Svart, a gorgeous hotel by Snøhetta, will meet the world's toughest energy standard

Svart in evening
© Snohetta

PassiveHouse is for wimps; the Powerhouse standard is crazy tough. And these Norwegians do it in the dark.

The Norwegian Powerhouse energy standard is, far and away, the toughest in the world. In fact, I once described it as "crazy talk". The building is not only Net Zero Energy, balancing energy production and energy purchases over the course of the year; it's not only Passive House -- it is "plus energy."

A Powerhouse shall during its lifetime produce more renewable energy than it uses for materials, production, operation, renovation and demolition.

That's the full embodied energy in all the materials and construction equipment and trucks doing deliveries for the construction of the building, paid back over the estimated 60 year life of the building, generated through self-produced solar, wind, and cooling from the sea, air or the ground via heat pump. And this is in freaking Norway, north of the Arctic circle, where the sun barely shines much of the year. Where some would say that Passive House is not practical and solar power is impossible. It's nuts.

Yet somehow, Snøhetta keeps doing it; Svart is their third Powerhouse or Zero Energy Building. And they are all gorgeous.

Svart is a hotel built north of the Arctic circle at the foot of the Svartisen glacier in northern Norway. The design "is inspired local vernacular architecture in the form of the 'fiskehjell' (A-shaped wooden structure for drying fish) and the 'rorbue' (a traditional type of seasonal house used by fishermen)." It is built primarily out of wood, and supported on "weather resistant wooden poles stretching several meters below the surface of the fjord. The poles ensure that the building physically places a minimal footprint in the pristine nature, and gives the building an almost transparent appearance."

Snøhetta's founder, Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, is quoted:

It was important for us to design a sustainable building that will leave a minimal environmental footprint on this beautiful Northern nature. Building an energy positive and low-impact hotel is an essential factor to create a sustainable tourist destination respecting the unique features of the plot; the rare plant species, the clean waters and the blue ice of the Svartisen glacier.

There are many who say that worrying about embodied energy is silly and pointless; that plastic foam saves much more energy than is used in making it, and that concrete lasts forever, so who cares. John Straube has written that "scientific life-cycle energy analyses have repeatedly found that the energy used in the operation and maintenance of buildings dwarf the so-called 'embodied' energy of the materials." In Positive Energy Homes, the authors say that it really doesn't matter in the long run and that it is not ever lost because everything can be reused if you are careful, "the landfills of today will become the hardware stores of tomorrow."

So why would anyone develop such a tough standard that makes you pay all that embodied energy back?

The answer is simple. There are many ways to build an energy efficient building, but we have choices about which materials we use. Do we choose materials that take a lot of energy and fossil fuels to make and put out tons of CO2 in a massive hit right now, or do we strive to generate as little as possible and treat it as a loan we pay back? As the Powerhouse people note,

We believe that energy-positive buildings are the buildings of the future. An energy-positive building is a building which during its operational phase generates more energy than what was used for the production of building materials, its construction, operation and disposal. The building is therefore transformed from being part of the energy problem to becoming part of the energy solution.

embodied energy in Larvik House© Snohetta/ Larvik House

It is a lot easier pay back the loan if you don't use materials with high embodied energy like concrete, plastic or aluminum. It is interesting to note that in Snøhetta's Larvik House, by far the biggest pile of embodied energy was in the solar panels; the next biggest element was the exterior walls, most probably due to the glazing.

Seriously, PassiveHouse is for wimps and don't even get me started about PHIUS; Snøhetta has demonstrated once again that they can design stunningly gorgeous buildings, north of the Arctic circle, that meet the toughest energy standard in the world, and do it in the dark. Nothing else even comes close. Here is a link to the full Powerhouse standard (PDF); read it and weep.

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