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 (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.

Conversation: Studio Granda

“The sands of an arctic volcanic desert are black, shadowless and constantly shifting. There are no trees, buildings or roads and footprints are instantly erased. To survive one must watch the celestial bodies, focus on the horizon, heed the warning of the winds and make clear and precise judgements. The necessary acuteness of thought and tuning of the senses is equivalent to the practice of architecture where listening, reevaluation and production are all equally interdependent.” – Beginning of Studio Granda’s practice statement, found at

Today I met with Steve Christer from Studio Granda.  He started the firm with Margrét Hardardóttir in 1987, a few years after completing their studies at the Architectural Association in London.  They have a completed as number of notable buildings in Reykjavik, such as the City Hall and Reykjavik Art Museum as well as a variety of other school, private residence, and urban projects.

Setting up meetings during the major travel season (for tourists as well as Icelandic people) has been a challenge. The work day starts earlier here in Reykjavik.  After trying to juggle travel schedules, we found the only time we could both meet was at the right at the start of their week, Monday at 7:30 am.  Their office is just a few blocks from the water in an unassuming 2 story building set back behind another low building that Studio Granda is currently renovating.  Our meeting was brief but provided a useful perspective as I began my research in Iceland.

Q: How did the financial crisis affect Studio Granda’s practice?
A: Studio Granda estimates that 90% of their projects came to a halt during a period 10 days. Because they had a diversity of projects and clients they thought they might be more insulated from the crash, but unfortunately that was not the case.  They had nine people in the firm, and now they have two.  But, with their reduced size they have been able to do relatively well. For example, I saw drawings for interior renovations and a new private residence, and they have teaching positions.  However, the market has yet to turn and there are still limited prospects.

Q: Several Studio Granda projects have been held up as examples of sustainable design. The Reykjavik City Hall has green moss walls that appear to float atop Tjörnin lake (the lake where the first inhabitants of Iceland settled). Their Hof Residence in Skagafordur was recently featured in the New York Times.  How do they approach sustainability?
A: Steve is critical of branding designs as “sustainable” and suggested that Iceland has not developed in that way.  I got the impression from his and others’ reactions that there are many students and researchers who come to Iceland looking for some sort of utopia of clean energy and green buildings, and that this is an over-simplification that ignores past developments based on greed, profits, or shortsightedness.
For over a thousand years Iceland was poor and life was based on subsistence- this is inherently low impact and in that sense sustainable. But with the trend of a rising standard of living and wealth, growth was embraced and sustainability was not at all a main factor.  Furthermore, there is a difference between the image of sustainability (dripping moss walls at the city hall) and the actuality of it (the city hall is not intended to be nor does it function as an “ecological“ building).
In Iceland there is more built space can be used- that is not sustainable.  Steve suggests a legitimate method towards actually sustainability is to reuse and make existing spaces function with the current needs.

Q: Adaptive reuse is a valid strategy, but are there times when there are new needs that cannot be fulfilled with the current building stock? Furthermore, is being limited to reuse essentially self-defeating as an architect?  If new development is going to occur, shouldn’t it attempt to do so in a non-detrimental way? What about the Hof Residence- that seems to have a very specific relation to the site and use of materiality?
A: Of Studio Granda’s projects, that ones comes the closest to fulfilled what can be defined as “sustainable.” It is oriented to let in daylight but protect from strong sun angles, and uses turf as the roof material.  It incorporates local materials and uses concrete, which can be produced in Iceland. The house is also a very well used space, as the family has many visitors.  The family breeds horses on the property, which is a staple of the economy in Skagafordur.  The high profile family and project helped attract attention to the region and in this way helps to bolster the economy of the area. But there are several caveats. For example, the source of stones for the floors was extremely local, but it had to be shipped out to a mason who could cut it. Also, it is a large (3000sf) private residence located away from a town.

More images of the Hof house can be found at

Q: Does the long history of turf houses in Iceland make it a more obvious choice?
A: Despite the abundant examples of turf as a roof material, Studio Granda still had to do a bit of convincing to assure the Icelandic client that the turf roof would not leak or be a maintenance issue.

Q: What does a typical wall section for a building look like in Iceland?
A: Nowadays, they typically use approximately 150mm of concrete with 4” of insulation and the interior layer.    This is not necessarily proportionate to level of insulation usage in comparison to the US. Although as a whole the heating load is larger in Iceland, the winters are not more extreme than in New York City.  The upper level of Studio Granda’s office is a concrete wall with two air gaps that are separated by a vapor barrier- this functions relatively well as an insulator.   Steve described to the manner in which the surrounding buildings protect from cold winds, and the certain areas that have local conditions that make them less comfortable.  While perhaps sensitivity to site has not been a ubiquitous guiding principle for Icelandic buildings, Studio Granda certainly has a refined awareness of it.

Q: What are some of Studio Granda’s ongoing projects and prospects for the future? 
A: During the discussion there was a model on the table for a large single-family residence, relations of the owners of the Hof Residence.  Monochromatic and at a small scale, the elegant roof form was the first noticeable design element.  Reacting to a trapezoidal site, the roof  along one end is flat, which creates a modern roof line. As it spans the building footprint it becomes pleated and contracted, changing in section to something that abstractly references the traditional gable front “burstabær” of the turf houses.

Iceland may not have a large amount of natural resources and the economy is now sluggish- but some of the materials at their disposal are light, shadow, and the talents of Icelandic people.

Conversation: Atelier 10

Today I met with Ben Shepard from Atelier 10. Atelier 10 is “a visionary consultancy providing integrated, full service engineering and consulting on environmental design, building systems performance analysis, lighting and daylighting design, fire engineering, benchmarking environmental masterplanning and strategic sustainability planning.” -from Atelier 10’s “about us” webpage.  Ben is the leader of the planning practice, and teaches courses on environmental design.

 Q: What sort of scope does Atelier 10 work on?
A: Atelier 10 was founded in 1990. TheNew Yorkoffice opened in 2001, and is a consulting firm (as opposed to a full engineering firm, like their office in London). A large portion of their work deals with energy and mechanical systems, as well as façades. Lighting is the next large portion of work. Their work often includes reports, illustrations, graphics- for example environmental section drawings. They do analysis and modeling for environmental, lighting and energy factors, using mainly software from the Department of Energy called E-quest.  

Q: In regards to modeling: if you are knowledgeable about the principles of design, you would think you can predict what a model would tell you.  Are there times where you were surprised by what the model suggested?
A: One example for this is an airport they initially thought would be driven by air conditioning loads.  In fact, the largest factor was the heat loss through the glazing on the façade. So they shifted additional attention to the façade. The modeling took what they already have some ideas about, and let them understand relative importance of different factors to improve the design.  In the iterative modeling, you can see all of the systems come together. This gives a picture of overall savings and the paybacks on the systems- it combines the environmental and economic aspects.

Q: After working with the various rating systems from various regions: BREEAM from the UK, US-GBC LEED, and Estidama from the Middle East- what are the most significant differences? Do they rating systems seems to reflect different conditions of their region, ie local environmental challenges or political cultures?
A: Estimdama seems to really take climate into account. For that reason, it will never expand outside the Middle East, but can be more effective within. It is also an easier system to use (like LEED).  BREEAM is hugely complicated and because of that often gets passed over. Even though some systems are critiqued for being too easy, or too developer driven, they constantly move the market and will develop over time.  A system like the Living Building Challenge might now be implemented frequently but will serve to push the envelope.

Q: How does Atelier 10 develop benchmarks for projects?
A: Benchmarking is not a design tool, but they help project teams define where they are, and where they are going. It can give you latitude to push certain elements of a project, create accountability and maintain a level or quality in construction.
Atelier 10 works with both a “framework,” the organizational structure of a project, as well as the “masterplan,” the physical structure of the project. They develop benchmarking systems that may work well with LEED or another guide, but are more specific to the project. For example, at NYU they were already doing a lot of good things, but the measures weren’t necessarily organized. For Harvard’s Allston campus, the university had 4 or 5 main sustainability goals, but what did they really mean for the development of a new campus?

Q: It seems like Atelier 10 is involved in both the large, conceptual thinking for new projects as well as the detailed technical aspects such as energy modeling and calculations for LEED points.  It seems that we’ve come along way in understanding building performance.  Now, aren’t designers are starting to look at larger scales and systems, such as planning and other larger systems?
A: Yes.  People wanting to understand the bigger picture, and are realizing that the way you get to carbon neutral, net zero, and all these big issues is by thinking at a larger scale. Part of it is practical. In today’s economy, when you don’t have funding to start building a project, when you don’t want to outlay that much, design is still relatively cheap in comparison. In a way, it is a really opportune time to be involved in environmental master planning.  People are taking more time to think about what they want to do- and as they see things like energy prices and news about global warming, there is real interest in it. Any maybe everything doesn’t get integrated at first, but as the plan evolves and gets updated more is integrated.

Conversation: MASS Design Group

“Architecture, if done well, can produce value in things.  It can transform a basic product into something that is then valued at a higher rate. We thought of it as a kind of engine.” Michael Murphy, MASS Design Group

Today I met with Michael Murphy, founding partner of MASS Design Group and 2007 Hart Howerton Fellow.  The opportunity for the firm’s first project, Butaro Hospital, grew out of Michael’s research in Rwanda that began with the fellowship.   Michael recently completed his Master in Architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.  MASS Design Group believes that ‘humanitarian architecture’ is architecture, and that the social and political are integral, not optional, aspects of design. 

One of MASS Design Group's renderings of proposal for PS1 courtyard installation

Q: How did the ideas of MASS Design Group translate to an academic thesis at the GSD?
A:  The underlying question of the thesis was:  what is the hybridization of architecture called “social architecture?” It traced the ontological discussion about the theory of architecture, but through the lens of those people who question the political.  There were several key players who have been thinking about this question for some time.  The idea was to understand social issues, and the social agenda, through that lens.  The thesis was a paper based theoretical one.  Had it been a design thesis, it might have manifested as something like MASS Design Group’s entry for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Competition.

Q:  MASS Design Group’s entry for the MoMA PS1 competition was chosen as one of five finalists.  What was the concept behind the proposal?
A: One fundamental question was, how do you add value through architecture? MASS was able to achieve this in Rwanda, but mapping that concept onto Queens presents new questions. There are key differences between a post-industrial and pre-industrial economy, and the value-add should to be thought of in different terms. One way of doing this is through the material choices; for PS1 the entire project wasto be recyclable.  This included 55,000 bottles that would be suspended to create a canopy, and later reformed into chair.  All of the other elements were recyclable as well.  The chairs could later be sold (with profits going to local area non-profit organizations). It is rethinking what it means to recycle; it is not just reusing but actually adding value. Architecture, if done well, can produce value in things.  It can transform a basic product into something that is then valued at a higher rate. Something as impermanent the PS1 courtyard installation can have a more permanent impact.

Q: The winning entry, from Interboro Partners, also addressed how the materials purchased for the installation could later be repurposed and benefit the community.  Was there a design brief from MoMA that suggested this kind of thinking?
A: There was no explicit prompt, but the fact that they were both chosen shows that MoMA recognizes the contemporary shift in architecture. It is a new questioning about our relevance and our value-add.  What is our ethical commitment? What is our social responsibility? What are the implications of our design decisions for a community?

The design proposal is shown in this animation:

Q: Is the concept of social architecture being explored in the academic world?
A: They are having more conversations about it within institutions, but perhaps still having the wrong conversation. It is still seen as an option.  Oftentimes, people talk about social architecture as if it was a trend, a hyphenated form away from capital A, typical, or this rarified art form we call “architecture.”

Q: In projects abroad, how did you incorporate local building practices, spatial ideas, and materials?
A: One compliment MASS received for Butaro Hospital was that is looked very vernacular, while at the same time very modern. The goal is to create a sensible, responsive design that is also contemporary. There are, of course, issues with being overly sensitive to vernacular, because it is not just about the form, but more about contextual responsibility.
When resources are scarce, sometimes it is cheaper to import than to use local materials. For example, concrete from China is often cheaper than local building materials.  So that material becomes the building material of the poor. The poor housing in Rwanda looks similar to the poor housing in Haiti. It isn’t necessarily the right answer, or what people want, but it is what they have. To change that is an imperative political act of the architect.  There is also the question of what the local builders are familiar with. There is a law in Rwanda saying all buildings made of mud must be demolished and rebuilt in concrete. Architects can show how better construction techniques using mud could be beneficial.
In Rwanda, we were able to incorporate some very locally sourced volcanic rocks, which turned out beautifully. We worked with the local masons to train them on construction of a new wall type. In our project now in Haiti, we are looking at incorporating more local materials.

Q: What does MASS stand for?
A: It stands for a “Model of Architecture Serving Society.”

Conversation: Brook Farm Group

“Neutral, benign, or ‘better than the baseline’ is not enough, far from it. Our work must also reclaim and restore beyond its own boundaries.”   -Kate Bakewell

Today I met with Kate Bakewell, the founder of Brook Farm Group, whose ecologically focused projects are sited in urban, exurban, and rural environments.

Image is from the Brook Farm Group website. The project is the Jose E. Serrano Center for Global Conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Q:  How did she first become interested in sustainable design?
A:  Kate spent time in the woods as a child, and remembers being worried about pollution and environmental issues at a young age.  Living in Chicago, she got involved with Doug Farr (who later wrote Sustainable Urbanism). In the mid-80s there were people like him and John Todd who were early pioneers, doing cool things but at the fringe.  She went to graduate school for landscape architecture at the GSD.  To her, it was self evident that the ecological factors were critical, but studios were not effectively discussing those issues.  Conversations focused more on the symbolic, metaphorical, decorative or practical understandings of landscape. Ecology courses were still technical, although the professor, Richard Foreman, later starting writing about the spatial implications of ecosystems. After school, a successful entry for an ecological transformation competition reaffirmed her direction.

Q:  Are there certain frameworks that Kate looks to when designing a project? What types of analysis does she begin with?
A:  Generally, Kate does not consciously begin with a framework, just dives in to understand the ecosystems at hand, and the flows and movements of different systems. Working at larger scales, such as that of the watershed, region, or even patterns within the hemisphere, might seem abstract but can inform the project profoundly. 
There is a disconnect between landscape side people and architects working on a site. In landscape, there are no boundaries, because nature doesn’t have boundaries- it is all amorphic. It is hard to reconcile this when working on a real project with real boundaries.
Working in places such asChina and Brazilcan be difficult because you don’t have access to a great deal of information.  However, there are rock solid, universal ecosystem principles to fall back on.   On such concept is that of source and sink. Certain bio-rich areas act as a source, and if localized extinctions occur in less rich (sink) areas, populations move from the source to repopulate the sink. You need enough connectivity between areas to allow for that movement. This concept is not specific to one geographic area.
Another important part of the process is to embed real science in the early part of the process. Just looking at aerial maps is not enough.  For example, dunes may seem useless, but they are where species hatch and are integral to the food web.  That is the framework, the real science, how things are moving and connected to the beyond.

Q:  Will it always be a process of trying to mitigate damage, or trying to convince parties to reduce the size and scope of a project?
A:  In her practice, Kate sets a high aim for projects.  It is setting a low bar for the profession to just attempt to do a less bad job on our project site.  Projects should restore, or reconnect, or renew beyond the boundary of the site. There is another way to think of how we approach project sites. For example, if the site is a 25 acre plot, treat it as though it is a 50 acre tract and how the larger systems are working.
One relevant approach for the ecologist on a project team is to ask: what can this place be and what does this place want to be?  A site can be imagined as a hyper functional ecosystem that provides services to people; seek within the interstitial spaces what is possible.  This strategy requires that everyone is on board early on in the process.

Patch and corridor concept

Q:  Since 2008, over half of the world lives in an urban setting. That means almost half of people are in less dense settings. Are there any strategies to deal with these less dense developments?
A:  The fundamental ecosystem principal of patch and corridor can be effectively implemented in both urban and less dense conditions.  If there are two different places that have some kind of habitat, you want to set up the processes that would occur anyways, where populations move between them. Humans can interact with nature in a way that speeds up the process, to keep pace with the degradation occurring. In this way, a project facilitates natural processes rather than disrupting them.
Patches are somewhat homogenous places, but not a monoculture. Large patches have interiors where niche species can exist, who need a different level of protection and habitat richness than found at an edge. One challenge is that the scale of the minimum patch depends on the species; for some animals it is huge, while for a certain species of bee it is 300 feet.

Conversation: Terrapin Bright Green

Today I met with Chris Garvin, a Partner at Terrapin Bright Green. Terrapin is a sustainability consulting firm that works with clients to rethink environmental strategy, policy, and design.  The firm has strong ties to New York architecture firm Cook + Fox, and frequently consults with architecture firms on projects ranging from the building to community scale.  They also collaborate with government and non-profit agencies on infrastructural and preservation projects, as well as helping companies develop sustainable and corporate strategies.

A few questions from the discussion:
Q: How did he first become interested in sustainable design?
A: Chris began his career studying and practicing architecture.  When he moved to New York City he worked with a firm interested in sustainability- one of only three or so at the time.  He found that element of the work most satisfying, and from there it was a natural progression towards making it his focus with Terrapin.

Q: When collaborating with architecture firms, what type of scope does Terrapin take on? What do you bring to the table as consultants that might not be as successful if taken on within the firm?
A: Terrapin does different types of things depending on the project.  That can include research, and oftentimes a report and visuals- a lot of communicating.  They help connect their clients with the best specialists that fit their needs, such as building energy modeling. Terrapin has many years of experience and specialized knowledge that is difficult to build up within a firm.

Q: Iceland has one large urban center that is home to the majority of the population, and then a series of small towns, or nodes that dots the perimeter of theIsland.  What is Terrapin’s concept of node and network?
A: Oftentimes infrastructure planning favors a massive centralized system.  Terrapin is looking at the ways systems can work efficiently at a localized scale along a larger network. A lot of that depends on what system you are talking about. For example, they are studying how waste might be gathered and converted to electricity for the city ofNew York, where as systems such as combined heating and power can work at a building or block scale.

Q: Since 2008, more than half of the world’s population has lived in an urban context (cities or towns).  There is a lot of interest in the design community about the urban context.  What about the rest of the world living in less dense conditions? Can they subsist sustainably? What about things like resort communities that aren’t accessibly by sustainable transit?
A: This is not necessarily easy. One solution, which was used for a project inCosta Rica, is for the developer to purchase carbon offsets for energy used for guests’ flights toCosta Rica.

Q: Will that sustainability become something that is worked into the code and becomes part of normal practice, i.e. accessibility or structural codes, or will remain a source of inspiration for progress and innovative design?
A: Certain things will get worked into the code- this will force less conscientious designer to bring their designs up to a certain standard.  But just as there is always cutting edge design, there will also be cutting edge sustainability- new challenges that require innovation. The next focus might be on water supply or food resources for the growing population.

Q: How do we know how much better a building or project is? Doesn’t it all depend on a baseline scenario, which normally is the one defined by ASHRAE- a uniform code that doesn’t take context into question?
A: Yes- and many buildings don’t go far enough.  For example they’ll use conventional systems and make them work 30% more efficiently. But if they went for 70% improvement they would have to rethink from the ground up and make a better system.   For example, one interesting program is the “Living Building Challenge” where they set very high goals and take the local physical and social environment into consideration.
For more information on Terrapin Bright Green, visit: