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

Archive for January 2016

St-Paul’s Hospital moving? Hamburg’s Quartier 21 may be a model.

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St. Paul's Hospital in the 30s

St. Paul’s Hospital in the 30s

One the bigger projects in Vancouver is the move of St-Paul’s. The core of the downtown hospital on Burrard street is a historic brick building dating from 1913. But the building does not have a heritage designation, and that has many worried (details here, here, here, here, and here).

The hospital is to be moved to the False Creek flats at Main and Terminal, but what is become of the old buildings? Razing everything and building anew has been proposed.

I think this would be, frankly, an error and a shame. It’s true that historic buildings are expensive to renovate, but they are called historic for a reason.
This proposal made me think of a very similar project, Quartier 21, that I visited in Hamburg. This project involved turning an old brown-brick hospital, built in the 1900s, into a residential and commercial complex.

The main building of the old hospital of Quartier 21

The main building of the old hospital of Quartier 21

In this case, the hospital buildings (seven pavilions) were kept intact and renovated into 102 condos and rental units. Added to this, since the grounds were quite large (think Riverview), seven five-story brand new buildings were added to the complex, for a total of 50,000 square meters for 271 suites. Commerical or functional space is nearly as important: 45,000 square meters for office and retail space, and educational, community and healthcare facilities.

Quartier 21: new buildings on the left, heritage behind and left

Quartier 21: new buildings on the left, heritage behind and left

The buildings, new and renovated, were subject to the usual demanding environmental performance (EnEV07 or EnEV09, which means roughly half-way to PassivHaus standard). The new buildings all have green roofs as well. And this being Hamburg, the complex is walking distance to an urban train station.

 

 

 

Quartier 21 heritage buildings

Quartier 21 heritage buildings

Sigh. I love old brick buildings. Hamburg puts a lot of care on preserving its heritage (so much was lost in the war). This wasn’t always the case; many priceless buildings were torn down in the nineteenth century. Now the city has learned its lesson and ensures that heritage buildings are renovated into energy efficient buildings without loss of character. I expect Vancouver to grow and develop, and I welcome the prospect. But not if we’re blind to our own heritage.

 

 

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How Hamburg does urban development

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As in Vancouver, there is a housing problem in Hamburg. The city is growing fast, and property values are on a never-ending rise. But there is a key difference: Hamburg’s government is playing a very active role in managing the issue. Here I summarized an article from a local paper for an insight into what that involvement means.

Artistic view of the Alsterberg complex

Artistic view of the Alsterberg complex

A winning design for 340 new apartments on Alsterberg.
Since the spring of 2015, the former barracks site between Sengelmannstraße and Suhrkamp has become a major construction site. The new residential district, valued at 50 million, will include a residential mix of 50 percent subsidized apartments, 35 percent market rate rentals and 15 percent condominiums. The complex will offer housing opportunities for families and singles, as well as students, disabled people, and seniors who do not need ongoing care. About 40 per cent of the dwellings are wheelchair accessible. A convenience shop, a daycare center and a centre for people with disabilities are part of the mix. The complex will be supplied with heat and electricity from its own in-house power supply with low CO2 emissions. The design has earned kudos for the architect firm Eckert, Manthos, Tagwerker of Stuttgart, for retaining the heritage brick facades as well as shaping the courtyards around the valuable large old trees.

However, the project has been criticized by the CDU municipal opposition for lacking enough parking spaces; the opposition accuses the government of lack of transparency in removing some of the parking stalls featured in the initial design.

There you have it: green, diverse…and a whole half of it is subsidized. And this is by no means unique; most whole-site developments include a substantial portion of housing that is subsidized in one form or another. How does Hamburg do it? Well, it helps that the city has always kept a large land bank under its control, instead of selling it off to private interests. It also helps that, as opposed to Vancouver, Hamburg is in charge of its own destiny, being the equivalent of munipality and province rolled into one. But possibly the most important ingredient is that neither the government nor its citizens ever bought into the idea that taxes are bad and taxes should be lowered, no matter what. Nobody likes taxes, of course; but everyone agrees that government must be actively involved in making housing affordable, and that takes money.

And then there’s the environmental side of it: new buildings must be energy efficient; that’s throughout Europe, not just Hamburg. But then Hamburg realizes that parking is expensive, and requirements may be relaxed when there’s good transit nearby. That’s just a smart way to show that being green can reduce costs.

Written by enviropaul

January 19, 2016 at 8:13 pm

How do you recycle a bunker, part 5: with the community (the KEBAP project)

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On New Year’s eve I was invited to a tour of a most unique bunker project, the KEBAP. It’s an acronym for “energy and culture bunker” in German.
The tour was held for a group of environmentally-minded students from Minnesota. During their winter break, they were touring sustainability projects in Germany and Denmark – including KEBAP.

I walked over to Hotel Sternschanze in Ottensen where twenty or so jet-lagged students of environmental science, geography, engineering, or arts were awaiting a talk by KEBAP coordinator Heike Breitefeld. Also present were two profs from St-Thomas University in Minnesota, as well as Irene Peters of HafenCity University in Hamburg and her grad student Ansel Mueller, who is studying district heating. I figured if these students came all the way to Hamburg to see this project, it must be good and I should tag along. I wasn’t disappointed.

Heike (top left) presenting KEBAP to the student group

Heike (top left) presenting KEBAP to the student group

Heike has been involved in the environmental movement for a good long while. She first took part in the protests against the coal power plant at Moorburg. That fight was lost (though the proposal and the protests happened over a decade ago, the plant has just come on line recently); but then there was a proposal to bring steam from Moorburg for district heating, and the pipe would have gone right through her street, uprooting all the street trees. She went back to the trenches, mobilized people, organised protests, which included a tree sitting over a cold winter; eventually the courts found for them (urban trees matter!), and the pipe project was cancelled.

She spoke quietly, but her eyes had the fiery intensity of someone who has given herself to the struggle for environmental and social justice. She gave an impression of steely resolve, of someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I pity the bureaucrat who tries to dismiss her. She explained to us what KEBAP, a project based on an old WW2 bunker on Schomburgstraße in Altona, entails.

The bunker, a concrete structure the size of a large apartment block, is currently owned by the federal government. Until recently, it was classified as an active civilian protection structure; built by the Nazis, the structure was repurposed as a nuclear shelter during the fifties. The cold war may be long over, but the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. Eventually someone realized that something ought to be done with this bunker.

The bunker is located in a “special social area”, that is, a neighbourhood with social issues amid subsidized-housing towers. Because of that designation, the site has been preserved from real estate developers, but this special protection is likely to be lifted next year. Government policy is that excess land (and buildings) is to be sold to the highest bidder; the community has no chance of outbidding a private developer. But Heike and the KEBAP activists hope to gain approval for a special social function designation for their project, especially after their vision won a prestigious award. They want the city to be involved, to develop a sense of ownership in the project, so as to ensure, first its realisation, then its sustained support.

So what is the vision for this bunker? KEBAP’s idea is to split the bunker into two sections of equal size, one for energy, the other as a community and arts space. The importance of this project as a community-building focus was evident from the opening slide of Heike’s presentation. Issues of social and community justice are foremost for the activists; the energy part is meant to be revenue generating to support the arts side.

Geek that I am, though, it was the energy part that really got me. Inside the bunker would be housed a wood gasifier, a cogen plant – aka, CHP, for Combined Heat and (electrical) Power – and a large heat storage tank. Because the fuel is derived from wood, the process is considered climate-neutral. The bunker happens to be located next to a district heating pipeline, and the energy produced would add to the network. More important, though, is the thermal storage. Heating demand varies throughout the day, and a large energy storage makes it possible to realize considerable gains in efficiency. The large bunker in Wilhelmsburg has been converted into an energy facility, serving as a bit of a model for KEBAP. The performance of that bunker shows that, with storage, the same amount of fuel can heat twice as many homes as without. A lot of space is needed in order to house such a storage facility, but that is precisely what a bunker has in droves. Also, the structure is bomb-proof, by definition; so fuel storage, gasification, and combustion, stuff normally too risky for a residential neighbourhood, are safe when housed inside a bunker.

But what about connecting with the heat distribution network? Ironically, Vattenfall, the Swedish company that owns the network, is the same company that owns the Moorburg power plant which triggered this story. Despite their history of conflicts with the activists, they have been quite cooperative, helping with the project feasibility study. The company needs to be perceived as good corporate citizens. Heat distribution, as opposed to electricity, is poorly regulated, and the company would much rather come to a friendly understanding with the community rather than having the government interfere. Further, Hamburg recently voted (in a public referendum) in favour of returning the power facilities to the public sector, so the company will need a deft touch to navigate through this issue.

Going the bunker

Going the bunker

So the idea is to generate clean power and sell it to the grid, both heat and electricity; this would generate revenue to sustain the other half of the project: the community centre.

We got an insight into what that may look like as we visited the site. There is still no approval for building anything in the bunker, but that hasn’t stopped the activists from building a lean-to shed against the bunker, as well as a community garden. On top of the shed are a solar collector for electric power, beehives, and a rain water collection cistern for the community garden.

The shed, which includes a small kitchen, was largely built by members of the community. This is a great source of pride for the activists, as it shows not only that the community is solidly behind the project, but also how important it is to have a venue where local people can apply their talents – and wood working is certainly not something that can be done in the cramped apartments of the neighbourhood. As it is, the brick oven in the shed’s kitchen is used a few times a months for communal break making parties.

The project has not been without detractors. Hamburg’s main paper (Hamburger Abendblatt) ran a snarky editorial in favour of an alternative project. Instead of an energy centre, the bunker would have housed community space and lofts for artists, the whole being paid by capping the bunker with luxury condos. The editorial claimed that this alternative would have been simpler and easier, and accused the local party of playing politics in support of a politically-correct, utopian green project. Maybe…but KEBAP has something else in its favour: the support of the community. Locals don’t like projects imposed from the top.

The berliners have arrived!

The berliners have arrived!

Light was fading, and the visitors congregated in a meeting room to eat a few Berliners, the doughnuts traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve. The students kept peppering Heike with questions. I had to leave and catch the train to get to my own Sylvester celebrations, but I left with a kind of warm glow.

It is always fun to witness a dialog between idealistic students and seasoned activists, but that wasn’t quite why it felt special. Then it hit me: it’s because these activists are positive. Environmentalists are often the “no” people, the ones opposed to “any project, anywhere”. But here are people devoting their time and energy for something positive, for a project that creates better things: an energy efficient system, better for the climate; a cultural venue, better for the community; and a real grassroots voice, better for social justice. Within a realistic budget, the third pillar of sustainability. You’d have to be pretty cynical not be impressed.

Written by enviropaul

January 17, 2016 at 6:53 pm

How do you recycle a bunker, part 4: quietly, if possible.

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The bunker on Poßmoorweg, under its containers

The bunker on Poßmoorweg, under its containers

I was walking in our Winterhude neighbourhood and saw a strange sight: a large pile of shipping containers, maybe eight deep. Something that wouldn’t be out of place on the harbour, but this is a residential neighbourhood.

Turns out the containers are hiding a bunker. What’s more, they’re all filled with old mattresses.

This is the brilliant idea that a local contractor has come up with to address noise issues while demolishing the bunker. The mattresses are meant to be noise absorbers, and all the plastic sheeting is to keep the dust away from the appartment blocks nearby. Judging from the noise that still echoes across the canal, I’m not sure this is working all that well.

Many bunkers are sitting on prime real estate, but noise is a huge issue for anyone who intends to replace them with new buildings. Following up on neighbourhood complaints (one local resident said he measured a noise level of up 125 decibels), the city put a stop-order against the site. The shipping containers were brought in response to that, and the jackhammers now operate only from inside the bunker.

This is not a new problem; noise and dust issues have held up bunker demolition projects in several other sites. (I found three in my neighbourhood, within walking distance. The project on Fortsmannstraße, a 38-appartment luxury condo, was held up for several months in 2013; when I visited, the bunker was gone but the site was still a hole in the ground. Developers have all but given up on another one just behind where we live, on Kuhnstraße. This street abuts Mühlenkamp, a fancy commercial avenue whose well-connected merchants and their well-heeled patrons would put up a effective fight.)

This attests to the difficulty of building in dense old neighbourhoods, of course, but bunkers, with their thick concrete walls, are particularly challenging. This is why I like projects that leave the structure standing, instead finding creative ways of incorporating the structure and side-stepping the demolition issue.

The Luxus Bunker

The Luxus Bunker

Take the so-called Luxus-Bunker in Altona on Bülowstraße, for instance. This bunker has been turned into luxury condo complex by altering the structure from the inside and punching large windows through the 80-cm thick concrete walls. The project, almost completed, has proceeded quickly despite being located in a dense neighbourhood near a school and a hospital. (And it will be a truly fancy development; only seven appartments for the whole building, each occupying an entire floor, except for the two-story penthouse with amazing views and a price of 2.3 million Euros for the 237 m2 suite.)

 

 

Bunkers may present an unusual design challenge, but this is not a new situation when repurposing old sites. Barcelona’ s Boffil cement factory is a case in point: architect Ricardo Boffil bought an abandoned cement factory and, keeping the structure intact, turned it into the head office of an architecture studio. Writer Lori Zimmer had this to say about the building:

Why this matters: the greenest buildings are those that already exist – rather than building from scratch, Bofill has transformed an abandoned industrial ruin into a complex with the magic, wonder, and grandeur evocative of a historical chateau.

The Boffil repurposed cement factory

The Boffil repurposed cement factory

Why do I obsess over bunkers? Vancouver does not have any bunkers (Towers Beach doesn’t count). But there are industrial buildings that could be re-purposed instead of demolished. There is even some unused space, such as old tunnels, that could serve for heat storage for district heating, like the Wilhelmsburg bunker. Hamburg’s bunker conundrums may have lessons for us.

But mostly, bunkers are uniquely cool, bizarrely otherworldly, and deeply affecting because of all the history they carry. Too bad we don’t have any, but I’m glad we’ve never had to.

Written by enviropaul

January 17, 2016 at 6:24 pm