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For Some German Architects, It's Easy Being Green

Jennifer AbramsohnAugust 1, 2004

An exhibit on ecologically friendly architecture in Germany just began a world tour. It highlights the country's position at the forefront of a growing movement in 'green' building techniques.

Let the sun shine: a solar settlement near FreiburgImage: Solarsiedlung

The German architect and engineer Werner Sobek has made quite a splash with his home, called R128, which he completed in 2000. The house -- perched on a hillside in Stuttgart -- is made entirely of glass, allowing unobstructed
views over four full stories. It also relies exclusively on infrared sensors instead of handles, with doors popping open and faucets shutting on and off at the wave of a hand.

But while R128 has received plenty of press coverage for its radical design, the architect himself stresses its importance in another area: as part of an increasing trend toward 'sustainable' German architecture

R 128 is one of nine buildings featured in the exhibit "Made in Germany: Architecture & Ecology", which opened in Barcelona on July 6, and will travel to 14 other cities before it closes, in April 2006.

The buildings featured range from personal homes, such as R128 and a solar-housing settlement near Freiburg, to a daycare center whose roof collects rainwater used to flush the toilets, to a 'zero energy' subterranean train station (lit by cathedral-like skylights at ground level). There is also a "zero emissions factory," a high rise that makes use of thermal energy, and the "Heliotrope," a solar-energy powered building that rotates to follow the sun.

Combining old and modern

As diverse as they are stylistic, the buildings in this exhibit share a strong penchant for using renewable energy sources, like the sun, wind, and thermal air. Some architects returned to old-fashioned building-preserving techniques, such as enhancing the use of trapped air for insulation, while
others relied entirely on cutting-edge building components and newly developed engineering methods.

One thing these buildings do have in common: it took a client with interests in furthering the cause of 'green' architecture to get the job done. This is because, while it may pay off in the long run, ecological architecture is usually expensive to build.

"Solar components pay themselves off in about 15 years, and photovoltaic roofs for generating electricity can pay off in around 20 years, but only because of strong state subventions," says Prof. Fried Ranft, of the Aachen based ecological-architecture firm Casa.

Ecological building is a growth industry, Ranft says. This is because "people realise it pays off, cost wise. Plus, they feel good about themselves, they feel good in their home."

Sobek, who built R128, refuses to say what it cost for him to build. But he does say that the design stemmed from his desire making "ephemeral architecture," -- architecture that can be removed by future generations without leaving any waste behind.

"Most houses are made of composites. Look at a wall – there is wallpaper pasted to gypsum board, on top of insulation, with wires embedded in it… many layers. Then when you dispose of it, it becomes landfill, and the toxic elements leak into the environment," Sobek said. But R128 can either be taken down and reconstructed elsewhere, or be broken down into four recyclable components: glass, steel, aluminum, and wood.

"The only toxic leftover of my four-story house would be 2 kilograms of insulating foil. That’s the only thing I don’t know what to do with," Sobek added.

Germany in the forefront

In 2002, a similar exhibit in the United States -- called Ten Shades of Green -- featured nine instances of ecological architecture from around the world. Of these, four were German. This overwhelming presence is a testament to a general interest in conservation in Germany, and to considerable government financial support.

German policy – in the form of legislation, R&D investment, and financial advantages for builders encourages the use of renewable resources. One key to this is the Renewable Energy Sources Act, which obliges electricity grid operators to give priority to the purchase of electricity from renewable sources, and to pay a specified price for it. With this regulation, investors know for certain that they can sell their electricity at a fixed rate for 20 years, and banks are apt to provide financing. This has resulted in the desired boom in the construction of new renewable-energy installations.

The Renewable Energy Sources Act also supports builders seeking to make use of regenerative raw materials – i.e, installing a boilers that use scrap-wood pellets instead of oil. Low cost loans and other perks are funded on many levels, from state and local all the way up through Europe-wide programs.

According to the German Environment Ministry, renewable energies are responsible for around 2.9 per cent of the total energy provision in Germany today. The stated aim is to double the share of renewables in the energy supply to 4.2 percent by 2010, from its level of 2.1 percent in 2000, and the share in gross electricity consumption from 6.3% in 2000 to 12.5% in 2010.

But while good for the environment, ecologically-friendly buildings are not automatically beautiful or interesting to look at. However, this is not the case with those in the exhibit.

"When most people think of German architecture, they still think of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. We wanted to show that German architecture has gone beyond Bauhaus," said Dr. Barbara Honrath, of the Munich Goethe Institute, which organized the exhibit.