Building outside, inside, and around the box

Norwegian architecture company Snøhetta designs Earth-friendly homes and structures

Photo courtesy of Snøhetta Design concept for a combination bridge and tunnel that could solve the problem of accomodating both land and water vehicles through fjords.

Photo courtesy of Snøhetta
Design concept for a combination bridge and tunnel that could solve the problem of accomodating both land and water vehicles through fjords.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Norwegian Architectural firm Snøhetta is perhaps best known for their Oslo Opera and Ballet House project, a structure that looks like a sloping iceberg gracefully sliding into the harbor. But they also are involved in much less monumental projects, such as wooden beehives found on an Oslo roof, called “Vulkan Beehives.” It is a way to draw more bees to the Oslo area. Aptly, it has been put on the rooftop of the relatively new Mathallen Food Court, connecting the dependence of our food supply on bees. At first look, these two projects may seem diametrically opposed, however, when you look at how Snøhetta evolved, their priorities, and the company’s culture, it all makes sense.

Snøhetta began in 1987 as a collaborative studio of landscape architects and building architects. Their first commission came two years later, when they won a competition to build the Alexandria Library in Egypt. Recreating a modern version of one of the most celebrated libraries of the Ancient World was a prestigious win. The company has grown exponentially in all ways and has added offices in New York, Innsbruck, and San Francisco. Today they employ 130 people from 20 different countries.

One can learn a lot about Snøhetta from their website. The first word is architecture and the second is landscape. Including landscape in such a prominent position speaks volumes about Snøhetta’s priorities. It explains not only the beehives, but also how integration between the built and natural environment is essential to their work. This may seem like a no-brainer, but all you have to do is look at what developers are plopping down around the world to know how rare it is.

Taking “landscape” even further, they have transformed landscape into architecture. Perhaps the best example of this is their Artificial Seabed Project, originating in partnership with Reinertsen, AS and Dr. Techn. Olav Olsen and now expanded to include Sapa, Hydro, Deep Ocean Group, and SINTEF (Scandinavia’s largest independent research body). The Research Council of Norway is the funder. The project began as a way to find a solution to a common Norwegian problem: how can we have vehicles cross Norway’s many fjords without interrupting the flow of shipping traffic?

Bridges are often no longer tall enough to allow ships to pass under, as ship size has increased. Cities all over America are scrambling to increase bridge height or rebuild. Instead of a bridge, one could use a tunnel, which Norway is expert at, but they come at extreme cost.

Snøhetta and its partners have created an innovative way to combine both bridges and tunnels. “With floating bridges on each of the landsides and a submerged tunnel in the middle of the fjord, the aim is to create a fjord crossing that does not interrupt the traffic of big ships passing,” states their website. But can you design this type of project beautifully? Indeed you can, as you can see in their design for the Rovdefjordbrua project in Ålesund. In it, cars cross the fjord on an elegant spiral, which gently lowers you into a tunnel under the fjord.

The company’s structure encourages innovation. It does not include a hierarchy; instead they use a horizontal model. This promotes cooperation and the exchange and flow of ideas. The office environment encourages this on a daily basis, for example it includes a communal lunch table, which Snøhetta calls “the social heart of our office.”

Another practice they use is “transpositioning,” which they define as “a self-defined trans-disciplinary process in which different professionals—from architects to visual artists, philosophers to sociologists—exchange roles in order to explore differing perspectives without the prejudice of convention.” This is also carried through with clients, who are encouraged to be part of the process, fostering open communication and hopefully a better project.

Snøhetta prioritizes both social and environmental sustainability. So it is no surprise that they took on the challenge of creating a Zero-Energy Building in collaboration with ZEB (The Research Center on Zero Emissions Building) SINTEF, Brodrene Dahl, and Optimera.

The result is a single-family house in Larvik, Norway, that is being used as a teaching tool for sustainable construction. I had the opportunity to interview Kristian Edwards, Senior Architect/Interior Architect BA and Lead Architect on the ZEB Pilot House of Snøhetta about this project.

Victoria Hofmo: How did Snøhetta get involved with the ides form the Zero-Emission pilot house?

Kristian Edwards : The initial sketches came about during a partner workshop; ambitious targets were set already at that point.

VH: Does a Zero Emission building require a specific placement to achieve its goal?

KE: No, the architecture responds to the site.

VH: This building goes beyond zero emissions and actually generates energy. Why did Snøhetta choose to take it to the next level?

KE: The ZEB-OM definition requires building-integrated energy production to compensate for embodied energy in materials; the energy produced is an offsetting of this energy. This by default provides a surplus; the point is to utilize it efficiently.

VH: What special building materials were used to achieve your goal?

KE: The focus was actually on less, and off the shelf materials, rather than special or advanced materials. Recycled/reclaimed materials at 1:1 scale.

VH: Is the home occupied? If so, how have the tenants responded?

KE: Not currently, there will be families residing here in the future as testers.

VH: Did this project foster any new innovations? If so, could you speak about them?

KE: The innovation lies in the ambition. The ambition is increased for each pilot. This project is essentially a research platform; as such it incorporates numerous running experiments, ranging from insulation techniques to energy use and design process.

A member of Snøhetta also sent me info from prior interviews about the project, which is excerpted as follows.

“As you may know the house is intended as a test bed for a number of heating and heat regain solutions. There are a number of waterborne systems employed in the house floor heating and radiators.

“There are sensors in the building envelope, testing for air permeability, temperature, and moisture.

“Beneath the building, which is a fully enclosed construction with a low ring foundation, the foundations are divided into five zones where SINTEF building technologies are testing various grades of reflecting foil and still air insulation.

“As you might expect, all electricity usage is monitored and documented.”

Another question from the prior interview was intriguing and something I believe our readers and lay people would be concerned about: Were there particular challenges of designing a home that was both inviting and livable and contained all the necessary features to make it energy positive? Were there trade-offs of features that many single-family houses would have that didn’t work for this house’s sustainability goals?

“Because the energy aspect was the main goal of the building from the start, it did not oppose any particular challenge, but acted as guidelines that drove the design. The biggest challenge might be to convince everyone of the need to make a building that was both high-tech and homey, and that the one without the other is not a good house. The only trade-off I can remember right now is that we couldn’t have a fireplace inside, because it gives away too much heat and then you have to spend energy to cool the house back down. We solved that issue by having a fireplace outside, in the little atrium between the living room and kitchen. Otherwise I believe this house has more and better comfort features than most newly constructed homes in Norway.”

In fact, this project not only produces zero emissions, it actually produces energy. One journalist, Margaret Rhodes, who has written an article about this house used the title, “A Zero-Emission house that charges itself and your electric car too.” Snøhetta is currently involved in five more Zero Emissions pilot projects in different stages of development.

Snøhetta truly builds outside, inside and around the box. They have not only pushed the envelope, but broken out of it—and we are better for that. I cannot wait to see what gifts they will next bestow upon our planet.

This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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