Travel Log: A visit to Germany and Austria
I was one of four member of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association chosen to participate in a 2-week study tour of high-performance buildings in Saxony and Upper Austria in late February and early March. Here's some of the sights that my companions — engineer Andy Shapiro and architects Chris Benedict and Tom Hartman — and I took in during our travels.
This first photo is of a single-family home outside of Dresden built to Passive House (extremely low energy usage) standards. We spent the night here meeting with the homeowner and getting a first-hand taste not only of life in a Passive House but of llama sausage.
Llamas that the owner, his veterinarian wife, and their three boys raise. Mostly they breed the llamas to sell, but sometimes they can't sell them all, so turn one or two into sausage...
...and here's the llama sausage, drying out in the mechanical room. Behind the sausage is some of the solar hot water equipment.
In Dresden itself we visited a 6-apartment in-fill project being built to Passive House standards. We met the architect, Heiko Behrens, who's also the developer and who'll be living in the ground-floor unit while selling or renting the other five.
An exterior view of Heiko's 6-apartment building. The hot water for heating (and showers) comes from a centralized combined heat and power plant that's fueled by biomass and serves much of downtown Dresden — a highly efficient way to meet the energy needs of an urban area.
Here's a view of a kindergarten we visited, also in Dresden and also built to Passive House standards. It has a grass roof and very sophisticated mechanical room that has windows both to the outside (above the main entrance) and to the inside — so that the children can see the "inner workings" of the building and hopefully (according to the architect) develop a curiosity about how buildings function.
Our hosts in Saxony: Andie, Bernd, and Freia.
This kindergarten is in a small village in Upper Austria, Schneegattern. It's also built to the Passive House standard and is heated (when solar gains through the windows are insufficient) by a boiler fueled by wood pellets. Austria has 8 million people and is about 75% forested, so much of their heating need is met by wood (either cord wood or, more frequently, wood pellets). Near the kindergarten is a lumber mill that burns its wood scraps to heat water that it then distributes (as much as a kilometer away) through underground pipes to heat other buildings in the village.
Schneegattern has 4800 people, five fire brigades, and 2 amateur concert bands. Here's a music stand in the the practice hall for the concert bands — note the beer glass holder at the base of the stand.
A sunset view of Solar City, a recent large development on the outskirts of Linz, Austria. One interesting finding from this project: It can be hard to break old habits. The actual energy usage of some of the apartments in this development turns out to be five times what was predicted — primarily because the occupants choose to keep their windows open year-round (despite state-of-the-art ventilation systems), because that's how they were brought up.
A large apartment building in Linz, Austria, that was retrofitted to Passive House standards. The red projecting bays used to be balconies, underutilized because of the street noise below. The balconies were enclosed as part of the renovation, which increased the usable floor area even while overall energy consumption was reduced by 80%.
The headquarters of MIVA, a Catholic charity based near Wels, Austria. The building is a timber-framed structure that was designed and built to Passive House standards. With the aid of photovoltaic panels, solar thermal panels, and rainwater capture, the office uses less than a fourth the energy and water resources of a typical office building in the area — and an even smaller fraction of the resources a similarly-sized American office building would use. And it's beautiful and extraordinarily comfortable on the inside.
The timber production facility where the structural elements and exterior panels for the MIVA building were fabricated. This building has won multiple design awards — and was built without a heating system. Super insulation (in fact, wood shavings from production activities), properly oriented windows that capture the sun's heat, and internal heat gains from manufacturing activity are all that's required to prevent the building from dropping below 50 degrees even on the coldest day. Too cool an air temperature for an office, to be sure, but perfect for the sorts of work that goes on in the building.
The Obermayr timber manufacturing facility.
The current owner of Obermayr (Hans-Christian Obermayr) found an opportunity to help his local community when he helped arranged for the funding required to retrofit this school building (a short walk from the production facility shown above) to Passive House standards. Previously a drab, inefficient, run-down 1970s-era standard-issue school, it now uses one tenth the energy it did before the renovation while relying much more heavily on the sun for interior lighting and on operable windows for cooling and ventilation in the warmer months.
An interior view of the school, showing how well the natural light penetrates into the building and showing off the bold colors used throughout.
We even visited a grocery store and produce warehouse built to Passive House standards, and this is just a small part of the mechanical room (which makes the engine room of the Starship Enterprise look pretty feeble in comparison). The building uses heat from the sun, from the earth (earth tubes used to temper incoming fresh air), and waste heat from the produce refrigerators for its space heating needs. High-efficiency buildings are sometimes very simple (like the Obermayr plant), but sometimes quite complex.
Outside view of the grocery store, showing the main entrance.
While we were in Wels, Austria we were able to participate in a building efficiency conference and trade show. From the trade show floor: a simple solar-heated backyard shower that uses no electricity or fossil fuels at all.
My traveling companions and I were pretty envious of the range and quality of triple-glazed windows that are routine in that part of Europe; this is a pretty typical trade show display.
Finally, a 54-unit apartment block that was recently retrofitted with insulation on the outside (and 5.5 kW of solar panels, visible on the facade on the left) to reduce the heating energy required by nearly two thirds. This sort of project, although still not routine even in that part of Europe, is becoming more and more common as the cost and energy savings possible become better and better documented.
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