As the human species marches towards a ubiquitously urban future, many countries and cultures are forced to rethink the impact of their building practices and turn towards new ideas of sustainability. Some countries are further along in this pursuit than others; the United States lags while the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark consistently erect some of the most energy efficient commercial and residential buildings on the planet. While the full scope of techniques and methodologies employed by sustainability-seeking Scandinavian architects, engineers and planners is broad, perhaps the essence of their approach can be reduced to three main ideas: building technology, recycling, and infrastructure.
Building technology in Scandinavia tends to focus on overcoming the cool climate by capturing and recycling heat from all available sources. The primary heat source is the sun, and most buildings are oriented with large windows facing south, however the heat generated by machinery, appliances and people is also taken into account. Many windows are double-paned and gas-filled to trap heat and provide a layer of relative insulation, and building walls are heavily insulated with recyclable materials. Special membranes are applied within walls and interstitial spaces that allow moisture to escape while preventing heat loss through the air, and fresh air is commonly warmed as it enters buildings via heat exchangers that harness energy from thermal and other sources. The cumulative effect of these technologies is that, despite the cold climate, Scandinavian buildings are more prone to overheat than to be cool, necessitating a keen application of ventilation and understanding of interior air movement.
Recycling processes in Scandinavia go far beyond those used in the United States and are carefully calculated into the overall sustainability and environmental impact of each building. Materials from demolished buildings are scrupulously sorted on site, then either incorporated into new buildings or moved to a local recycling facility. The amount of immediately reusable materials can be surprising, often exceeding 80%. This not only reduces the natural resources required for new construction, but also limits transportation costs, landfill waste, and overall carbon footprint. Complementing these on-site recycling efforts is the requirement that materials be procured from within a limited distance of the new building, further reducing the carbon footprint. Such level of care, cleanliness and organization would seem alien to most U.S. builders, however it is in part through this assiduity that the Scandinavians push the boundaries of what is possible in sustainable building construction.
Adding to Scandinavia’s advanced building technologies and recycling procedures are progressive sustainable infrastructures. In many cases a network of energy exchangers, recycling facilities and waste management programs are laid out before the first building of a community goes up, establishing an integrated recycling framework. One example of this is Stockholm’s Olympic Village, a once-polluted industrial port area that has been transformed into a robust living and working community bound by clean water and supporting active recreation. Here residents are expected to sort and place their domestic waste in special canisters which are tied to a network of underground vacuum tubes. The tubes transport waste to a recycling facility where water is extracted and purified before being released back into the environment. Products of this recycling process – such as gasses and heat – are further distilled for their fueling and heating properties and then piped back into the community to reduce heating costs.
It is important to note that Scandinavian architects, engineers and planners draw from well-understood principles of energy efficiency and sustainability when responding to unique site conditions. This ideology contrasts with that of the U.S., where decisions such as window placement and orientation are often determined using general “rules of thumb,” which ignore natural energy flows and are inefficient or counterproductive. Also, the Scandinavian application of progressive building technologies and sustainability practices are not necessarily mandated by building regulations, but informed by a culture that has been working with limited resources for hundreds of years. Scandinavian architects and engineers take a certain pride in pushing the limits of energy efficiency beyond what was previously thought possible, and through this determination are constantly ratcheting the bar higher for themselves. The legal reverberations of this ambition are that successful prototypes drive future expectations and regulation, not the other way around.
Although differences between the climates of the U.S. and Scandinavia preclude the direct importation of most building technologies, many lessons can be learned. Perhaps most important is the responsibility of Scandinavian designers to empirically document the performance of their buildings after construction has been completed. Through this process clients can be shown that they received the building promised in the initial contract – if not, the designers are required to make adjustments. This process does not restrain designers, but encourages them with the knowledge that their efforts towards sustainability will be recognized and recorded, increasing credibility for the next project.