About mmillerdesign

As the winner of the Hart Howerton Community Fellowship for 2011, I am researching approaches to sustainable design, through the lens of its application in Iceland. This summer, I will spend two months researching and three weeks traveling throught the country. I am currently pursuing a Master in Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Conversation: Ana Karlsdóttir

Today I met with Ana Karlsdóttir, an assistant professor of Human Geography and Tourism Studies at the University of Iceland. Ana was involved in the creation of Iceland’s Green Map, and was kind enough to meet me the day before she left for a sabbatical in Denmark. She told me about her involvement in creating the green map as well as about tourism in Iceland.

On the campus of the University of Iceland enroute to meeting with Ana, a building by Samuelsson.


Q: How did you get interested in sustainability and involved in creating a Green Map of Iceland?
A: Ana was hired at an agricultural college 100m outside of Reykjavik to start an Environmental Planning program.  She heard about the Green Map System and got to know the people who ran nature.is (a website dedicated to all things sustainable in Iceland and the publisher of the map). In 2001, a group of people from 23 countries held  a conference about implementing the Green Map System in their respective cities. As a geographer, she was excited by the potential for this method of mapping to view the urban environment from a different perspective.

Q: What are the potentials for the tourism industry in Iceland?
A: It’s important that people have realistic ideas about tourism. It seem that many of the people involved are sensible about how much Iceland can sustain- allowing tourism to grow but keeping is small enough that it does not overtax the people, resources, or infrastructure. One big issue is extending the season.  There are hotels and other resources that are only used 3-4 months of the year and are extremely underutilized the rest of the time. The tourism industry is almost entirely staffed by temporary workers, such as students or immigrant workers (a result of Iceland’s participation in the EU free labor movement).
One potential for all season visitors is the adventure trips- but those are contingent on weather, which is entirely unpredictable. There are also a number of cultural events that bring visitors to Iceland: a renowned art festival that takes place in the spring, and a film festival in the fall.

Q: What is the decision process like in Iceland, in regards to development of tourism?
A: Iceland is a small society and at times quite closed.  There tend to be a smaller group of people who play large roles in the decision making.  For example the new development of a “Blue Lagoon” called Laugarvatn Fontana, was contested.  The culture here is resistant to change and at the same time dynamic. Marketing and tourism has regional offices. The Department of Tourism is now a department under the Department of Industry- it used to be under the Department of Transportation.

Q: (Later that day I was headed to visit the geothermal power plant at Hellsheidi). In terms of Industry, what is the balance between tourism and heavy industry?
A: The ministry of industry is focused on attracting more than just smelting to Iceland. But at the same time, after the collapse, the Export Council began adding regulations that deter foreign companies from investing here. It is important to look at the cost of enabling energy production for heavy industry. Iceland is not providing energy at cost to outside companies. Iceland felt peripheral and wanted to attract outside companies, and many have energy rates locked in for 25 years.  If and when energy prices change, they will not be taking on this cost.
Many areas that are extremely beautiful as destinations also have geothermal or hydro potential.  There are examples in many other places where locating heavy industry in an area deters tourism- it is a trade off between the two.

Conversation: Norðurorka

Today I met with Ari, an engineer at Nordurorka (it means “Northern Power”), to learn more about Akureyri’s hot water system. This means it is dealing with water from low temperature fields, a different system than at the power plants where electricity and hot water are co-generated. Their office sits at the top of the town, where they can see up to the mountainside from where their fresh cold water flows. Their headquarters is a narrow cylinder with a light well at the center.  Ari showed me the real time graphical interface that shows information about each borehole: pressure in pipe, temperature of water, current rate of flow of water, and more.

Moss wall in central atrium at Norðurorka headquarters

Q: What services does Norðurorka supply, and to where?
A: Norðurorka supplies electricity, and hot and cold water to Akureyri. They also provide water, (sometimes hot and cold, sometimes just hot) to several other towns in Northern Iceland. In several cases, they pipe hot water many kilometers to reach relatively small towns.  The map below shows the areas where they supply hot water:

(Pending: system map here)

Q: What are the costs associated with geothermal hot water for the distribution systems? How does it compare to costs in Reykjavik?
A: In 1986 the cost of hot water was 3 times what it was in the larger and (relatively) more compact city of Reykjavik. Still, it cost them maybe a third of what it would to use imported oil.
Today, hot water costs about 90 kronur per cubic meter in Akureryi, while prices in Reykjavik have risen and are now about 80 kronur, The reason for this rise in prices emphasizes that social and political factors matter just as much, if not more than the availability of natural resources. Ari mentioned something about Reykjavik energy investing in other areas such as fishing. Later, I read an article in the Grapevine (Iceland’s bi-weekly English language paper) that explained this. LINK (pending).
Anyways, back to the Norðurorka. They began supplying hot water in 1977, cold water in 1993, and electricity in 2000. The cold water, as I mentioned, is from just uphill. The majority of the hot water comes from 20 kilometers away at Hjelteyri. They have 10 boreholes in total. Typical boreholes go 230 meters down and include a pump. They have one special borehole in an area where the groundwater is deeper that goes down to 390 meters, and another that actually draws water up at 104 degrees celcius (above boiling.  This supplies for all of the hot water demand. In 2003, there were 3 very cold weeks in February where they were utilizing all of their pumps as well as a back up 12 MW oil boiler. This was extremely expensive, and led to the driliing of 2 additional wells for the following year.

Q: What system brings the water to buildings? What happens after the water is used to heat the homes?
The hot water pipes run under the sidewalks. The predominant method for space heating is radiators that run along the wall and under windows.
They re-inject only about 10% of the water to the hot water areas. Another 40% goes back through the cycle as they use it to mix with the hot water that is pumped up (this brings it down to a temperature that is usable for domestic spaces). The other half of the water goes into the sewage system, as the same hot water for heating is used for showering and hot water.

Q: Are there currently challenges that Norðurorka is currently facing? Or that they forsee arising in the near future?
No, things are running smoothly.

Reykjalið: Economy, Environment, and Experience

Reykjalid is very small, and the economy there is very limited. Today, the area mainly serves as an accomodation area for tourism, a local center for farms that live around the lake and those employed at Krafla Power Plant.  Just up the street from my guesthouse, I found two relics of unsuccessful attempts to expand economic activity here.  One was a newer looking, but unoccupied building that was opened by the company “Green Solutions” in 2005. They recycled paper by reforming into molded pulp pallets (a very specific product used as a base for loads of freight and sized for a forklift, for example supporting piles of bricks that are being shipped).

The other deserted building formerly housed a diatomite plant:

This story gives an example of Icelandic of the fragility of Icelandic ecosystems. Diatomite is the fossilized remains of an aquatic algae, and was pumped up from the bottom of the lake for three decades, beginning in the 1960s. It has various applications such as filters, as a additive in soil or paints, and insecticide.

Lake Myvatn is named after the large clouds of “midges” or flies breed around the lake, and are a main food source for birds and fish. Land-owners (farmers) around the lake have fished here for 1,000 years- now the fishery has all but collapsed. Midge populations went through increasingly extreme fluctuations and the fish no longer had a reliable food source.   Scientific studies showed that midge population fluctuations coincided with the diatomite dredging activity- suggesting that the activities may have thrown off the ecosystem’s balance, with severe consequences. Full explanation.

Due to pressure internal and international pressure regarding the environmental damage, the plant was closed in 2004. An image of Myvatn lake:

Because of the small size, many things in Reykjalið are within walking distance. The de facto town center consists of a gas station and supermarker, with a few small houses behind containing a bank and post office. The school is nearby, with the public swimming pool only a few minutes further down the street. A car is essential to get to anything but these basic facilities. As mentioned in the Akureyri post, residents travel there regularly (perhaps a few times a week) to obtain goods and access other resources.

All buildings are single family or small guesthouses/cabins with a few rented rooms. While the most common construction in Iceland is cast in place concrete, I saw a concrete block house under constuction (or rather, partially constructed and abandoned). Some streets have small sidewalks while my street had none.

Geothermal Power and Heating: Reykjalið and Krafla

Lake Myvatn is located in northern Iceland near the Krafla volcanic area. I stayed in the small town of Reykjalið located along the lake shore and 5 kilometers from the Krafla area. There was an eruption in 1974, and today there are areas where the black lava fields are still smoking. The landscape changes abruptly on the drive from Reykjalið to the Krafla area: grasses and small trees, sandy dark tephra rings, cracking golden dirt and bubbling muds, mossy lava fields, dark black fields. The varied surfaces reflect a young earth that is still in the constant process of destruction and renewal.

It is a prime location for tapping into high temperature geothermal areas. I visited Krafla power plant to see how this relatively remote area powers the country.

This power plant, built during the 1970s, was almost abandoned after a volcanic eruption lowered the potential of the wells. Iceland has a unified grid, so while some of the power from this plant does go directly to northeast Iceland, some contributes to the shared power supplies. Interestingly, part of the development was always intended to go to power the Alcoa smelting plant further to the East.

From the window of my guesthouse I could see two plumes of smoke. If you see the plume, that actually means they are not using that borehole. If they were, the stream would be going through the pipes. The plume on the left is from a small scale geothermal plant, the one on the right is from an old diatomite plant (you can read more about it in THIS POST).

One element to the geothermal system that I was unaware  of is localized district heating system for Reykjalið, the small settlement of only 300 people (and a number of travelers).  About 3/4 of a mile from the edge last street of small houses, there is a small heating and power plant called Bjarnarflag, which has a capacity of 3 MW and supplies hot water to the small settlement. This process leaves it’s own “blue lagoon” of waste water. Apparently as soon as the new Myvatn Naturebaths opened, signs were put up saying it is too hot to safely swim- locals still swim there.  Water, electricity, and hot water all run under the street and any new buildings tie into it. More about Reykjalid.

Myvatn Naturebath

There are over 130 heating swimming pools in Iceland, and stories of bathing in naturally heated water goes back to the 13th century.  But the nature bathing complex tourist destination, tapping into the image of Iceland as this destination for “sustainable wellness” is a newer development.  I visited the Myvatn baths, which stands as an interesting comparison to the Blue Lagoon.

The complex is modeled after the success of the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon (heated, sulfurous swimming pool) itself still has the same quality, and there is a view over Myvatn lake.

However the architectural design is not executed in such a well developed manner.  Many of similar ideas come into play: use of local rock materials as walls, clean modern interior spaces, linear bands of program types that line the lagoon. But here it is not done in such an artful way.  The rock gabion walls here appear to provide thermal mass and texture, but are added to a typical wall construction without an attempt at synthesis.  The interiors have clean, simple materials, but are lacking the elements that create a thickness, tactility, or variation of light quality to the interior space. The cost here is about half of the cost at the Blue Lagoon. The much more remote location is likely the significant factor of difference, as well as the design quality of the facility.



Akureyri has around 17,000 inhabitants.  It feels somewhat larger however, because as the “Capital of the North” it serves as a base for much of northern Iceland, as well as travelers. The owner of my guesthouse in Reykjalið later told me that people who live up to 150 kilometers away will commute there for supplies and other amenities.  From Reykjalið (about an hour and a quarter away), he travels to Akureryi atleast once per week. This status as a regional base is reflected in the amount of shops, restaurants and amenities found in town.

After my brief weekend in Reykjavik, coming to Akureryi revealed several trends in Icelandic town planning.  In both towns, there are successful, clearly defined main streets.  Although the architecture along these streets may not be as picturesque as in many other towns,  various strategies make them highly utilized.  Sidewalks are wider than automobile lanes.  Car access is allowed, but controlled. The street has gentle turns, which naturally keeps driving speed slower.  Car access is not continuous but broken after several blocks by plantings.  I can imagine this allows for things such as localized deliveries to businesses, but dissuades through traffic from choosing this street. Programmatically the street is very varied, and outdoor furniture and seating is common.

Another similar element in both cities is the underutilization of the waterfront as a public space.  Many Icelandic harbors are functioning as a fishing port, but adjacent areas are underdeveloped. In both locations the main pedestrian street runs parallel to the waterfront only a few blocks away, but no continuity is created. In Reykjavik, for example, large towers have started to be built that cut off the rest of the city from the harbor. A pleasant although windy path runs right by the water, but along the adjacent road car rental places, fast food restaurants and gas stations are predominant. In Akureyri, the pier and waterfront area is very industrial and inaccessible, despite it being the main access point for large cruise ships and the location of various craft and art stores/centers. Both areas have amazing views and have a great deal of untapped potential.  New, but now largely stalled plans for the waterfront in Reykjavik start to address this, but more on that in a later post.

Akureyri is located at the head of a fjord and along the foothills of large mountains.  The topography here is much more extreme that in Reykjavik.  The Akureyri church, one of Sameulsson’s basalt inspired creations located near the main street, capitalizes on the topography and creates a dramatic outlook.  I quite enjoyed seeing this spatial configuration become a social space as it was appropriated in a funny way.  One day while I was there, a group of young Icelandic teens (dressed all in fluorescent spandex) had set up a large “FINISH” sign at the top of the large church stairs. They were playing the Rocky theme song, cheering on people as they came up the stairs and had a water table set up at the top.

The main social space is the public pool.  Families, elderly people and young people all share the space.  The sizable complex includes multiples pools, hot tubs (all heated by geothermal water) and water slides. On a 50 degree day, people sit in the pools for long whiles talking, before going right back into the locker room. Adjacent to the pool area there is a gym, a large play area featuring picnic tables, swings, a bounce house, and scaled down versions of Akureyri buildings.