“Climate change changes everything”
Sustainability is a top priority for the Powerhouse Company. In an interview, partner Stefan Prins explains why this means more than just a careful choice of materials and energy efficiency, and how essential it is to consider all the changes brought about by climate change when building.
It’s quite something when a young team of architects earns a reputation as one of the most innovative in the world within just a few years. This is what happened with Powerhouse Company, an office that started out in 2005 “on kitchen tables” in Rotterdam and Copenhagen. These creative Dutch professionals have long since been operating from studios in Beijing, Oslo and Munich as well. And they have expert status when it comes to sustainability. Projects such as their timber floating office and their wooded urban district “HOLT” have received international acclaim. The same applies to their timber residential building “Valckensteyn”, which makes sustainable family housing affordable for smaller budgets.
Architecture for people and the environment
Architect Stefan Prins from the award-winning firm’s management team explains why it is essential to keep all the effects of climate change in mind when designing and building. And the Powerhouse Company partner describes what it takes to create buildings that promise a bright future for both people and the environment.
The Powerhouse Company is known for its innovative liveable, environmentally friendly projects. What are the top priorities when planning such new buildings?
Stefan Prins: We consider sustainability to be firmly integrated into our design process. It always plays a role. There are also different options for different requirements – development and innovation find each other. When we talk about top priorities, it’s always a kind of momentum. We check what innovations are available at the moment, what we can use in each case, and combine them in the best possible way. The important thing is that the project works as a whole. It has to result in a good answer to the requirements of the customer and the users.
What does that mean for the design work?
For example, if it’s about a residential tower in the city, you usually end up with a concrete structure. But you can give it more flexibility and comfort, for example by creating higher rooms and as few structural walls as possible. A university building, on the other hand, like the one we are currently designing for the Dutch city of Tilburg, can be made entirely of wood.
Modern apartments in sustainable new buildings tend to be rather expensive. However, the “Valckensteyn” timber complex in Pendrecht created by your office makes them affordable for families on a smaller budget as well …
The customer was a housing association that wanted an innovative pilot project made of wood. The location was well suited to this. We were given the chance to design a building with 82 apartments in wood and did everything we could to make the best possible use of the available resources. After all, a housing association has a different budget than a commercial developer, for instance, who then offers the apartments for sale.
So how was it possible to realize the project?
We developed a very simple structure with many repeated elements. One that optimizes costs, but also works as a design. With a lot of small solutions. Steel plates on the balconies, for example, give a special look and at the same time solve the problem that wood needs to be protected against moisture from the rain.
For some time now, everybody has been talking about sustainability. But is enough really being done?
The dilemma is that unfortunately there is also misuse in this area and some things are in danger of going wrong. Demand is high in the Netherlands as well. There are countless factories offering automated housing, which they publicize as sustainable. In a way, this type of prefabrication can actually be called sustainable. But it is extremely repetitive. We saw this in the 1990s: suddenly we had these neighbourhoods everywhere with the same type of house dominating the picture. Like an urban setup with a dry facade in front and a garden behind it. Neighbourhoods where everything looks the same – and today they are unpopular. Our big concern is that the current huge demand for housing and sustainability will have similar consequences.
How could this be prevented?
We naturally have to solve the housing problem. But in an intelligent way. In a way that we won’t regret in ten or 20 years. We have to think seriously about the context of comfortable living. Flexibility is an important aspect here. So is sustainability. Everyone talks about conserving resources and using natural materials. But what is often forgotten is the reason that makes all this so important: climate change. And in many areas it is bringing its own changes as well, albeit slowly, in many areas that should not be overlooked.
Everyone talks about conserving resources and using natural materials. But what is often forgotten is the reason that makes all this so important: climate change, which is bringing its own changes in many areas that should not be overlooked.
Stefan Prins, architect and Powerhouse Company partner
So what are the consequences of climate change that are being overlooked?
If you tell someone that we will soon have a climate like Bordeaux in the Netherlands, it is a real eye-opener. Take our “HOLT” project in Groningen, for example: climate change will increase the temperature by one and a half degrees within the next ten years. So we have to be prepared for climatic conditions like those currently experienced in central France. Houses there are built completely differently than they are here, though. Understanding the consequences of this development was a main starting point of our design.
How did this affect the “HOLT” project?
We had to consider that in ten years, people in Groningen will probably no longer want a south-facing balcony because it will simply be too hot for that. People will crave outdoor areas in the shade or with shading. This turns everything upside down, because in our part of the world we have so far learned to always orient outdoor areas towards the south or west. We need new solutions and we need to adapt. So this urban neighbourhood is getting its own new forest. And the existing mature trees on the southeast side already protect against heat.
So trees are more or less a guarantee of future living quality?
Yes. If they lose their leaves in the winter, the apartments get plenty of light. In the summer, the foliage provides pleasant shade. Somehow the incredible efficiency of trees has been forgotten. Sitting in the shade of a tree is ten times more efficient than air conditioning. We’re trying to incorporate these qualities into our project. I also think it’s nice to live in a house that changes with the seasons.
Has it become easier to build sustainably in recent years?
I think so. Because there is a common understanding among customers, architects and contractors about certain solutions.
And is it cheaper now, too?
I don’t know… In some ways, installation costs have increased. But in the long run, the solutions we’re putting into a building now reduce energy costs considerably. So if you look at the construction price, sometimes it’s actually significantly more expensive. But if you consider the usage over 20 to 30 years, it becomes a profitable investment.
If you build for the end user, it is usually easier to implement more sustainable solutions. After all, end users know that they themselves will benefit. Other developers sometimes prioritize differently, preferring to reduce the cost of the building and accept lower energy efficiency. When our office works with developers, we try to add value to the project. For example, so that the solutions used make it easier to sell the building to an investor. There are many ways to help the client.
You have already been your own “customer” as well: the energy self-sufficient timber house you built for your family is in line with the dream of sustainable living that many people have today…
It’s also a really beautiful place. We feel blessed to live here. It’s in the city of Rotterdam, on a former hockey field. On an area that had been abandoned. We sketched ideas on a small sheet of paper and were lucky enough to get a plot of land there. By prefabricating according to our plans, we were able to build the house in a few months. Everything works purely electrically. We don’t use gas. Solar panels generate energy. And we did a lot of the interior work ourselves.
What were the crucial elements for the design of the house?
The main idea was the large glass front. It’s a building based on daylight and sunlight. In summer we want to keep the sun outside. But in winter, it falls nicely into the kitchen and dining area, and warms the house. Our goal was also to use the passive energy of each season and create a comfortable home.
Would it have been cheaper to build with conventional materials and techniques?
No, I don’t think so. The fact that I am an architect helped us to develop custom designs for some solutions. Simple solutions that result in simple but beautiful details. You could say the house looks luxurious, even though it was relatively cheap to build.
As a layman, you probably can’t create something like that without digging deep into your pockets, right?
It’s more difficult, of course. But designing and building your own home or buying one in a larger housing project is about the same price-wise. If you do your research well, it doesn’t have to be too expensive.
What makes “old” building materials like wood so interesting again today?
There have been important innovations with wood. Cross-laminated timber in particular has become competitive alongside steel and concrete. And, of course, CO2 pollution is reduced immensely when you use wood instead of concrete. You also never build a wooden building exactly the same way as a concrete one. At Powerhouse Company, we always strive to design something that fits the context.
Bricks offer many design possibilities. For example, we designed a contemporary building with a brick facade for downtown Groningen because it fits the historical context and the existing brick buildings there. I think this approach is also behind the many great new brick buildings you see now.
How do you and your team approach the design of new projects?
We talk to clients, define their main goals, and look for ideas and innovations that fit them. Then we strive to conceive a unique project from the client’s ideas, our design idea and the new solutions. It is all the nicer when this then turns out to be especially sustainable – like “HOLT”, for example – and has a positive impact on its surroundings as well.
I assume that digitalization and building information modeling now make this process much easier?
Oh yes. I’m 39 now, I’ve been an architect with heart and soul for years, and I am incredibly fascinated by the ever new possibilities opened up by digitalization. You have to imagine it: 100 years ago, an architect’s office consisted of a large room with drafting tables where 100 people in white shirts and ties drew for a single project. Today, we’re almost 100 people working on 20 to 30 projects at the same time. And in the future, 20 people will do the work of 100…
How – and particularly with what means – do you use these new technologies?
At Powerhouse Company, we work with a lot of parametric design tools. Even in engineering. This has tremendous advantages. For example, in our “Loop of Wisdom” project in China, we were able to provide the manufacturer with 3D models to create thousands of uniquely curved elements. Through such interaction, we can make buildings even better. And it saves a lot of time, which is especially important for projects in China, where everything always has to go extremely fast.
What should we pay particular attention to in contemporary housing?
The pandemic has greatly changed our needs in terms of housing and living space. I think flexibility now has to be an essential part of floor plan design. We strive to design in a way that makes it easy to convert rooms from working to living areas or to partition them flexibly. In larger projects, we plan for common spaces that ensure social interaction remains possible at all times. There are solutions that turn residential buildings into a kind of safe “social bubble”. The social aspect is an important part of modern architecture. After all, this pandemic might not be the last. We need to create places where people can come together and feel safe.
What should people-friendly, environmentally friendly, future-oriented housing look like overall?
I think people who have nothing to do with the construction industry are usually not that focused on sustainability. There are other needs in the foreground. Of course, designers, developers and builders should definitely create very sustainable solutions. But these should also be logical. People looking for a new home need to see quality.
So what actually convinces people who are looking for an apartment or house?
It’s not enough to hear that a building is sustainable. People also have to like the neighbourhood, the spaces and the design to want to live there. “HOLT”, for example, is a sustainable project. But when I show it to people, they don’t know that yet – and still they say they love it and would like to live there.
The world of work has also changed a lot. Will that affect the size and design of new office buildings?
They won’t get much smaller. However, we’ve already seen in recent years with the design of the headquarters of the big companies ASICS and Danone that you really don’t need that much space anymore.
What are people looking for right now, then?
What is also desired in current projects are fewer desks and more shared space. Offices are increasingly becoming social meeting places. You can work there as well as at home. Flexible design is therefore essential. Video conference rooms with professional digital setups are also very much in demand now. This in turn makes lighting and daylight an important issue. Our company will be moving into the floating office building that we designed, and we’ll be setting up a meeting room with multiple webcams there as well. So that we can broadcast presentations almost as perfectly as a TV studio.
This “floating” office building that Powerhouse Company designed for the Rotterdam headquarters of the Global Center on Adaptation has attracted a great deal of international interest. Where did the idea to put a wooden building on the water come from?
We designed the master plan for the adjacent Codrico site. The idea for the floating office building developed in discussions with the municipality. The Global Center on Adaptation, which deals with measures against climate change, was looking for a special place that would fit its goals and profile. We thought about urban development and said to ourselves, let’s design something on the water! And suddenly it became a project.
What was the biggest challenge in implementing it?
Building it in a short period of time and in the process keeping in mind that there are a lot of things we are tackling for the first time. We squeezed a lot of new ideas into this design. You know: a floating building in itself is nothing new. But to create the largest floating office made of wood that is energy neutral and offers the greatest comfort? THAT was really absolutely new and makes the project unique.
Could this project set a precedent elsewhere – such as in dense waterfront cities in need of housing?
I think so. In the Netherlands, we have a lot of experience with houseboats. And our floating office building is a climate-adaptive project. Residential buildings on water are a good option if they are affordable. The first ones probably won’t be, but there is a kind of learning curve here. I imagine the scale will have to be even larger to make such projects affordable. But I think we will see this happening.
Soil sealing is visibly becoming a problem. At the same time, more and more living space is needed. How can this problem be solved?
If architects and designers understand the impact a building has on the soil on site, the first step has already been taken. I’m thinking of the redesign of the train station in Assen, which we did a few years ago. The question was, with 3,000 square metres of space, what do you do with the rainwater? We created a large green roof that collects the water and drains it away in a controlled way. In other words, an attractive design element that also solves a problem. At “HOLT”, on the other hand, the forest and trees provide efficient rainwater harvesting and natural ground surfaces. I think there is a suitable solution for every location.
What about “future-oriented urban planning”? What plays a special role here?
Sustainable construction, a network of public transportation that is as perfect as possible, and a well thought-out mix. Anything that attracts additional cars into the city should be avoided. We need comfortable, short connections between work and home – and attractive, communicative public spaces.
How can we prevent veritable “ghetto districts” from developing – such as in France’s suburbs?
Architecture can help here, but this is a very complex problem. At “Valckensteyn” in Pendrecht, for example, we created a very open, transparent first floor, a large entrance lobby and a bright, particularly attractive bicycle room. These are comfortable zones that create a pleasant connection with the outside world. And in projects in downtown Rotterdam, we combine social housing with upscale developments, hotels and office buildings. So that, as it were, a city within the city is created – instead of a neighbourhood dominated by a particular focus group.
What are you currently working on?
Oh, there are so many projects! For example, the Conradhuis, a 24,000-square-metre building that is being built for the Amsterdam University of Technology. Or the redesign of the Codrico site in the port of Rotterdam and a square in the city centre where we are designing “Rise”, the tallest tower in the Netherlands. We’re also working on a new project in China similar to the “Loop of Wisdom” I mentioned earlier. And, of course, the first university in the Netherlands to be built of wood, in Tilburg.
As a successful architect, you know your industry very well. In your opinion, what are the current mega-trends?
We have already discussed the fact that sustainability is a crucial topic. I think that through digitalization and the way we build, automation and robotization will have a big impact. I think artificial intelligence will also play a major role in the coming decades. It is, after all, already being used in the design process. You enter all the ideas, parameters and constraints into the computer and, in the same amount of time as before, you can check ten to 20 optional solutions at once instead of just three. There is this famous quote: “Artificial intelligence will not make any work superfluous. But it will ensure that highly skilled jobs are no longer needed.” Innovation can happen very quickly.
That sounds scary…
Yes and no. Because jobs can also change and everything is in flux.
What advice do you have for students who still dream of becoming successful architects?
The more and dedicated you work, the faster you gain experience. At the same time, you need a bit of luck to get the chance to implement and realize projects. You can help out here, because experience and knowledge are a great advantage. Just like good teamwork with inspiring people and mentors who offer support on the way to your goal.
Interview: Elisabeth Schneyder
Images: Powerhouse Company / Casper Rila, Plomp, Atchain, Filippo Bolognese, Proloog, Jonathan Leijonhufvud, Sebastian van Damme
that might interest you
Stefano Boeri is regarded as a pioneer of biodiverse architecture. The Torre dei Cedri planned for the outskirts of Lausanne will be another of his spectacular towers. This time, the vertical forest will consist of over 80 trees.
A special kind of discovery world is taking shape in Gothenburg, where Swedish vehicle manufacturer Volvo is using timber construction and nature to create its World of Volvo. The components and engineering for Henning Larsen’s design are being provided by Austrian firm Wiehag.
Danish architects 3XN are operating a separate division called GXN that develops green innovations. In this interview, Kim Herforth Nielsen and Kåre Poulsgaard talk about behavioural design, carbon as a market driver, and their radical high-rise project in Sydney.
The Klimatorium in Lemvig, Denmark, devises strategies to counteract global climate change. Situated on the coast of Jutland, the building designed by architects 3XN has already achieved iconic status.
The town of Jessheim is getting an impressive new centre. Designed by Norwegian firm Mad arkitekter, it promises to combine sustainable urban development with attractive indoor and outdoor areas.
Metropol Parasol has achieved a phenomenal rejuvenation of a neglected square in Seville. The iconic timber construction by J.MAYER.H architects is a prime example of successful intervention in public space.
The Forestias is one of the largest property development projects in Thailand. The highlight of this project by Foster + Partners is a 48,000 m² urban forest designed by TK Studio.
The Kajstaden Tall Timber Building in Sweden marks the beginning of a new generation of mass timber blocks. Using this building material saves around 500 tonnes of CO₂, and it also facilitates deconstruction later on.
There’s a rocket preparing to launch in Switzerland. The residential timber high-rise named Rocket in Winterthur’s Lokstadt neighbourhood will reach a height of 100 metres. The tower’s residents will be part of the 2000-watt society.
May we introduce Carl? Using timber for its facade besides the supporting structure, the apartment block is currently under construction in Pforzheim. Architect Peter W. Schmidt explains how this is being done.
Kautokeino skole in northern Norway is a project that seeks to embrace the uniqueness of Sami culture and educational style. The mass wood building is so hygge, you’ll want to check in for a few nights.
If you love the far north, you’ll love the Lyngen Alps. And if you love the Lyngen Alps, you’ll love the bungalows by architect Snorre Stinessen.
Canada’s megaproject Waterfront Toronto includes a new district called Quayside, an all-electric and climate-neutral community. Its highlights are a two-acre urban forest and the residential Timber House by architect David Adjaye.
The city of San Diego in Southern California has plans for a new district, one that will be entirely void of cars. Known as Neighborhood Next, it must be one of the most radical projects in the USA.
The new urban quarter Zwhatt near Zurich is designed to enable climate-neutral living at affordable prices. One of its buildings is a 75-metre-high timber hybrid tower known as Redwood, whose facade generates solar power.
Architect and biologist Timothée Boitouzet has used nanotechnology to give wood an upgrade. The new material “Woodoo” is translucent, fire-resistant, weatherproof and up to five times stronger than normal wood.
Timber construction can be decidedly high-tech, as illustrated by the head office built for SR Bank in Stavanger, Norway. Bjergsted Financial Park offers workplaces that are fit for the future, and it is among Europe’s largest engineered timber buildings.
So, what does "Noom" actually mean? While Sanzpont [arquitectura] and Pedrajo + Pedrajo Arquitectos don't exactly reveal this, their "Living the Noom" concept is pretty clear: it’s all about a fresh take on housing. With environmental protection and quality of life as a top priority.
HafenCity Hamburg is an urban quarter fit for the future. Its eco cherry on the top is the “Null-Emissionshaus” (Zero Emissions Building), which is completely carbon-neutral – and can be dismantled like a Lego house.
Snøhetta creates high-calibre architecture, including accommodation at high altitudes amidst Norway’s glaciers. The architects have enriched the Tungestølen mountain cabins with a special feeling of hygge.
Apple’s former design head BJ Siegel has developed a concept for a timber modular house. The urban prefab named Juno is designed for mass production – and hopes for success on the scale of the iPhone.
Communal vegetable patches, car sharing and a timber building that overtops many others. Sweden’s largest housing cooperative is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a project called Västerbroplan that shows how people will live in the future.
Bearing the name Tree House Rotterdam, Holland’s new landmark-to-be looks like a gigantic stack of wooden shelves with glass lofts added on top. It aims to take the sustainability of timber high-rises to a new level.
Three tonnes of lettuce and vegetables annually will be farmed on top of the We-House, a timber construction project in Hamburg’s HafenCity. The on-site restaurant serves meals for residents of this sophisticated eco-house at cost price.
The design for the urban office building Saint Denis in Paris shows the potential of parametric design in timber construction. Architect Arthur Mamou-Mani is a luminary in this new discipline, and we were able to meet him online.
Researchers at Cambridge University are helping to turn London’s spectacular vision of a wooden skyscraper into reality. The Oakwood Timber Tower is to rise 300 metres into the sky, almost level with the tallest building in the city.
Self-sufficiency is no longer a dream reserved for downshifters. The modular building system named The Farmhouse designed by Studio Precht allows residents to grow food in big cities.
Homerton College at the University of Cambridge has chosen the design by Alison Brooks Architects for a pavilion that combines modern timber construction with high-tech facilities. It is expected to be a future-facing answer to their needs.
The Swedish university city of Växjö has been named “the Greenest City in Europe”. Half of all its new buildings have been built with timber. But the city plans to go even further.
The Scandinavians have shown their pioneering strength once again, this time in the design for a new cultural centre. The Sara Kulturhus in Sweden’s Skellefteå is among the world’s tallest high-rise structures built entirely from wood.
When it comes to timber construction engineering, the United States has been lagging behind other countries. Ascent Tower in Milwaukee aims to change this. Topping out as the world’s tallest timber tower at a height of 284 feet, the building uses expertise and structural elements from Austria.
As many as 40,000 pieces of wood had to be fitted together for the gift shop in the National Museum of Qatar. The inspiration behind this award-winning interior design was supplied by a miracle of nature in Qatar’s desert.
Canada’s Earth Tower aims to outshine all existing timber high-rise buildings. Its energy concept means that this 40-storey skyscraper in Vancouver will be the world’s tallest passive house.
On the edge of the tropical rainforest in Mexico, a research museum will explore how nature and progress can be reconciled. Known as Xinatli, its sophisticated design takes a fresh look at circular building materials.
The eco-friendly residential project Roots will be the new landmark of Hamburg’s HafenCity and the tallest timber high-rise in Germany. Architect Jan Störmer reveals what its future residents will have in common.
The Danish office 3XN is planning to build North America’s tallest timber office building in Toronto. Called T3 Bayside, the complex will offer more than 500,000 sq. ft. of next-generation office space when completed.
Oslo was once built entirely of wood. The project chosen to redesign the area around its railway station heralds the return of this traditional building material to the Scandinavian metropolis. A spectacular office tower with an innovative hub is being developed, named Fjordporten.
Dutch architectural firm Gaaga has designed a residential building in Eindhoven that is distinctly people- and environment-friendly. Surrounded by trees, it is situated in the middle of a park.
The redevelopment of an above-ground Nazi-era bunker is Hamburg’s largest building project since the Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall. With spectacular rooftop gardens and nhow Hamburg design hotel, this new landmark in the heart of the St. Pauli district is sure to become a magnet for visitors.
Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and Australian artist Geoff Nees teamed up to design the Botanical Pavilion – a wooden pavilion that is constructed like a 3D puzzle – without using any kind of glue or screws.
The round construction known as TECLA has created quite a stir. Having teamed up as 3D printing pioneers, WASP and Mario Cucinella Architects have produced the first CO₂-free housing prototype printed entirely from raw earth.
Japanese architectural firm UENOA has created a wooden office that has no need for bearing walls. Folded origami-style, the ceiling construction gives a whole new lightness to cross-laminated timber.
The Life Cycle Tower One was the first timber high-rise in Austria and the prototype for a new type of serial construction. CREE founder Hubert Rhomberg explains the green building concept and why we have to learn to think in lifecycles.
Most people looking for a new home with a sustainable design need to have deep pockets. Rotterdam’s Pendrecht district aims to buck this trend courtesy of timber building Valckensteyn, the brainchild of the architects at Powerhouse Company.
In Düsseldorf, The Cradle is gradually taking shape. The timber hybrid office building is being constructed according to circular economy principles, and these will also govern its future use.
The Dutch city of Eindhoven will soon be home to the world’s highest “plyscraper”. The two towers – 100 and 130 metres high and known as the Dutch Mountains – are to set new standards in high-rise timber construction.
An entire residential complex in Berlin-Kreuzberg is to be built out of timber – vertically. With a planned height of almost 100 metres, WoHo is set to be Germany’s tallest timber building.
A mixed-use project in Sweden’s Gothenburg is being crowned by star architect Dorte Mandrup. The jewel in this crown is its use of timber. The new eco construction is intended to become an icon in sustainable urban architecture.
Designed by US architect David Rockwell, built according to WELL Building Standard principles. The Sage Collection by British furniture maker Benchmark is good for humans and the environment.
Swiss urban planning combines prominent architecture with ecological timber construction. Lausanne’s Tilia Tower is setting a high standard in future-proof urban development.
Munich’s Prinz-Eugen-Park is the site of the largest integrated timber settlement in Germany. And that’s not all – the city planners have even more in the pipeline.
Once Europe’s largest freight station, Brussels’ monumental Gare Maritime is now the largest European CLT project. Neutelings Riedijk Architects have transformed the historic structure into a covered district, giving it a sustainable new lease of life using cross-laminated timber.
The plans just unveiled for the new, 180-metre-high timber tower designed for the Sydney-based software giant Atlassian represent a milestone in environmentally friendly construction using this renewable raw material.