Building in Germany
Near the end of the tunnel
A column by Christian Holl
Jan 15, 2015

Initially there were not enough people talking about ecological architecture and resource-saving building, and then suddenly too many were. The debate about the energy reform and ecological responsibility didn’t do architecture in Germany any good.

Go ahead and rub your eyes. Thermal insulation composite systems have been standard in building construction since the 1970s. Countless architects have worked their fingers raw on them, only to exclaim upon hearing the hollow sound: Now wait a minute! This goes against the grain of honest architecture! According to which, presumably, only a rendered surface direct on a solid wall counts as honest. Oh well. Several decades passed. Until a heading now probably taboo in times of the Pegida movement spurred the necessary discontent that had been smoldering for some time: “The burka for buildings” by Niklas Maak and Peter Richter was published in the FAZ newspaper in November 2010. Finally, clear-cut front lines. The enemy: the insulation industry, which had relied on lobbyists to manipulate innocent politicians and gets shady tradesmen in business. And since then the tradesmen had set about plastering Germany’s architecture with no feel for structural design and building physics. The consequence: mold and defacement. Hurrah, the decline of the West again.

“Insulate or die!” headlined the NZZ newspaper, quickly seizing the opportunity to poke fun at its big-boy neighbors, and the polemical either/or debates being conducted there. What is incredible, and hopefully your eyes are not sore from all the rubbing, is the virtually overnight interest in everyday building works, in the connection between political control and architecture, in the fact that people, homeowners, somehow every now and then try to make do, and in clumsy ways at that. The results sometimes look funny, but most of the time they are simply unflattering. Indeed, some buildings call to mind one of Erwin Wurm’s “fat cars”. Suddenly Germany was full of architectural monuments that were becoming defaced – and which until that very moment no one had cared less about. Yes, it can happen that quickly. And concerns about the mountains of refuse have grown, too. Where is all the insulation to go when it reaches the end of its service life? A justified question. Yet equally justified is the question as to why specific champions of building culture among architects instantly agree, no questions asked, to tearing down what are certainly not the worst examples of postwar architecture – to make way for new projects from their studios.

Why did it take until now for you to sit up and see what is around you? It is nothing new that conservatories are built onto houses in unsuitable spots and heated, that photovoltaic panels get unattractively banged on roof tops. And people have always been insulating, fiddling, tinkering and scrimping, in order to be able to spend what they have saved on something else instead. It has only ever been a few people who were interested in conducting a meaningfully discerning, i.e. exacting discussion on the options for using intelligent architectural concepts to save resources. Yet evidently the panicked declaration of the energy reform and its spread throughout the building world did not do architecture any good, either.

Perhaps the problem isn’t even an architectural one in the first place. We don’t allow ecological responsibility to be a bitter pill in other contexts, so why should it be that in architecture. Sure a lot has been promised elsewhere, too, above all that we would be better off. One example is “Factor Four”: doubling wealth, halving resource use. More efficient engines lead to bigger cars. Put simply, the same amount of gas moves heavier weights nowadays: the German way to enhance efficiency. It’s long been easy to work out that one day we’ll have to do without some things. And indeed, people are now beginning to ask, under the banner of “sufficiency”, how much we really do need. The answer is obviously “considerably less than hitherto”. However, this is an insight very few people are as yet prepared to accept. The Greens had to find out the hard way that even modest appeals to common sense, for instance in the form of one meat-free day a week, get clobbered in the political arena. In fact, when it boils down to it we should be talking about eating meat on only one day a week.

Yet he is a fool who dares say aesthetics aren’t important to people. Apparently outside clotheslines are forbidden in an eco-housing estate near Hamburg. Because God are they ugly! Instead, laundry gets dried in a tumble dryer, the energy consumption can surely not be that high. And in any case, no one really knows what the real issue is. In an article in the FAZ back in August 24, 2012 real-estate developer Bernhard Schoofs commented on a Union Investment survey according to which 80 percent of investors don’t exactly know what is meant by sustainability: “No one is going to contest that energy efficiency is an important topic in relation to buildings. Yet in the real-estate sector too, sustainability seems to be more of a highfalutin claim that everyone likes vehemently to commit to, but which has little relevance for everyday operations – as long as it doesn’t lead to advantages such as cost savings from increased energy efficiency.” Any more questions?
Greater knowledge from energy saving: Germany’s Energy Reform will no doubt reveal to many a craftsman the spatial complexity of even seemingly simple edifices.
The sun is round – and so will my house soon be. The zest for insulation has spawned the one or other abstruse architectural metaphor. All photos © Christian Holl
Christian Holl