An Interview with Ulf Meyer, Ingenhoven
Ulf Meyer is an accomplished architectural critic and author who has been published in major newspapers and architectural magazines both in Germany and abroad. He is the editor of ARCH+ journal and serves as the German correspondent for World Architecture. NEEA’s BetterBricks caught up with Ulf during a visit to Portland to discuss the next wave of green design. This interview was written by Brian Libby for BetterBricks.
What is your overall approach to designing buildings in the 21st century?
We at Ingenhoven believe form should follow performance. You’ve probably heard that form follows function, but we feel it’s important to go beyond that.
I also believe that nature is the great role model. While human engineering is amazing – nuclear submarines and iPhones – if you think about the wonderful ways your hands and eyes work, for example, it’s really amazing. Nature has very efficient forms and great beauty and aesthetics that go hand-in-hand. That’s something we aim for.
Your firm has designed numerous buildings around the world with double-skin facades, like RWE Essen in Essen, 1 Blight Street in Sidney, and the Breeze Tower in Osaka. Is this the wave of the future?
I don’t know if there’s any other firm in the world that has had to deal with all the different sustainability rating systems: Australia and New Zealand, the United States, Japan. We have buildings in all these system rated at the top.
The space between facades acts as a thermal buffer in winter and summer. The first skin is airtight and the second is not. It’s similar to how clothes help us adjust to seasons. A shirt will keep us warm in winter and shade us in the summer. It’s not just the fabric itself; it creates a layer of air between the clothing and the body.
The other major advantage of double skin is it allows you to have stack ventilation, a chimney effect. It works without any mechanical means. You can get an airflow that will pull the exhaust air and make it disappear into the sky.
Along with double-skin facades, another key to Ingenhoven achieving non-air conditioned buildings seems to be creating intensive stack ventilation effects.
For 1 Blight Street, the building was raised by three floors at the bottom. The raising on stilts allows the public realm to find its way back onto the site. Operable glass louvers will serve as air intake. The air will moves up and pulls the exhausted air from the offices with it.
But in the case of other projects, like the Stuttgart Main Station, you couldn’t employ that same stack ventilation strategy because the building is underground. Is it true that the trains themselves help ventilate the space?
Yes, it will be neither heated nor cooled. The trains will push and pull air out of the station. If you do it right, the trains can provide air conditioning for your building.
The station itself also has an intriguing form where it reaches the surface. Was that a case of bio-mimicry?
The unique shape came about through the famous German engineer Frei Otto. It’s a high performance concrete. They use nets and fabrics to weight the concrete and see how they want it to behave. It’s shapes that find their own way, just like nature does, a kind of bio-mimicry.
Europe has more stringent rules about offices and daylight. How much does that help efficiency?
One of the contradictory demands of sustainable design is you want light to penetrate your whole room but not summer sun. Having a double skin façade protects the inner façade from these elements.
In Europe, no desk may be further than about seven meters from the façade. In America they use these deep floor plates which are good for real estate investors but not for sustainable design and the occupants access to daylight.
In your lectures, you often suggest there may not even be such a thing as sustainable design. What do you mean?
The more I study this, the more I believe designing buildings in an energy efficient manner is great but it’s not enough. If we all saved 20 percent of our energy consumption tomorrow, we’d still be causing a lot of trouble for the planet. I think looking at building performance is not enough. We should look at how our cities are designed. Both booming cities and shrinking cities are inherently unsustainable. This is a bigger issue than what architects deal with.
Even shrinking cities are exploding two-dimensionally. Sprawl has even accelerated in some areas. If we allow this kind of dramatic loss of urban fabric replaced by big boxes and parking lots-we create problems as architects we’ll never be able to fix.
In the last 60 years, the U.S. population has doubled, and the urbanized population has tripled. Yet urban density went down dramatically.
If architecture can help to save some of the mess we’re in, I think it involves reinventing urban design. All through the 20th century it was done using color markers on paper-residential here, industrial here. Frankly, that no longer works. We have to think in 3D. Urban design is a dead profession. We have planning, but planners are not designers.
You may think this is not a problem in Portland with your Urban Growth Boundary. But living in the Midwest [in Kansas and Nebraska], I can tell you that it is a creeping problem. Portland is the laboratory nationwide but it still has to deal with the same problems.
What can be done to green urban design?
There are a lot of things you could do. You could disallow above-ground parking garages. Why not prohibit one-story buildings altogether? We have restrictions to prohibit the height of tall buildings, but I think prohibiting low buildings should happen instead. Make Portland car free and build more rail lines. Don’t slow it down.
How would you characterize the best approach or strategies to get to net-zero carbon buildings? What do you think our greatest challenges are to getting there?
Ultimately, I think the rating systems are great but they have their limitations. They’re voluntary. Why should sustainable design be a rich man’s toy? Why isn’t it a prerequisite for everything we do? Why can’t we make LEED platinum our code? We have rules for our car performance. Why not for our buildings?