Four years ago, my brother Adam and his wife announced that they were moving from Cincinnati to Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark. While my parents were distraught at the thought of them living so far away, I could hardly contain my excitement—and also, I admit, a tinge of jealousy. Have you seen Danish design? It makes me swoon. I started planning my first visit immediately.
The cherry on top of the situation was that Adam was moving overseas to work for one of the world’s largest wind-turbine manufacturers, Vestas Wind Systems. In a way, we both now work in the field of green tech—I write about its use in buildings and he oversees technology patents as an in-house patent attorney. Sustainability has become our family business.
It’s also Vestas’s business, and the company is making a concerted effort to showcase this in all aspects of its operations, including its facilities. The company’s Singapore office recently received LEED Platinum certification, and, as of press time, Vestas was in the process of finishing a LEED Platinum renovation of the historic Meier & Frank Depot Building in the Pearl District of Portland, Ore.
A couple of years ago, my brother Skyped me with news: Vestas was building a new, large headquarters on its Aarhus campus, and was planning on making it one of the greenest in Denmark. I spent the ensuing months eagerly awaiting the release of project details, drawings, and, finally, photos.
Take a look at the results here. Even if my brother didn’t work at the new Vestas headquarters, I knew the project would be of interest to you. It is a stunning package of design and building performance.
The House of Vestas, as the project is officially dubbed, isn’t the only reason to shine a spotlight on Denmark. In March of this year, the Danish government declared that the country’s entire energy supply—covering use by buildings, transportation, and industry—is to be generated entirely by renewable sources by 2050. You read that correctly: 100 percent of Denmark’s energy will be renewably generated in just under 40 years. By 2020, wind power will provide half of electricity consumption, and renewables (wind yes, but also biomass, solar, and other sources) more than 35 percent of total energy consumption.
Denmark’s approach is aggressive and inspirational. Some pundits, such as Paul Moss of BBC News, have wondered aloud whether the goals are simply wishful thinking. Some also suggest that since the land mass and population of Denmark are relatively small, at least by U.S. standards, a 100 percent conversion to renewable-energy sources is less of a feat than it would be for a larger country.
I say, hogwash. Denmark faces largely the same challenges as other countries: the necessity for financing, an existing power grid that requires modification, and storage issues to provide renewable energy when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. More importantly, it has the potential of a positive ripple effect.
Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It’s true. This positive ripple effect is on display closer to home at Manassas Park Elementary School and Pre-K in Virginia, which appears in our Flashback column this issue. Completed in 2009, and named an AIA COTE Top Ten Green Project in 2010, the school’s energy efficiency is driving other properties in the school district to reduce their own consumption levels.
Manassas Park’s neighboring school, Cougar Elementary, houses roughly the same number of staff and students, is run by the same utilities staff, and uses conventional building systems. In the first two years of operations, Manassas Park used 40 to 46 percent less energy than Cougar Elementary. Over the last year, though, the gap has narrowed, according to Wyck Knox, AIA, an architect at VMDO Architects in Charlottesville, Va., the firm behind the project. “You’re seeing Cougar Elementary operate more efficiently,” he explained to our writer, Brian Libby, adding that the staff is learning from Manassas Park how to operate Cougar more efficiently. “The middle school and high school are also likely operating more efficiently as well,” he says. “That’s what’s really powerful. Someone sees the effect of a high-performance building, and they carry it forward.”
Keep in mind, too, that the students of Manassas Park are learning the kinds of behaviors necessary to keep a building operating at peak performance. And they just might grow up to demand resource efficiency, design excellence, and environmental health in their high schools, colleges and universities, workplaces, and homes.
I hope so. I’d like to think I speak from experience in that regard, too. In sixth grade, my school required all students to participate in a public-speaking assignment. You could choose any topic you liked, but had to speak in front of the class for five minutes. I chose to speak about recycling. My trusty source of factual information at the time was Ranger Rick magazine, a publication of the National Wildlife Federation. And now, here I am, leading a brand focused on sustainability and the environment. If you think I’m making this up, my father still has a video of me doing a dry-run of the speech to help with my nerves. (He reminds me of this often.) The thought of that airing publicly, though, makes me want to move to Denmark.