According to the German Energy Agency, buildings are currently responsible for over a third of all energy being consumed across the nation’s economy. In 2018, that corresponded to about a tenth of Germany’s total CO2 emissions. Although a decline from previous decades, it still demonstrates just how much energy our buildings consume.
So what are some ways to make them more efficient? One method is to design them to produce more energy than they consume. This is where the concept of an “energy-plus” building comes into play. Energy-plus buildings are those that create more energy from renewable sources, over the course of a year, than they need to run.
They do this by incorporating improved thermal insulation techniques that regulate the flow of heat within the interior. And although we are still some way from implementing this approach at a city-wide level, successful examples carried at the district level, such as in Vauban in the southern German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, show what’s possible.
Vauban was built as a sustainable district on the site of a former French military base in the late 1990s. It boasts the world’s first energy-plus house called the Heliotrope–a construct that produces three times more energy than it consumes. Other energy-efficient structures include the Sun Ship, which is the first energy-plus commercial building in the world, and the Solar Settlement–the first energy-plus community.
Houses in the settlement use photovoltaic installations for their electricity supply, and the exterior walls of the buildings are insulated with a thick layer of mineral wool or polyurethane. The triple-glazed windows are coated with a heat-reflective material to ensure room temperature can be maintained once the living area is heated.
When combined, these measures mean houses in Vauban consume less than one-eighth of the average German household. Around 65% of the energy they use is provided by renewable sources. And, in a truly circular fashion, the households’ organic waste is processed via a unique ecological sewage system that generates biogas for cooking.
The question then is whether such an environmentally ‘low-impact’ district can be replicated at a wider level. Berlin is taking a step in this direction by requiring all new buildings to have solar panels on their rooftops as part of the city’s push to become carbon neutral by 2045. The EU this year also launched the Solar Rooftops Initiative that would see solar panels being required for commercial and public buildings from 2027, and for new residential buildings from 2029.
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