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Building the future

A newly built day nursery north of Copenhagen invigorates the children with plenty of sunlight and fresh air. It is part of an international experiment to create buildings “that give more than they take”

By Jan Aagaard, Focus Denmark Magazine, June 2011

Building the futureThey hardly give it a thought as they playwith their toy cars and building blocks, wholly undisturbed in the light and spacious surroundings. But the 100 or so small children in Solhuset [Sun House] are part of an experiment. A visionary experiment, that will create the foundations for a more sustainable future. Solhuset – the newly established institution north of Copenhagen – has high ceilings and lots of natural daylight from the large facade and roof windows. Three children engrossed in play have chosen to position themselves right in the middle of the floor, bathed in light from the roof windows.

It is not too warm for the children to be in the sun, because the room temperature is regulated by an intelligent control system that automatically opens the windows and ventilators to admit fresh air, or rolls down the sunscreening if necessary. The control system reacts to data from room sensors, which monitor the temperature and CO 2 level, and to information from a weather station on the roof. When the building needs heating, it is supplied by solar thermal panels on the roof and by a geothermal plant. Solhuset sets new standards for tomorrow’s sustainable childcare institutions.

The building is not only CO 2 neutral and self-supplied with energy from the sun, but also produces surplus energy. The building also provides an indoor climate which helps to strengthen the children’s
health, well-being and learning ability.

Holistic construction

Solhuset is part of the international Active House vision to create buildings “that give more than they take”. Buildings that are developed and constructed from a holistic perspective and interplay between three key elements – energy efficiency, a good indoor climate, and architectural quality. “In a traditional low-energy building, the primary focus is on energy efficiency, but that is of no use if it is achieved at the expense of the environment or the indoor climate. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, and a healthy indoor climate is essential for us to thrive,” says project leader Ellen Kathrine Hansen of VKR Holding.

Sun House

The Danish concern is the originator of the Active House vision, which is based on a holistic approach where energy, indoor climate and environment are all prioritised in the same project, which is unusual for the construction industry.

User behaviour is important

One of the important elements in the Active House projects is how users react to the building. “One of the big advantages of the experiment is the experience we gain via the users. It provides a unique opportunity to openly discuss the challenges and gain insight into what is necessary in order to fulfil the requirements of the houses of the future,” says Ellen Kathrine Hansen. In the first Active House experiment, a Danish family lived for more than a year in a newly built house with a floor area of 190 square metres. This showed that in a number of respects, the building did not live up to the calculations and expectations regarding user behaviour. For example, the family wanted a higher average temperature in winter than had been reckoned.

Besides VKR , which has built eight houses around Europe, a number of other players have taken up the vision in building projects that follow the same general principles.

For example, Solhuset was built by a Danish municipality with VKR as a strategic partner. In practice one can experience in the house a number of the technologies and solutions that can make the Active House vision a reality. Architecturally, Solhuset is laid out like a miniature town with streets, alleys, small squares and cosy corners, as well as a number of playrooms. Because of the many windows, all the rooms receive three times the amount of daylight that is required by law. The rooms receive daylight from at least two sides and the many windows also admit solar heat and thereby supply a significant amount of the building’s heat during the cold season.

The intelligent system that controls the ventilation and sunscreening continuously ensures a comfortable temperature and fresh air in the building. Environmental considerations are expressed through the choice of healthy materials and the architecture, which is in keeping with the local area.

Strong international interest

In the eight experiments around Europe, data is being continuously gathered on energy use, indoor climate and the residents’ experience of living in the houses. To share and utilise this experience, a research project has been established in which 10 Danish and international research institutions collect data from the houses in order to accumulate knowledge on the buildings of the future.

Over the past three years, VKR has experienced strong interest in the projects, not only from researchers but also from architects, engineers and other professionals from around the world.

Energy concept for Solhuset [Sun House]

Against that background, VKR expects that the Active House ideas will be increasingly taken up by the construction sector. The technologies that make it possible to realise the vision already exist and will be further optimised and extended in the years ahead.

Sun House

“There has never been such great interest in sustainable construction, climate and environment as there is today. We see it as a unique opportunity to turn the vision into reality,” says Ellen Kathrine Hansen. The vision of buildings that give more than they take.