Buildings in motion – Rail station architecture meets sustainable design

Although still relatively uncommon ecological design is beginning to be integrated into public transport infrastructure, adding another layer to the meanings of sustainable transport. Railway stations are a good example of this new environmental synergy. Here two recent examples, Lillestrom and Eidsvoll stations outside Oslo, Norway, and Degerloch transit interchange, on the edge of Stuttgart, South West Germany, are profiled.

Lillestrom Station . Picture courtesy of NSB

Ian Jack, columnist and one time editor of The Independent recently lamented the sad and melancholy task of believing in the UK rail network as "an effective, reliable and environmentally necessary mode of transport". Jack's feature piece appeared in the immediate aftermath of the dual disasters to strike Britain early in November; a railway network close to collapse, and countrywide flooding which brought home the lethal consequences of changing weather patterns, with its knock-on exacerbation of the problems on a crippled rail system.

What does this to have to do with buildings? Railways have long been heralded as the most environmental form of medium and long distance transport. Trains convey hundreds of people, while individual cars can transport only a handful, (sometimes two handfuls) at the very most. The cumulative environmental benefits of trains as key to the future of any integrated transport systems outweighs their costs, and compared to private automobiles, whether run on non-fossil fuels or not, public transport is again the most rational long-term environmental choice. And up until the recent rail calamities the general public had been cottoning on to railways as an environmental choice. Climate change may have brought temporary chaos to the railways, but it has underscored the seriousness of thinking about long term transport networks which credibly face the challenge of resource and energy efficiencies required to balance, for instance, carbon emissions. And with significant investment going into the railways over the next years there seems at least some hope that the environmental dimension of railways will move increasingly to the foreground of planning and strategic thinking. In this context, the built environment in all its guises, although most visibly the buildings which services the travelling public, are part of the equation. By pursuing the integration of sustainability into stations and other building projects, the win-win environmental synergy of sustainable travel modes and environmentally-sensitive infrastructure reinforces the positive message that environmental thinking, when applied to whole systems, can be significantly more effective than in isolation. Not only this but if the psychological attractiveness of transit nodes, stations, et al. were also integrated into a broader sustainable approach, this could have far-reaching effects for the choices members of the public make when travelling.

Everyday stations, and the other myriad parts of the transport building infrastructure are not - airports excepted - a particularly glamorous part of the architectural world. Airports lead the pecking order, the major city station and terminus are important, followed lower down the hierarchy by bus stations, to the humble bus shelter. So there isn't a prolific range of showcase examples regarding the modest application of sustainability practice to the transport infrastructure, in this country. As far as railways are concerned, in Britain there are the high-profile projects such as Grimshaw Architects Waterloo station Eurostar extension, which frames the discussion within a hi-tech vocabulary and aesthetic. Across Europe, a range of examples, which showcase the lightweight materials resource efficiency paradigm and others demonstrating projects fusing natural and local materials, low energy use and approaches. Here and there examples do crop up, this piece instances two contrasting examples. These may not be priorities for Railtrack, the current guardians of the nation's stations and other buildings it seems plausible the company will become receptive to sustainability considerations.

Lillestrom Station
Lillestrom Station. Picture courtesy of NSB
Although little known of in Britain, one of the most ambitious European transport building projects in the nineties has been the new Gardemoen Airport which opened in late 1998, twenty miles north of Norway's capital, Oslo. As part of this, a new rail link was built from the city-centre station out to Gardemoen. At the initial planning stage ten years earlier, sustainability was singled out as a priority for the later planning, design and tendering processes. By March 1995 research into suitable materials was being concluded using what the lead architect, Jan Ellef Soyland, from NSB, the large infrastructure company co-ordinating the whole project, describes as a top-down pragmatic, rather than an 'ideal' approach. During this run-up period the design research team carried out extensive research on materials, setting up an in-house data-base.

For the airport as a whole there was a decision early in the planning of the main airport to use exposed matt finish on surfaces with natural materials (stone, wood and metal). With limited environmental materials information, both tests and analyses were done in-house, in collaboration with the Danish-Norwegian company Hjellnes-Cowi, As a result some products were dropped, primarily those connected to health hazards/allergic reactions and emissions including the release of poison in potential fire situations (through PVC and CCA impregnated timber), as well as restrictions for using rainforest timber. A significant part of evaluation of materials was around issues of installation, either mechanically or chemically. Glues and surface treatments were subject to these evaluations, which engendered a systems approach of viewing the complex use of materials, installation and treatment as a whole*. (*The project, although centred on the airport also, included the design and landscaping of the new railway to Oslo.)

Eidsvoll Station. Pictures courtesy of NSB
Along with the Oslo and Gardemoen terminals, three new stations were built on the route – Lillestrom, Eidsvoll and Asker stations. All these buildings were subject to the environmental criteria set by the main airport. The first two of these stations, Lillestrom and Eidsvoll were designed by the veteran Norwegian transport architect, Arne Henriksen. Whilst Henriksen states that the primary consideration was around social, aesthetic and historic issues, the environmental project stipulation aided the design choice of natural materials - slate and wood - for both of his stations. And he sees the environmental provision as setting a benchmark for their integration into the Norwegian transit-building infrastructure.

Lillestrom, medium-sized for suburb town, is half way between the capital and Gardemoen Airport. The handsome feel of the platforms and their canopy shelters are constructed from laminated timber, glass and steel. Beyond the entrance hallway the slate flooring underpass links to the four platforms and the two sides of the railway-spliced town, bringing life and a local material connection for these separate parts of the town.

Eidsvoll is an altogether smaller country station, the last station on airport line, twenty minutes beyond the airport. Once again the station canopies are constructed from wood; a strikingly visual contrast for an English foreigner all too used to the ubiquitous use of man-made materials in modern British station shelter structures.

Eidsvoll Station. Picture courtesy of NSB
Lillestrom Station
Lillestrom Station.
The laminated timber beams are pine grown in managed Norwegian forests. The practice wasn't sure of the exact location, but the region is east Norway (Østland) - the region that encompasses Oslo. By contrast, the wood used on the walls is birch plywood from Finland. No chemical treatment has been applied to either the timber beams, or the plywood walls. Instead they are treated with BioSafe oil, which doesn’t contain non-organic compounds or other additives. Other wood, the interior floors for example, is treated with a vegetable based soap (green soap, in effect, in Norway).

The floor slate stone is from the Gudbrandsdalen. region, its beauty as a building stone has been commented on, and is filled with 2-3 inch long black amphibole crystals. The stone is also used at the Gardemoen airport. The concrete is treated with multiple coats of a water-based paint at an approximate ratio of 20% paint, and 80% water.

For the project as a whole; both airport and railway link, the environmental criteria were organised around the following: available natural resources; the extent of transportation (energy consumption); energy consumption and working environment under production; the working environment under construction, environmental influence during use/emissions (e.g. the in-door climate); waste and reuse under construction and future demolishing; available environmental declaration; recipes of ingredients for important materials; and lifecycle analyses/lifecycle costs.

With Gardemoen airport a flagship project for Norway, there are strategic, political and prestige reasons for including environmental issues in the design brief ought not to be overlooked. Not only this, but the significant limits of its environmentalism are clear as well. Extensive glass at the airport and the newly redesigned Oslo station, suggest limits to the environmental design as far as lighting and heating is concerned, particularly in a country, which spends so many winter hours in darkness. And a railway route makeover, as part of the wider airport programme, sends a mixed message about sustainable travel. That said, the airport, with its wave-form and massive beam structures high above the passengers crossing the central atrium, is striking building. As the third largest project in Europe at the time of its building - in the mid- nineties - the inclusion of environmental research and design as part of its brief gives it a benchmark quality which other transport infrastructure programmes and projects can turn to and be compared with.

Lillestrom Station. Picture courtesy of NSB
A smaller, more modest though equally interesting example of the integration of sustainability with transit systems can be found on the outskirts south-east of Stuttgart in Southern Germany. As the result of the planning of a new local tramway (route U7), a competition for four new stations was commissioned. The new Ruhbank tramway runs through the local Waldau forests, so for the proposed station in these woods, at Degerloch, the competition stipulated a design with local woods as a central feature. The winning result, designed by the Stuttgart practice Jakob and Bluth, optimises the integration of wood, glass and metal. Apart from the tramway platform and structure on the lower level, the transit interchange also features a bus station on the upper secondary level. The buildings use larch for its columns and spruce for canopies and sheltering. Larch was used for its longevity, and in part for its natural preservative qualities. Where the wood isn't exposed, the larch has been left untreated. Glass is used for the roof. Low impact boron preservative has replaced the heavily toxic copper chrome arsenic - outlawed for the last decade in Germany. The spruce is a glue laminated manufacture, and the technique has produced a visually light and compelling roof, in both senses of the word. Overall the balance between all three materials was calculated to economically optimise the quantity of each of these materials, so that no excess material was required. This so-called 'Minimalismus' approach is statutory in Germany and Austria, which results both in the absence off-cuts or other materials, and as an almost co-incidental by-product, brings an aesthetic elegance to the design. As with other related projects, sustainability issues found their way into the brief, because they were architecturally relevant rather than a specific environmental agenda. Pragmatism again, where a station has appeared which also happens to closely fit the criteria of the sustainable building perspective. This is arguably rather close to railways meeting their promise, of, in Ian Jack's words, 'environmentally necessary modes of transport', and remains thought provoking food for thought of how the synergies of transport and design may well develop.

OL – A version of this article was first published in Building for A Future magazine, Vol 10, No 3, Winter 2000/2001

*Appendix 1 At Gardemoen Airport project the building materials on each station building, was suggested by the design team, who used the following criteria for evaluation of materials:

The kind of use and location are the materials are meant for.
Quantity of each material.
How the materials are installed (mechanically or chemically).
Architectonic/aesthetic properties (surface /colour).
Fire protection
Cleaning and maintenance
Environmental and ecological qualities.
Lifecycle analyses / lifecycle costs
Alternative materials