Sustainable design in action: Q&A with architect Kristof Knauer

After years of working as a freelance architect and entrepreneur, Kristof Knauer joined Basicc Architects – a small architectural firm in Karlsruhe, Germany. Knauer sat down with Metabuild to discuss a major project he worked on with Basicc and how sustainability drives his work.

Your work focuses on sustainability. Tell us why sustainability should be a primary consideration in a building project.

Knauer: I believe that buildings can be way more efficient and resource saving than they currently are. Through intelligent architecture—particularly with regards to window areas and material selection­— tremendous amounts of resources can be saved. This is something that architects today don’t yet consider to the extent they should.

Tell us about the Wartungshalle Heilbronn project. What were the primary goals?

Knauer: Basicc Architects has a special focus on infrastructure projects and that’s why we got this project. It revolved around the design of a new maintenance hangar for a local railway company. The project was particularly interesting because it was a classic maintenance hangar with workshops, but the client also wanted to include offices in the same building in immediate proximity to the railway station.

Can you describe the design process for Wartungshalle Heilbronn, some challenges you had, and the sustainable solutions you landed on?

Knauer: The design development was based on discussion within our team. This is something I really like about Basicc Architects—we have time to discuss projects and come up with ideas. Initially, one might think the job is a pretty simple one: just design a maintenance hangar. But as the hangar was to be located in an open area without neighboring buildings, we wanted to maximize daylighting comfort for the workshops and make sure that in summer the temperatures would remain stable.

We put a lot of effort into discussion and research on how to balance these two requirements and found several approaches that we wanted to investigate. A Trombe wall made a lot of sense to us because the hangar has an extremely long south facade that we wanted to keep closed. At the same time, we understood the solar potential on this south façade. Some things we considered: “How can we make best use of the massive potential of solar energy in this building? Should we just consider PV or are there better options?”

The design process was pretty complex because we considered uncommon solutions. Looking back, it took us way too much time to assess the different options. Because of the different uses of the building, an important point was thermal zoning. The office areas had completely different schedules and setpoint temperatures than the workshop areas. Regarding the design elements, we were totally uncertain about what would be the best solution for our project. Together with our building services engineer, we developed some ideas and assessed them using METABUILD.

How does technology help you deal with design challenges and meet sustainability goals?

Knauer: Architects mainly use CAD or BIM software. Using tools for energy optimization is still relatively uncommon. In most of the design phase, architects are still pretty much poking about in a fog. That’s why the approach at METABUILD is so valuable. It helped us in the decision-making process. With Wartungshalle Heilbronn, METABUILD showed us that the additional CAPEX of the Trombe wall was not economically feasible despite the energy savings. This was immensely valuable because wrong decisions happen a lot in real estate projects. Technologies are implemented, but once the project is built and monitored, the expected performance is not reached.

What is a misconception about sustainable design that you seek to overcome?

Knauer: From my point of view, a major misconception is that technical systems can really help save on energy. Of course, there are single solutions that can contribute to saving energy, but I don’t believe in the overall concept of “more technology – better buildings.” Only an integrated design process that starts with intelligent decisions on the architectural design and the building envelope can lead to efficient buildings. In most cases, architects lose out on this opportunity and then have to compensate these shortcomings using technical systems.