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The climate crisis is and will remain one of the key concerns and challenges of the 21st century. The targets that have been set are ambitious. The European Union is planning to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels by the year 2030. A growing focus is being put on buildings, which the German Environment Agency says are responsible for roughly 35% of energy consumption and about 30% of carbon emissions in Germany.

With this in mind, it is clear that the architecture, construction and design sectors carry a great responsibility when it comes to making the buildings of tomorrow. What do the projects that incorporate these targets look like? What role do the architects and planners play in them? There are already numerous projects today whose approach sets a good model. They offer exemplary solutions in the fight against climate change.

Zero-energy building, Felix Partner Architektur und Design interdisziplinär © Thomas aus der Au

Zero-energy building with history

With an aim of turning a historic house into a zero-energy building not needing any additional energy supplied from outside, the architects Felix Partner in Latsch, Switzerland, set a unique transformation in motion. The 350-year-old heritage-listed home in Grisons canton was derelict and had to be adapted to contemporary needs without losing any of its original charm. Felix Partner meticulously restored the historically valuable structure of the house, which had stood empty for 50 years. Its appearance is characterised by solid stone material, while its interior makes prominent use of timber. The rooms are timbered and stacked on top of each other using traditional log construction, leaving the historic substance of the house tangible and exposing the different phases of construction.

The sizeable roofs of both annexes were equipped with photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors for climate-neutral consumption. The excess solar energy captured during the summer is stored in the rock using a borehole heat exchanger, so it is available during winter with net zero carbon impact. As a zero-energy building, the home produces its required amount of heating energy and electricity by itself. In modernising this centuries-old house, the architects at Felix Partner achieved a sophisticated interplay. It saw the combination of traditional cultural heritage and historic charm with elegant, modern design. Updated with the latest technology, the restored building has a promising future and is fitted to today’s needs. Felix Partner Architektur AG is a prizewinner at the ICONIC AWARDS 2020: Innovative Architecture and has received the “Best of Best” award.

Integrated climate concept for ideal learning conditions

With little technology yet a high level of visual and thermal comfort, the Schubart Gymnasium high school in Aalen is achieving a zero-energy standard. Liebel/Architekten developed the classroom wing together with Transsolar Energietechnik. There were various actions necessary in order to achieve the zero-energy standard. The school’s energy consumption was able to be reduced through resource-efficient, compact construction. The team of architects and climate engineers made maximum use of natural principles such as light, temperature and geothermal energy, helping reduce the overhead costs for artificial lighting and ventilation. They also created the ideal conditions for learning, with a hybrid ventilation system combining “thrust” ventilation with window ventilation to ensure good air quality. The incoming air supply is pumped mechanically through a duct in the ground, working passively and cooling the air in summer while warming it up in the winter. Skylights ensure sufficient natural light in learning spaces and at night they are also used for airflow and cooling down those spaces. The school building’s roof faces south-west and is equipped with photovoltaic panels. The energy is acquired and then consumed in the school at similar times each day, so the use of a renewable power source is very fitting. This project by Liebel/Architekten BDA is a „Winner“ at the ICONIC AWARDS 2020: Innovative Architecture.

The German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) has devoted itself to an environment built to be future-proof. Its activities include issuing certificates for sustainable properties. According to Felix Jansen, the DGNB’s spokesman, significant achievements have already been made in the construction and real estate industries, “There are an increasing number of sustainable buildings these days, particularly in the commercial property segment. Businesses are building their head offices based on this principle, and there are sustainable retail buildings being constructed too.” Nevertheless, corresponding construction activity has not yet arrived in the mainstream. “There is catching up to do in the residential segment in particular,” continues Jansen. The non-profit organisation considers “sustainable construction” as incorporating resource-friendly construction as well as two further criteria. Firstly, buildings should be commercially rational and studied over their life cycle, and a focus should also be put on the users of a building. Secondly, people serve as the deciding factor. It is they who must feel good where they are, whether that be a house or an office. The design, room temperature, lighting and insulation play a significant role in this.

Copenhill, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group © Rasmus Hjortshøj

Power plant with a recreation factor

For Danish architects BIG the added social value of a construction project also plays a critical role. In autumn 2019, they created a rather unconventional location in Copenhagen for sports and recreational activities: the Amager Bakke waste incineration facility. Its roof houses the country’s first ski slope, which can be skied year-round without snow thanks to the plastic matting that has been installed. It is an iconic building that features a recreation factor, created at a place where 400,000 tonnes of rubbish are converted into energy each year to supply roughly 160,000 households with district heating and 62,500 buildings with electrical energy. Hiking trails, playgrounds, gym machines and rock climbing are the proverbial icing on the cake of the Copenhill facility, located right in the middle of the lively Christianshavn neighbourhood.

While incineration facilities in urban contexts typically radiate little charm, BIG pursued an idea of making the place a point of attraction for residents and tourists right from the outset. Copenhill goes beyond the pure functionality of its power plant to serve the public and combine sustainable energy generation with fun and recreation in an innovative way. By building the new power plant, the city of Copenhagen is simultaneously moving closer towards its goal of being the first climate-neutral capital city. The facility is one of the world’s cleanest and most modern thanks to its use of the latest filter technology. The architects at BIG received the “Best of Best” distinction for this project at the ICONIC AWARDS 2020: Innovative Architecture.  

All of these projects make it clear that architects occupy a key role in sustainable construction. As part of their engagement, it is more important now than ever that they advocate for actions that help protect the climate – by using environmentally friendly, long-life materials and consuming resources with awareness. After all, the sociocultural quality that buildings have is growing in significance, and future generations will benefit from this too.

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