In the picturesque waterfront city of Trondheim, Norway, a futuristic-looking office building rises above the fjord. Clad in black aluminum and covered in solar panels, the building, called Powerhouse Brattørkaia, appears to fold into the street like a piece of intergalactic origami. The shape is entirely in service of the building’s larger mission, says project lead Rune Grasdal of the architecture firm Snøhetta: It’s designed to generate twice as much energy as it consumes in its lifetime and become a model for the buildings of tomorrow.
The need is urgent. The building and construction industry emits an estimated 40% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. Snøhetta specializes in architectural interventions that coexist with nature, from a wild reindeer observation pavilion in central Norway to a restaurant partially submerged underwater to a self-powered hotel that can only be reached by boat. Powerhouse Brattørkaia, winner of the Sustainability category in Fast Company‘s 2020 Innovation by Design Awards, takes the firm’s “tread lightly” philosophy a step further and actively gives back to the planet.
That starts with the building’s unconventional form. Grasdal and his team designed the skewed roof and upper facade after calculating the maximum amount of solar power a building in Trondheim could produce. “The roof of the building is facing the south at a 30-degree angle to collect the most sun possible” through approximately 3,000 square feet of solar panels, he says. After meeting Powerhouse Brattørkaia’s energy needs, the solar panels help power a neighboring building and an electrical bus. Powerhouse Brattørkaia also has a battery room for storing excess energy in the summer, and though it hasn’t been used yet, it’s a crucial amenity in a part of the world where sunlight varies dramatically from season to season.
Temperature fluctuates wildly too. Water from the nearby sea helps heat the building in the winter and cool it down in the summer. Passive design techniques, such as large north-facing windows and small south-facing windows, also help cool the interior. Low-speed ventilation reduces energy demands, and a special system, called liquid light, makes the interior appear bright, while keeping artificial lighting to a minimum.
According to Snøhetta’s estimates, Powerhouse Brattørkaia will produce more energy than it consumes over the course of 50 years. That factors in the embodied energy in the materials used to construct the building, and the construction and demolition processes themselves. On its website, Snøhetta boasts that Powerhouse Brattørkaia is “the world’s northernmost energy-positive building.”
In this sense, the building is an important case study. Climate change is exacerbating extreme weather patterns and leading to catastrophic floods, fires, and other crises. Buildings that can adapt, no matter how inhospitable the surroundings, will thrive in the turbulent years ahead. “We think that what we’re doing here will be the normal building in the future,” Grasdal says. “Form follows the environment.”
See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.