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    • 10 January 2020

      An architect, a green idea and a new era in sustainability

      How Signe Kongebro built a barebones team of researchers into an industry-leading voice for sustainable change.

    • Signe Kongebro is one of the driving forces behind the focus on sustainable construction in the Danish building industry. She represents the studio in various respects and helps connect the practice with public and private sector developers, working to orient Henning Larsen’s architecture within a forward-thinking, sustainable perspective.

      But before this, Signe was one architect of many at Henning Larsen, with no background in sustainability. We sat down with her to learn more about her ascent to leadership in Henning Larsen’s sustainability initiatives.

      You started Henning Larsen’s Ph.D. research program in 2008, which became our sustainability department. What led you to take that initiative in the first place?

       I was just curious. I had a feeling that sustainability would change the business. I had no specialized knowledge at that point – I was just an architect. I remember sitting with my notebook open to a blank page, and the first line I wrote was “What don’t I know that I should know?” I had to figure out what I needed to go out and get.

      I started pursuing cross-disciplinary case studies on sustainability, getting inspired by other fields and brought three Ph.D. students on board to do research with Henning Larsen. I recognized how to understand sustainability numbers and quantitative values, putting the whole concept in measurable language. And after six months of research, I thought we needed a sustainability department. I didn’t ask–I wasn’t a partner, I didn’t have a budget–I just had these Ph.D. students I was supervising. I threw a sustainability housewarming – I hired a DJ to perform in the atrium, I got some beer and put up some decorations, and I just announced that the sustainability department was here. We’ve been here since then.

      I want to get an idea of how architecture approached sustainability in the past. Suppose it’s 1990 and we’re designing a building – What sort of sustainability considerations are we making?

      Nothing. It just wasn’t on the agenda for us, or really for society. We talked a little bit about using too much energy as a society, but not about the role of architecture in that. The conversation was about infrastructure, how to transport resources or source energy from coal, oil or wind. But we didn’t talk about architects’ responsibility in shaping the way we use energy. I know that everyone uses energy, but architects design a lot of the framework for how we use it.

    • A lot of your earlier work emphasizes daylight as a method of optimizing a building’s energy performance – You’ve said before that optimizing a building’s geometry and orientation for daylight can reduce energy usage by 50 percent. Why daylight?

      Daylight was the best design parameter to explain why sustainability mattered in the design process. Since Henning was known as the master of light, it was an easy way to talk about sustainability. Daylight made sense with our legacy, with our aesthetics and identity. Suddenly, the amount of light coming into the building became crucial not just from an aesthetic perspective, for the energy performance of the building. Energy performance at that time was the focus of the sustainability discussion in Denmark. At first, people were a little skeptical, but as soon as they saw the value of what we did in the competitions, suddenly something happened.

      When you encountered resistance to your sustainability initiatives in the industry, what reason did people give for this hesitation?

      People didn’t want “eco-buildings” because they were worried about what they’d look like. There was a dated idea of something very distinctly ecological, like something made of clay and covered in solar panels. But this story about daylight as a design parameter, and how daylight can inform a very low-energy building, that was so powerful. Daylight is a very beautiful, sensible medium for architects. We’ve always emphasized space, light, and materials as three core elements of architecture, and our sustainability team focused on one of these cornerstones to show how it can help accomplish greater efficiency. I wasn’t trying to dictate how a sustainable building should look, but just showing the value of sustainability as a design goal.

      The sustainability department has now been around for over 10 years and is becoming an even bigger part of Henning Larsen’s work. How do you see the department developing as Henning Larsen partners with Rambøll?

      For me, it’s a huge step, because we will get access to knowledge we didn’t have before. Not just access to polished data, but raw data – and we can work with their specialists to get greater insights on infrastructure, water, environmental issues and much more. These are things that are far out from our core focus, but very relevant to our work and typologies. For me, this partnership is like a candy store of knowledge, and I am very eager to get it into play. I think sustainability plays a huge role here because we can synthesize so much information and turn it into one single proposal. The idea of us orchestrating certain initiatives with their support and knowledge, I think that will be fantastic for all of us.