Recently I visited the world-renowned home in Freiburg known as Heliotrope.  Designed by architect Rolf Disch in 1994, this environmentally friendly home on a hillside in the Vauban district catches the eye due to its unusual cylindrical shape.  However, there are far many more reasons to be interested in this home other than the shape.  For example it is the world’s first surplus energy home that creates up to 6 times more electricity than it consumes.  On this trip to Heliotrope, we learned that the architect still lives in this home with his wife, and after hearing all the perks that come with this home, I understand why. 

Heliotrope home in Freiburg, Germany produces up to 6 times more energy than it consumes.
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            The name Heliotrope is inspired from heliotropic plants that follow the sun as it changes position throughout the day.  That is exactly what this home does! One side of the cylinder is almost completely coated in highly efficient triple-glazed windows and depending on the season, can follow the sun as much or as little as it wants.  In the winter, when heating costs are high, Heliotrope is constantly pointing at the sun throughout daytime so as to absorb as much heat as possible, whereas in the summer, the interior of the home stays cool as the highly insulated back side faces the sun at the hottest parts of the day.  This fact alone makes this home an architectural feat, but that’s not all!  One of the more interesting architectural elements of this home is that there is no stairwell.  Due to its cylindrical shape, Heliotrope is a series of semicircular platforms that move up in levels as you walk the diameter of the home.  More simply put, there is no first and second floor, each room is slightly raised above the next and can be accessed from the one next to it by taking only one or two steps upwards or downwards.  On the roof of Heliotrope exists a 600 square foot dual-axis solar photovoltaic tracking array.  This basically means that the series of solar cells are able to track the position of the sun throughout the day so that they are always pointing directly at it.  Another amazing component of Heliotrope is that its balcony railings are made of solar thermal water heating tubes.  Throughout the day, water is pumped in and out of these tubes and is heated solely by the suns energy.  Also, this home has a built-in geothermal heating system, as well as a rainwater capture and cleansing system and an on-site composting system.   All of this aside, Heliotrope has a very interesting aesthetic that most people find very pleasing. 

A view of the home’s massive moving solar array and the attractive rooftop deck.
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A view looking out the home’s many triple-glazed windows.
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A view looking inwards at the circular layout of Heliotrope. Note the 3 different floor levels seen in this photo.
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Yesterday, I visited a biomass energy plant and a privately owned wind turbine in the small town of Freiamt, Germany.  While neither generator produces electricity on a very large scale, they make great strides towards making the small town energy independent.  Being a town made up of mostly old farmhouses, I was very surprised to see that nearly all of the large roofs in sight were coated in solar panels as well.  When I asked about this trend I was told that it is one that is spreading throughout the Black Forest farmhouses quickly and that they often produce more than enough energy for their properties.  While I believe this is partially due to the sustainable attitude of Southwestern Germany, I learned that investing in renewable energy technologies like small scale wind, solar, and biomass projects is almost always guaranteed to make a profit.

            The biomass plant was owned and operated by a single family that slowly moved away from farming to begin work in the energy market.  Their plant provides heating and hot water in the winter for surrounding homes and apartment complexes and in the summer they mainly produce electricity.  In an especially cold winter, they also have a backup wood pellet heating system to keep the surrounding buildings heated.  The one aspect of this system that I found most interesting is the fact that after purchasing and constructing the biomass generators and setting up the necessary infrastructure to transport the heat and electricity, there are basically no more costs other than occasional maintenance and water.  This is due to the system they have in place with the surrounding farmers.  In return for supplying the biomass generator with hay, corns, and manure from their own farms, the family owning and operating the generator supplies the these farmers with some of the highest quality fertilizer for their fields, the main byproduct of the generator.  This system keeps the cost of operating the generator low and the output high.

Farmhouse in Freiamt, Germany owning and operating a biomass generator to produce heat and electricity for the surrounding community

            Following our trip to the farm owned biomass generator, we moved uphill to a large wind turbine.  Built in 2001, the wind turbine Helga cost 2 million euros to construct.  Owned by around 200 residents of the nearby villages, Helga is expected to return all investment by 2021, only 20 years after construction.  This timespan is typical form most wind turbines on dry land.  I was also interested to hear the exact numerical value for building wind turbines higher up on hills and with maximum height off the ground.  Statistically, for every extra meter of height a wind turbine grows, one percent more electricity is produced.  While this may not seem like a huge percentage at first, one extra meter is no large feat for turbines being built today.  They continue to be built taller and taller.  Every day I continue to be impressed by the number of small-scale privately owned energy projects in southwestern Germany.  By 2050, Baden-Wurttemberg is expected to produce 86% of all power using a mixture of hydropower, biomass, solar, wind, and geothermal.

View of “Helga” a privately owned wind turbine constructed in 2001
View of “Helga” from below
The interior of the visited wind turbine (looking directly upwards)

            A couple weeks ago I visited a farm outside the city of Freiburg with my classmates to learn about the community supported agriculture projects (CSA) happening in the area.  This farm supplies locally grown organic fruits and vegetables specifically for people who have chosen to subscribe to the service.  This project was built by a much smaller group of people who acquired the land, farming equipment, and hired workers to farm the land.  Nowadays, as many as 200 families are subscribed to this one CSA and receive fruits and vegetables weekly. 

            Since I am not as well versed in farming practices, I decided to learn about the logistics of these types of projects and how the distribution process works.  By signing on to this service, subscribers receive fruits and vegetables delivered to their door each week throughout the entire year.  And yes, this includes the winter months.  This is only made possible through the farming of species like potatoes that last for long periods of time when kept in cool dry places.  Each week a single truck leaves the farming site with different crates marked with the district of Freiburg the food is going to.  This truck drives to a single unloading spot in each district and hands off the designated crate to another delivery person.  Instead of continuing the journey by car, we learned that this CSA designed e-bikes with the capability of hauling large loads.  While this first design was only used by the CSA, they recently have caught the public’s attention and are now the main product of a local startup company.  I am not sure who employs these secondary delivery people but it is a far more sustainable way of transporting the fruits and vegetables to each household. 

            I find this method of obtaining fruits and vegetables to be extremely appealing.  While the means of starting a CSA may be a bit complicated at first, it begins to pay for itself over time as more members of the community subscribe to the service and the farm acquires more capital to help harvest more efficiently.  I know that the people who have joined the CSA we visited do not regret it because we were told that there is already a long waiting list to become a member of the program.  Once I join “the real world,” after completing my years of education, I will look for a CSA in the community I choose to live and work in and subscribe immediately. 

After visiting the Vauban district of Freiburg, Germany with an expert, it has become clear why the area is known for its forward thinking and innovative strategies to making a sustainable and happy community.  Known as one of the world’s models for sustainable development, the district gathers a large crowd of active people from all over the world eager to learn more about the success of Vauban so they can bring the same ideas home to their countries.  While our guide usually gives tours for official city planners and architects, our group found him to be very communicative to those who may not have a large background in the field. 

            Originally a military base occupied by the French from the end of World War II until the early 1990’s, hippies inhabited the buildings left behind until a local assembly urged the city to develop the area in a more eco-friendly manner.  From here on out, the city and local sustainability groups worked together to make the district what it is today.  Instead of allowing large developers to take over the area, individual plots were sold mostly to cooperative housing groups who were mostly made up of young families and older residents.  These groups worked together to design their buildings in an energy efficient manner that encouraged sharing responsibilities and appliances.  One of the buildings we visited shared laundry facilities and all indoor/outdoor building maintenance.  All of the buildings meet “Passivhaus” energy standards which simply put, is a way of building that substantially reduces energy demands from processes like space heating and cooling.  This design, along with many energy technologies such as solar and investment in wind farms make a large portion of the housing developments in the district energy independent.  In fact, we were told that Vauban is home to the first plus energy housing community in the world.  Each residence in this portion of Vauban creates more energy than it consumes and the rest is sold back to the grid profiting the owners.  The city also worked hard on developing this area in a way that supports green transportation and less dependence on privately owned vehicles.  While there are roads meandering about the district, many are strictly for bikers and pedestrians and very few of them allow cars.  The streets that do allow cars often require a speed no higher than walking pace.  These streets have no parking spots and are just meant for delivery of goods.  There are two parking garages on the outskirts of the district where anyone owning a car is required to buy a spot for around €18,000.  I find this fact alone to be a pretty substantial incentive to live without a car.  Along with these roads, there is a tramway running through the district center that connects the residents with the Freiburg city center.  We were told that almost 75% of Vauban residents do not own a car. 

            While I have only scratched the surface of the sustainable practices in Vauban, I believe it is pretty clear how much this district has accomplished and why it is known as a perfect example of a sustainable urban development.  Every detail of the area is focused on efficiency.  For example, even the orientation of the buildings is designed to maximize the wind flow through the city in the hotter summer months.  I believe that if I ever work in fields related to city planning or architecture, I will look back on my time in Vauban and use the exemplar’s ideas as inspiration.

Plus Energy housing development with grass bedded tramway seen in street
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Example of residential pedestrian street in Vauban
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           I apologize for the time between now and my last post.  I credit the delay to my distracting infatuation with the world around me while living in Europe.  It seems as though I find something new and exciting to do every single day.

            While it is getting warmer in Freiburg, and I do miss my morning iced coffee in America, I have recently been introduced to the local concept called the Freiburg Cup.  This coffee cup is a simple reusable cup that is offered at all of the university owned cafes as well as many others scattered throughout town.  The difference from most reusable cups is that you do not buy it and keep it forever, you borrow it.  When paying for the coffee or other drink of your choice, the cashier adds a reimbursable charge of one euro.  The deal is that you will only get the money back if you return the cup at some point.  As I drink coffee each morning, I love this system because I never have to wash a cup.  Every morning I return my Freiburg Cup as I buy my new coffee and receive a new cup.  Also, if for some reason I know I will not be returning to the university café the following morning, or if my backpack is too full to carry my cup around, then I can walk into almost any café in my proximity and they will give me cash for my Freiburg Cup.  I find this system to be surprisingly simple and effective as it reduces the waste generated by disposable cups greatly.  I also believe this kind of system would not be too difficult to implement in American communities, especially like those on college campuses. 

Closeup of a Freiburg Cup with parts of the Freiburg skyline

            Due to Freiburg’s reputation for being such a bike friendly city, I recently decided to rent a bike and take part in the biking culture.  A German friend of mine even told me that the bikes in Freiburg outnumber the people.  I found a very new Dutch startup with a branch in Freiburg called Swapfiets ( that claims to be the first bike subscription service.  At first I was confused why they chose to use the word “subscription” instead of simply “rental,” however, after a short explanation of the program it made perfect sense.  For a fixed price of fifteen euros per month, you are given your own bike fit to your measurements, a bike lock, and a guarantee that if there are any problems with the bike, or you somehow damage it, they will repair or replace it for free.  This system works perfectly for students like me who are only living in a location for a shorter amount of time than semi-permanent to permanent residents.  By using this service I do not need to spend the greater amount of money needed to purchase a bike, and I get a discounted subscription because of my student status. 

All of the Swapfiets bicycles are made with the signature front blue tire.
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            For my next post I hope to write about the Vauban district of Freiburg that has been labeled the model for sustainable cities.  I believe my class is planning a field trip to the area of Freiburg and I could not be more intrigued to see what this district has done to earn its reputation.

I have now finished my second week living in Germany and I am still amazed by the little things I notice every day that contribute to living a more sustainable and eco-friendly life.  However, for my first post, I am going to focus on my initial thoughts upon arrival and the biggest differences in sustainable practices between Freiburg and small American cities. 

            Immediately after stepping off the train in Freiburg, I noticed the massive amount of public transportation.  The tram system really caught my eye; much like a subway, but far more aesthetic and completely above ground.  In the center of most of the streets in Freiburg exist two separate sets of tracks that seamlessly blend into the cobblestone roads or “Kopfsteinplasterstraßen” as they say in German.  These trams are probably the most common form of transportation in and around the city of Freiburg.  They can get you wherever you need to go very quickly as they have the right of way over all traffic and stop every two or so minutes.  Also, I have yet to wait for more than three minutes at any stop for a tram to arrive.  Upon arrival I immediately bought a month long pass for the price of $45 although I have yet to have my pass checked while riding the tram so it seems as though one could easily get by riding for free.  Included with this pass are infinite weekend train rides to surrounding regions in southwestern Germany.  Just yesterday, some friends and I rode a half hour southeast, deeper into the Black Forest or “Schwarzwald” for a hike to a waterfall at no extra cost.  On the train I witnessed commuting workers and families headed skiing and hiking.  Luckily I was placed in a flat within walking distance to the city center and all of my classes, however, I have friends that use the tram system every day to commute to classes from their apartments in the suburban neighborhoods of Freiburg.  While the larger American cities have public transportation systems, in my experience most of the smaller ones near the size of Freiburg still rely mainly on privately owned cars, which I believe, make cities less pedestrian friendly. 

            Once arriving in my flat, my new German roommates immediately showed me the system of recycling and trash disposal.  In America, most cities have one bin for recycling and one for garbage.  In Freiburg however, there are four.  Living in Germany, or at least in Freiburg, it is your own responsibility to separate your recyclable waste.  There is one bin for plastics, one for paper, one for glass, and then the Restmüll where the remainder of garbage is disposed.  I was surprised to see that literally any type of plastic can be recycled in the plastic bin.  Anything from plastic food wrap to potato chip bags to hard plastics can be placed in the yellow bin.  The paper bin accepts all forms of paper and the glass bottles are all placed in the other.  The non-recyclables are then put in the Restmüll.  There are labeled dumpsters outside the buildings for each form of waste, but there are three different ones for glass of each color.  So far, I have emptied all of my recycling bins but I have yet to empty my Restmüll due to the fact that I create so little garbage when all forms of plastic can be recycled.  Also, any can or bottle may be returned to the grocery store for far more money than they can be in the U.S.  One can or plastic bottle usually gives you 25-euro cents and only some glass bottles can be exchanged.  This incentive to return your bottles exists because when purchasing a bottle or can of something, a fee of 25-euro cents is added to the price of that bottle and is then returned to you once you bring the bottle or can back.  If you do not return your bottles, groceries become far more expensive. 

            As I spend more time in Freiburg, I will continue to post about the many practices that make Freiburg a truly green city.  I have already noticed so many and I am very excited to continue finding more.