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Archive for December 2015

Move over Passive House, here come Passive Appartment Buildings

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PassivHaus in Sankt-Pauli, a miser that needs only 8 kWh/m2a to stay warm

PassivHaus in Sankt-Pauli, a miser that needs only 8 kWh/m2a

In Canada, when you say Passive House, if you’re lucky enough to find someone who has heard of the concept, you will likely hear about the fancy, environmentally efficient homes that need little energy. They exist; there are a few in metro Vancouver, one in Victoria…they are really nice, but more often an architect’s statement than just a regular living place.

Not so in Germany. While not exactly common, they are still much more common than at home, and the standard has migrated to apartment buildings over the last couple of decades.

To be certified as a PassivHaus (an unfortunate term, if you ask me), a home must require at most 15 kWh of heating energy per year per square meter of floor area (abbreviated to kWh/m2a). In Canadian terms, a 2000 square feet Passive house using electrical heating at 10₵ per kilowatt-hour would have a heating bill of $300.00 for the whole year (most Canadian households use about ten times that amount of energy). To get there, a building needs to have very thick insulation, triple-glazed efficient windows, and a ventilation system that pushes stale indoor air through a heat exchanger that warms incoming outdoor air.

It sounds complicated, and not the sort of thing you would entrust to a bunch of strangers in an apartment building. People may well be skeptical, whether they be home owners, renters, or mortgage lenders. So the government, keen to promote the technology, has published a number of case studies recounting the experience to date with these buildings. I wanted to see for myself what they look like and the kind of neighbourhoods they’re in – so here’s what a nice long walk in Hamburg reveals.

Villa Pinguine

Pinguine Villa

They look rather – well, ordinary. No special fancy features or anything advertising that they are super-efficient (except for one of the earliest one in Sankt-Pauli). The only noticeable feature that you learn to identify are the windows: they are set well back, indicating that the walls are unusually thick; and the glass often has an iridescent sheen characteristic of the high-efficiency, triple-glazed argon-filled windows.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet and interview residents. But I found a bunch of interview transcripts on the city’s website, so I translated some of them to get an idea of what it’s like. One thing that comes through clearly is the German preoccupation with fresh air and opened windows.

For instance, here are a few comments from residents related in an early report, Leben in Passivhaus (Living in a Passive House), published in 2007. Uschi L says that the air always feels fresh; she opens the windows only when she wants access to the balcony, or when she wants to cool the place down. In summer she keeps the windows open at night. She says she pays only 5 euros a month for energy.

Nana S says that she likes being able to sleep with only light covers in winter, but with the window closed; it feels like there’s plenty of fresh air. She says that she cranks up the ventilation only when cooking; and she no longer has the dry skin problems that she used to have in winter in her old place. Likewise, Renate L claims that she experiences no more joint pains since moving to an apartment in a PassivHaus. Alfons L says “I cook a lot, but even when I cook fish, the smells don’t linger.”

Pinguine Villa is a condo complex that features 387 apartments spread over two buildings near the Hagenbeck Zoo (hence the name). The experience of residents Seda and Anselm Schaumann has been profiled in a separate report. “We consider owning an apartment that needs so little energy a worthwhile investment. The reliable warmth, pleasant and comfortable rooms, and constant fresh air were other factors in our decision to buy here. We’re very pleased with the results: there’s never any stale air or cold room in the whole apartment. Our heating costs are very small, below 100 Euros per year even though we have a large apartment (123 m2) and we’re a four-person family. Mind you, our electricity bills are about 1/3 higher than our neighbours’, who live in the building across the yard.  That’s because theirs isn’t built to passive standards, so it doesn’t have an air exchange system, with a fan that runs all the time. Another advantage we find is that there are no allergy problems, since the air is always fresh, and there’s no need to open windows during pollen season. The air is never too humid and there’s no condensation anywhere. One inconvenient is that we cannot regulate the temperature in each individual room; the whole apartment has to be the same.”

Pinnasberg PassivHaus on the waterfront (yes, the palm trees are fake)

Pinnasberg PassivHaus on the waterfront (yes, the palm trees are fake)

Pinguine Villa, despite its whimsical name, is in a fairly ordinary, suburban like environment in Northern Hamburg, and maybe it’s not surprising that its concept, aside from the energy efficiency, is quite standard: developer-built condo building. But some are rentals; the very first Passivhaus apartment block, in fact, was built as a demonstration project by the city, in Sankt-Pauli (of all the buildings I saw, this is the only one that announces itself, in discreet letters, as “PassivHaus”); a super-performance building with 10 residential units and two stores at street level, it needs on 8 kWh/m2a to stay warm (the tenants, who pay utilities, are said to be “super happy”). Or sometimes they are started as a cooperative; the most high-profile of these is probably the one on Pinnasberg, an eight-storey, 19 flat building right on the Sankt-Pauli waterfront completed in 2003. The group of owners contributed 13% of the costs down, the rest coming from the city’s mortgage corporation. The building features solar collectors and requires only 13 kWh/m2a.

My favourite may be the building at 24 Telemann street in Eimsbuttel. It has 18 units of varying sizes (55 to 120 m2), as well as nine underground parking stalls. This is a social housing project for 25 adults, including seniors, and 12 children or teenagers. It was meant to be accessible to all, from single-parent families to people with disabilities, as well as multi-generation families. It is a “socially committed housing project linking low and higher income residents, who are committed to ensure the highest possible level of participation in the management of the building.” So that’s the website pitch; what do residents actually think?

The PassivHaus in Eimsbuttel.  Lots of windows on the south side!

The PassivHaus in Eimsbuttel. Lots of windows on the south side!

Some find the lack of temperature adjustments a problem. For instance, Sabine Reineke: “sometimes I switch on the oven to warm up”, but other feel the suites are cozy and warm. Frank Fockele:”I like to be able to walk around in shorts in the middle of winter. The walls and floor are always nice and warm.” The windows don’t open and there is very little noise inside. Hanna Esslinger:”Sometimes I would like to hear more outdoor noise like birdsongs, wind or voices. It is rather like being in an igloo.” But the ventilation system keeps out noise as well as pollen and other outside allergens. Residents also complain about the very dry air in winter. Humidifiers are a no-go, as their electricity draw and moisture would defeat the PassivHaus performance. Instead, wet towels are hung here and there.

Architect Christine Reumschüssel says that much has been learned since, and that a central ventilation system would no longer be the choice for heating; radiant heaters would be used, allowing room-by-room regulation.

In a later report about this building, two children, Lukas (11) and Jorid (12), were interviewed for their thoughts. What does it mean for you living in a Passivhaus? We don’t need a heating system, it all comes through the vents. We are not supposed to open the windows for too long in winter. But when we cook, we have to use the ventilation! Is it complicated to figure out? Nah, it has a dial that goes from 1 to 6, 1 is cold and 6 is really warm. In the bathroom and living room we have a radiator, but we rarely use it – only when we want to dry stuff. Is the ventilation loud? No, except when Marian, upstairs, plays his drum set; sometimes we hear that through the vents, kinda like a radio. What is life like in a housing co-op? Great! There’s a kids common room, and a adults’, too, and there always someone there we can play with or do something. Every year they organise a canoe trip and a barbecue for everybody. This is the city; do you have enough room to play? Yah! There is a garden with a small lawn in the back. Three girls from our building wrote a letter to the mayor because they wanted a monkey bars set. And it worked! The cars are parked underground, even though for our building we only have five cars, because people do car-sharing. The rest of the parking, they rent to others.

Bikes are stored in front of the Telemannstrasse building,

Bikes are stored in front of the Telemannstrasse building,

Eimsbuttel is a neighbourhood in transition, still mostly working class, but highly sought after by the upwardly mobile. It is dense with apartment blocks, but very green with mature trees that form a canopy over the streets, and it has great street life from shops and restaurants nearby. I was quite impressed with the garden behind the building, with its vaunted monkey bars and other amenities for kids, but also space for gardening; the street itself has a traffic calming feature at one end and is very quiet.  I’d live there in a heartbeat.

Aside from the variety of the PassivHaus apartment buildings (and there are many more than what I could describe here), what strikes me is how social housing needs and environmental performance are merged. It may be by design; in Hamburg, these constructions are regulated by the BSU, the Behörde für Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt, which translates as the Ministry for Environment and Urban Planning. A nice way to set priorities.


Note: sources for are mainly from four reports: Zukunftsfähig, Nachhaltig, Ökologisch (link here), Hamburg Team 2009/2010 (link here), Leben im Passivhaus 2007 (link here) and Wohnbau in und um Hamburg 2012 (link here).


Written by enviropaul

December 30, 2015 at 2:28 am

Our friends’ place in Rissen, all renovated

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The renovated building that is home to Max and Andrea.

The renovated building that is home to Max and Andrea.

We dropped in for a visit with Maximilian and Andrea, our friends who live with their two daughters in an appartment they rent in Rissen, near the beach on the Elbe, at the extreme west of Hamburg.

We hadn’t been there for a few years, and I didn’t recognize the place. Are we at the right address? Max laughed.

“Yeah, it’s been almost two years worth of renos. They’ve put insulation in the walls, but mostly they added two storeys to the building. That’s probably why it didn’t look familiar to you.”

Hmm. Including the basement, from three floors to five; the building owners are maximizing their real estate investment. But in order to do so, they must comply with the local rules that require energy efficiency improvements, hence the added insulation. Maybe a new heating system, too; Max didn’t mention.

“So you were able to stay in the appartment during the renovations? How did that work?”

Andrea: “Yes, that wasn’t a problem, because none of the work they did was from the inside of the appartment. All the extra insulation was added from the outside. The windows were okay, so they didn’t have to change them. All of the residents could stay in. It wasn’t even that dusty. But the noise! We seriously considered moving for a while, it was that bad. Building the extra floors meant a lot of drilling through concrete. Our poor cat was so scared, she didn’t want to go outside anymore. But then that part of the construction was over with before we could find anything, so we ended up staying. Now it’s fine – there’s construction on the other side of the courtyard, but that’s not bad. And we like the location, so I’m happy we stayed. The girls love the beach, and I do too. It’s a bit far from downtown, but we can walk to the train, so it’s convenient.”

“But the rent went up, by 150 euros a month, so we’re not happy about that, of course. The owners raised the rent up to the maximum allowed. We pay for heat, and because the building is better insulated our heating bills are supposed to go down and compensate. Maybe. I know they are down, but this fall the weather has been so warm, it’s hard to tell. We’ll know better next year. But the main difference has been the humidity; there used to be some mold growing in one corner of the wall, now that’s all gone.”

The beach at Rissen

The beach at Rissen

(This is one of the surprises for me: I’m learning that vapour barriers are not commonly used here. In Canada we use them so as to avoid condensation inside the walls. But in Germany, it is expected that the walls should breathe; however, old walls with porous bricks and poor insulation wick moisture into the inside of the homes, something that the added external insulation prevents.)

Max: “None of the residents were happy about the rent increase, we all thought it was too much. So the renters association took the owners to court. But they lost; the rental board found that the owners were justified to increase the rent to that extent, but no more. So now, the association also has to pay the fee for contesting the increase. But not us! It’s a funny story: when we moved in, it was a bit confusing, and it turned out that the renters association we joined was not the same group as the one that most of the residents in the building here belong to. So we weren’t involved in the claim that was lost. No fee for us: we’ll take it!”

Walking to the beach on the trail through the woods

Walking to the beach on the trail through the woods

It’s complicated to be a renter in this country, I’m finding out. Forms and documents of all sorts, long term leases, all sorts of bewildering rules and stuff. But in exchange, there seems to be better protection than in Vancouver, and “renovictions” don’t happen. There is rent control, and subsidized housing. It’s not perfect, by any means; all of our friends here who rent think the system has problems. But looking at it from the vantage point of the housing crisis in Vancouver, it strikes me that the system, for all its imperfections, seems to work quite well.

And it also works in such a way that enables energy efficiency measures in the housing sector, measures that all recognize as required to combat climate change, but that few countries, save for Germany, have tackled in earnest. Considering how complex that challenge is, I think what has been done so far is amazing.

Written by enviropaul

December 28, 2015 at 10:42 am

Renovating heritage brick buildings for energy efficiency

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One of the original buildings at Holstenkamp 119

How do you make a heritage building energy efficient? That’s a real problem in Europe, where many buildings that are old and in need of renovations also tend to be historic; you can’t just wrap the building in some kind of high-tech blanket – it has to retain its character.

Holstenkamp 119, a complex of eight brick buildings from the 1920’s, in Hamburg-Altona, is a case in point. The buildings, owned by the city, were originally designed as an old folks home. Over the years its function changed several times; it was last used as a residence for difficult teenagers, before becoming vacant. While the heritage structure itself was sound, the original doors were damaged and the windows, which were not original, were of poor quality. Because of that, the request for new doors and windows was accepted by the city’s heritage watchdog.  The wiring, in bad shape, was also completely redone.

But what could not be done was changing the structure’s exterior appearance. This meant, for instance, that no solar panels could be installed, since they would be visible on the sloping roof. The outside walls were insulated from the interior, an operation made easy from the fact that the building was vacant (in Hamburg, many appartment buildings get extra insulation using an external coating). Radiant or convective heaters were installed throughout, drawing power from a central heat and power plant. An air exchange system with heat recovery needed to be installed (otherwise, the thermal performance of the building would be poor), but where were the air intake and exhaust ducts to be installed? The designers found that the existing chimneys could be repurposed for that, in a clever use of the existing structure.

But as I’m reading about this particular project, I notice something unexpected. The problem stems from the use of insulation on the inside of the walls. This is the norm in Canada; and to avoid condensation in the walls, a vapor barrier is laid on top of the insulation, on the indoor side – end of story. Not so in Germany, it appears. The description of the renovations mentions the use of “internal capillary active insulation”. Huh, what? After a bit of searching I found a report from the Frauenhofer Institute that shed some light on the situation. Part of the issue is that brick is porous, and the walls need to breathe in order to dry out after a driving rain. So the choice of material is crucial to ensure that moisture circulates and condensation is minimized. The report also mentions that a special grant was made available in order to pay for the design of the system, and no wonder: the Frauenhofer article describes solving simultaneous partial differential equations to describe the diffusion of heat and moisture (these are the sort of thing that delights theoretical physicists and scares everybody else; see side box).

What you need to solve in order to figure out where the moisture goes in a brick wall...sheesh!

What you need to solve in order to figure out where moisture goes in a brick wall…sheesh!

The report also mentions that funding for the renovations came from both the city and a group of owners, as well as from Co2ol Bricks, an EU-funded group that specializes into renovations projects for heritage buildings in the Baltic countries. The total cost, for a heated floor area of 3300 square meters, was 174,000 Euros and the payback period is expected to be thirteen years, based on before-and-after calculations. (Co2ol Bricks has a website chuckfull of case studies of renovations of historic brick buildings in countries around the Baltic, well worth perusing for inspiration).

But then, when I do a search for this address, I notice that the complex is back in operation as an old folks home, yet it has multiple owners in partnership with the city. Is this a condominium-type system, where the elderly own their own appartments but have access to medical care? I still have so much to learn about the German system, and I continue to bejust as baffled now as when I arrived.

And then I read from the papers that the city has made some of the appartments available for a few refugees, some lucky ones among the thousands in the city. And the elderly owners of the other appartments are not happy about this. Sigh.

But at least everyone is housed in a comfortable, warm, energy efficient building.

Technical details:
Floors insulated with 15 cm polystyrene (U value of 0.35 W/m2K)
Ceiling insulated with 24 cm fiber (U value of of 0.035 W/m2K)
Walls insulated with 3 cm Klimasan insulation plaster or 5 cm Ytong Multipor (U values of 0.078 and 0.045 W/m2K, respectively)
Doors and windows with U values between 1.2 to 2.0 0.35 W/m2K
Heating energy use before renovations: calculated at 387 kWh/m2a
Heating energy use after: 48 kWh/m2a, for an energy saving of 86%

Written by enviropaul

December 27, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Cherry blossoms at the Christmas market

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Cherry blossoms, third week of December, Hamburg Neustadt

Cherry blossoms, third week of December, Hamburg Neustadt

It’s a bit ironic to be visiting a Christmas market under a heat wave, but this is what the weather has been like in northern Europe for a few of weeks.

The weather had been cold at the end of November, below freezing, with a bit of snow. But since then it has been warm – quite warm. This is due, I’m told, to the combination of a persistent high pressure zone over the Mediterannean with a low sitting west of England; the two systems together are sucking up warm air from the southwest and sending it our way. The same thing seems to be happening over the east coast of North America (a high over Bermuda, a low over Hudson’s Bay siphoning warm air to the northeast).

Lübeck's water front

Lübeck’s water front

It’s not that daily temperature records have been broken; some have, but that’s not the point. What’s unprecedented is the duration of the warm weather. Many cherry trees are in full bloom; there was enough of an earlier frost to trick them into thinking spring has come. Welcome to Christmas in the climate change era.

Spring has not come, of course. There will be cold snaps coming, probably some snow. Climate change is not some kind of gentle warming; rather, it’s main chareacteristic so far is violent swings in the weather, from one extreme to another. In recent years warm air masses have been going further north than before, cold air further south – remember the “drunk jet stream”? So now western Europe and eastern North America are experiencing the equivalent of what happened during Vancouver’s winter olympics, with day temperatures between 10 and 16C, day after day. It may be December, but right now it feels rather pleasantly balmy. I just hope orchardists see it the same way.

A market stall in front of City Hall, a building that dates from the medieval era

A market stall in front of City Hall, a building that dates from the medieval era

It’s ironic that I’m thinking about that while visiting the Lübeck Christmas market, because religion has permeated the debate in the most unexpected way. Conservatives in the English speaking world have hijacked religion to the service of fossil fuels, saying it is hubris to claim that man can change God’s creation, including the weather; God has given us oil, so drill, baby, drill. But others talk about creation care; God has given us free will, but we’ve been using it to destroy His creation (so live with the consequences, seems to say a shrugging God). The Vatican, until recently so notorious for opposing science through the Enlightenment, has entered the debate saying we have a moral duty to fight climate change and preserve the environment. An amazing swing, that.

the mischievious Max und Moritz, a children classic

The mischievous Max und Moritz, a children classic

I don’t let these mullings interfere with my enjoyment of the market. Three pre-teen girls are playing traditional German carols on violin, drawing a crowd. In between the glühwein stalls are little nativity scenes, but also their counterpart in folklore: traditional retellings of Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, as well as others I’m just discovering, like Hans im Glück. All these stories have for underlying themes food scarcity and nature that is not benevolent. But Germany has not experienced a famine for centuries, and wolves are being reintroduced as their ecological role is becoming appreciated. If you take the long view, there are a lot of positives to rejoice in.

Further down is another trio of young musicians: a trumpet, an alto saxophone, and a bass saxophone. The bass sax is almost bigger than the girl playing it. They’re quite good, interpreting Silent Night in a novel arrangement. It’s respectful of the classic, yet fresh at the same time; quite a pleasure to hear. Tradition embracing the modern, in a way that works. Somehow, this is what Germany has come to mean for me, and it makes me hopeful for the future, climate change or not.

Traditional nativity scenes are a must at the Christmas market

Traditional nativity scenes are a must at the Christmas market

And so with that, then, a Merry Christmas to all!

Written by enviropaul

December 24, 2015 at 2:47 am

Germans, cars, and the climate

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Three black Porsches in Eppendorf

Three black Porsches in Eppendorf

Meet Tatjana. She is an event planner for Porsche. Porsche owners, top sales staff, and assorted folks get invited to special events that Tatjana organises. How special? How about “spend a week in northern Finland in February learning to handle a Porsche on ice”, or “drive the new models through the Dalmatian Alps”. Tatjana looks after the logistics, and participates in the events herself (which include Michelin rated restaurants and five stars hotels). And she gets to drive cars on company time: she has to know her product. (She also has to drive the competition, for the same reason; she has test-driven Corvettes, BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes…she likes only the latter two, and she still prefers Porsche). Some would call this a dream job.

Or meet Sören. Nineteen years of age, he has just been accepted at Porsche for a dual studium in mechatronics. This was the result of a grueling competition; students get to divide their time between studying at the university (Stuttgart, in this case) and working for their employer (Porsche, in this case). The successful students get a salary and support during their studies, in exchange of which they commit to work for their employer after graduation for a minimum of two years. Dual studium is a particular German system: it’s a way for employers to pre-select promising future employees, and a company like Porsche likes to pick the cream of the best students.

Colour coordinated motorbike and porsche

Colour coordinated motorbike and porsche

I asked Sören why Porsche, and what he thought of the long-term future of the car industry. He has no worries, he said; he expect there will always be cars, even if they become electric or something else. He pointed out that he’ll be working for Porsche Engineering, an entity distinct from the car maker. He said he’ll learn problem-solving skills that he can use anywhere – but what he really wants to do is design Porsches.

I mention these two just to show how cars are imbedded in German society. It’s all types of cars; I just happened to meet folks connected with Porsche. Here we have two young, smart and talented people who love cars and see their future in the car industry. An outsider like me thinks of Germany as an environmental leader; how does that square with such a strong car culture?

Cars are bad, environmentalists agree: air pollution, climate change, oil spills, urban sprawl, habitat fragmentation, all that is tied to cars. But as Tatjana and Sören would not doubt agree, it is futile to wish away car culture. Cars are an integral part of German culture, maybe even more so than in North America: Germans drive cars, but they also design cars, produce them, and export them, more than anyone else. This has resulted in Germany having the world’s largest auto manufacturer (VW) and many prestige brands such as Porsche or Daimler Benz.

A little mercedes by the Elbe

A little mercedes by the Elbe

Germany relies on the car industry for jobs and exports, but it has also pledged to reduce greenhouse gases. Indeed, between 1990 and 2014, emissions fell by 24 percent in the energy sector, 34 percent in the industrial and manufacturing sector, 33 percent in the residential sector…but only by 0.2 percent in the transportation sector. As blogger Opseth pointed out, “Norway sold about 2.5 times more EV [electric vehicles] than Germany in the first 10 months of 2015. Norway has a population of about 6% of Germany!”

Germany is doing so well cutting emissions from other sectors, I suppose it could be excused for having a blind spot when it comes to cars. But I think big changes are in the works in the automobile industry, and it would be wise not to underestimate Germany’s role in the upcoming changes.

It’s too easy to be defeatist, or smug, in the light of the Volkswagen emissions scandal (the “dieselgate”). After all, if the scandal is a bit of an humiliation for VW, it is a real black eye for regulators, who turned a blind eye to what was going on. In fact, the scandal may well be what spurs real changes in the industry – and the government’s approach to it. Michiel Lanzegaal reported for Cleantechnica:

Dieselgate seems to have woken up at least one giant. Volkswagen seems to have found a new CEO who knows what to do. Within weeks after assuming the position as CEO, Matthias Müller accelerated the Volkswagen electrification program. The Volkswagen Phaeton will go full electric and Volkswagen will develop a completely new electric platforms. Both Audi and Porsche will introduce long range luxury cars with fast charging capabilities in 2018–2019.

Or as Craig Morris, in Energy Transition, writes:

The VW scandal is a window of opportunity to embarrass the German government into real support for progress in the transport sector – and German car makers into true cleantech innovation. Until recently, Merkel took strict EU car regulations to be a threat. The lesson now is clear: save German car makers by making them leaders in clean technology!

Indeed, Germany announced its intention to increase electric vehicle production from less than 2,000 units currently to 1 million units by 2020 and 5 million units by 2030.

The federal government’s target is to make Germany the leading market for electric mobility,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement. “Power for electrically driven vehicles can be generated from a number of primary energy sources, thus helping to promote independence from oil imports and fluctuating petrol prices.”

This little i3 seems to live near our place

This little i3 seems to live near our place

But is that producing results? Well, the car makers didn’t wait for marching orders from the government. The major car makers have all created electric supercars in response to the threat of Tesla. Car geeks may want to click on these links to see reports about the Audi Q6 all-electric SUV, BMW’s i5 (or Aston Martin BEV Rapide, owned by BMW), Mercedes’ F015, or Porsche’s Mission E (0 to 100 km/h in 3.5 seconds, supercar indeed).

But it’s not just supercars. Mercedes has announced a line of electric mid-sized B class, and of course has been selling electric Smarts for awhile; VW has announced that it will resurrect its iconic camper van as an electric model; and BMW has been quite successful with its i3.

In fact, BMW may be the company to watch: its i3 production line is setting new standards for green, energy efficient manufacturing, and the company has announced its intention to have an all-electric line-up, including popular models such as the Mini.

...and the charger nearby.

…and the charger nearby.

So the technology and the innovation are there for an electric car revolution made-in-Germany. What has been missing are the incentives: there are few subsidies or tax incentives, nor has there been any push to make electric chargers common place. Once that changes…indeed, last October energy expert Ulla Pettersson stated to the trade magazine Power Engineering that

Widespread rollout of electric vehicles will occur in Europe, but the speed of implementation is dependent on the currently unstable oil price. If the price is low, then people won’t invest in electric vehicles because it’s not the cheapest option. However, I predict that in five years’ time, approximately 20 per cent of small private cars will be electric.

It may be unwise, then, to dismiss German car makers as non-players, or worse, in the push to decarbonize the economy. Change does happen quickly. It may be worth remembering that, barely more than a decade ago, Nissan chair Carlos Ghosn said that electric cars were mere toys with a limited future, and that the company had little interest in developing one. But it did: Nissan’s Leaf is now the most popular electric car on the market. It may be a bit premature to give up on German car makers…

Written by enviropaul

December 23, 2015 at 11:42 am

The little cottages of Hamburg

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Along Stübeheide Straße in Hamburg is a housing complex that dates from the 1930s, the Franksche Siedlung. It is quite cute: rows after rows of red-brick two-story row houses, each with a tiny lawn in front and a bigger garden at the back. The complex, which received heritage designation in 2011, is mostly resident-owned and is highly sought after by young families.

Each rowhouse is small (originally, 57 m2) so as to be as affordable to rent as inner city appartments. The project was opposed by wealthy locals who did not like the change of character to the neighbourhood, but that opposition was quickly overcome.

The gardens were a key part of the project, since the residents were expected to grow their own food. The houses all face east, west or north, but not south; this arrangement minimizes shade and maximizes the growing potential of the gardens.

This project was commissioned by the head of state at the time, a professed vegetarian, anti-smoking environmentalist, who expressed a dislike for large appartment blocks. He said that people need contact with the soil, need a garden patch; just like trees, people have their roots in the soil, in the social and psychological sense if not in the literal sense. He was ahead of his time with respect to anticipating the disaster that the urban renewal projects of the 60’s would become, as well as the trend for local food and urban gardening.

Architect Paul Frank was asked to design the complex. A student of modernist Bauhaus, Frank was already famous for large appartment complexes such as the Jarrestadt in Winterhude, a series of long five-story red brick blocks. He may have been an odd choice for the job, but he took to the new task successfully and the project was a success.

Nowadays, the Franksche complex looks like an improvement on the Jarrestadt one. To my untrained eye, the vaunted Jarrestadt complex, with all its Neuen Bauen glory, looks stark and forbidding, long blocks with wind-swept lawns between them. By contrast, the Franksche feels built on a human scale, pretty, village-like. Indeed, it was partially inspired by the Garden-City ideas of urban development that promoted urban farming and easy access to the countryside. The Garden-City concept was developed at a time (late 19th century) when city living was considered, with good reason, unhealthy.

The problem, of course, is one of scale. If all of Hamburg’s development had followed this model, the city would have sprawl on forever. Food security would have been enhanced, yes, but at the price of atomized communities that, suburban-style, lack true centers and community gathering places, things that the Germans particularly value (see here for a discussion of how German and American cities diverged in the fifties). Of course, not having large community gathering places also means that there is no focal point for social protests. This was not intentional, as these types of development were meant to foster the conservatism of rural values.

The head of state was one who valued the doctrine of Blut und Boden. To him, the German character was forged in the soil of Germany, and the nation needed to return to the land and to nature, rediscover rural values, and reject the degenerate aspects of city life. That man, of course, was Adolf Hitler.
Strange, isn’t it? Here I am actually enjoying this set of buildings, finding them inviting and peaceful, despite the repellent ideology that led to their creation. It is an instance of the ambivalence many feel towards Hitler’s creations: many of his projects were great popular successes that helped relieve the distress that the common people was facing after the depression. It is worth remembering that Hitler was democratically elected.

Not too far from there, in Poppenbütel (Kritenbarg 8), is another building that is quite affecting, the last remnant of a housing complex of low-roofed little houses built out of concrete blocks. These drab little homes were built quickly, out of prefabricated materials, to replace the ones destroyed in the air raids. The builders were mostly Jewish women from the nearby concentration camp, many of whom died at the task.


Source: Duncan JD Smith 2010. Only in Hamburg: a guide to hidden corners, little-known places and unusual objects. Vienna: Christian Brandstätter Verlag.

Written by enviropaul

December 14, 2015 at 11:44 am

A little history of Hamburg in three statues

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Johann Wilhelm Bentz, aka Hummel

Johann Wilhelm Bentz, aka Hummel

Water made Hamburg what it is: a merchant city that built its wealth on sea trading, on port and canals.

The city’s statues reflect that fundamental relationship to water. No kings or emperors here; the only prominent monument to a head of state is a statue of Bismarck, and even then, the locals were cheeky enough to install a carved mountain goat on top of Bismarck’s head. There are also statues of luminaries like the writers Lessing or Heine. But the main statues are of people associated with water: a pirate, a water-bearer, a sewer engineer.

Klaus Störtebeker

Klaus Störtebeker

Klaus Störtebeker, or rather his life-size statue, stands defiantly in Hafen City. This is where he was beheaded, along with his ship’s crew, in 1400 or 1401, for the piracy that threatened the city’s wealth. Legend has it that he made a deal with the authorities: “free as many as my men I walk by after losing my head to the executioner.” Carrying his head, he walked past eleven of his crew before he tripped (they were all beheaded nonetheless).

All children know this founding myth of Hamburg. It evokes the sea, the Hanseatic League of Baltic merchants who made the city prosperous. It evokes the free life on the sea and the disdain for land-lubber authorities. But the statue is also there because it was the city that won – not the pirates. And it also underscores a received truth about Hamburg: the harbour is sacred, it is the lifeblood of the city. Whatever new development is planned for the city, it is always introduced with a comment that “this will not adversely affect the harbour”.

If everyone here knows about Störtebeker, few recognize the name Johann Wilhelm Bentz. Yet his statue is everywhere in Hamburg, a popular emblem of the city, known by all as Hummel. Bentz (1787-1854) was a water-carrier, plying his trade in the unsanitary slums of the city, of which little is left. As he made his rounds, children would taunt him with calls of “Hummel, hummel!” (bumblebee, bumblebee!), to which he’d respond “Mors, mors” (arses, arses!).

One of the innumerable Hummel statues

One of the innumerable Hummel statues

The original Hummel statue was erected towards the end of one of the few remaining streets of the old slums, Bäckerbreitergang in the Neustadt area, in 1938. The statue depicts one of the naughty kids with his pants down – little mors, indeed. While depicting amusing street life, the statue was also intended as a reminder of the importance of fresh water in the fight against disease; cholera devastated the city in the 1892 epidemic.

The third figure, in contrast to Störtebeker and Hummel, is almost completely unknown. Under the Baumwall train station is a statue of English engineer sir William Lindley, who arrived in Hamburg in 1834. Lindley originally came to build a railway between Hamburg and Bergedorf, but after the great fire in 1842, Lindley was asked to stay and help rebuild the city.

He tackled the water and sewer systems, using London’s new system as his inspiration. Within three years Lindley had constructed an 11 km long network of brick-built vaulted sewers, a first in continental Europe, as well as water supply lines.

William Lindley

William Lindley

Next to Lindley’s statue is a little stone kiosk, through which one can access the main sewer trunk, the Geest-Stammsiel. In 1877 the crown prince, later emperor Wilhelm II, used this access point to navigate the sewers by boat, praising the “surprising purity” of the air. The sewer is said to still contain the berthing dock built for the Prince’s visit; but unfortunately the kiosk is not open for public visits.

In the 1840s Lindley set draining the Hammerbrook area, creating canals, and Hamburg’s first modern suburb, now industrial or office. Immediately south is the island of Rothenburgsort, which Lindley selected for the waterworks. Water from the Elbe (upstream of the city) was first decanted in basins and then pumped up to Hamburg’s first water tower. Lindley left Hamburg in 1860, but his waterworks continued to be developed, so that the sewer network he designed was completed by 1910, and makes the backbone of the modern system.

Despite that, sanitation continued to be poor, especially in the slum areas. In response, the city started work on the large filtration plant at Kaltehofe that was used until 1990 to treat water from the Elbe (groundwater now supplies the city). Writes Duncan Smith:

A visit to Kaltehofe can be a poignant experience. One can’t help but recall the more than 8500 victims of Hamburg’s worst outbreak of cholera in 1892, who perished just a year before the opening of the plant that might have saved them. And then there is the plant itself, which after filtering out bacteria and impurities from the waters of the Elbe for over a century was finally decommissioned in 1990. The twenty two former filtration beds are now gradually silting up, the tiled roofs of their little red-brick valve houses slowly falling into disrepair.

But if few know about Lindley, everyone has seen the fountain in the town hall courtyard. In the centre is a large statue of Hygea, the Greek goddess of health. After the epidemic, the city fathers reassessed their priorities, selecting her in symbolic response to the epidemic, over an earlier choice of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce.

In modern Hamburg, many take clean water supply as a given, and are unaware of the debt they owe Lindley. But everyone is aware of water, still omnipresent in the city. British artist Oliver Voss acknowledged that with his installation the Lady of the Lake. Said Voss:

Hamburg and the water belong together. People live by, and from, the water. My team and I wanted to demonstrate this relationship in a fun and entertaining way. We also hope she will encourage more people to rediscover and experience our city by the water – after all, if the Inner Alster is the living room of Hamburg, of course someone should make themselves comfortable in it!

the Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake (too bad it was a temporary installation!)

Source: Duncan JD Smith 2010. Only in Hamburg: a guide to hidden corners, little-known places and unusual objects. Christian Brandstätter Verlag.

Written by enviropaul

December 10, 2015 at 2:31 am