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Great German Green Buildings

Green Building: International Trends

By: Jerry Yudelson, PE, LEED AP - Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Source: Yudelson Associates, Inc.

Just returned from a trip to Germany: Let's just say there's a lot happening there in green buildings that we know little about, including great buildings, green technology and advanced thinking about energy efficient and zero net energy buildings.

Initially, I visited Sir Norman Foster's iconic Commerzbank building in Frankfurt, built originally in 1997, which is currently the tallest building in Europe.  Built in a triangular shape, this nearly 300-meter tall high-rise is actually four smaller buildings, with "sky gardens" (green roofs) on many floors and a sophisticated ventilation system for each floor, including natural ventilation within a double-skin building.  As planned, it has just gone through a renovation and upgrade at the ten-year mark, adding a new "dynamic façade" element: movable blinds from the French manufacturer, Somfy
. Foster's concept creates a low-rise appearance in Frankfurt's central city, keeping the streetscape pedestrian-friendly.  From my viewpoint, it works; one enters the building without being aware that it's a 60-story structure, until one looks up through the glass covering the lobby or the first-floor cafeteria.  One dynamic aspect: the corporate boardroom's nearby urinals are directly below four windows facing directly out (and down) toward the headquarters tower of Commerzbank's key rival, Deutsche Bank, a few stories below.  (The intelligent reader can fill in the rest of the story; boys will be boys, it seems, even in Germany!)

By German law, no office worker can be more than 10 meters (33 feet) from a window, to afford adequate daylighting to each worker.  This makes office buildings longer and narrower than comparable American office buildings, in which many workers don't have access to daylighting or even views outdoors.  To combat reduced "efficiency" (defined as leasable to gross floor area) in this building, Foster placed all the elevators at the triangle's three ends, effectively removing them from the core, but allowing completely free views toward the building's interior, including the "sky gardens."  Another German innovation: the ordinary workers get Frankfurt's skyline view from the outer windows, while the managers in the inner windows get to look at the sky gardens across the way.

During my trip, I also went to visit Behnisch Architekten'
s offices in Stuttgart, Mercedes-Benz's home.  Over the past ten years, Stefan Behnisch and his colleagues have designed and built many important green buildings, including the LEED Platinum-rated, 350,000-square foot Genzyme corporate office building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Begun in 2000 and built on a brownfield site, this project really pre-dated the LEED system, yet still achieved a Platinum rating when finished in 2003.  (This goes to show that good green design is easily certifiable under the LEED system and that LEED does not cause good architecture to be "dumbed down.")  Interestingly enough, this project was actually designed for a developer, Lyme Properties, which built it for Genzyme, so there were cost pressures from the beginning.  According to Genzyme's CEO, he views the building's primary benefit as the increase in their workers' productivity and morale.  This project illustrates that the business case for green buildings, at least for corporate owners, is heavily based on productivity and health benefits, along with recruitment and retention.

During my trip, I also gave a talk on the business case for green buildings to more than fifty architects in Frankfurt, brought together by Somfy, to learn more about using "dynamic façades."  Including external shading devices in buildings, dynamic façades allow users to control glare and daylighting levels, either manually or automatically.  This way, architects can still design buildings with lots of glazing (transparent buildings) for daylighting and energy conservation, without incurring energy penalties or lost productivity from glare.  Windows can be cheaper without expensive glazing treatments to keep the sun's radiation and heat away from the south and west-facing windows.  The dynamic façade also helps to reduce air-conditioning loads, thereby reducing the required size HVAC system size.

There's a lot to learn from studying European projects, as they are often responding to very different sensibilities about real estate value, people and energy-savings.  A large corporate owner can afford to invest in a more expensive building, but what about a school district, a speculative developer, a shopping center or a hotel?  We still have a long way to go to make the green building way our standard design and construction approach.

Jerry Yudelson PE, MS, MBA, LEED AP, has served on the national board of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).  Jerry is an expert in the LEED green building rating system, and serves as a national LEED trainer for the USGBC.  He has trained more than 3,000 people in the LEED green building rating system.

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