Holcim Foundation


Sustainability Triad

Flexibility is essential for economic and environmental efficiency

The well-known triad of environment, economy, and society depicts the many dimensions of sustainability in an understandable yet complex way. Architects must plan buildings – and cities – where people feel comfortable, find their manifold needs satisfied, and treat others with respect. As its needs evolve, a community must be able to identify with, take care of, and reuse buildings and cities instead of tearing them down. How long does a structure need to last? How easily can it be repurposed?

By Christine Binswanger

The need to treat the environment with care is largely undisputed, yet the value of resource-saving planning is not as widely recognized. It is only with the help of specialists that we can measure the actual resource consumption of what we plan, which will lead us to develop new approaches. Herzog & de Meuron has used wood as a central material in large public buildings in regions where it is readily available. Wood is a renewable material. It is easy to assemble and disassemble, and, when sourced locally, requires little energy for transportation. It is a material whose use maintains and expands local craftsmanship and know-how, from traditional methods to contemporary computer-aided technology.

MaterialsBook-87b.jpgLocal construction is tops

In the second half of the twentieth century, the Swiss valley of Toggenburg was a well-frequented family resort. Left off the usual Swiss tourist routes, its popularity declined in the early 21st century. The infrastructure that brought people up the mountains had not seen major investments or renovations for half a century and neither had the hotels and restaurants, and because of climate change the area was not receiving as much snow as it once had. Thus, for the resort to survive economically, it needed to shift its focus from being a winter ski resort to a year-round destination. Instead of trying to compete with the Swiss mega resorts, it had to offer a different kind of program.

The pioneer for this shift in values was the summit restaurant in the cable-car station on the Chäserrugg Peak. Located in a protected area, the project, constructed between 2013 and 2015, was closely observed by natural conservation agencies – a circumstance that impacted the choice of materials and building methods. Except for the crane, which was transported by helicopter, all of the construction equipment and materials were transported by the cable car in the course of its regular operation. A concrete plant was installed on-site that used local stone as the aggregate for the extension of the building’s concrete base. Timber from the region was used as much as possible. Local craftspeople worked on the structure, the interior fit-out, and the majority of the furniture.

The building is rooted in the community, and it helped the cable-car business stay profitable. The construction method led to the cable-car staff identifying with the project, and they would explain the construction process to the visitors during the ride up the mountain. There are many regular local visitors to the restaurant year-round, which is also due to the fact that the building was constructed by local craftspeople. Local carpenters have even gained additional business by selling furniture to visitors who order pieces they see in the space. We believe the use of wood contributes to this overall success. Of course, the fabulous surroundings, cuisine, friendliness of the staff, and flexibility for organizing events are also important factors.

MaterialsBook-92b.jpgA healing environment

Located in a natural setting at the edge of the city, the Children’s Hospital Zurich is a horizontal three-story pavilion-like structure. Fourteen courtyards provide daylight and orientation throughout the building. The patients’ rooms – the most private zones – are fully wooden prefabricated structures on the top floor. Each room has its own roof. The project’s design has been given the top ranking in the Swiss Sustainable Building Council’s rigorous evaluation system. Planning began in 2014 after the project won an international competition in 2012, and completion is scheduled for 2022.

Timber is the predominant material of the facade. Concrete appears in specially handcrafted details, such as cavities in which wooden bars rest or concrete spheres underneath timber posts that keep them dry. The depth of the facade and perpendicular wooden “lattice” walls create privacy, especially for the treatment rooms on the ground floor. The timber elements include supports for plants that grow on the facade.

These “soft factors” of the architecture are also of particular interest to parents, who play a major role in their children’s health and recuperation, and the hospital employees, who work better in a pleasant environment. Attracting and retaining the best talents is a challenge for any hospital. Aside from the substantial use of wood, the hospital is built to be as flexible as possible in the planning phase and use of the building – which might sound paradoxical since a hospital is a highly defined functional organism.

MaterialsBook-96a.jpgThe art of local materials

Wood is featured prominently in the Vancouver Art Gallery project, a multilevel public building in a North American urban context. The material relates the art museum to the history of the city, which was built primarily out of timber until the 1950s. Over the last few decades, wood was largely abandoned as a construction material as downtown Vancouver developed its commercial districts predominantly out of glass. The use of wood in this project makes the gallery feel approachable and non-institutional.

The ground floor consists of a wooden structure that houses two free-of-charge galleries, a library, a café, and a shop. This low structure also frames a public courtyard. About one third of the galleries are laid out in the first underground level around two sunken gardens, while the majority of the galleries is in the tower that rises above the courtyard. From the tower, visitors can look over the city to the ocean and mountains beyond – a typical Vancouver view. Elevating this mass frees up the public space underneath, letting in sun from the sides while providing shelter during rainy periods.

The pragmatic composite structure of the museum is made of concrete, steel, wood, and glass. Utilizing wood – an underused local, renewable material – helps promote its use for larger structures. The museum welcomes people into the space by offering a human scale among the glass towers of downtown, and it relates to the specificities of the climate by providing shade from the sun and protection from rain.

It is located on a piece of land that is the only remaining undeveloped block in downtown Vancouver. Over the centuries, this area of the city has been a place for the community in many different ways, from parades and political demonstrations to cultural and sports events. The Vancouver Art Gallery, having been offered this valuable piece of land, gives the city back to itself, transformed.

Re-materializing Construction

This text is extracted from the keynote address Sustainability Triad: Three Timber Buildings presented by Christine Binswanger at the LafargeHolcim Forum for Sustainable Construction on “Re-materializing Construction” held at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. The full text is available as a flip-book via the link below:

Sustainability Triad: Three Timber Buildings

Inspired by the discussions by 350 leading thinkers from architecture, engineering, planning, and the construction industry from 55 countries, Ruby Press Berlin has published The Materials Book that evaluates current architectural practices and models, and introduces materials and methods to maximize the environmental, social, and economic performance of the built environment in the context of “Re-materializing Construction”.

The Materials Book: Re-materializing Construction – Cairo (Ruby Press)

Last Updated: July 09, 2020
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Zurich, Switzerland
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Christine Binswanger
Christine Binswanger

Christine Binswanger is Senior Partner at Herzog & de Meuron based in Basel, Switzerland.

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