As Powerhouse Telemark opens in Norway, Snøhetta founding partner Kjetil Trædal Thorsen says that ‘moving to fully circular thinking is a responsibility to be carried out by the richer parts of this world – to do the research for others to follow’.

‘Moving to fully circular thinking is a responsibility to be carried out by the richer parts of this world – to do the research for others to follow. There’s no excuse anymore.’ These words from Snøhetta’s founding partner Kjetil Trædal Thorsen cut straight to the point during the recent (online) unveiling of the latest addition to the Powerhouse portfolio. Powerhouse Telemark in Porsgrunn, Norway, is the fourth in the Powerhouse series, a collaboration between Snøhetta, R8 Property, Skanska and Asplan Viak to produce energy-positive buildings. In other words, these buildings will produce more clean and renewable energy throughout their lifespans than they use in the production of building materials, construction, operation and demolition.

Referred to as the ‘green diamond’ because of its shape and sustainability, the 11-storey office building utilizes photovoltaic cells on its south-east-facing façade and roof to generate energy: 256,000 kilowatt hours each year, approximately 20 times the annual energy usage of the average Norwegian household. Any surplus energy will be sold back to the energy grid. The roof’s 24-degree tilt is just one of the gestures that supports Trædal Thorsen’s ‘form follows environment’ mantra: this angle expands the roof’s surface and ensures a maximum amount of solar energy can be harvested.

Snøhetta sees Powerhouse Telemark as a case study for how to not just meet classification systems such as BREEAM or LEED, but to surpass them. ‘We want Powerhouse to become a standard,’ says Trædal Thorsen. ‘It’s not that the building can be replicated, because it’s contextual, but the systems and thinking can be replicated in other places.’ It helps that buildings are becoming data collectors, churning out daily measurements that can inform future projects. ‘You can go online and see how much energy the building is consuming [versus] how much it’s producing at the same time,’ says Trædal Thorsen. This real-time information ‘not only informs us, but also how we portray what we want to do in other countries.’ Numbers, he says, help to convince others to do the same. ‘That’s why it’s so important to have measurable examples.’

Inside, only a handful of materials were chosen. ‘We decided that the materials should be the same for every tenant in the building,’ said Elin Vatn, senior interior architect at Snøhetta. ‘And the materials don’t change when a new company comes in.’ Part of the reason behind this decision is maintenance. Fewer materials in general mean fewer maintenance materials need to be kept in stock. Simple maths, really. ‘How you can maintain the building in the long term is extremely important,’ says Trædal Thorsen. He calls this way of working ‘from minimalism to reductionism’. Basically, every time you consider adding a new element to a building, you ask whether it’s necessary or not. ‘Minimalism is, say, a minimal-designed lamp. Clean lines, a style. Reductionism is removing the lamp.’ That’s why you won’t find any extra layers added to concrete or wood within the interior. Material standardization also results in flexibility of use, as it means tenants can scale their office spaces as needed.

Materials are of course just one piece of a very complicated sustainability-supply-chain pie, but an important one, believes Trædal Thorsen. ‘Once we’ve reduced the consumption of energy down to a minimum and maximized the clean energy production, the only way we can lower the CO2 footprint further is by reducing the CO2 footprint of materials – and of course, by recycling the building after it’s dead.’

The latter is where the conversation gets a bit muddier: how can you calculate post-occupancy recycling and the reduction of CO2 in the future? ‘It’s very difficult to understand what the recycling of such a building like this might mean – what elements are being reused and recycled and which have to travel large distances,’ said Trædal Thorsen. Part of the difficulty comes from certain technologies being so new. ‘If the lifespan of photovoltaic cells would be more than the 30 years we’re calculating in the payback calculation of CO2, maybe we could reach CO2 neutrality within 35-40 years instead of in 60.’ He thinks the first step is getting the reductionist approach under control, a process that will teach him and his colleagues the best ways to recycle and reuse elements. ‘We’ll get experience and numbers on the table.’ This data, together with post-occupancy analysis – how the clients and tenants actually used the building – will help to determine the next steps.

You won’t be able to change anything if you’re a climate denier. You have to show interest and share knowledge

Above all, the partners involved want to make it clear that the level of sustainability reached by Powerhouse Telemark is attainable for others. But first, ‘you have to believe that the climate crisis is manmade’, said Trædal Thorsen. ‘You won’t be able to change anything if you’re a climate denier. You have to show interest and share knowledge. Partly because of the complexities of the interaction between the technical systems, it’s almost impossible for a small to medium-sized practice to achieve [this type of building] alone. You need to look for partners – the right partners – to do it.’