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.