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.

Geothermal, Materiality + Integration: The Blue Lagoon

My first stop in Iceland was the Blue Lagoon, a manmade geothermal bath. It is located close to the airport and welcome relief after an overnight flight (made uncomfortably lengthy due to a 3.5 hr delay at JFK- thanks Delta).  As a popular tourist attraction along the well-beaten path, I am surely not the first person to observe it from architectural perspective. But it is a simple, strong example of the very different image of renewable energies, and an architectural space that responds to and integrates with the landscape through section and materiality.

The images of disasters associated with energy production are familiar: the smog of coal burning, the oil slicks of gasoline production gone awry. Here too, they thought they had an environmental disaster at hand after drilling geothermal wells for the Svartsengi power plant led to water pouring out into the landscape.  The minerals coming up calcified on the lava rocks creating a watertight pool that heated water filled.  After people began bathing in the pools, and especially as people with skin diseases noted its healing effects, the idea for the Blue Lagoon as a tourist destination and health clinic was born. The mix of heat and minerals in the water creates an environment unfavorable for bacteria, so chlorine is not needed.

The international airport is located in Keflavik, about an hour from Reykjavik out on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Keflavik is home to the former US military base, which is now occupied partially by NATO and partially by a university. The landscape en route to the Blue Lagoon is a windswept lavafield. It is a stark first image of the foreign landscape.

The building that welcomes visitors is unassuming on approach. From the parking lot, visitors walk over a simple path of dark pavers through a canyon of lava rocks that opens to the entry door and view over a cyan-blue pool to the left. The airy lobby, cafeteria, shops, and desk make up the band of programmed space runs adjacent to the edge of the lagoon, with service spaces and parking to the outside. Another part of the building branches off and houses the locker rooms. Entry, locker access, and purchases while inside are all coordinated through a wristband, and extra costs can be paid on the way out.

Pool and view of power plant to the left of the entrance.

Cafeteria in Blue Lagoon. But does the nice open space warrant overpriced sandwiches?

Materiality is brought into the space in several ways- the exterior lava formations literally continue into the space of the restaurant.  A wall of stacked lava bricks runs continuously through, creating a divide between the large main spaces and the areas of circulation to viewing decks and service areas.  Even the materiality of the roof shows the thought of integrating into the surrounding context.

Other spaces are created with clean, contemporary materials: site cast concrete walls, perforated metal mesh ceilings, and hardwood floors. Thin wood elements reoccur in several different roles: a ceiling material in the main space, as space dividers along circulation, and as louvers to protect from strong sun angles on the exterior.

The use of sectional relation with the ground both integrates it into the landscape and creates drama. The band of program terminates into the walls of lava at each end, and steam baths and saunas are embedded directly into the hillside. Sitting in the restaurant brings you into confrontation directly with the landscape, while still allowing light to come though. Being lower than the surrounding plains creates a sense of protection in the pool and protects from the strong winds.  Also, the climb up to viewing platforms on the roof becomes a revealing of the expansive vista of sharp brown rocks.

"Lava wall" in the restaurant. Outside the windows a light well allows light and a view of the rock wall.

Textured wall that runs continuously through spaces.

Roof and landscape beyond.

Left: Hallway to viewing platforms. Right: Wooden screens on facade.

I read that today the lagoon has 2 of it’s own wells and no longer draws water directly from the nearby power plant.  And while bathing is definite staple of Icelandic culture, the 30 euro price tag and location near the airport means the visitors are largely foreign.  The Blue Lagoon projects the image of Iceland, while perhaps not feeling authentic.

Since there are many places to swim in heated pools in Iceland, the success of the blue lagoon (with such high entry fees) is certainly owned in large part to the design of the complex. It is an example of how architecture helped create great value (here- out of something that was initially perceived as a natural disaster). This model for a tourist destination has been replicated once in Myvatn, with another just opening this summer near the Golden Circle (a main tourist route outside of Reykjavik). Despite the hype or high level of tourism, the complex suggests a number of useful strategies for integration into the landscape, at a spatial, material and cultural.

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.

Frameworks: Ven Diagram


Architecture and design cannot successfully operate outside of economic, political/social, or environmental systems- anything “sustainable” has to achieve it in all of these areas.  But designers of the built environment are not economists, social activists or environmental scientists- the  balance point of the these influences is interpreted and manifested through architectural strategies and translated into material, spatial, designed places.

Define sustainability?

The most concise definition that seems relatively useful is: maximizing quality of life while mitigating the negative impact on the future quality of life.  One of the origins of the term is from forestry, where they used the term “sustaining yield” to determine how many trees they could cut down without detrimental impacts on future years- so this is taking it in that manner.  That said, it seem to be an idea that has inherent value, but has come to mean almost anything in today’s conversations, and particularly with regard to architecture.

I think it becomes more interesting when you look at, for example, how the supply or lack of resources changes the practices of building and/or design. For example, one of the reasons the turfhouses evolved from one large room to a series of smaller spaces was the lack of large trees for construction- so there is a real effect on the way families might interact in domestic space that is tied to resources.  Despite the many valuable aspects of modern architecture, it seems the idealization of the materials, processes and aesthetic of technology and the industrial revolution in many cases leads to ignoring the history of local building practices and local natural context.  For example at MASDAR, the biggest impact was not made with the new technological innovation but by looking at traditional Arab cities for urban planning and architectural strategies (ie buildings with thermal mass instead of all glass curtain walls). At the same time, this does not suggest copying the past.  Energy usage is most certainly an important component but tied into more complex questions about design. 

In general, the current interest in sustainability alludes to the need for a fundamental reconsideration of the relation between man and nature as mediated by the built environment.