Origins of Modernism: Sustainability

Picture11By COD 2013 Berlin Scholar Sarah Corbitt, Assoc. AIA

In this, my last post about the wonderful conference in Berlin last September 2013, I hope to point out some designs and approaches to buildings which are artistic and also a net-positive for our Earth. We all need to see the best that our fellow humans have made; seeing this work with other like-minded folks is inspiring, recharging, career-focusing, and…in the end…it’s good work to do for the profession.

In regions of the world where people have lived in dense developments for long periods of time, and where resources are scarce, there develop ways of allocating resources, or conserving them. During the Origins of Modernism conference, we witnessed the current state of German sustainable design, as well as some historical antecedents that show an evolution in thought and manufacture.

We will start at the top – with vegetated roofs, a topping that German builders began seriously researching about one hundred years ago. A significant contribution that Germany makes in energy conservation is in building envelope engineering. Below, we see examples of how parts of the building envelope have been carefully tailored to make tightly sealed enclosures.

Green Roofs

As part of the conference, we saw several recently installed extensive green roofs – those roofs with a soil media depth of 6″ or less (my definition – definitions vary). The roof below features sedums. For those unfamiliar with vegetated green roof plants, sedums are a hardy, often-used type of plant which requires little care. What’s less known is that many sedums grown in the United States, including those in the Southeastern United States, come from German plant stock or seed. Vegetated green roofs don’t always support native plants; in those cases, the imported sedum is known as adaptive (but they are still native in Germany, of course).

A public policy component of supporting – even mandating – the installation of vegetated roofs was pioneered in Germany in the 1990’s; in fact, early guidelines which were used in the United States came from Germany. For more about international green roof efforts, see:

Active Roofs

The new German Chancellery, called the Kanzleramt, shows how an iconic government headquarters can have a fluid relationship with the outdoors.

Although it’s hard to see in this image, the lower roofs carry expansive arrays of photovoltaic cells to generate electricity.

The PV cells are more easily visible from the offices. They demonstrate the German government’s commitment to sustainable energy.

Balconies, green roofs, and playful, multi-story columns blend outside and inside.

We saw an example of rainwater storage on the roof of a high-end, cooperative apartment building.

Building Envelope – Windows – Double Skin

As a friend pointed out after my earlier post on windows, the double-skin system of using 2 planes of glass, separated by an air space, has been in use in this country for dozens of years – perhaps hundreds. What is a foyer in some cases but a double-skin system?

In fact, these designs are fascinating, and warrant our attention and curiosity. Harvard’s GSD has an informative primer on the system:

This kind of practical problem-solving can be applied to each part of the building envelope. While all of the pieces are non-biological, there is bio-mimicry here.

Below is an early example of a double-skin system window system, at the Konzerthaus designed by famed neo-classicist Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1811 – 1818, and reconstructed from 1979 – 1984 ( ) .

In Germany, windows aren’t the only part of the wall that opens.  These opening wall panels could be used anywhere in the United States.

These windows and other building parts show a pride in manufacturing, and support for the national economy. In other words, Germans buy German plates.

Details such as these, while small, are impactful. Small details are the starting point for a thorough design investigation, and a well-considered life.

It’s this investigation, more than anything else, which is sustainable and life-giving. We think, we make, we think more and make again. Our process is ongoing, continual, one which echoes the natural cycle of life, death, rebirth.

We are makers, craftspeople, thinkers, designers. Let us make something good.

Let’s make something that makes us want to get out of bed in the morning.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along, and seeing some of my photographs. I’ve enjoyed the writing and connecting with esteemed elders, peers and new friends. Lastly, I hope these essays spur you to take part in any upcoming AIA Committee on Design conference. Perhaps I’ll see you in New York?

Perhaps you’ll rent a bicycle to see the city in your spare time?

Signing off for now,

Sarah Corbitt


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