All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

What can a poor student do?

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What to do about climate change?

“But me, as a student, renting, poor, what can I do?  Is there anything someone like me can do?”

The question was about climate change, and it was the question that stumped Federico Rosei.  The celebrated physicist, expert in energy and nanotechnology, had just concluded his presentation, a guest of the KPU Physics department and the Canadian Association of Physicists.  As expected, the talk reserved a large place to climate change and energy topics – and a description of how, as a society, we seem to be rushing headlong towards a cliff.  Dr Rosei answered the question of “what can someone do” as if it came from a general member of the public, with the usual recommendations for saving energy, from getting better house insulation to replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs.

The questioner would have none of it, though.  He was a student in the physics program.  As with most students, there is little money, and few possessions: so no car, no home of his own. A renter can’t be asked to replace his landlord’s drafty windows with energy efficient ones, even if he had the money to do so.

Part of the problem is with the question itself.  We are so accustomed to think in terms of individual, as opposed to collective, action. We use a morality filter to gauge actions into good or bad, and then turn back that lens on ourselves, hoping for a feel-good glow if not bragging rights.  In that context, answering that the problem will only be solved through collective action seems a bit of a cop-out when faced with that question.

I, too, have been stumped by that question.  It seems to come up in my intro class every year, whenever we discuss climate change.  I had to mull over it, and here’s the answer I use.  It comes in three parts.

The first part is to become politically active.  This is an activity that costs no money, just a bit of time.  This doesn’t mean running for office – just being vocal.  Politicians are the ones who can implement policies that can make a lot of difference.  We tend to have a cynical view of politicians; but politicians mostly just respond to their constituents.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease; if you don’t squeak, expect to be ignored.  And so, expect that politicians will implement programs similar to those found in Europe that make it worthwhile for landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings.

So, speaking up is the first step of becoming politically active; getting organised is the next.  It is always surprising what a phone call to a local counsellor or an MP can accomplish, because so few of us bother to do it.  So imagine what organising hundreds of people to call about, say, poor transit can accomplish.

Indeed, collective action is always required to effect a big change.  As Martin Lukacs writes, neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals:

Would you advise someone to flap towels in a burning house? To bring a flyswatter to a gunfight? Yet the counsel we hear on climate change could scarcely be more out of sync with the nature of the crisis.

Collective action is needed, clearly.  But the wish to do something as an individual is quite primal, it is an urge to fix a problem once the problem has been seen.  That urge can be counter-productive, though; as Annie Leonard describes, satisfying it often serves to scratch an itch, to produce a feel-good, even smug feeling; but recycling cans is not going to address climate change on its own.  In fact, there aren’t any individual actions that can, on their own, even if practiced by many.

But yet, even a poor student can do things that make a difference.  This is the second part of the answer.  The good part is that it is simple, and can even save money: it’s about better food choices.  Curbing food waste should be the first reflex.  North Americans waste about one third of the food they purchase, according to some estimates.  Cutting down that waste by half, say, also reduces by the same proportion the amount of energy spent, and greenhouse gases emitted, to produce that food.

Not all foods are equivalent. In general, producing a kilo of beef causes much larger emissions of greenhouse gases than a kilo of pork, which itself produces more emissions than a kilo of chicken. A kilo of prawns raised in a pond in South-East Asia is said to be responsible for emissions similar to that of a family car driving from Vancouver to Toronto. And of course, by that measure, a vegetable-based diet has the least emissions.  Reducing food waste and eating a plant-based diet, collectively, has more of a positive impact than rooftop and solar farms.  And, of course, there is organic food.  In this case, its importance is not so much that fewer toxic pesticides are sprayed; rather, it is that organic farming produces fewer emissions than industrial farming, and also removes carbon dioxide from the air and segregates it away in the form of increased soil organic matter.

And there is a third point that may be just as important.  You’re a student, so keep studying, learn more about the issues, focus a bit of your research on that.  You’re smart; you may be the one who discovers a breakthrough, invents a new system that addresses the issue.  You may be the one who invents the new supercapacitor that makes energy storage a problem of the past.  You may be the one who formulates a policy that enables oil patch workers to recycle themselves into geothermal system installers.  Or you may fail and not invent any of that, but become the inspiration that will make another succeed.  Don’t ever give up.

Not convinced?  Then take a look at these articles, linked below.  You’ll feel better.


Written by enviropaul

March 12, 2018 at 5:01 pm

International Women’s Day 2018

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In the pages of the Globe, today (March 8, print edition), there is a special section for International Women’s Day.  Nine women were featured in a banner spread over three pages.

All are remarkable, but I had never heard of many of them, so I thought I should do a bit of research.  I was surprised by how prominent environment and social justice were as issues of concern for these women.

Elena Bennett

Elena Bennett is an ecological economist from McGill.  She addressed last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos with a keynote talk on hope and sustainability (more details here and here; I learned, among other things, that McGill is trying to become carbon neutral, yeah McGill!).

Frances Edmonds is Head of Sustainability at HP Canada.  The company has partnered with WWF on a remarkable project.  It plans to enroll 500 companies to raise money for conservation projects.  The companies, small and medium-sized businesses, can then benefit from HP’s expertise in responsible IT purchasing, sustainability reporting, and employee engagement.

Emma Gilchrist needs no introduction; with her website, she is a one-woman wrecking ball of the hypocrisy of the corporate sector in the energy industry. Her site is one of my favourite source of environmental information for Western Canada (see here on Site C, for instance) and she also writes for DeSmog’s US and UK counterparts.

The rest of the list is heady company, too, even if there is less direct environmental focus.  Vicky Kaspi is an astrophysicist and Joëlle Pineau a leader in artificial intelligence, both from my alma mater McGill University.  Jessica Chastain is the well-known actress, producer, and feminist activist (PETA calls her the sexiest vegetarian; I’m not sure what I think of that).

Kate Coffey is recognized for her role in helping communities in Sri Lanka; she won the Volunteer of the Year Award in 2017 from Vega Alliance.  Cindy Blackstock is a child welfare advocate from the Gitska Nation; among other remarkable deeds she forced the feds to back down and was awarded $20,000 compensation when it was ruled that the government had retaliated against her for her outspoken activism.

Finally, there is Hannah Alper.  The sixteen-year old activist hosts a remarkable blog about activism on issues of social justice, health, and education, as well as environmental issues.

For all the woes of the planet, there are reasons for optimism.

Written by enviropaul

March 8, 2018 at 9:53 am

A courtyard in Ottensen

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The inner courtyard, safe for kids and cats

Hamburg has a lot of green space, even though they can’t always be seen from the street: they are in the inner courtyards.  These courtyards are a fabulous amenity, providing an antidote to urban issues: they offer quiet, green, safe spaces.

Hamburg is particularly fortunate in that respect.  Not all courtyards are great; Hamburg learned from Berlin’s experience.  In Berlin the buildings are taller and the courtyards narrower, so that they are permanently shaded, particularly dreary in winter.  In Berlin the apartment buildings of the inner city were built fast to accommodate an unprecedented migration from the countryside between 1850 and 1900.  They came to be called mietskaserne, the hovels of the poor sketched by Zille or Kollwitz, built without lawns or green space, “the dark, infested, despised Hinterhöfe – the tenement blocks – of Berlin”, to quote Alexandra Richie, who documents details such as there being only one toilet, out in the courtyard, emptying into a cesspit, for every ten flats.

Hamburg was never as big a draw as Berlin, and city planners, Fritz Schumacher among them, had a chance to reflect on Berlin’s experience; they decreed that inner courtyards needed to be sufficiently large to let in sunlight and allow for good air circulation.  As a result, many of the Hamburg buildings built in the 1900-1920 period have grassy courtyards with large old trees.

I had a chance to experience that for myself.  During one of our visits to our friends Stephan and Anya, I asked if we could go into the courtyard of their building.  Their building is one of many contiguous apartment blocks on Friedensallee in Ottensen, an established neighbourhood of Hamburg, that enclose a large inner yard as the buildings, 1930 vintage, occupy a whole city block.

The inner courtyard, with the three new buildings in the centre

The courtyard is the size of a small city park.  It’s mostly lawn, some trees, with a few swings for kids and a sandbox.  People have strung a few communal clothelines.  There are a few flower beds, but surprisingly no vegetable garden.  Stephan explains that people are concerned that the soil may still be poisoned by the residues of bombing from the second world war.  The courtyard is not fully open; there are a few fences that divide the courtyard into maybe three sections. Too bad.

We went to another one of the courtyard sections, one that can be accessed from the street.  There is a break between the buildings, wide enough for a car.  There is a small parking lot.  This is a change; in the sixties, much of the courtyard was a charmless parking lot.  There is only a little stub of a parking lot left; the rest was progressively returned to grass, or built over.

The new apartment blocs in the courtyard

This is the development that caught my eye.  The former parking lot is now home to three mid-size apartment buildings, three-story structures completed in 2012 with 32 dwellings.  These have the sharp look of very energy efficient buildings.

Walking around, we struck a conversation with a woman named Elke, a mother of twins.  She invited us to her apartment.  It’s on the ground floor, very bright with natural light, despite it being an October afternoon; this is due in part to the open plan design, which is a relatively new concept here.  I found it very comfortable, and she confirmed that it is very well insulated, and has a heat exchanger to provide ventilation when it is very cold.  But windows can also be opened; this isn’t a box with stale air, far from it.  Again, I was impressed that, at least in German buildings, the more energy efficient ones are also the most comfortable ones, where the indoor air feels freshest.

She found the inner courtyard ideal for her boys (I forgot to ask; the twins look like they were five or six years old).  She says she doesn’t need to worry; the courtyard gives plenty of space to play, it is safe (no cars) and there are neighbours who also have kids to play with.  It was very easy to fit in.

This may unremarkable except for the fact that she is a single mom, and that this is a large, modern apartment in a desirable part of town.  But these three units were also built with the objective of providing affordable housing (part of the subsidy money comes from the city, part from the developer in exchange for different conditions), so the rent is means-tested.  In Hamburg, being a single mom does not condemn you to poverty.

Visiting the yard also solve another puzzle – are there no cats in Hamburg?  Or do they not go out?  There are many, and they do go out – but they stay safely inside the courtyards, well away from traffic.

And this far from the only addition to a city courtyard.  This type of infill has been done all over, increasing urban density in a manageable way, without altering the character of the urban fabric.  I already mentioned another complex nearby, Fette-Hӧfe, in a previous post.

A view of the courtyard from the kitchen window of the apartment of our friends

Call me naïve, but this strikes me as an ideal design for mid-level urban density: apartment blocks with large, airy courtyards that allow for some infill.  This strikes me as a form that Vancouver should use for development, something to provide housing for so-called missing middle.  There are a few examples in town; I can think of the Marquee building, or the co-housing development on 33rd.  There should be many more.

I do like courtyards, clearly.  More details about the neighbourhood of our friends can be found in previous posts, here and here, that I wrote when we first arrived in Hamburg.  I found that the city provides excellent documentation for its housing initiatives; much of what I visited I found in a publication (212 pages, free!) called Mehr Stadt in their Stadt: Chancen für mehr urbane Wohnqualitӓten in Hamburg (More city in the city: options for better quality urban housing in Hamburg, downloadable from the city site here).  As for the Richie quote, it’s from Richie, Alexandra 1998.  Faust’s metropolis: a history of Berlin.  New York: Carroll & Graf.



Written by enviropaul

February 7, 2018 at 5:37 pm

The Green Network of Hamburg

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Hamburg’s green spaces

“Imagine leaving your house in suburbia and being able to walk, jog, or bike all the way downtown, following a system of interconnected wetlands and streams leading down to the major regional river.”

The Dancing Pants, public art along the Eilbeck

This sentence in an article by Celina Balderas Guzman (ref below) caught my eye.  She mentions that one would come across community gardens, sports fields, ecological reserves, as well as more technical features such as areas for sediment and runoff capture, or even energy generation. She mentions the role of wetlands in controlling pollution from urban runoff.

This sounds all fine, except for one thing: it is preceded by the heading “constructing our future”, as if this was a holy grail of urban planning, some kind of unattainable ideal of urban planning worth striving for.  In many cities, that may indeed be the case.

But there is at least city where what is described is not the future, but the reality.  That city is Hamburg, Germany.  Surely it is not the only one; but this is one city I know well, where I have walked and cycled extensively along its extensive network of trails and green spaces, so I will use it to illustrate the point.

Cycling along the Eilbeck canal (note the porous pavers)

At first glance, Hamburg doesn’t seem an obvious candidate for a green city.  It’s a prosperous merchant port city (the second largest in Europe), a manufacturing and publishing centre, busy labouring under the grey skies of the North Sea; not where you would expect a colony of tree-hugging nature lovers.  It’s also a modern city that had to rebuild itself repeatedly.  The British air force reduced the city to ashes and rubble in 1943, wiping out whatever remained of the historic city one hundred years earlier.  Before that, the occupying army of Napoleon had cut down every single tree in and around the city to ensure a clean line of fire for their guns.  That protecting nature may not have been a top priority would have been understandable.

But maybe that’s just it; after so much destruction, people get attached to what has survived, and to what can grow back.  And, true to form in a port city, Hamburgers are attached to the water.  It’s not just the shores of the Elbe river, where the port is located; every river and creek that run through the city, every canal, every lake and pond is sacred.  People have consistently refused any proposal to bury a creek, no matter how insignificant.  This is why there are so many bridges in Hamburg; but that is also why there are so many green corridors; these are the shorelines of all these creeks.

Schumacher’s connectivity plan, 1919

So when Hamburg planner Fritz Schumacher drafted his city plan in 1919, he already had his green axis delineated: the shorelines of the Elbe, Alster, Osterbek, Wandse, and Bille rivers and their tributaries.  This axial plan, with green radii converging on downtown, has broadly remained unchanged over the years.  What is new is the outer ring of (almost) contiguous green space that connect the linear corridors, like a wheel rim resting on spokes.  This outer ring is not all that different from others in cities such as Hanover or Leipzig, except that it is wholly within city limits.  The city is working on connecting the missing parts; for instance, Düppelstrasse, an ordinary street in the dense neighbourhood of Altona-Nord, will be turned into a green corridor to connect two of the neighbourhood’s parks.  The extent of this ring is remarkable: 90 kilometers long, it creates a rough circle 9 to 10 kms around the downtown area.  This supports the inner ring, which neatly defines the downtown area as it is set where the ancient fortifications were; a large part of the inner ring is the famous Planten un Blomen botanical park. Detailed maps of the rings can be found on the city website here, and details about the city’s initiative (in English) here, here and here.

The outer and inner rings of the Hamburg Green Net

What that means for the visitor is that you can indeed walk pretty much everywhere outside of downtown along a green trail or in a park, away from cars and noise.  I walked (and cycled) along the Alster and the Wandse from the centre to the city limits and further, on green paths along canals (near the lake), then through green linear corridors along a natural watercourse, with cafés and parks, wetlands, dams and weirs, including a large one on the Alster with a power station and fish ladder.  These areas are very popular for walkers of all sorts, and along the trails public art can be seen.

But I also walked along a small tributary of the Osterbek, the Seebek in the Steilshoop neighbourhood (hydrology nerds: it’s a little fourth order stream).  This is an ordinary residential neighbourhood of brown brick apartment buildings.  The creek wends its way between the buildings, alternating between wooded and grassy areas.  It’s a grey December day, there are few people around, and it’s a bit forlorn.  But I wanted to see the work that NABU, the local environmental organisation, had done to rehabilitate the stream.  Out went the concrete embankments; replacing them are natural meanders and large woody debris and rocks to increase the flow depth and make the stream effective as fish habitat.  NABU also created protected nesting habitats for kingfishers, bats, and solitary bees.  But this was done in a very German way (or so it strikes me): the environmental group works with the city and together they determine priority areas for conservation, and the city funds the initiatives and supervises the work alongside NABU volunteers.

The Seebek creek winds its way between apartment blocks

I also visited Eppendorfer Moor, a 26 hectare wetland by the Alster near the Jewish Hospital.  A friend had told me it was gorgeous; he probably visited in summer (in December, there was no sign of the endangered ferns said to grow there).  Still, I could see the control weir; this wetland, like many throughout the city, is not only a green space for ducks, it also provides storage capacity for rainstorms.   This urban pond has an interesting history.  Originally it was dug for peat, then drained for farming.  The 76th regiment had their shooting range there.  After the war, the plan was to fill the wetland with rubble.  But, in a move typical of Hamburg, locals thwarted the plan.  A night-time planting operation led by Werner Hoffmann, head of the Gardens Department, forced politicians to reconsider.  (Unfortunately this action brought in non-native species.)  What is remarkable is that this wetland, one of many in the city, is only about five kilometers from downtown.

But these are far from uncommon.  I counted twenty-six rivers, and gave up count of the innumerable lakes and ponds, public parks, nature reserves, community gardens, and connecting trails.  Even the numerous cemeteries are visited for their treed park-like appearance; indeed, the Ohlsdorf cemetery, at 391 hectares, is the biggest park-like cemetery in the world.

Eppendorfer Moor in winter

This is possible, in part, because Hamburg, despite being a large European city, is not particularly densely built; the average population density is similar to Toronto, and since much of the residential sector consists of four or five story walk-up apartment buildings, this leaves much room for green space.  There is also the fact that most of the industrial activity (the harbour, the Airbus works, the chemical and metallurgical plants) are all on the south side of the Elbe (where canals, not creeks, are the main water feature), leaving the core and the north free of heavy industry.   But the key is really in the creeks; by stubbornly clinging to their creeks, Hamburgers have ensured that green linear corridors were preserved.  This is good not only for the many who like to go spazieren, but also for the ecological integrity of the city.  Birds, insects, mammals, lizards, even plants thrive when they are not cut-off from each other by roads and buildings; and of course, the creeks themselves provide the aquatic habitat that supports the terrestrial food chain.

Imagine what Vancouver would look like if its many creeks such as Brewery Creek or China Creek had not been paved over; this may give you an insight into Hamburg’s topography.  Here we speak of daylighting creeks to restore the ecological habitats and undo the damage, whereas in Hamburg, aside from the pollution issues, there was little physical damage to most of the water habitat.  This also means that the city has much more storage and absorption capacity for large storms, and so lower vulnerability to rainstorm flooding.  This is a lesson that our own suburbs, such as Surrey, are now heeding.

Crossing the Alster on the Green Network

But if the green network in Hamburg already accomplishes much of what Balderas Guzman confines to the future (stores and clean excess runoff, provides natural habitats), there is something that it cannot do: provide a viable alternative for commuters.  Yes, some people do use the network, but it’s mostly for recreational use; the distances involved are too large for walking (or even cycling, in some cases), and – this is key – there is an excellent public transit system.  A blind spot in the much-criticized book Infinite Suburbia, where Balderas Guzman’s article appears, is the lack of an acknowledgment of the environmental problems caused by suburban development, in particular poor transportation.  This is an issue that a network of connected trails and wetlands, future or extant, cannot solve by itself.

Marvelous as it may be, as in the case of Hamburg.




Celina Balderas Guzman 2017.  Suburban Wetlandia.  In: Infinite Suburbia, edited by Alan Berger and Joel Kotkin, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, pg 489.


Written by enviropaul

February 1, 2018 at 9:56 am

Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, an amazing urban runoff control system

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The development from the air, showing some of the green roofs

When I was in Germany I went to Berlin, a few times.  That included going to Potsdamer Platz, more than once, sitting under the dome of the futuristic Sony centre, meeting friends for coffee.

All the while having no idea that I was right in the heart of one of the most advanced urban runoff management projects in the world.  Completely missed it.

I suppose it’s no surprise; much of it is below ground, and much of it is on the roofs.  Still, it bugs me.  Here’s what I found out about it – after the fact.

First, some background: this is a large site smack in the centre of Berlin.  if you look on Google Maps, it’s bordered by the Landwehr canal in the south, Linkstrasse to the left, and the curve of Potsdamer Strasse to the west and north, and Marlene Dietrich Platz is right in the middle; despite the name, the historic Potsdamer Platz is just the north-east corner.  The firm Dreisetl oversaw the development project.

This is an area that was bisected by the Berlin wall, with a large no-man’s-land on either side.  It’s in the resulting wasteland that most urban renewal projects were constructed in Berlin after 1989, and the whole complex of Potsdamer Platz itself, including the area around Marlene Dietrich Platz, is just one instance.

So here’s what I walked over and didn’t even see.  The development captures rainwater from the roof of its nineteen buildings, thanks to 32,000 square meters of green roofs.  Not all the surfaces are green roofs (the extensive type, with allium and sedum), but the amount is sufficient to intercept 61% of all rainfall.  Much of what is captured evaporates away (31%); the rest eventually runs off to the five large cisterns underground.

What this means is that the system can hold a ten-year storm, the kind that could otherwise result in local flooding.  Instead, the rain water is captured; about 60% of the amount in the cisterns will be used for irrigation, while 40% is used (after cleaning) to flush toilets – and create a reserve of fire suppression water if needed.

This is quite significant; the green roof water is used whenever available, saving municipal drinking water; about 20,000 cubic meters of good drinking water are saved every year (that’s enough water to fill 250 bathtubs, every day, for a year).

And whether the water is reused for flushing or for irrigation, it is cleaned up along the way.  It is stored in a pond called a “cleansing biotope”.  There the water is filtered through a porous media that is mostly sand, but also includes 5% of lava rock, which chemically binds down and remove phosphorus.  The biotope, open to the air, is a design such that water has a retention time less than three days, which is too short for microscopic algae to establish themselves.  Much of this information, and more, can be found here, here, and here; the video below also gives an excellent idea.

What the public sees – and what I walked by without noticing – is just a nice water feature to the side of the buildings.

I also missed – but the public cannot visit – the green roof of the Canadian Embassy on nearby Leipziger Platz, one designed by landscape architect extraordinaire Cornelia Oberlander, a design said to be a scale model of the Mackenzie River Delta.

And Canada House, as our embassy is called, is not even part of this development.  But this shows how common are green roofs in the city; even if climate change causes worse storms over Berlin, or extra long droughts, the city’s initiatives mean that it is in great shape to absorb it all without flooding, or – at least in Potsdamer Platz – to keep flushing without running out of water.  There is something to be said for being proactive.


Written by enviropaul

January 25, 2018 at 8:10 pm

The most environmentally-friendly office building in Berlin

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The ministry of the environment building in Berlin

In my last post I wrote about how in Germany the various Environmental government branches put their money where their mouths are, producing remarkable buildings with low footprint such as the BSU in Hamburg or the UBA in Dessau.  I also mentioned how its engineers and architects are not afraid of trying something new and learn from what doesn’t work.

Given that context, then, imagine being tasked with the remodeling of an old historical building in the centre of Berlin into a showcase of energy efficiency.  The client wants the design to use and respect the architecture of the old building, a former pre-war Ministry of Agriculture facility.  Also, the architect must acknowledge, in the design, that the building was part of the wall (its western half was boarded up) and that heritage must be manifest.  Building materials must be non-toxic, with a low environmental footprint.  The building is to be high-security, but accessible by the public during special functions.  And the building’s energy use must use the PassivHaus standard (that is, 15 kWh/m2; this is the equivalent of using an ordinary hair dryer to heat an entire house).  Final detail: this is the building where the client, the minister herself, Dr. Barbara Hendricks, is to have her office, so it better be comfortable, practical, as well as an attractive showcase for visitors.

The original building in the 1920’s

Phew.  If the project had been offered to me, I would have said “pass”.  Who needs the headache?  But apparently, some architects salivate at this kind of challenge.  Berlin architects Pleuser, Maass & Geier won the contract.  The building on the half-hectare site, 128 Stresemann street, with over 16,000 m2 of floor area, was completed in 2011 at a cost of 67 million euros.

Dinah and I visited the building, called BMUB.  I had no idea it was high security; past the little lobby is a heavy door opened with a security code.  Ah well, at least there is a rack with some brochures.  I was about to turn back (I give up easy) when two women appeared on their way out. Dinah spoke to them; it turns out that, yes, they were from the Ministry, in the equivalent of Outreach and Education branch.  And yes, they’d be happy to show us the building.  (Yeah Dinah!)

The historic courtyard, now glazed over

It was cool to see the historical inner courtyard, which is open to the public at times for concerts or exhibits; it is now enclosed with a transparent ceiling.  It was also very nice to see a remnant of the wall, incorporated, museum-like, into the new wing of the building.  But otherwise, it’s just a big office building, nothing spectacular.  As always in energy efficient buildings, the air feels fresh and crisp, thanks to the heat-exchange ventilation.  But maybe a bit too crisp; I learned from our guides that the air was much too dry at first.  This may be because some of the inner walls are made of ordinary clay; maybe it took a while for the clay to reach the right moisture content.  Whether or not that was the cause, the staff adjusted by hanging wetted drapes here and there in strategic spots.  We were told that this is no longer an issue.

I could picture some engineer getting a dressing down from the minister.  In fact, there were all sorts of surprises associated with the project.  Unbeknownst to the designers, there was a bomb shelter in the basement, which took a long time to remove since using explosives would have threatened the existing structure.  There was an unidentified black adhesive covering the basement floor, which had to be stripped carefully and disposed of as a hazardous waste.  When digging for the new wing, it became clear that it had been contaminated by oil; the designers adjusted by digging further, removing the contaminant, and creating a second basement floor.  One can just imagine the expletives.  And the designers of the solar panels realized, half way through, that a new building going up in an adjacent lot was going to create shade, forcing a redesign.

You have to admire the perseverance of the team; others would have compromised.  But as Uwe Rӧmmling, the ministry’s Energy Officer, said:

You need a firm commitment on the part of the owner.  There must be no capitulation if costs increase or deadlines cannot be met.  In this case, the owners remained firm.  The target was clear from the start and very ambitious.  The owners not only stated the energy levels they wanted to achieve, but also specified verification methods…Of course, with such a showcase building, we have to show the Federal Court of Audit and the Federal Ministry of Finance that our solutions are cost effective.  The problem here is that many of the positive effects of the building are difficult to express in euros and cents.  Climate, health and safety, resource conservation, pollution reduction – we have done good things in all these fields.

The building, unprepossessing as it may look from the outside, has since won several design awards, including the European Architecture Prize 2012.  And so it should: it is the federal government building with the highest energy performance, while incorporating and restoring historical elements.

A part of the wall on display in the new wing

There are many more details that are available in the booklet I picked up there, Constructing sustainability.  Unfortunately it is no longer available on the ministry’s website, but it can be downloaded from here.  For anyone who wants details about the green roof (sedum), or the geothermal system (sewer heat), it’s all there.  Along with this little quote, a very typical German one, about opening windows: “employees are called upon to show environmentally aware behaviour.”  Jawohl!


UBA in Dessau (another great environmental building)

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The UBA building in Dessau

In my previous post I described the BSU building, home of the Ministry of the Environment of Hamburg.  It is a high efficiency building that shows that the Ministry is putting its money where its mouth is: as it is dishing out incentives for energy conservation (and regulations against wastefulness), it spent money on energy efficiency for itself.  That means that it can point out to a successful example as well as try out innovations.

An overhead view of the site

This is matched by initiatives from its federal counterpart; we had a chance to visit the Federal Environment Agency building in Dessau (the UBA building).  Designed by the same architect (Sauerbruch Hutton), it’s a twin to the Hamburg building: a long-slung, snaky building designed to maximize natural light.  As in Hamburg, it has a large atrium open to the public, but this one is glass covered. The four-story building has 18,700 m2 of floor space, and parking space for twice as many bicycles as cars.

We visited on a sunny Saturday morning in July.  The big atrium was bright, the air was fresh (there are trees growing indoor), the place felt remarkably inviting.  And it’s particularly remarkable for Dessau; the sleepy Saxon town may be famous for being home to the Bauhaus movement, but most of the architecture around are pretty bland, Soviet inspired flats.  The historic downtown, what’s left of it, is a bit meh (and a meal of rotkohl overpowered by cloves didn’t help first impressions).  But visiting the UBA building before we left (we only had one overnight there) made up for it.  The building was an initiative of the federal government to bring back jobs and a bit of sunshine to a town whose economy was wrenched by the fall of the wall in 89.

The UBA building had a few design challenges placed on it: it is built on what was a contaminated brown site (an old gas plant), and the building had to integrate the historic train station.  And if the BSU building in Hamburg had to be energy efficient (at 70 kWh/m2), the Dessau building had to be under 62 kWh/m2 total; that is, for heating, cooling, and electricity combined.  Quite a tall order.

The building uses 655 m2 of photovoltaic panels for the bulk of its electricity.  It uses natural ventilation when outside temperatures are between 15 and 23 C; when the air is outside those limits, it uses forced air ventilation with a heat-exchanger.  Sure enough, when you walk inside the building, the air feels fresh and the building quite comfortable.

Inside the spacious atrium

The building also uses an absorption cooler for air conditioning (a big energy demand in any large building), and the source of heat for the cooler is a series of thermal solar panels (I know – heat for the cooler?  Huh?  But that’s how it works, take my word, or look it up if you’re a geek).

But the really innovative part of the design is the geothermal heat-exchanger – or maybe a better name for it is geothermal heat storage.  In front of the building, buried 2 to 4 meters below ground, run over 5 kilometers worth of tubes.  Outside air is pumped through these tubes; at that depth, the ground remains at a pretty constant temperature, so the air is cooled in summer and warmed in winter.  The pipes were laid with a small slope (2%) so that any condensation water can run down and be collected.  This was indeed one of the worries about the design: stagnant water in ventilation systems is what led to Legionnaire’s disease.  Further, as radon gas naturally seeps from the ground, complete sealing of the pipes was required.  Routine tests (radon, microbial pathogens, etc) show that the air piped into the building has a better quality than outside.

The ground-based heat-exchanger works beautifully, even if it isn’t as efficient as originally designed.  I know this because the literature on it, destined for the general public, is upfront about it.  I love the transparency, and I also love the fact that German engineers are allowed mistakes on innovative systems.  When you design something, you may play it safe – and learn nothing.  Or be daring, and learn from mistakes.  This has been the German approach, and it paid off in spades; no wonder the country is a leader in innovation.

The landscaping of the site is pretty impressive, too.  The 2.7 ha site was a highly polluted, dead zone.  Thanks to decontamination and extensive soil removal (which led to the decision to use a ground-based heat exchanger), the site now has over 11,000 trees, hedge shrubs, ground-cover or aquatic plants, as well as nesting boxes and insect hotels.  German designers are nothing if not thorough.  Fifteen years after completion (this was a side project of Expo2000 in Hannover), the building still feels new but the site has this lush, well established verdant look, and the trees inside the building are radiant and healthy.

Maybe Dinah and I lingered a bit too long; Dessau was a stop on our seven-day bike trip, and the next leg to Torgau was our longest one.  But it was a gorgeous (if windy) day, we cycled along the Elbe on dedicated bike paths rolling through a forest and over a bike/pedestrian only bridge across the Mulde.  Pretty nice for what once was depressed, grey East Germany.


Written by enviropaul

January 18, 2018 at 10:49 am