The consulting engineer dilemma

This last year I have been working for a consulting engineer, and I have had a first row seat to see what kind of limitations that is occasionally imposed on the consultant engineer in the design process.

Because the consulting engineer is often invited to work on a project by the contractor, he is dependent on the willingness of the contractor to follow his advice. I have seen on multiple occasions what consequences this can have; since the consultant doesn’t really have any decision power, he also has very limited influence on how the project turns out in the end. It is frustrating to be in the position where you know that the project will be much worse than necessary, but the contractor decides to go with the sub-optimal solution, and your name will still be on a project that doesn’t live up to the standards of the company nor to your ambitions.

Of course it depends wholly on the intentions of the other participants in the project, and a good collaboration can of course be achieved. But it’s so easily that it just doesn’t happen.
Worker with protective gear with thumbs up

Snow in Copenhagen

So it’s snowing on Copenhagen now. It’s a bi-annual thing, and normally the snow that comes is very heavy and wet snow, because it rarely gets below 0°C here. From growing up in Norway I’m used to snow, and have seen how traffic flows after a heavy snowfall both in Copenhagen and Oslo. There are distinct differences between how people handle snowfalls during their commutes.

I picture I took yesterday close to my house. Nice bicycle weather, no?

I picture I took yesterday close to my house. Nice bicycle weather, no?

I have observed in Denmark two main reactions. One is a over-reaction and the other is a non-reaction. Keep in mind that many people in Denmark only have summer tires on their cars, which pretty much turns your car into a sled with little to no handling possibilities and eternal breaking length. Many drivers get paralysed by the snow, going 10 km/h just to be sure. These drivers mostly stay at home, which is probably the smartest thing to do when you don’t have winter tires.

The other kind of drivers I have observed here are those that are completely unfaced by the snow, and who go just as fast as they would on a dry road in July. You can often see them lined up in the ditch along the motorway. There is a fair share of crazy winter cyclists that fit this category, but the consequences normally amount to impressed looks from tourists and bruised hips when they tilt sideways.

Winter cyclists in Copenhagen, photo by Colville-Andersen, Flickr

Here’s a sustainable building-trick you can use in cold weather. If a building has a lot of icicles hanging from the roof it might look very pretty and fairytale like. But it also mean that the roof is losing a lot of heat, and that they should probably look into getting some more insulation. You see, snow melts on the warm roof and then freezes to form icicles. Pretty expensive and non-sustainable Christmas decorations.

Bike carefully!

Who are these students you keep talking about?

I want to make a comment about this article I read in Ingeniøren the other day. The article claims that the indoor climate in schools have become worse in Danish schools after the infamous school reform that made it necessary for teachers to spend more hours in the classrooms. This is causing more teachers to stay home sick, and the recorded increase is now 12 % in hours with sick leave.

In addition to the sick leave, the article points out, bad indoor climate decreases productivity, especially when dealing with learning activities, as you normally do in schools.

While I think that it’s great that this issue is taken up in the news, it is way overdue. Nothing has happened in the buildings to cause an increasingly bad indoor climate, the only difference is that teachers are more exposed to the stale air, stuffiness and bacteria. Now they are realising how awful it is to be in a classroom with 28 students and no fresh air for a whole day, instead of just a couple of hours.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that teachers should have access to good working environment and fresh air, I just think it is a bit thought provoking that complaints surface only when the teachers have to make do with the same conditions as the students.

In fact, in the work environment law in Denmark, the students have no rights to a healthy indoor climate, even if they are forced to be in the classrooms. The only hope they have for getting an improved indoor climate is to convince their teacher to make a complain on his/her own behalf, and that the benefits will “trickle down”, so to say.

The blue fraction represents the indoor climate that fulfils the requirements of less than 1000 ppm CO2 (decent air quality) in the working environment law. Above 2000 ppm is a seriously bad environment, and I cannot even begin to imagine the conditions above 3000 ppm. As you can see, less than half of the tested schools provide good learning conditions. From the report Mass experiment 2014, Indoor climate in Classrooms.

The blue fraction represents the indoor climate that fulfils the requirements of less than 1000 ppm CO2 (decent air quality) in the working environment law. Above 2000 ppm is a seriously bad environment, and I cannot even begin to imagine the conditions above 3000 ppm. As you can see, less than half of the tested schools provide good learning conditions. From the report Mass experiment 2014, Indoor climate in Classrooms.

The Danish schools have a notoriously bad indoor climate, and it doesn’t seem to be a priority to improve the conditions among the municipalities. In the article in Ingeniøren, the main consultant for the union of municipalities (the guys that actually have the responsibility for providing decent conditions, and also have to pay for improvements) seems to think that opening the windows some more can prove a lasting solution. But it is shown so many times that opening windows doesn’t happen as often as needed to provide a good air quality, and also when you live in a country with an average outdoor day-temperature is below 12 °C in six out of the ten months the school year lasts, the potential is pretty limited.

The solution here clearly investments in the school buildings. There are so many price effective solutions that can be applied, for example local ventilation systems with heat exchangers that can reduce the heating cost while simultaneously deliver a good air quality. This makes the students (and teachers) healthier, and improves the capability to learn and thrive in the classrooms. This whole situation has me asking, what is really the reason for having the students in the classrooms, according to the municipalities? In my opinion it should be to learn. Not just to spend hours.


Skuespilhuset, Copenhagen

One of the Copenhagen buildings that I am most exited about is “Skuespilhuset”, at Sankt Annæs Plads. The reason why I am exited is because the project is designed with lots of care and goes beyond traditional “easy” engineering, and instead applies new technologies that are fitted perfectly to the building needs and location.

Skuespilhuset seen from the water, photo by Mahlum

Skuespilhuset seen from the water, photo by Mahlum

During a performance a lot of heat in generated in the theater halls, from the large amount of people (hopefully) visiting and the equipment used in the show, mainly lighting. This heat is extracted through the ventilation system and led to a heat pump, where the heat is taken from the air and put into water. This water is stored until the next day, and is used in the floor heating systems to heat the offices, changing rooms and the other rooms in the building.

The systems probably work somewhat like this. The heat from the theatre hall is extracted through the ventilation, concentrated in the heat pump and reused as heating in a different part of the building. The sea water can also be used for heating or cooling as necessary

The systems probably work somewhat like this. The heat from the theatre hall is extracted through the ventilation, concentrated in the heat pump and reused as heating in a different part of the building. The sea water can also be used for heating or cooling as necessary.

The floors are also used for cooling during summer. Due to the placement of the house, basically on top of the harbour water, the heat pump can also use sea water for heating or cooling. The cold water is run though the same piping system that is used for heating, which are embedded in the concrete slabs. This way you can use the floor or ceiling surface for heating and cooling. When using large surfaces for heating and cooling you don’t need as high or low temperatures as you do when using radiators, which in the end saves energy and also improves the thermal indoor climate.

I think it’s a great example of how you take advantage of the local conditions and the usage of the building to reduce the footprint, at least in energy consumption. Also it’s pretty neat to think about the fact that the building is heated partially by humans.

Why employers should care about indoor climate

Imagine that you have been hired by a company to perform certain tasks, in exchange for a monthly salary. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? This exchange of your time and efforts, for their money is a pretty established concept. In addition to a monthly salary, the company provides you with tools to perform the task, for example a computer and an office space.

There are several things that is going to influence how much value the employer gets from his employees. Some of those things the employer cannot directly influence, such his personal life or inherent qualities. But one thing that the employer is fully able to influence is how happy the employee is with his work environment.

Sleeping dog doesn't get much workdone, photo by Matthew Peoples - Flickr

Sleeping dog doesn’t get much work done, photo by Matthew Peoples – Flickr

The work environment consists of many aspects, for example IT-systems, social environment, the ergonomics of the chair, access to one of these exercise balls that you sit on for core training, the indoor climate and so on. Many of these things are pretty straight forward to improve: you don’t like your chair? Order a new one. You need specific software to solve a problem? Buy a license. The indoor climate is not as straightforward, because the problems aren’t immediately visible, maybe often hard to identify as well, and its improvement effects cannot be measured directly and put in a box or account named “indoor climate benefits”. So as an employer it is super easy to say “meh, it’s probably not that important anyway”.

A graph showing the productivity related to a scale of thermal sensation. 0 is neutral, -2 is super cold and 3 is super warm. Graph from Toftum, J., Andersen, R.V., Jensen, K.L., 2009, Occupant performance and building energy consumption with different philosophies of determining acceptable thermal conditions, Building and environment 44, 2009-2016

A graph showing theperformance of office work related to a scale of thermal sensation. 0 is neutral, -3 is super cold and 3 is super warm. Graph from Toftum, J., Andersen, R.V., Jensen, K.L., 2009, Occupant performance and building energy consumption with different philosophies of determining acceptable thermal conditions, Building and environment 44, 2009-2016

This is where I tell you why that is very wrong. Indoor climate has huge influence on the well-being, and how well the employers work. A good indoor climate can save a ton of money. Just imagine if you increase the production of the employees by 1%, how would it affect the revenue of the company? Massively! And it is normally relatively cheap to invest in indoor climate, for the percentage of productivity gains that you can possibly obtain.

Different aspects of the indoor climate affects us differently. The temperature in the room affects the well-being as well as productivity of the workers. If the temperatures are too low people get cold (go figure) and work slower, because they get cranky and because cold fingers type slower on a computer. If it is too hot, people tend to get drowsy, have headaches and have a hard time concentrating.

The air quality is related to the freshness of the air. If there are many chemicals, gasses and particles in the air, it will feel heavy and stuffy, and will cause many symptoms in the people present. These symptoms can include headaches, tiredness, annoyed eyes and throat, stuffed nose and loss of concentration. Many of the gasses in the air that are irritating for humans are caused by the humans themselves. Chemical reactions in the skin oils, burping, smoking, perfume are causes of misery if not removed from the space. Other causes are for example cleaning agents, chemicals in the furniture, paint, electrical equipment and so on. The only way to remove these pollutants from the space, is by replacing the air with new. Cue ventilation.

Ford smoking in the oval office, photo by Marion S Trikosko

Ford smoking in the oval office, creating irritants and a bad indoor climate, photo by Marion S Trikosko

It’s even hard to realize that the air is bad when you’re sitting right in it. Due to sensory adaptation, it can be hard to sense when the air starts getting stuffy and stale. Sensory adaptation is that you stop sensing the bad air or a smell, and it occurs when you spend a long time in a smelly room, or if the smell comes gradually, which is often the case in a room filled with people. Then you only realize how bad the air is if you go outside and come back in again. This is why it is super smart to have a constant supply of ventilation, or a sensor that controls it for you, for instance a CO2-sensor.

“Ugh, it smells like feet in here”

In addition to all of these physical  effects from a bad indoor climate, the psychological effects should not underestimated. The employee that feels that his boss doesn’t even care enough to pay for some fresh air and air conditioning, will be less motivated to work, and possibly look for work elsewhere. In my previous work place we had no mechanical ventilation, and way too high temperatures in summer, and I can testify that morale dropped quite a lot during the summer months, despite attempts to buy our love with ice cream.

Maintaining a good indoor climate is not even that expensive, especially not in the long run, and in many fields, and especially in service business, the employees constitute the far largest expense for a company.

It should be in the interest of all employers to get the maximum benefit from this investment.

Cities are for people

I remember once my family were visiting my aunt and uncle in their apartment near Copenhagen. The buildings in the area where they lived consisted of parallel apartment blocks separated by a stretch of grass. I was a kid, and coffee and chatting didn’t interest me so much, and also it smelled like cigarettes inside. Fortunately their apartment had access to a little garden, and from there one could go out into this ocean of grass and space.

In one of these apartment blocks my aunt and uncle used to live, captured by Comrade Foot – Flickr

I was already on my way out to explore when my mum called me and told me that it was not allowed to use the grass area. I was dumbfounded. Why? For whose benefit? My mum told me that the grounds keeper and the old people who lived there didn’t want the grass to get ruined. I quickly concluded that those miserable people must hate life and all good things. I am happy to report that the rules have changed since, and people are now allowed to use the lawn for sports, running around and whatever else they feel like.

Distortion street festival, Cecil Lee - Flickr

Distortion street festival, Cecil Lee – Flickr

The example of the previously forbidden grass, is a symptom of a development that is happening in Copenhagen, as well as other cities around the world. People are getting better at using the space around them, and demand more from the cities they live in. In Copenhagen the city planners have done a lot to accommodate and encourage this development, by allowing for private projects in the cities as well as building public structures for activities.

An example of a public good that has been added in the later years is the entire harbour area. It has been rid of heavy traffic and cleaned up, so that it can be instead be used for swimming, kayaking and relaxation. Many harbour swimming areas have been added, and there is even an annual swimming competition that circles the island where the parliament Christiansborg is placed, in the very centre of the city.

Swimming in the city, Thomas Rousing - Flickr

Swimming in the city, Thomas Rousing – Flickr

Also more prevalent are sporting events taking place in the middle of the city, to great annoyance to some car-drivers, but to the enjoyment of thousands of locals and visitors to the city. These events are not only increasing the quality of life of the inhabitants, but it is also generating a lot of economic benefits for the city that should not be overseen.

Because more people are using the city now that before, it has become increasingly necessary to share the public space. There are more people, more bicycles, and more activities. This means that living in the city is not the same as it was before, for good and bad. The residents have to put up with more noise, more pee on their doors and more days where their car is fenced off from the rest of the world because of an Ironman or a festival. On the other hand there is much more activities they can participate in, more human interactions, a richer cultural life and possibly more smiles to go around.

Sporting events have become more numerous, here a halfmarathon, Thomas Rousing -Flickr

Sporting events have become more numerous, here a half marathon, Thomas Rousing -Flickr

It is a question about how to balance the amount of activities with the consideration for the lives of the inhabitants in the city. I live a bit outside of Copenhagen and don’t own a car, so for me it is easy to say: if the events bug you, you should pack your stuff and move out of the centre of the city. After all, you don’t have the monopoly on the streets outside of your apartment.

Especially cars have no place in the city, in my opinion. During the World Half-marathon Championships held in Copenhagen in March 2014, measurements of the particulate pollution dropped to about one sixth of the normal levels, just because some of the streets were closed for car traffic. That shows what a massive influence cars have on air quality, and which health effect it has for the people living and moving through the city. These health effects are influencing the society massively, both for the individual persons and economically, due to the higher strain on the public health system.

More of this! Cyclists, by Heb

More of this! Cyclists, by Heb

If it was up to me, the inner city would be completely free of personal cars, and instead the streets should be used for bicycling, city life, greenery and public transportation, with room for necessary goods transportation. And the occasional festival.

Where are the Danish wooden buildings?

Photo by Malene Thyssen

Skagen house, photo by Malene Thyssen

If you have ever taken a stroll in a Danish suburb, you will have seen the vast amounts of brick buildings, and in the city centre both brick and concrete structures are prevalent. Wooden buildings are largely non-existent, except for summerhouse areas. When wood has so many appealing properties as a construction material, why is it so under-represented in the Danish building mass?

Maybe the answer can be found in the past. Let’s start with a quick history lesson. In the early days of Denmark wood was widely used in buildings, and as fuel for heating and cooking. But something happened during the 1600s and 1700s that made people reconsider their building practises. The forests in Denmark were being depleted, and measures were made by the crown to reduce the wood dependency of the commoner, after all the wood was necessary to maintain the huge royal fleet to kick Swedish ass (with varying levels of success). There was also the issue that most wood buildings at the time eventually burn down in city fires. Armed with tax exemptions for stone building citizens, the king succeeded in massively reducing the use of wood as a construction material.

Villy Fink Isaksen

Old Århus, photo by Villy Fink Isaksen

So what alternative did people have for making their houses? For those of you that don’t know Denmark, I’ll tell you that the soil in this country consists mainly of clay and sand, and the underground is rich in calcium. The new building materials are a result of “we use what we have”. Bricks and mortar are basically made from sand, clay and calcium, and concrete is made from sand, gravel and cement, which consists largely of calcium. So this is a quite obvious development for the Danish building tradition to take, at least at the time.

Århus, Denmark. Photo by Villy Fink Isaksen

Århus, Denmark. Photo by Villy Fink Isaksen

And so times goes on, and today people are still building buildings of brick and mortar, and concrete. However, the underlying situation has changed somewhat. We are no longer in war with Sweden, there is no wood consuming fleet to be maintained, and we have this new annoying problem called “climate change” that is causing us to spend tons of money and human resources on reducing our energy consumption, because energy = greenhouse gasses. We still have a country with the materials for concrete and brick buildings, but the production of these materials requires huge amounts of energy. This is because bricks are made by burning clay at around 1000°C, while cement production requires temperatures of 1500°C.

So this is where wood can be used with really great benefits. Trees grow by capturing CO2 from the atmosphere, and while using the wood you effectively store CO2 in your buildings. But for some reason many Danes hold misconceptions about the usability of wood as a construction material. I encountered this when I first got to Denmark to start my studies as a civil engineer. I grew up in Oslo, in a wooden house, and was thus very convinced about the usefulness of wood as a building material. When I talked to my Danish classmates, they claimed that wood buildings required tons of maintenance, that they would rot easily, the houses had a really bad indoor climate and also that they were inferior to concrete buildings when it comes to keeping the house warm.

I was somewhat perplexed by this new information, as I had not encountered or heard of any of those problems. This is also why I name them “misconceptions”, they are simply not true. If we consider the maintenance first, I agree that there might be a bit more required for wooden buildings, but not overwhelmingly so. A wooden building has to be painted every 12-16 years, and maybe washed every once in a while. If using treated wood, the lifetime is around 20-25 years before it needs to be replaced.

Heddal stave church made from wood, approximately 800 years old. Tobiasvde - Flickr

Heddal stave church made from wood, approximately 800 years old. Tobiasvde – Flickr

Rotting wood is only a problem if the construction is not done properly and water is led into the construction. The problem with fungi in wooden buildings are more often connected to the lack of ventilation inside, in the same way as in brick and concrete buildings.

When it comes to energy, there are pros and cons about wood and concrete/bricks. A wooden construction takes up less space, so there is room for more insulation. Thereby you have a building that loses less heat while allowing more daylight to enter. One argument about heavy buildings, such as concrete and brick buildings, is that the temperatures are maintained at a more stable level (because of thermal mass) compared to wooden buildings. This is true, but there are also disadvantages to this. For instance, a heavy building needs much longer to heat up, so the effect turning off the heat when the building is not in use, for instance in the night, has limited effects.

Norwegian institute for nature research – Pir II Architects 

In the last years many interesting projects for big buildings using wood as a construction material have been made, for instance a 14-storey wooden apartment building in Bergen, Norway. I think people tend to underestimate the possibilities of wood as a construction material. It can even be used instead of steel structures (which, by the way, is a very emission-heavy material) in buildings that require large spans, as exemplified in the ice skating arena of 25 000 m in Hamar, Vikingskipet. This building uses wood as the only structural material in the roof, which is also the case in the indoor biking arena Ballerup Superarena in Denmark.

As much as its sustainable quality impresses me, my love for wood as a material is mostly because of its aesthetic value. It has this absolutely luxurious feeling to it. Wooden buildings feel warm and appealing. I’m not saying that all building should be from wood, but there is a great potential for making the building mass in Denmark more diverse, and I would personally love to see more wooden buildings in Denmark in the future.