Archive for July, 2009

Dale’s reflections on light and space in Iceland

July 21st, 2009

Reflections on space and light in Iceland:

Iceland’s landscape strikes me as a kind of inspiration for organic minimalism. The space where the land meets the sea, and sea meets the sky forms a double horizon line. The textures of the lava fields, volcanic rocks, and glacial gravel do not create the kind of places you’d want to spread out your blanket for a picnic.

The houses squat low on the landscape, hunkering down in the thin veneer of volcanic soil, much like the early Viking long houses. These old shelters were almost, subterranean, built of turf because construction materials were scarce and winters were fierce. Many of the today’s farms are white, contrasting with the green valleys and dark basaltic cliffs.  In the cities, buildings are often painted bright yellows, oranges and blues, as if in defiance of the short sunless days of winter but also in celebration of the long days of the artic summer.

Galvanized steel forms a corrugated exoskeleton on many of the buildings.

The light of summer is long and clean.  What’s most striking is the twilight that extends well past midnight, in a slow pastel waltz from orange, to pink, to purple.

Iceland’s sparseness fills the eye.

Bill’s biking reflections

July 21st, 2009

Biking in Iceland & Denmark

* While bicycle riders were relatively common in Reykjavik, I was surprised by their relatively free style. Riders generally seemed to prefer riding on the sidewalk, but then would jump out onto the street when pedestrians blocked their way. It made for an interesting (and slightly dangerous) mix as bikers weaved their way through foot and auto traffic (all without helmets).

* Outside of the capital city of Iceland, the casual bike rider of the city was replaced by more serious road bike warriors. Piled high with camping gear and supplies, teams of these two wheel Winnebagos were interspersed along the vast stretches of the Ring Road (Route 1), the mostly two lane highway that circumscribes the country. In the parking lots of state parks and roadside shops, we had a chance to marvel at the ingenuity and care in packing ones belongings for the week.

* Copenhagen certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the friendliest bike cities in Europe. The main boulevards were lined with bike lanes that had their own special traffic lights! At most times, the number of people on bike equaled or exceeded those in cars. IMG_0269 Bikes at station Bikes at station

Interestingly, the same maladaptive behaviors encountered with car drivers were observed by bicycle riders. This included riders merrily chatting on their cell phone or listening to their iPod nano, which they held in one hand, while steering with the other (again all without helmets).

* In the leisurely resort towns of Samso, bikes again abounded on the small, two-lane country roads that winded between towns. Here we were finally able to rent our own bikes to explore the country side and small towns of the island. DSC00632 DSC00640 2009-07-23 040 2009-07-23 032 2009-07-23 030 IMG_0318 100_1151

Coffee with Søren Hermansen 7.20.09

July 21st, 2009


Why are green projects more successful in some areas and not in others?

One of the highlights of our visit to Samsø was a half-hour conversation with the passionate and captivating leader Søren Hermansen and his equally passionate partner, photographer Meline Lundén.  Energy meeting They pointed out that on Samsø they took a holistic approach that he described as an “energy democracy.” Firstly, Denmark is not a producer of fossil fuel based energy (like the U.S. and GB), which means that no-one is lobbying the government and they did not have to overcome inertia created by existing energy interests. As far back as the 1970s, the Danish government has been supporting alternative energy by supporting research in sustainable energy use. They, like many other Northern European countries, are also used to high taxes on gasoline to discourage overconsumption. By energy democracy he meant the participation of all constituents in shaping a shared vision of an economically and environmentally sustainable society. In this way, citizens have a moral and economic stake in the project and take ownership of the island. The Samsø project had an effective leadership team consisting of the charismatic, warm, dynamic Søren Hermanson and the technical brain Age … Søren and Meline … described their way of relating to the citizens as “embracing our community,” with which they emphasized the importance of knowing their neighbors and building on their strengths. Søren characterized the U.S. as a nation with a great sense of humor, but as way behind the curve in renewable energy research and production despite its leadership. For example, the carpenter Michael, who often upgrades homes to make them more energy efficient, talked about how inefficient he found American building methods on a recent visit to Akron, and this despite all the available know-how and the wealth of materials. (And the American carpenters knew that it was inefficient, which is even sadder.) When Søren visited Greensburg, KS, the town that got nearly destroyed in a tornado and decided to rebuild as a green community, he suggested to them that they build a communal district heating and cooling plant. He ran into huge resistance and found the citizens horrified of such a “socialist” (our phrase) endeavor. This is interesting considering that in America, there are many existing forms of cooperative arrangements, e.g. in the agricultural sector, but Americans seem to have an almost instinctive resistance/fear of the IDEA of cooperative activities. This is a good example of a point Jan made during his lecture about the importance of the deep local knowledge of the culture where projects are initiated – and of Søren’s point about “embracing the community.”

Visit to Samso Energy Academy 7.20.09

July 21st, 2009

Tom (7.20.09)


After a very hearty breakfast at the Sommer Pension, we rode our bikes a short distance to the Energiakademi of Samso, where we met Jan Jantzen, the Education Director of the academy.  academy sign Jan woo shirt [Jan with Wooster swag] Jan greeted us outside, and explained that the Academy’s main building was designed on the model of a Viking long hall – i.e., one long, open room.  energy academy exterior DSC00648 The south-facing roof of the building is clad in photovoltaic solar panels, which provide much of the electricity used by the 6 full-time employees of the Academy.  A short, but safe, distance from the main building is a hydrogen plant, which separates water into oxygen and hydrogen molecules, which are stored in hydrogen fuel cells.  he Academy plans on building 4 additional “guest houses” that will allow the many visitors to the Academy to stay on the grounds.

Once inside, Jan explained the background behind Samso’s attempt to become a “carbon neutral” island.  In the late 1990s the Danish government sponsored a contest, in which islands could submit plans for becoming self-sufficient in regard to energy consumption.  A local farmer brought this contest to the attention of the citizens of Samso, and the effort was spearheaded by two individuals – Soren Hermanson and Age Johnsen .   Through a series of public meetings, and the help of a consulting firm Plant Energy, the 4000+ citizens of Samso developed a 10-year plan to produce 100% of the island’s energy from renewable sources – wind, solar, and biomass power.   Samso won the contest, began implementing the project in 1997, and by 2005 had reached its goal of energy self-sufficiency.  Currently the island uses renewable sources to produce 140% of the energy used.   According to Danish law, any surplus energy produced by alternative energy sources must be purchased by the national energy company at the current rate charged to consumers, making this experiment in energy self-sufficiency a highly profitable endeavor.

The most noticeable feature of Samso’s energy system is the 11 wind turbines that are spread across the island in groups of 5, 3, and 3. IMG_0282 Land turbines.Samso Each of these massive, slow-spinning turbines produces 1 megawatt of electricity.  Less noticeable than the wind turbines are the 4 district heat plants that are scattered over the island. DSC00645 IMG_0294 DSC00626 These heat plants use either straw or wood chips to heat water that is distributed to large groups of households, providing both heat and hot water.  Some of the heat plants are supplemented by arrays of solar panels that heat water during the summer months, IMG_0295 and each of the plants is backed up by an oil furnace in case the combination of biomass and solar power is insufficient during particular periods.

While the Samso energy experiment has been successful, the one “sore thumb” in the process was the failure to get the citizens of Samso to switch from traditional automobiles to electric cars.  Once it became apparent that the project’s plan to transform the transportation sector was a failure, the citizens decided to build 10 offshore wind turbines off the southwest side of the island.    Each of these turbines produces 2.3 megawatts of electricity, which more than compensates for the non-renewable energy consumed by the gasoline and diesel engines of the many cars and trucks on the island.    This offshore “wind farm” is the first thing one sees from the ferry from Kalundborg, on the mainland, to the island’s ferry port at Kolby Kas. Off-shore turbines. Samso

In his morning presentation, Jan took great pains to dispel the media image of the Sams energy project as an idealistic, almost religious, movement.  He emphasized that the overwhelming support of the citizens of Samso was based on a combination of environmental and economic motivations.  Just prior to the Danish energy contest, Samso lost one of its primary employers, a slaughterhouse that employed over 100 people.  The designers of the energy project presented it to the citizens as a form of economic development that could help keep residents of Samso on the island.   The project designers worked hard to get local trades people involved in the project, training them to install highly efficient windows and doors in the older houses of the island, as well as geo-thermal heat pumps and solar panels on houses that were not part of the heating districts.

Jan also emphasized that the success of the project was largely attributable to the flexible approach taken in regard to funding the various forms of renewable energy production.  Some of the land-based turbines are owned by individuals, while others are owned by private investors and investment groups.  One of the land turbines is owned by the 1000+ individuals who bought stock in the turbine.  The offshore turbines are also owned by an array of investors.  The municipality of Samso invested in 5 of these offshore turbines, which now generate not just electricity, but a source of income that can be used for the benefit of all the island’s inhabitants.

Our visit to Samso is a particularly appropriate bookend to our field trip.  The bottom-up approach to energy development taken on Samso stands in stark contrast to the experience of Iceland, where the top-down approach to hydroelectric plans has generated an organized environmental resistance movement.

Joan’s synagogue visit — Copenhagen

July 20th, 2009

Joan:  I left the group on Saturday morning and went to the city’s only synagogue, built in 1833.  As in most European synagogues these days, there was a security guard at the street entrance who questioned me politely but insistently and also searched my bag, to make sure that I was really there to attend the service and not blow it up.  I generally avoid Orthodox synagogues because of the separate seating for women, but this was a rare and very moving opportunity to worship with one of the few Jewish communities on the continent whose liturgical traditions now are the same as they were before the Holocaust.  Although there are a lot of newcomers to the community from eastern Europe and Israel, there are still substantial numbers whose families lived in Denmark before the war, since almost all of the 6500 Danish Jews were saved by the Danish underground and the population as a whole.  The Danes were tipped off by someone within the Nazi hierarchy that a mass deportation was planned for early October 1943.  In the space of a few nights the Jews were secretly transported to coastal villages and smuggled across to Sweden in fishing boats.  The Danes also preserved the synagogue from destruction and kept all of its Torah scrolls and ritual objects safe.

Green Architecture Exhibit 7.18.09

July 20th, 2009

Green Architecture for the Future: Melissa

Upon recommendation from Martha Lewis, the gang headed north to see a special exhibit on “green architecture” at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.  It was fortuitous for us that this exhibit was on display when we were visiting!  Unlike many of the world’s renowned art museums, Louisiana is not located in an urban setting, but in a quaint town (Humlebaek) 35 km north of Copenhagen.  We even stopped to pick some wild red raspberries on the walk from the train station to the museum.Berry picking Berries in hand DS

The green architecture exhibit was divided into three themes: “the city”, “climate/energy”, and “metabolism”.  In “the city” section, the idea of compact, dense city centers was emphasized as the most sustainable way for cities to grow.  Interestingly, this was the layout of many medieval towns.  Projects proposed included CO2 and garbage-free cities.  The only U.S. city profiled in this section was Philadelphia where urban voids are being filled with ecological corridors to provide residents with greener ways to come together.

Comfort is a main concern when utilizing sustainable architecture.  Thus, the “climate/energy” portion emphasized the green architects’ uses of cues from the human senses to create the perfect balance of comfort with efficient energy conditions.  In addition, special climate and energy conditions inspire architects to design site-specific buildings that adapt to the actual surroundings.  Incidentally, the RiverPark Development in Pittsburgh was the (only) U.S. example of a site-specific climatic design.   This design featured buildings staggered in a manner that will incorporate buffers from blustery winds, while allowing ample sunlight to penetrate at ground level.
The final section, “metabolism,” described the use of material and new design parameters in sustainable architecture.  “Cradle-to-Cradle” is a philosophy that mimics nature in which the concept of waste does not exist. Similarly, designers are working to create products in which nothing goes to waste. In the same vein, architects are starting to question whether when designing a structure, does it have to last forever?  Or “should the building only stand for 25 years and then automatically be broken down into fish feed, or should the building be programmed to change its function for the generations of the future?” (R&Sie laboratory architects)  The museum featured a prototype of such a limited time-span, biodegradable structure that was constructed of a biopolymer (no petrochemicals).  The biopolymer will degrade over time with addition of water to become fish food.  In six months, half of the prototype will be degraded.


Dale’s comment on the Green Architecture for the Future Exhibit 7/18:  The exhibit sits at an interesting spatial intersection. Its not located in a large city or housed in a museum of science or industry. The exhibit, is however, is in a small town, on the coast, in a park, facing the sea, where wind, sun, sky, land and water meet. The exhibits of contemporary artists within the museum are opposite floor-to-ceiling glass walls, which also face out into the park.  One is aware of both artistic inspiration and natural harmony

Additionally, only the environmentally sensitive art exhibits are air-conditioned. As a result, outside air drifts through the galleries.

The Green Architecture exhibit itself merges with the galleries, further blurring the boundaries between art, science, architecture and environmentalism.   It is a subtle but effective way for us to think, not in terms of compartmentalizing these perspectives, but intuitively understanding them through their spatial relationships, and as multiple, interrelated ways we might relate to our world.

Copenhagen, Day 1 – meeting with Martha Lewis 7.17.09

July 18th, 2009

(Joan):  Believe it or not, we are once again having internet connection problems.  The internet connection in our apartment is broken, so we´re sitting in a public internet linkup in the main railroad station, and the guy right next to me is smoking like a chimney, so I may have to cut this short.  We arrived in Copenhagen, where there are already a noticeable number of advertisements in the airport for products and services claiming to be eco-friendly, all linking thmselves to the upcoming climate summit here.  There is certainly a great deal more environmental consciousness here than in Iceland.  The tourist guides prominently feature organic restaurants, eco-friendly shopping, and more.

Our first meeting on arrival was with Martha Lewis, whose father Arn is an emeritus Wooster faculty member in art history.  Martha is an architect and works for a firm here that specializes in environmentally sensitive architecture.  We met her at her office, where she had prepared for us a detailed presentation about a huge project the firm is working on in Hamburg.  DSC00590 DSC00589 We learned a tremendous amount in a very short time about the kinds of considerations that go into designing and building this sort of structure.  Among other things, Martha had reservations about US LEED certification, which is granted to a building based on adherence to a checklist of criteria in construction, but which does not require any sort of assessment to see if the completed structure meets its planned specifications.  The German standard is far stricter; a building receives provisional certification as environmentally friendly on the basis of its design, but then there has to be an inspection after a certain period to make sure that it is actually as energy-friendly as claimed.  [Addendum 24.7.09:  Amyaz Moledina from Economics just sent us a link to a press release from the US Green Building Council, saying that LEED certification will now include post-construction evaluation. Thanks, Amyaz!]

She also explained to us that the certification process involves five separate categories, of which energy efficiency is only one.  The others are:  type of materials used; human health and comfort; low maintenance and operation costs; and public access to the facility.  A project can choose to go for certification in some or all of the categories.  She also told us that in the architectural world there has been a revolution in thinking just within the last two years with regard to environmentally sensitive building.  Firms and clients are taking it much more seriously, and there have been numerous advances in concepts and designs.  She recommended that we see a special exhibit at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art on eco-friendly architecture; we’ll report on that in our next post.

We were exhausted after our strenuous hiking, long drive back from Skaftafells, and only three hours of sleep before getting up to catch our flight, so after our wonderful meeting with Martha we had a relaxed evening walking around Copenhagen.   Melissa would like to say that while Reykjavik is a cat city, Copenhagen appears to be a dog city.  Dogs are even allowed on trains.  And I would like to note my particular delight at finding that the Pilsner Urquell served here is the real Czech beer, not the watered-down swill they export to the US.

Mareike 7.17.09
Mareike (7.19.2009)
It was a perfect confluence of personal and professional interests for our group to meet Martha Lewis, architect with Henning Larsen firm in Copenhagen, and daughter of professors emeritus, Arn and Beth Irwin Lewis. Martha explained that about 30-35% of total global emissions come from buildings (from heating, cooling, and lighting), which makes the design and the building of green buildings highly relevant to attaining the goal of a sustainable environment. One of her office’s contracts has been to design the new Spiegel headquarters in Hamburg, Germany. It was fascinating to hear her talk about how the client was swayed to aim for the highest certification level (on a 5-star system) they could afford.
I am interested in what makes a company like the Spiegel want to go for green when they commission a new building. Many of the ideas that were eventually realized came from the architecture firm’s proposals. In this particular case, the city of Hamburg also set certain standards or goals for the development of the entire area (Hafen City) – without imposing the particular ratings. The client is always moved by financial concerns, by peer/social pressures, and by ideological and perhaps even ethical concerns. The social pressures here are interesting: the star system rewards sustainable building and it becomes almost like a competition for prestigious institutions like this news magazine for highly educated readers to go for 5, whenever they can. And since Spiegel prides itself on a high degree of social awareness and is closely allied with Germany’s media capital of Hamburg, which is located on the Elbe river, one of Germany’s largest rivers, it makes sense that the publisher would attempt to merge social with natural spaces in a sustainable way.

Interim Post from Copenhagen

July 17th, 2009

We have arrived in Copenhagen and now have much better internet access, so stay tuned for some text and LOTS of photo additions in the next day or so, including photos added to earlier posts.

Vatnajokull/Skaftafells National Park

July 17th, 2009

(Mareike 7.16.09):  We arrived at Skaftafell National Park around 3 p.m. Since this is the European holiday season, there were many tourists and campers at the park. We headed out on a moderately steep trail to Svartifoss waterfall. Along the way we passed a smaller waterfall, at the head of which we found what we thought was a troll hut. Upon investigation, Bill and Tom found that the building actually contained a restored a restored turbine that was used to generate electricity for a local farm in the early 20th-century.IMG_0242 IMG_0243 We continued on to Svartifoss (“black falls”), a high falls that tumbles over a wall of basalt columns that appear from a distance to be massive wooden planks. IMG_0247 IMG_0245 From Svartifoss we traversed a high meadow Sjornarnipa, a point that overlooks the massive glacier, Skaftafelljökull. From this point we could see the broad, curved sweep of the glacier IMG_0250 IMG_0255, which terminates in a series of small lakes and braided streams that run across the massive black plain to the sea. IMG_0254 IMG_0251

Jokullsarlon Glacial Lagoon 7.16.09

July 17th, 2009

(Melissa and Joan 7.16.09):   In 1932 a tongue of the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest in Europe, began to melt, creating a flow of water into the ocean. As the flow increased it formed a lagoon into which chunks of ice now float as they break loose from the glacier. This is the Jökullsarlon glacial lagoon, an ice fairyland. DSC00564 The lagoon is an astonishing 284 meters deep, making it the deepest lake or lagoon in Iceland. We rode in on an amphibious craft originally built for the US military in Stamford, CT, and cruised around, gaping at ice floes melting into fantastic forms and hoping to see some of the seals that live in the lagoon. (The guide said they were mostly at sea now, but Dale claims he saw one.)

Joan ice floes 2009-07-17 010 Joan the duckboat 2009-07-17 007

Joan on the duckboat 2009-07-17 006

The guide retrieved a chunk of clear ice from the lagoon about the size of a salmon from the Pike Street Market

Joan -- ice chunk  2009-07-17 019[here’s Tom with the ice chunk]

and informed us that it was between 1000-1500 years old. She then broke off pieces with a hammer and gave us pieces to taste; it was absolutely clean and fresh-tasting. She explained that climate change is responsible for the melting, but here the glacier is melting at an accelerated rate because of the salt water that flows into the lagoon from the ocean. (Salt speeds melting by decreasing the freezing point, as we all know from our driveways in winter.) The lagoon is actually half salt water, and at this rate, the estimate is that it will disappear by the end of the century because this entire piece of the glacier will have melted. The ice, as you can see from the photos, looks blue in places. This is because water absorbs all other colors of the rainbow but reflects blue. However, the eye doesn’t notice the blue in small quantities of water or ice. (Lakes and oceans are blue, but a glass of water taken from them is clear.) The guide also told us that the ice we saw was only 10% of each little iceberg, with the other 90% underwater; at that point we checked to make sure that the amphibious craft’s name was not Titanic.DSC00563 DSC00560 IMG_0226

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