German architectural firm adopts sustainable building practices

This article is part of a special feature on Climate solutions , which examines efforts around the world to make a difference. There w...


This article is part of a special feature on Climate solutions, which examines efforts around the world to make a difference.


There was a time, including when Martin Henn’s grandfather and father were at the peak of their careers, when many architects lived by a simple credo: Bigger, Better. But with a growing awareness of how this thinking contributes to greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change, a new vocabulary has sprouted in many companies: sustainability, circular economy, organic design.

This is the kind of language that Martin Henn, 41, said he brought to the German architectural firm HENN that his grandfather, Walter Henn, founded in Dresden in 1947 and that his father, Gunter, joined in 1979 and then expanded to Munich. It is part of the growing awareness of architects of the need to design in a way that helps rather than harms the environment.

Changing construction practices has enormous potential for reducing CO2 emissions. Construction and operations generate nearly 40% of the CO2 emitted globally each year, with materials and construction alone accounting for 11% of emissions, according to Architecture 2030, a Santa Fe, NM-based think tank Just Three Popular Materials – concrete, steel and aluminum – contribute 23% of all emissions.

Mr. Henn, Managing Director of HENN, joined the family business in 2008 after working at Zaha Hadid Architects in London and Asymptote Architecture in New York. He now oversees the design of all HENN projects. He said he approached his role with the intention of making a positive impact on the environment with every building designed by his company.

“Architecture is a powerful tool that can really help mitigate climate change,” he said. “The reverse tends to be the general perception, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. “

HENN has more than 350 employees and has worked on the Merck Innovation Center in Darmstadt, Germany; the Volkswagen transparent factory in Dresden; and one Hyundai Design Centeruh in Seoul, among others. The company has been involved in more than 70 buildings, including Westlake University in Hangzhou, China, and the renovation of Gasteig, a cultural center in Munich.

Below are excerpts from a recent interview with Mr Henn, who spoke to The New York Times from Berlin, where he is based. This interview has been edited and condensed.

HENN is a long established architectural firm. How did his priorities change when you joined him?

I come from a young generation who understand the urgency of our climate crisis. Limiting the environmental impact of our work and having a positive impact has become a priority. I also brought new design vocabulary to the company.

Can you explain how sustainability is taken into account in the structures you design?

The most sustainable building is one that uses the least construction materials and operating energy, is made from materials with the lowest carbon footprint, and has the longest lifespan. HENN takes all three factors into account in every design.

We believe in less demolition and more conversion or renovation. About a third of our projects are renovations.

New construction, when needed, must anticipate the future with designs that are easy to reuse or take apart. Our buildings also use local and recycled materials; more wood and less concrete because wood is one of the most sustainable building materials in the world; and facades that let the building breathe like an organism, keeping them cool in the summer and warm in the winter without using air conditioning or heating.

Can you tell us how two of your most recent projects have taken the environment into account?

We recently revised the HVB Tower in Munich, which was built in 1981. The aim was to preserve the exterior while transforming it into an energy efficient building. We removed, cleaned, perforated and reinstalled the original face panels to create a double layer skin.

The windows of the new interior layer can be opened for fresh air. This is unusual in high rise buildings, but it reduces cooling costs and is better for the environment and healthier for the occupant. The renovated building achieved LEED Platinum certificate.

Another example is the Brunner Innovation Factory, in Rheinau, for the furniture company Brunner. Inspired by the construction details and natural materials of their products, we designed a lightweight and minimal structure of durable wood designed to be easily disassembled and reused.

Please explain how some of your upcoming projects are sustainable.

We are undertaking an ambitious modernization of Gasteig, a cultural center in Munich that opened in 1985. Our proposal reuses the original structure as much as possible – a radical idea in the context of today’s throwaway culture.

We remove and reuse bricks as a form of CO2 storage; using solar panels for energy and the nearby river for passive heating and cooling strategies; and using the roof as an urban farm whose products will be used in Gasteig’s restaurant.

HENN is also working on expanding the University Hospital in Aachen [Germany]. We leave the original building and the landscape intact as our extension takes place almost entirely underground.

The intensive care unit, operating theaters and common areas are organized around a series of skylights and sunken gardens that provide abundant sunlight, natural ventilation and access to the green spaces of the hospital.

As you have designed buildings and contributed to their realization, can you share the challenges you have encountered in terms of sustainability?

The faster-better-stronger imperative still applies to the construction industry, which can mean abandoning quick, familiar, and cheap solutions. But building sustainably doesn’t mean a more expensive building, especially when you consider life cycle costs, not just construction costs.

Things that initially seem more expensive will cost less in the long run: a double-layer facade, instead of a single layer, will reduce heating and cooling costs; the use of high quality materials will avoid the need for repair and replacement; structural systems designed for disassembly can be reused over and over again; and even LED lights last longer than regular lights.

What social responsibility do architects have to be more sustainable?

As architects, we have an urgent personal and professional responsibility to tackle CO2 emissions from buildings. The most important thing we can communicate is that sustainability is not an afterthought or an addition, it is not just solar panels on a roof – this is fundamental to the search for form, materials that we use and the performance of a building and its Components.

How can architects influence developers to use sustainable building materials to build their structures? Is it their responsibility to do so?

One way to approach this is through the developer’s bottom line. Besides the long-term economic benefits of adaptable buildings, circular construction and sustainable building materials, we can save time and money with modular and prefabricated construction. [prefabricated] construction.

The developers are already interested in sustainability, it’s a much easier conversation to have now than it was 10 years ago. The next step is to go beyond the certification checklist, which comes at the end of the project, to identify how sustainability can motivate a project and be mainstreamed from day one.

What are the building materials that make structures more durable?

It is best to use local materials that do not need to be transported long distances and natural materials like wood, which sequester carbon and is renewable when harvested sustainably; terracotta or ceramic surfaces, a readily available material that has a natural pollutant binding effect and regulates indoor humidity; and natural stone cladding which can be produced using zero waste methods.

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