International Selections

International Selection
With 36 years experience in ecological architecture, Paul Leech of Gaia Ecotecture possesses a formidable knowledge of international green design. Fresh from picking up the best ecological building 2010 Lama award for the pioneering Navan Credit Union – and a favourable review in Prof George Baird’s Sustainable Buildings in Practice: What the Users Think - a global survey of green buildings - Leech describes a handful of inspirational green exemplar projects from around the world.

In the request from the editor to make this international selection, the word attractive, as well as sustainable, stood out. ‘Ecotecture’ elevates the spirit of those who perceive or use the work, through the art of building, transcending site, programme and client requirements.

On a recent UN mission to Beijing, China on the topic of macro ‘ecovillage’ development and satellite remote sensing – GIS – technology, we took time out to visit the Commune by the Great Wall. Here are a series of contemporary houses, now operated as a luxury tourist facility. Two houses stood out as having the qualities without a name, and we include them here, although not without some irony. It was remarkable to note how once the Chinese decide to do something ecological, they ‘go for it’ – we debate for decades and then build two tram lines in our capital that don’t meet! We close rail lines from the rail head at our ferry-ports, while advocating and subsidising electric cars that cannot traverse the country! The CO2 burden of charging those cars is yet to be audited. 

Closer to home the work of our colleague in Gaia International, Joachim Eble has stood the test of some time at the Prisma urban block in Nuremberg since 1997. One wonders how Dublin’s docklands would have turned out had that contemporary precedent been taken on board, as we tried to convince the then chief executive. We were a little surprised when he said that the DDDA brief was ‘development’, not ‘sustainable development’, and so it proved – what a missed opportunity!

We human kind are killing off four to five species every hour, as actual climate change becomes ever more evident. We may shortly become one of those extinct species ourselves amid the collapse of biodiversity. An entirely different consciousness about how we build has become essential to our survival – not the planet’s, which will be fine without us – and the energy/CO2 dimension is only one of many. Professionals have duty of care to develop the new aesthetic expressing this, beautifully. Aesthetics involve not only sight but also touch, smell – even taste – and hearing, in fact gestalt. We need to revisit the meaning of the word ‘smart’.

Prisma, Nuremberg: Joachim Eble Architektur

(clockwise from top left) view from the open courtyard; the crèche; the prismatic event announcing the glazed transitional space on the major city street; Herbert Dreiseitl's water-walls act as air-handling devices which move air and ionise, cleanse of articulates, oxygenate and humidify; view from the courtyard; the pools to which the waterwalls deliver, stocked with fish and rich plant life; tilted structural timber columns (with organic colour by Barbara Eble) have a wonderful ambulant affect in the large space – eurythmic in quality. Eurythmy - an expressive movement art originated by Rudolf Steiner and Marie von Sivers in the early 20th century - is primarily a performance art, but is also used in education—especially in Waldorf education and as a movement therapy. The word eurythmy stems from Greek roots meaning beautiful or harmonious rhythm; the term was used by Greek and Roman architects to refer to the harmonious proportions of a design or building

In a depressed area of Nuremberg, the City Council devoted this whole block of land to a new enterprise from a private sector developer, Karlsruher Insurance Company, which was required to work to an ecological brief, on a socially progressive agenda, while also meeting closely monitored economic criteria. (Nama, take note for the social and environmental quotients available – we must somehow turn around the funding of failure to deliver benefits.) 

The noise and pollution of the city was set at one remove, by the design, from the central sunny courtyard, partly glazed, becoming a busy urban transitional space, including café and retail spaces and an oxygenated pond with plants and fish. The block is edged with up to six storeys of apartments and offices and a kindergarten, which also enjoys part of the courtyard as a defensible play space. Prisma  is a pragmatic, more commercial evolution from Eble’s design for the earlier Ökohaus, Frankfurt 1992. It remains a remarkable piece of integrated sustainable urbanism. A member of Gaia International, Joachim Eble has devoted decades of his life to ecological and biologically grounded design and research, and has extensive experience in sustainable, “healthy” design and eco-city projects. Barbara Eble has had successful collaborations with him, applying her talents and insights on colour to several of the projects.

Prisma’s glass roof

Key features
•    61 flats, 32 office units, nine shops, cafe, kindergarten and a 15,000sq m green-    house lobby with 18,000m² net floor
•    Close to public urban transport node, a bus and underground station
•    Connected to district heating, supplying steam at 90-95C
•    Energy-saving construction and passive systems save over 8,000 litres of oil     fuel per heating period. Over 10 years it is estimated that this will save 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions
•    490mm insulating blockwork walls are lime rendered, with mineral coloured paints
•    Plants were chosen for their oxygen producing and air filtering qualities
•    Six air cooling water-walls which are features in the foyer
•    Rain water collected for extensive irrigation
•    Reduced energy costs through the solar benefits of the glasshouse are calculated at 69.8 MWh per heating period for a building of 85,000m³
•    Over 50 % of the glass roof is automatically openable, allowing the space to be considered as external for fire engineering purposes

BAMBOO HOUSE, Commune by the Great Wall, China:Kengo Kuma & Associates


All design involves a degree of artifice and this ironic design is no exception. The often exquisite handling of the bamboo lends an extraordinary quality of light and scale to the spaces, which have the recessive qualities of a Japanese enfilade at every turn, reminiscent of the best of their wonderful tea houses; the dissolving of the boundary between spaces, interior and exterior is achieved with bamboo and glass. Although timber structure – including columns – is used wherever possible, lightweight trussed steel girders are used to support the structural glass overhead in places. The extraordinary attention to materials is exemplified in the traditional tatami mats of the bedroom and the floor materials and levels generally. Wandering around the house internally and externally had a wonderful cumulative elevating affect.

Professor at the faculty of environmental information at Keio university, architect Kengo Kuma's stated goal is to "recover the tradition of Japanese buildings" and to reinterpret it for the 21st century. In relation to an earlier project using bamboo in Japan he said:

“The purpose of this project was to re-discover and re-express the true essence of Japanese architecture through bamboo as both structural and non-structural element. The reason for choosing bamboo was based on the fact that bamboo, as a piece of raw material, denies to be processed. Generally speaking, all other wooden sources are processed in one form or the other before their official usage as building material. They are processed in a certain sectional configuration to be a portion of building. In contrast to this, however, bamboo is used in a manner of original form. Therefore, bamboo is a material and a product at the same time: it is a symbol and a reality at the same time. The project talks about disposition of the material (particles) rather than processing of the material that creates a piece of architecture.”

the kitchen and dining room with bamboo clad ceiling

In only five years bamboo produces a viable structural / building material, the use of which was wonderfully exemplified in the Zeri pavilion at Hanover 20001.

A practicing architect throughout Japanese recessions in the last two decades, Kuma’s thoughts offer insight in how we might respond to our own economic troubles. “We should not be afraid of recession because this period can be a time of real creation,” he says. “In the time of expansion there is less consideration for quality but during recession we have to concentrate and can create a real treasure, that is a lesson of history.”

De Kleine Aarde, Netherlands: Bear Architecten


Visiting De Kleine Aarde, Boxtel, Netherlands is a delight; the concept for the entire site enriches the architectural expression which is ‘smart’ in every sense. The palette of materials and vocabulary of forms is restrained, intelligent and elegant. Factor X thinking is evident everywhere – using less of everything much more efficiently.

Tjerk Reijenga of BEAR Architecten1 was responsible for the design.

The visitor's centre provides information, exhibitions, book shop and a coffee-corner. In addition there is room for courses and lodging for course members. Travellers who are making a tour can also spend the night here.

The corridor is a multifunctional space separating the public and private rooms. It is also a short way to the garden. The educational character of the building is most obvious in the corridor. The construction of the building and the different materials can be seen here. The corridor also reveals the different life cycles.

The issues successfully addressed are:
•    a healthy indoor climate
•    ecological and sustainable building materials
•    energy saving design, insulation and installation
•    use of renewable energy sources, such as solar energy
•    water saving and rainwater use

The chosen building materials put little pressure on humans and the environment. In particular, these materials are sustainable and naturally degradable, such as wood, organic fibres, plate material, cane, flax and linseed oil. These vegetable materials do not harm the environment and do not produce hazardous waste. Moreover, the plants will be an indefinite and sustainable source of resources, if maintained correctly.

PV cells integrated into the glazed corridor roofs provide shading and an architectural feature

The building's construction
The foundation and the floor consist of concrete beams with hardcore granulates, heat insulating cellular concrete in between and an in-situ concrete finishing layer.

The walls and floors consists of two types of wooden constructions. The construction of the low-rise building consists of posts and beams that can be finished with several materials and systems. The posts create a flexible lay-out of the building. Even after a while, the rooms can be adjusted. The high-rise building is based on platform frame construction. The walls, floors and roofs are prefab elements made of wooden beams with panel-type sheathing and filled with insulating material. Isofloc cellulose (waste paper) is used for insulation.

The exterior finishing
The outside walls are finished with wooden parts (larch) and board (compressed mineral wool).

The casings are made of robinia, a European hardwood.

The roof is covered with sedums that require little maintenance. At the same time, they protect the underlying waterproof roofing felt, sustainably.

Solar PV is not yet a mature value engineered eco-technique but it will become so with the new generation of more efficient panels. The glass roof of De Kleine Aarde’s corridors makes intelligent use of PV cells, providing shading and energy simultaneously.

Tjerk Reijenga of KOW – and also Bear Architecten – told Construct Ireland: “De Kleine Aarde is the first Cradle-to-cradle building in the Netherlands. Built before the term was invented but based on the same philosophy I wrote a book with prof Kees Duijvestein in 1990 about closed-cycle building materials. De Kleine aarde is the built example and illustration of that book.”

The building’s low maintenance sedum roof

See for a full description of the design, including a 20 minute video of its construction and further details

Eva-Lanxmeer ecological district: Culemborg, Netherlands


The inspirational figure here is Marleen Kaptein, who had the vision and determination to develop this whole quarter as a sustainable urbanism project since 1994. It was a pleasure to visit the site to get her insight. 

Sited by a rail station on the periphery of the existing urban settlement of Culemborg, she managed to persuade the municipality to participate actively in the whole endeavour which has now been brought to a successful fruition. She believed that a change in attitudes to environmental management can only come if the people are associated with the project from its inception and authorities participate and actively enable the process.

This is the first time in the Netherlands a protected area of drinking water catchments has been authorized for construction. The condition set by local authorities is that buildings should respect the principles of ‘deep ecology’.

The future inhabitants, architects, consultants, the municipality, the power company and water authority, and developers have helped to develop the plan for the neighbourhood. This is a good example of ‘bottom-up’ development, where future residents will bring themselves to agree on their needs instead of being led by a developer.

The development of the district is co-produced by the private foundation Eva – an ecological center of education, information and advice – and the municipality of Culemborg.


The project is funded at European level by the Cost program. This European fund is an intergovernmental framework for European cooperation in scientific research and technology. In addition Triodos Bank granted  reduced green mortgage interest rates, subject to certificates issued by VROM,  the Dutch Ministry of Social Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, confirming the design  as being in accordance with ecological principles. Grants were also awarded by the German Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Research, because of the exemplary project at European level, and a private fund as an incentive to architecture.

Built in four phases, it has improved with each new phase of development. From the beginning, the project has set aside a portion of land known as the ‘pioneers field’, the place for experimental buildings and residential property.

The apartment building Kwarteel Het was achieved during the third phase. This is the initiative of senior citizens who have provided housing for community care. This project is  u entirely their own, from its conception to its realisation.

The project has integrated from the beginning a small office park that was on its northern border. Subsequently, there was added a larger set of offices and businesses on the south side.

At the neighbourhood level, a biogas plant was installed, where sewage, vegetable waste and garden waste are converted into gas and then distributed for domestic consumption. A central heating system, managed by the water company uses geothermal energy to heat all the buildings in the neighbourhood. Across the buildings, the principle of maximising energy autonomy is reflected in the installation of photovoltaic panels and solar boilers.

Marleen Kaptein’s vision for a sustainable quarter at Lanxmeer has become a key exemplar of a successfully developed sustainable community

A specific technology has been developed for the treatment of wastewater.

The houses are arranged in an arc around a semi private community garden.

Residents have set up a management plan for the area – which spans 24 hectares – to stay involved in the operation after the completion of the neighbourhood to ensure that the district does not degrade over time. They look after maintenance of various public spaces in the neighbourhood such as water systems and natural areas. To reduce car use, a standard of 0.7 parking spaces per dwelling has been established. And to encourage people to take public transport, all houses are located near the station. The district Eva-Lanxmeer also respects the principle of mixed use with the establishment of offices, workshops, a training center and an urban farm.

The stimulus created by the feeling of participating in a pioneering project has given the motivation to achieve such an ambitious project.

SPLIT HOUSE, Commune by the Great Wall, China
: Atelier Feichang Jianzhu


China's Yung Ho Chang created the Split House in 2002, which takes the idea of parallelepiped volumes, spread out like a fan forming a concave welcoming entrance, and on the convex side an enclosed courtyard, embracing the hills in the distance to complete the natural enclosure. This forms part of the habitable spaces, interlinked by a timber colonnade and fenestration. He even allows a stream to run through the courtyard and under the floor, a metaphysical gesture. 

On approach, both the design and siting read as very carefully handled – trees were preserved at the entrance and in the courtyard itself; an ancient Chinese vernacular form for thousands of years, but here opened out to the natural context in contemporary language. The lightsome cantilevered stepped entry by the tree provides heightened architectonic enjoyment.

The handling of the materials show sensitivity and skill; the hard /soft contrast of the rammed earth walls and timber/glass elements is assured and graceful. Possessing a local sensibility and a global awareness in equal degrees, he is concerned with ecology, reuse, and historical continuity as ignited by contemporary conditions.

The house nestles on the hilly ground in terraces. At approximately 450 square meters, it is luxurious. Living, dining, kitchen, and sitting rooms are single loft-like spaces lit by expansive and trim glass curtain walls, while large bedrooms with spacious open terraces occupy the other volume in the tradition of the Siheyuan – many of the hutong, with their wonderful Siheyuan courtyard houses, have been swept away in Beijing, but it is wonderful to see some of them being rebuilt in traditional timber-and-tile with solar panels added.


The primary building material is rammed earth, an ancient nearly forgotten building method. Soil with a high clay content is literally pounded down and compacted until it achieves a hardness and durability that rivals concrete, has extremely high insulation value, and is ecologically sound – see the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Autonomous Environmental Information Centre (ATEIC) and their upcoming WISE building. It is very beautiful, being solid, warm, naturally irregular, and literally links a building to its site. Particularly when paired with extensive use of natural wood and glass, activated by sunlight, it creates a warmly textured and soothingly harmonious environment. By selecting this historically resonant material Chang reintroduced it into the palette of acceptable ‘modern’ building materials in China.

Chang holds degrees in environmental design and architecture from US colleges including the University of California, Berkeley and he held the Kenzo Tange Chair at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and a chair at MIT. He set up the Graduate Centre of Architecture at Peking University.

View of the Split House from the front terrace