rise. The second case is when one invests in a green building to sell it after some time – the prices of green buildings are rising too. Along with purely commercial gains, green buildings hold the promise of protecting occupants’ health and improving their productivity. So far, 165 green buildings have been registered by the Norwegian branch of BREEAM, most of them obviously in Oslo. As regards Tromsø, we can find 2 passive buildings here – the Kvamstykke kindergarten and Sommerlyst junior high school (under construction until June 2016). One more green building is currently being built by a private company planning to move their offices there. Øystein Dale says on behalf of Tromsø Municipality: “We have had environmentally-friendly development on the agenda for the past five years, and gained experience regarding building quality and climate friendliness. We will probably do even more in the future. The aim will be to build in terms of low running costs and durability.”
In order to shift from conventional architecture into sustainable designs, we need to place earth in the center of our economy. Although this slogan has been long repeated without much effect, it is slowly being grasped by the mainstream and put into practice. Sustainable solutions are getting cheaper and easier to access and people are more and more environmentally conscious. The times we live in might be one of the most exciting periods in architectural innovation in history. As James Wines, a renowned architect associated with environmental design, put it: “Architecture has the dual responsibility to help solve environmental problems, as well as visually celebrate the results”.
Special thanks to Øystein Dale for answering my questions in detail.