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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 (https://swapfiets.de/) 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.
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
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.
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.
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.