Happy Birthday, Fridtjof Nansen, a Pioneer of Passive House

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Fridjof Nansen

It's the 160th birthday of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer who never quite made it to the North Pole, but from 1893 to 1896 got the farthest north. He did this in the Fram, a boat that he had specially designed for the expedition.

Fram leaving norway

Scan from Farthest North/Public Domain

The Fram is credited in Passipedia with being “the first fully functioning Passive House” because of its insulation and air tightness. But it is a lot more than that. From Nansen’s book Farthest North:

The sides of the ship were lined with tarred felt, then came a space with cork padding, next a deal panelling, then a thick layer of felt, next air-tight linoleum, and last of all an inner panelling. To form the floor of the saloon, cork padding, 6 or 7 inches thick, was laid on the deck planks on this a thick wooden floor, and above all linoleum.

Fram construction/Public Domain

Nansen understood heat flow and moisture management better than a lot of builders and architects today:

The ceiling, floors and walls were covered with several thick coatings of non-conducting material, the surface layer, in touch with the heat of the cabin, consisting of air-tight linoleum, to prevent the warm, damp air from penetrating to the other side and depositing moisture, which would soon turn to ice.

It all worked very well.


Scan from Farthest North/Public Domain

One of the greatest difficulties of live on board ship with former Arctic expeditions had to contend with was that moisture collecting on the cold outside walls either froze at once or ran down in streams into the berths and onto the floor. Thus it was not unusual to find the mattresses converted more or less solid masses of ice. We, however, by these arrangements entirely avoided such an unpleasant state of things, and when the fire was lighted in the saloon there was not a trace of moisture on the walls, even in the sleeping cabins.

Like Passive House designers today, he understood the importance of triple-glazing:
The skylight which was most exposed to the cold was protected by three panes of glass one within the other, and in various other ways.
playing cars

Scan from Farthest North/Public Domain

It should be recognized that these guys were going to be stuck inside this ship for close to eight months at a time while it drifted with the ice. It had to be comfortable, had to keep them warm and dry in all that time. Humans (and cooking) put out a lot of moisture; if a building or a boat isn’t well sealed and insulated, then it can become a disaster in short order. The Fram worked perfectly and like a Passive House, barely needed heating:

Whether the thermometer stands at 22° above zero or at 22° below it, we have no fire in the stove. The ventilation is excellent, especially since we rigged up the air sail, which sends a whole winter‘s cold in through the ventilator; yet in spite of this we sit here warm and comfortable, with only a lamp burning. I am thinking of having the stove removed altogether; it is only in the way.

He did wonders with wood

Fram stuck in ice

Scan from Farthest North/Public Domain
We love our fancy cross, dowel and nail laminated timbers on TreeHugger today, but Nansen had to deal with bigger issues- the crushing pressure of the ice. He built the frame of the ship from oak that had been grown to curved shapes for the Norwegian Navy before it switched to steel 30 years before. For the exterior:

The outside planking consists of three layers. The inner one is oak, 3 inches thick,... outside this another oak sheathing, 4 inches thick fastened through with bolts, and outside these comes the iceskin of greenheart..at the waterline it is 6 inches thick, gradually diminishing towards the bottom to 3 inches.

This was in fact a kind of sacrificial layer of wood:
It is fastened with nails and jagged bolts, and not with through bolts, so that if the ice had stripped off the whole of the ice sheathing the hull of the ship would not have suffered much damage. The total thickness of the ships sides is therefore from 24 to 28 inches of solid, watertight wood.

It had a wind turbine for electric lighting

Fram turbvine

Fram with wind turbine set up/Public Domain

Actually it gets even better than just wind power- this guy thought of everything.

It may be mentioned as an improvement on former expeditions that the Fram was furnished with an electric light installation . The dynamo was to be driven by the engine when we were under steam; wile the intention was to drive it partly by means of the wind, partly by hand power during our sojourn in the ice. For this purpose we took a windmill with us, and also a “horse-mill” to be worked by ourselves. I had anticipated that the latter might have been useful in giving us exercise in the long polar night. We found, however, that there were plenty of tother things to do and we never used it; on the other hand, the windmill proved extremely serviceable.
at diiner

Scan from Farthest North/ electric bulb lighting dinner/Public Domain

So here we have what is essentially a floating Passive House design with wind powered lighting and a treadmill generator to keep everyone fit. This is so far ahead of its time that it is still ahead of our time.

Nansen is famous for many things, including the Nobel Prize for his later humanitarian work, and also, according to a recent book, for sending seriously NSFW photos to his mistress. As noted in in earlier post, in Norway right now, if you send a revealing photo of yourself, you are "Doing a Nansen."

But he really should be recognized as a pioneer of Passive House and renewable energy as well.

Fram in ice

Scan from Farthest North/Public Domain

Illustrations scanned from one of my proudest possessions, a copy of Farthest North.