German architect Werner Sobek: ‘Sustainability – it just is a byproduct of good design’


Visitors look at a solar tracker on Wednesday in South Burlington, Vt. (Toby Talbot/AP)

German architect Werner Sobek grew up in Swabia, a region in southern Germany where sustainability meant survival.

“It was a poor area until car companies came in and made it rich. People had to import everything – steel, coal, metal,” Werner said. “You did not throw anything away.”

That is the mentality Sobek pitched in his presentation at the Goethe Institut Thursday as part of Architecture Week D.C. 2011. The week-long series of events, hosted by the American Institute of Architects, highlighted not only the tradition of architecture in D.C., but also creative, energy-efficient alternatives to futuristic architecture.

However, according to Sobek, who has designed structures for Mercedes Benz and the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial, energy-efficiency is not his primary objective.

“You have to look at more than safe energy for one lifetime,” he said. “Sustainability – it just is a byproduct of good design.”

The rigorous recycling standards for German auto manufacturers known for good design inspired Sobek to challenge himself to do the same. The result was a 100-percent recyclable house in Stuttgart – his home since 2000.

More recently, Sobek designed “energy-plus” houses that generate more energy than they consume. The house, which generates enough electricity to power itself and multiple electric cars, will go on display in Berlin in November 2011.

The homes may look expensive, but both designs actually cost less to build per square meter than the average apartment building, according to Sobek. However, the only catch is that climate and an area’s restraints on available technology currently dictate where he can build.

In the U.S., energy-efficient building materials are available, but they are not yet mainstream, said David Bell, an architect and principal partner at Bell Architects. This is partially because Americans find it difficult to consider higher up-front costs over a lower total cost in the long run.

But, according to Intep LLC architect Stephan Tanner, this type of technology is available and affordable. To prove it, Tanner designed the Waldsee Biohaus in Minnesota. Even in the frigid Minnesota winters, the Biohaus uses 95 percent less energy than other homes and only cost $260 per square foot to build.

The “pragmatic” design even meets the strict Minergie standards of Zurich, Switzerland. The city passed a public initiative to mandate new energy standards and building codes in November 2008. Structures that meet Minergie codes use 85 percent less energy than standard buildings. The Minergie standards are part of Zurich’s “2,000 watt” vision, a commitment to reduce energy consumption to 2,000 constant watts of energy per person by 2150.

The standard is based on the 2,000 watts of constant energy needed by the average human to maintain his or her lifestyle. However, while people in developing countries consume far less than the global average, Americans require 12,000 watts of constant energy on a daily basis.

In Zurich, where the average consumption is 6,300 watts, citizens passed a public initiative mandating new Minergie P Eco standards for buildings, Tanner said.

But efficiency is only half of the solution to the sustainability question, said Paul Wapner, professor of global and environmental politics at American University.

“Efficiency still gets us to the end of the world. It just takes longer,” he said. “So we have to ask, what does it mean to be good? And can we build that world?”

To do that, it will take more than innovative architectural designs or building materials, said Victoria Kiechel, a senior associate at the Cadmus Group and adjunct faculty member at American University. Buildings function practically, and a good, sustainable building is one that delights those who use it.

“A building isn’t sustainable if it’s not delightful,” said Kiechel. “The whole aspect of delight is very important to sustainability. We cannot lose sight of that.”

Sobek said he strives to maintain good design principles as his primary focus; sustainability is not the ultimate goal, but a byproduct of satisfying, practical designs. And that, according to Sobek, is where creativity becomes crucial.

“Whenever a tool, a property, whatever, does not fit my requirements, then we have to upgrade it,” said Sobek. “But then I do not give in when I want to have it, and very often we have to invent something. Others call it innovation. For me, it is an outcome of my daily life.”

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