Buildings in motion

Albeit thin on the ground, ecological design is beginning to be integrated into travel buildings, adding another dimension to our understanding of sustainable transport, and providing a living example of environmental synergy in action. Here recent examples from Norway and South West Germany are profiled.

by Oliver Lowenstein - 01273 473501

1900 words + appendix, all rights reserved, 2000


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 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 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, is a part of the equation. Here, it seems to me, the sustainable architecture, buildings and materials nexus may find a unique opportunity. By pursuing the integration of sustainabilty into stations and other building projects, the dual-win environmental synergy of sustainable travel modes alongside an 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 as part of a sustainable appoach, this could have far-reaching effects for the choices members of the public make when travelling.

Lillestrom Station. Picture courtesy of NSB

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, bus stations and even more so the humble bus shelter are at the other end of the spectrum; ignored by architects and media alike. 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's Waterloo Eurostar extension, but these have been framed within the vocabulary of hi-ecotech. Europe provides a range of examples, and although some work originates from the resource efficiency paradigm of lightweight materials, others demonstrate that there are projects which fuses the concerns of using natural and local materials, low energy use, and an aesthetic in sympathy with the environmentally conscious building movement. Here and there examples do crop up, this piece instances two contrasting examples. Whilst these may not be central to the priorities of the current guardians of the nation's stations and other buildings - Railtrack - It seems likely the company will become increasingly receptive to the sustainability dimension of their buildings, a dimension which may well offer an opening for forward-looking architects and building and construction companies.

Although apparently hardly known 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, 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.

Lillestrom Station. Picture courtesy of NSB

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. (*see appendix 2 for criteria of evaluation of materials.)

The project, although centred on the airport also, included the the design and landscaping of the new railway to Oslo. 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, 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 Station . Picture courtesy of NSB

Lillestrom is a medium-sized station in a medium-size town, on the Norwegian scale of things. 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 separare parts of the town.

Eidsvoll is an altogether smaller country station, at the end of the line, 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

The wood used in the laminated timber beams is pine grown in Norwegian managed 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 contains no 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 slate came from the Gudbrandsdalen. region, its beauty as a building stone has been commented on, being filled with 2-3 inch long black amphibole crystals. This 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.

Eidsvoll Station. Picture courtesy of NSB

Gardemoen airport is a flagship project for Norway, and the 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. Consider the ubiquitous use of glass at the airport and the newly redesigned Oslo station site, which can hardly be claimed as an environmental feature as far as lighting and heating is concerned, in a country which spends so many winter hours in darkness; a well-made and repeated point. And the point can be easily added that airports encourage the type of unsustainable travelling that needs to be reduced. That said, the airport, with its wave-form and massive beam structures high above the passengers crossing the central atrium, is an impressively striking building. As is the whole transport system into Oslo which supplements it. 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.

Eidsvoll Station. Picture courtesy of NSB

A smaller, more modest though equally interesting example of the integration of sustainabilty 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 commisioned. 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 columning and spruce for the 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 perservative 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 of left over cut-offs or other materials, and as an almost co-incidental by-product, brings an aesthetic elegance to the design. This rather than the other way round, where the aesthetics determine the choice and use of materials. As with many of these projects, sustainability issues found their way into the brief, because they were architecturally relevant rather than for particular environmental purist reasons. This, again, is a pragmatic approach where a station has appeared which also happens to closely fit the criteria of the sustainable building perspective.

From these two projects emerge contrasting examples of how environmental building practices are synergising with modern railway and transit systems. In so doing they are forming the beginnings of new synthesis and alliance between ecologically sensitive modes of transport and the leading edges of building and design. The dream of railways realising something of their promise as 'environmentally necessary modes of transport', in Ian Jack's words, will need to reach out to these broader environmental synergies.


appendix 1. This piece highlights projects which have utilised 'natural' materials. There are of course many other approaches which can be described as sustainable, depending on the definitions of sustainable you decide to follow. Two which could be mentioned here are research projects happening in Holland at present. First prof Adriaan Beukers, author of 'Lightness: the inevitable renaissance of lightweight materials' and his research team at the technical Delft University of Technology have undertaken extensive research into ultra-lightweight fibre-based materials with reference to transport. For details of this part of their research see Eric Tempelman's book 'Sustainable Transport and Advanced Materials'. For details see

The Foundation for Smart Architecture includes an interesting section on their take on sustainable architecture and transport issues, called unsurprisingly 'Transit'. It's at but is in Dutch.

appendix 2. With regard to the Gardemoen airport project for each building material,which 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



Oliver Lowenstein runs the green cultural journal Fourth Door Review and the Cycle-Station Project. Material on each of these can be found on the Fourth Door website: Related pieces and projects to this piece can be found on the recently launched Fourth Door Research new media, design and architecture website Unstructured in the projects section. To contact



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