Freiburg: “Forerunner” in green building approaches

June 01, 2015 Sebastian Fastenrath

Research activities over the past year have focused on policy initiatives and instruments and green building projects, including Freiburg’s low-energy building standards, retrofitting funding and programs of the city council, the districts Vauban and Rieselfeld as well as a focused case study on the first high-rise building reaching passive house standards known as Bugginger Strasse 50. First findings are based on secondary data research including policy documents and reports as well as personal interviews with 27 experts (Sept. 2014 – Mar. 2015).

There is a long tradition of green building approaches in Freiburg. It began in the late 1970s, when local architects and engineers initiated innovative building projects considering solar architecture principles and the integration of renewable energy into building design and construction. The “eco” districts of Rieselfeld and Vauban, developed in the 1990s, still receive international recognition today. Residential buildings in these districts were developed according to low-energy or even Passive House criteria. The “Solarsiedlung” as part of Vauban is one of the first energy-plus residential areas worldwide. More recently, another flagship development in Freiburg has garnered global attention. The retrofitting of a residential high-rise building in Freiburg’s Weingarten district, the “Buggi 50”, is the first high-rise residential building achieving Passive House standards.

There are a number of factors that helped Freiburg to become a “forerunner” in green building, including:

  • Active and engaged citizens and local experts addressing energy and environmental issues;
  • An openness to experiments and innovative approaches (building, institutional, business models); 
  • (Political) continuity of visions and strategies, inscribed within local policy regulations; and
  • (Localized) learning.

When and why did the transition in the local building sector begin?

The origin of sustainability transitions in Freiburg’s building sector can be dated back to the 1970s when a heterogeneous group of activists successfully protested against the planned nuclear power plant in Whyl (20 km from Freiburg). As a result, environmental and energy related topics gained importance, establishing an “energy scene” in Freiburg consisting of engaged citizens, innovative architects and engineers, local non-profit associations, and research institutions. This highlights the fact that the establishment of green building initiatives in Freiburg was not a policy driven process, but rather occurred from the “bottom up”. The local government first became actively involved in the transition process following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It established policy initiatives related to energy transition and an environmental agency which developed an “energy supply concept”. Since then, energy efficiency in building design and construction is a core element in Freiburg‘s sustainable urban development strategies. The city council, influenced by the then newly founded Green Party, benefited from the localised knowledge in energy and environmental issues. In 1992, the local government established Freiburg’s low-energy building standards, which were significantly stricter than the federal building regulation policy. The Freiburg building standards were first practised in Rieselfeld and improved in the context of the Vauban district. In the following years, the local government maintained a leadership role in sustainable urban development and particularly in energy efficiency building policies. Thus, in the 2000s the local policy makers reacted to regulation policy developments at the federal and EU level to keep the Freiburg building standards a step ahead. Concurrently, the Freiburg city council also addressed the retrofitting of existing buildings and neighbourhoods through targeted initiatives and programs.

Despite this context, some interviewees argued that the local government and city council lost their “drive” and innovativeness during the last decade – which had been crucial in the transition processes during the 1990s. The currently discussed plans for a new district in Freiburg can give policy makers the rare opportunity to take the next step and accelerate sustainable urban development, particularly with regard to innovative building projects. 

Funding agencies

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