ACCORDING TO THE WORLD Green Building Council, construction and buildings currently account for approximately 39% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. However, that figure could (and may well have to) drop precipitously with broader adoption of sustainable building practices. As more governments and builders take the emerging global climate crisis seriously, certifications like LEED and BREEAM have progressed from a badge of honor to standard operating procedures and green materials have become standard. At the highest levels of design, environmental impact is now nearly as fundamental consideration as questions of form and material.
Building sustainably requires keen consideration of context, taking advantage of the building’s natural surroundings and available resources to control a building’s temperature, harness natural light, and process waste. As such, it’s far easier to build sustainably in temperate areas, where temperature holds steady and the sunlight is plentiful.
So how do you build sustainably in more extreme climates? Aren’t solar panels a luxury of the equatorial? What about Trondheim, Norway’s northernmost major city, where daylight fluctuates wildly between seasons and temperatures stay below freezing for months during the dark winter seasons? That’s a lot of heating and lighting.
Trondheim is an unlikely location for an energy-neutral building, let alone an energy-positive one. Nevertheless, Snøhetta architecture’s Powerhouse Brattørkaia is exactly that: an 18,000 square-meter office building that, on average, produces more than twice the energy than it consumes daily. Thanks to nearly three thousand square meters of solar paneling, the fittingly named Power-house Brattørkaia generates enough power for itself, its neighbors, and a regional transportation network that includes electric buses, cars, and a local ferry system. The building was awarded BREEAM’s highest rating of Outstanding.
Rising in a striking, angular mass, Powerhouse Brattørkaia over-looks the port without overwhelming its neighbors, a precisely cut gem of a building. The imposing structure’s steeply-canted wedge shape offers a large and perfectly-angled roof for harvesting solar energy. The building’s highly efficient 1,157 solar panels are oriented around a circular cut-out that creates a generous central garden atrium, affording natural light to all its inhabitants. No matter where your desk is at Powerhouse Brattørkaia, a window isn’t far away.
As one might expect, the building leverages a host of green best practices to keep energy consumption low. While clad in handsome black aluminum, the majority of the building’s massing is concrete, ensuring a high degree of insulation to keep the building warm through Norway’s long winters. A heat pump system takes advantage of a nearby fjord to efficiently control the building’s temperature with seawater, and collected rainwater is used for the building’s toilets. When needed, the building’s sophisticated LED lighting system responds to supplement ambient daylight and can detect human presence to ensure efficiency. The result is a building that uses about half as much energy on lighting as a comparably-sized office building would.
A partnership between Snøhetta, the Swedish construction giant Skanska, the environmental organization ZERO, and the consulting company Asplan Viak, the Powerhouse initiative is meant to inspire sustainable buildings with an ambitious new target inspired by the Paris Agreement. The Powerhouse designation isn’t merely a reflection of a building’s day-to-day energy consumption; the project’s energy accounting also includes the creation of the project’s building materials, emissions produced in its construction, ongoing operational demands, and finally, the eventual energy costs of its eventual demolition and disposal.
Powerhouse Brattørkaia is one of four existing Powerhouse projects. Others in the portfolio include a breathtaking Montessori school and an ambitious renovation of a 1980’s office complex, proving that energy positivity isn’t restricted to new construction projects.
If the Powerhouse philosophy of energy positive building sounds ambitious, it’s because it is. Snøhetta’s founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen is pursuing nothing less than a paradigm shift in building design, spurred by a sense of climate urgency. “Energy-positive buildings are the buildings of the future,” says Thorsen. “The mantra of the design industry should not be ‘form follows function’ but ‘form follows environment. ”
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