At Arcosanti I had a chance to learn about many exciting green or sustainability projects around the world including one which was named Mont Cenis Academy. This was made possible due to my participation in the launch of Ecosa Institute Total Immersion Course on Ecological Design in 2000. It was through Ecosa that I first learned about Mont Cenis Academy in Germany. At that time I saw a possible link between the two projects and often referred to Mont Cenis as one of the more inspirational ecological design projects that I was aware of.
While in Europe, I decided to make a visit (on May 19th) to the place and to explore what it is really like and how successful it is in becoming a model ecologically designed project/building.
The innovative architectural project Mont Cenis Academy in Germany was one example of the “bringing together” of these new ecological ideas of design and building it into an actual working project. I had learned about it while I was doing research as part of my participation at Ecosa. It was conceived as part of a comprehensive urban renewal project that included the retrofit of an old mine that had closed down in 1978. Interestingly, the mine existed in the center of what is now highly urbanized area. After 1978, it was what we in the US call a “Brownfield” – a place that has been polluted or degraded through industrialization activities and is the focus of rejuvenation efforts. After the mine closed it continued to release methane gas which is a greenhouse gas by-product and if not handled properly is a dangerous pollutant.
So the plan was to bring in an architect who could incorporate the emerging aspects of the ecological design movement and create a showplace for promoting sustainable systems in Germany that could inspire people and make these projects more common.
Link to Arcology and Arcosanti
A major feature of this space is that it consists of a larger megastructure made of glass and wood that houses the smaller builders inside. What inspired me about this project was that it brought several elements together in the design process leading to a building that not only reflected something similar to what Soleri put forward in his Two Suns Arcology.
The key linking concept is to see a larger habitat space as a greenhouse that not only provides solar light for plants but also to keeps the internal habitat between the buildings warm and temperate. A larger building envelope like this one might also serve as a urban magnate for a community gathering space and an atmosphere that surrounds the smaller buildings located within the outer shell:
The glass envelope with a length of 180 m, a width of 72 m and a height of 16 m is supported by a pure timber structure. The continuous main girder, designed as parallel-chord trusses, is supported by roundwood columns consisting of 130 year old spruce trunks. Suspended girders stabilized with stainless-steel cables are carrying the glass and photovoltaic panels on the roof and in the facades.
Social Sustainability and Community Gathering Spaces
An important aspect of ecological design is social sustainability, which includes the consideration of how a space makes people more inspired and comfortable to do what they do in life. For example if a building makes people feel better about work, leisure and even shopping and helps them to do what they do more effectively and with a greater sense of purpose a key goal of designers has been met. So always implicit within the design field is the controversial concept of social engineering. Paolo Soleri saw Arcosanti as a small and modest test case for his Urban Effect thesis that was the basis for the larger Arcology vision. Soleri believes more effective urban design concepts and techniques will bring people together in higher density developments and reach a higher level of human potential. We can see aspects of this at Mont Cenis in terms of how it was designed to be a place that could serve as gathering space for the community that is a component for the larger redevelopment of the industrial brownfields. However we also see that the project may have been missing key components that inhibit pulling the installed pieces in the right way. This may have prevented it from actually realizing its full potential as a gathering space for the larger community.
Passive Solar Design and Features
Effective solar management is the key in this project and they most likely spent a considerable amount of time and money on engineering to make sure the building would manage and utilize the Passive Solar features of this design properly. In this case the fact that this project was built at the center of a mine shaft actually enabled a large amount of gravel to be deposited around the foundation area. This acts as Thermal Mass to absorb the excess heat of the greenhouse during day so that the stored energy could be released into the space at night to partially compensate for the thermal loss at night. While different from the classical Arcology Energy Apron designs usually put forward by Soleri, the project represents a similar strategy to encapsulate a building complex with a overarching glass/transparent shell. The idea behind this is that the shell allows better conditions for heat storage than would be possible in an open air structure.
The facility does not allow all the sun into the space as the roof-line glass is interspersed with solar panels. At the time of its construction in 2000, this 1MW array was one of the larger ones in Germany and included panels produced locally. The project also included a combined heating and power plant that used the methane leakage from the mine as a fuel stock. The Combined Heating and Power (CHP) unit supplemented the solar panels to produce electricity and also used the waste heat/steam to produce heat and hot water for the facility.
Site Evaluation and Visit
Several case studies were done of the project that highlighted what seemed to be a very unique and exciting project such as this one at the EU Energy Planning Knowledge Base.
However in visiting the project I learned a lesson: that a project like this that seeks to offer a building within a building configuration faces a key challenge to create a space that is compelling in its ability to bring people together. What if you build it and they don’t come? While I came on a Saturday when the building was basically closed, I found it exudes an energy that seemed stale and under-utilized.
My evaluation was that it did not meet the social standards of a sustainable project that I would expect to see in a project like this one – to become a space to bring people together in a community setting. While the project has an impressive and imposing facade and also includes formidable social gathering spaces I am not convinced it is well utilized.
More significant was my observations of the site maintenance. There is a big lesson here for eco-architects and ecological designers. When you use a lot of wood consider the type of wood and how it is treated and how it will age and look over time. I noted significant wear throughout the site on the floor decking and interior building panels in a way that was not graceful or elegant but suggested neglect of the project or the appearance of such. This seem particularly odd given that the Germans have a reputation for perfection.
My inspection of the “Energie Park” only added to the above sense that the project had not been relevant to the needs of the community or to the project managers and thus less money was budgeted for its maintenance and operation. There was graffiti on the glass of the power plant facility and in other areas that suggested the facility was in a mode of neglect. Compounding this was missing and rusted components in what looked like key systems for the combined heating and power units of the “Energie Park”