Berlin: Green at heart

Margaret Reynolds reports from Berlin

Margaret Reynolds has previously reported on Footprint from Ecobuild and sent this post after a recent trip to Berlin. Please add comments if you have other Berlin green haunts to recommend. If any readers have photos of green building visits to share from summer holidays, please send them to Footprint on

Berlin is in mind-boggling transformation, and it is increasingly a showcase for the federal government’s green agenda. There are 3.4 million people in Berlin and 4.1 million trees. More trees than people is a rare claim for any large city.

I was in Berlin in July for a conference on the design of a new Cold War museum. Like all building projects of the Federal Government or Bundesrepublik, this will be an exemplar of sustainability. German federal buildings ‘are the focal point of discussions about sustainable and energy-efficient building’, according to Building the Future, the magazine of the Zukunft Bau research initiative. Architecture in Berlin inevitably symbolises the world politics played out across the city, the nightmare of the depression, Nazism, near-complete destruction, the retribution of Stalin’s regime, and the soul-destroying Cold War. By contrast, the city’s green agenda  is a constant thread, both pre-dating and out-living this horror.

A moving evocation of the Wall is the Berlin Wall Memorial. This is a stark memorial, brilliantly conceived, to three decades of bitter division.  The complex includes a documentation centre and a Chapel of Reconciliation by Stuttgart architects Kohlhoff & Kohlhoff which is already open to visitors and due for completion in 2011.

The Chapel of Reconciliation

Rammed earth wall at the Chapel of Reconciliation

Rammed earth wall at the Chapel of Reconciliation

German low-carbon design, reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall are all linked. A ground-swell of concern for health lay behind the emergence of the Green party as a strong force in West Germany from 1979. In the old Soviet bloc, being green was a safe way to protest in the 1980s. When by 1989, Germans were able to breech the Berlin wall without provoking the mobilisation of Soviet tanks and World War III, the Greens were poised ready to play a significant role in the reunification of the two Germanys. Germans will now tell you that ‘lohas’ is a fundamental to many of their fellow citizens, and before you reach for your dictionary, they explain that this stands for ‘Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability’. Take note, Germans pronounce ’sustainability’ in English.

The Reichstag

The Reichstag

Green roofs are everywhere.  You can see them coming in to the airport, or if you get to the top of Foster’s Reichstag dome. Each of the seventeen Daimler Chrysler buildings in Potzdammerplatz has a green roof and storm run-off is collected in an urban water body. This has resulted from both indirect and direct subsidies through green roof ordinances. Support for green roofs primarily takes the form of tax relief from storm-water usage fees. German cities allow a reduction of between fifty and eighty percent of the utility fee for using a green roof. Another type of indirect subsidy allows developers to use green roofs as mitigation for the provision of open space.

Templehof airport is an astonishing site, an artefact from Hitler’s rise used through World War II and the Cold War. Our conference looked around this disused airport as a possible location for a Cold War museum. Since 1970, Templelhof roofs have acted as a laboratory space for research on combined photovoltaic panels and green roof gardens, by world-expert Manfred Koehler of The Green Roof Centre of Excellence. The terminal is an arc 1.2km long, designed by Nazi architect Ernst Sagebiel in 1934, and is the world’s third largest building (after the Pentagon and Ceaucescu’s palace in Romania). Since the airport closed in 2008, Tempelhof has become one of the largest clear areas at the heart of any European city. Its runways are now a favourite site for jogging and cycling, while decisions are thrashed out about its future.

A UK example of PVs on a green roof is bere:architects‘ Mayville Community Centre in Islington, currently on site. PV green roofs are also proposed for the Cambridge University Engineering Department as a result of the student-led Summer School organised in July by GreenBRIDGE.

After a surge of new buildings in the 1990s, Berlin remains on a roll, despite the recession and municipal financial problems. e3 is a timber frame and CHP-supplied apartment block in the Bötzo district of east Berlin by East German-trained architects Kaden KlingbeilPrincessinnengarten is a thriving oversized allotment garden, and Planet Modulor is a renovated architects’ supplies building, both in Kreuzberg, a former down-market neighbourhood of West Berlin, next to the Wall, where rents remain low. And more: from the central UNESCO World Heritage Museumsinsel restored gallery complex on an island in the Spree river, to the stunning refurbished Hackeshe Höfe 19th Century glass works, market and transport station.

e3 apartment block

The Princessinnengarten

Planet Modulor

Hackeshe Höfe

Hackeshe Höfe

Berlin is dazzlingly green. Along with all those trees, a vast cycle route network, clearly marked out on every street, is both safe and heavily used, as is the far-reaching and dependable public transport system.  Passivhaus, external insulation, air tightness, MVHR, Veissman heat pumps, feed-in-tariffs, photovoltaics, Ziegel blocks, Micronal phase change board, green roof FLL standards: Germany has been on the forefront of sustainable design for two decades, and Berlin is a hub of that campaign. Plan a visit to see for yourself.

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