Echoing eco-steps

Echoing eco-steps

Echoing eco-steps

The Vauban suburb in Germany comes close to utpoia with its citizens’ enterprising, eco-friendly provisions, writes Gunvanthi Balaram.

In the land of the autobahn and no speed limit thereon, Vauban, a suburb of the South German university city of Freiburg, sticks out like a green thumb.

Here, apart from seeing the largest collection of photovoltaic solar roofs and ‘passive houses’ in one little town, I find car-free streets on which kids play unhampered and cyclists and pedestrians are king.

“Cars are allowed, but only for 30 minutes at a time, mostly for pick up and drop off.

They cannot drive faster than 7 km an hour on the side streets.

In the main street, they can do 30 km,” a friendly boy, making an artwork on the road with his sister, informs me when I stop to chat — children here are evidently used to curious visitors.

“Dad says that’s what makes Vauban special: we walk or we cycle, and use the tram to go far off. We also use the sun to light and heat our houses,” chips in his sister.

Car-free streets and energy-efficient homes are the leitmotif of green living in Vauban — considered Europe’s most eco-friendly town, and a blueprint for sustainable living in an era of climate change.

“Streets are for people. Those who want to have a car here have to pay about 20,000 euro per year for a parking space in the multi-storey solar garages on the outskirts of the quarter,” Andreas Delleske, a Forum Vauban pioneer and energy-efficiency consultant, tells me.

“Over 60 per cent of the 5,500 residents here have opted for no car. When they need one, they hire one.”

Bangalore tie

“Over 70 per cent of Vauban’s residents are Green Party supporters, anti-nukes, who’ve left no solar panel or woodchip unturned in promoting an eco-revolution,” says his neighbour Arne Panesar, a technocrat with GIZ, a government agency for international co-operation in sustainable development — which, incidentally, signed an MoU last year with Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium to help it go solar like Freiburg’s football stadium has done.

The eco-revolution shouts from the rooftops of their attractive three-to-five-storey apartment houses, oriented south to catch the sun and built in relaxed modernist style in the midst of long gardens; here, flat green roofs of vegetation “retain 60 per cent of the rain, which is then led through pipes into a water-trap on the ground, keeping the water within the district,” Panesar explains.

There, blue photovoltaic solar panels are set on sloping roofs.

The rooftop solar collectors don’t heat the properties themselves, as Vauban is fed by a little local CHP (combined heat and power) station run on woodchips and natural gas, but feed energy back into the regional grid to earn their owners a modest income.

A conventional German house consumes about 220 kilowatt-hours per sq m per annum, but in Vauban, 85 per cent of the 1,816 flats are low-energy houses (using 65 kWh/m2a), while 240 of them are passive houses (using 15 kWh/m2a or less): energy-neutral or energy-surplus.

Some passive houses have even managed to dispense with drains for the toilets and showers. The waste is composted in special biological toilets, and bath and kitchen water is filtered and used in gardens.

Panesar and Delleske live in Vauban’s first passive building, which has vacuum toilets — “something that, Bill Gates told Angela Merkel, should be promoted worldwide,” says Panesar.

Vauban’s green revolution has been played out on a former military base — originally the Leo Schlageter (a German WWI hero) Army Barracks, three-storey stone buildings erected in 1937 to house Hitler’s expanding Wehrmacht army, renamed Quartier Vauban (after a famous French military architect) when the French took over after WWII.

After Germany’s re-unification, the French left and, in 1994, the 38-hectare base came to the city of Freiburg — to be promptly occupied by squatters.

Thereafter, a group of ecologically minded, mostly middle-class people formed Forum Vauban to lobby the Freiburg government to develop an eco-town and established housing co-ops that commissioned 60 independent architects to create sustainable new buildings on the site of the demolished barracks.

Of their imaginatively faceted, Le Corbusier-style houses (passive house) is the most sustainable — and glamorous.

Cosy too, I find, when I spend the weekend at the house of journalist Simone Lutz and her environmentalist-husband Otto Mangold.

It has a stylish terrace apartment that affords a spectacular view of the Black Forest. The evenings are cold, but their house is warm — without heating.

Passive house

“A passive house needs no active external system to maintain a comfortable temperature,” explains Mangold. “It has 35-cm thick super-insulated walls, triple-glazed windows, wood frames, and an intricate ventilation system that allows fresh air to enter at ceiling level and be sucked out through a funnel on one wall.

The heat from the warm air going out is transferred to the cold air coming in. This keeps the room temperature pleasant. Of course, when it’s bitterly cold, we need some heating.”

According to the Mangolds’ neighbour, architect Meinhard Hansen, a world authority on the passive house, the technology that goes into constructing a passive house is neither terribly complicated nor terribly expensive.

“Granted, designing the ducts and ventilation systems requires some thought and a few more euros per square metre to install,” he says. “But if a passive house costs 10 per cent more to build than a conventional house, it also reduces energy losses — and utility bills — by 90 per cent. Our heating bill is below 150 euros a year on heating — often a monthly bill in a conventional house,” states Hansen, who would like to see more “people shedding their misconceptions and investing in green technology.”

Until a few years ago, a three-bedroom apartment in Vauban cost 250,000 euros, but now the price has more than doubled, especially for top-floor flats.

“Still, these flats don’t cost the earth — and not just in the literal sense,” notes Maria Schwaer, proprietor of Poems, the second-hand store — a big draw with teenagers, who believe using second-hand stuff is eco-just. “Isn’t going green worth that extra euro?” asks Simone Lutz.

Worldwide expansion

Well, Vauban’s tram loads of visitors seem to think so — and they’ve recently included planners from Asia and Latin America.

“Brazilian bureaucrats and TV companies explored Vauban after visiting Freiburg’s solar football stadium,” says Andrew Kraft, who works at the stadium that sells 300,000 kW of energy per year to the local grid.

“Brazil’s hosting the football World Cup soon, and they are interested in following our solar model, which they’ve learned is both ecological and profitable.”

“The Indians, too, a top Bangalore bureaucrat among them,” adds Panesar who, like Kraft, is waiting for Chinnaswamy Stadium to become a solar success story. Perhaps it will soon fly a flag bearing a slogan like Vauban’s, ‘We are creating the world we want’.