Specialised knowledge is an edge in green building

Green building is at home in Switzerland – on a small scale as well as a large one. While contextual thinking is promoted in both research and practice here, this is something that benefits projects far beyond Switzerland’s borders.

NEST - Exploring the future of buildings © Empa / Gramazio & Kohler

How should you build for the future? “It’s never enough to create a technically ideal structure if it doesn’t meet aesthetic, creative and social needs,” says architect Bob Gysin from the Zurich architecture firm BGP. Challenge accepted, is how Swiss entrepreneurs and researchers respond as they develop holistic concepts. With its Elbarkaden project in Hamburg, BGP was among the winners of the 2014 German Sustainability Award, showing that concepts be successful on an international level, too, and meet new demands. This is something that Switzerland has experience in as aesthetics, building services, construction materials, building envelopes and infrastructure merge into one, integral whole.

Clearly defined standards

Small Switzerland owes its expertise in green building in large part to the Minergie principles, which have become a part of the Swiss mindset over the past 20 years. The so-called ‘quality label’ for buildings of all categories puts green building on clearly defined footing: rational use of energy, quality of life and reducing environmental impact all play an important role in Minergie. Zurich is the Swiss champion when it comes to Minergie. For instance, the Prime Tower – currently Switzerland’s tallest building – and the expansion of the Europaallee at the Zurich main station were both built in accordance with Minergie standards. With Minergie, the annual average energy consumption in new buildings is lowered by one third, from 120 kilowatt hours per square metre in 1990 to 35 kilowatt hours today. Companies who offer climate control or building envelope services have become global leaders in their field.

The principles gleaned from this experience can be shared with others. The new campus of the Swiss International School in Dubai is now being built in cooperation with Minergie, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and an investor from Geneva. Energy efficiency under these demanding climate conditions is being brought to a new level.

Zero-energy building for China

In order for sustainable construction to succeed, it’s important that all the technologies be properly orchestrated, says Marcel Wyler, a Swiss real estate developer, owner of Adaxis AG and also General Manager of the Swiss Green Tower in the Chinese city of Changzhou near Shanghai. The commercial skyscraper, which should open in 2016, is being built as a zero-energy building. Switzerland is in a position to offer a considerable amount of know-how when it comes to systems integration. The Swiss Green Tower will supply its own energy mostly from renewable sources, and special climate control systems based on the principle of evaporative cooling are planned, which will make it possible to cool and dehumidify the supply air with solar heat and waste heat. Engineering firm Amstein and Walthert in Zurich, an expert in building automation, is also on board for this project. The knowledge from this project will be shared with others, says Wyler: “This is the only way for us to reduce CO2 emissions efficiently.” Training centres for Chinese professionals now exist and a programme for Chinese students to intern with Swiss companies is currently underway.

New structures for people and the environment

Diego Salmeron, CEO of LEP Consultants AG in Zurich, also employs systems thinking – but from a bird’s eye perspective. LEP is sought after for major Chinese projects that require spatial and environmental planning. The company is a spin-off of the ETH Zurich and has considerable experience advising Chinese authorities on strategic spatial planning issues. A large number of projects are also now coming from real estate investors. “The complex development of large districts and areas requires a methodological approach. As an ETH spin-off, we are able to demonstrate competence in this field,” says Salmeron.

As part of its urbanisation policy, China’s goal is that 70 per cent of its population will be living in cities by 2030. The Swiss experts are analysing the long-term benefits of target and are developing scenarios for districts where entirely new city structures will be one day be built. For instance, LEP is involved in the master plan for the Wuyishan region (Fujian province), which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “What does the best infrastructure for residents and tourists look like? In addition to environmental factors, we also deal increasingly more with socio-economic issues,” says Salmeron.

The next stage of evolution

The Swiss are driven by a very specialised form of knowledge that is frequently devised or refined at one of the local universities or research sites. And this trend continues to gain in momentum. Living labs, for instance, test new construction and energy techniques for practical applications. One example is NEST, which stands “Next Evolution in Sustainable Building Technologies”. Construction began on the modular research and innovation building in August 2014. Located just outside of Zurich in Dübendorf, NEST consists of a central, fixed backbone along which units can be placed in a highly flexible manner, leaving plenty of room for innovation – including in lightweight construction. The project, which is a joint endeavour between industry, research and the public sector, is being led by Empa, the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Material Sciences and Technology. NEST director Reto Largo says: “NEST accelerates the move into the market and is open to partners.”

The future is built out of wood

Another living lab can be found at the ETH Zurich, where ‘sustainable construction’ was defined as a strategic focus area. The House of Natural Resources is both an office building as well as a research laboratory and will open in May 2015. It will premiere a world first: a load-bearing structure made out of wood. For project leader and professor of timber engineering Andrea Frangi, Switzerland is a veritable mecca for timber construction and wood as a renewable resource – sometimes the most important material in sustainable construction. “If you build with wood, you store CO2,” he says. It also lends a new quality to comfortable and beautiful residences. The future is full of solutions that can meet every possible demand.

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