Each year, the Architectural Education Foundation (AEF) funds Travel Scholarships for AIA members to support professional development and broaden Colorado’s design discourse.
This past June, utilizing the Fisher Travel Scholarship, I was able to spend two weeks in Denmark and Sweden examining smart cities and carbon-reduction efforts. The trip was an important opportunity to build connections with Danish and Swedish architects, visit innovative projects, and ultimately find ways to contribute to AIA’s efforts to promote carbon reduction.
The most visible part of AIA’s carbon-reduction effort being the AIA 2030 Commitment, which includes over 60 signatory firms in the state who are committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2030, including Shears Adkins Rockmore Architects, in Denver, where I am a project architect.
Unexpectedly capturing the spirit of the travel scholarship, the trip also led to a viral tweet about a Stockholm mass timber high-rise, broadcasting photos of the project and my trip to a wider audience than I ever expected. Viewers and commenters included Swedish architects and a Swedish life safety expert. Through the social media connection, the life safety expert and I have engaged in ongoing conversations about the details of Swedish building code that are different than approaches to the code in the U.S.
Cedarhusen is Stockholm's first mass timber high rise and contains 245 units which are primarily dual aspect. At 13 stories tall, the building would be illegal to build anywhere in the US due to the use of single stair egress. pic.twitter.com/rkc5znHIAC— Sean Jursnick (@seanjurs) June 24, 2023
I was able to visit three cities during my trip to Denmark and Sweden: Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Stockholm. Each city maintains strong environmental attitudes, committed to becoming carbon-neutral in the near future.
Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Stockholm are unique because they were each recently selected to participate in the EU Mission Cities effort. As part of the Mission Cities program, designated cities will accelerate the transition to climate-neutrality by 2030 and serve as inspiration for all European cities to become climate-neutral by 2050. The EU Mission Cities effort is an important precedent for Colorado since the state has similar aggressive climate goal and the state’s Climate Action Pan pledges a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Leadership by architects will be key to achieving success in reducing Colorado’s emissions goals for the built environment and the three cities I visited offered many lessons to learn about carbon reduction efforts.
Copenhagen was named the 2023 World Capitol of Architecture by UNESCO and the designation highlights how architecture, city planning, and culture can work together to shape urban development.
DAC tour guide at BLOX
Through Copenhagen’s Danish Architectural Center (DAC), I was able to attend an architect-led walking tour to learn first-hand about Copenhagen’s attitudes on development and sustainability. Copenhagen was recently ranked #1 on the list of most livable cities and the tour offered details on how much of the city’s success is the result of an effort to bring people back to the city after an economic recession and loss of residents in the 1980’s.
Copenhagen Harbor Bath – BIG and JDS
Copenhagen was the first capitol city to make a carbon neutrality pledge, however their efforts towards a more sustainable city began decades ago. Leadership in the city recognized that the key to bring people back to the city was to make a more livable urban environment by cleaning up their harbor and reducing automobile traffic. Copenhagen in the early 1980’s was a place where wastewater was pumped directly into the harbor, historic plazas were used as parking lots, and hundreds of cyclists were killed in accidents on the streets of the city. Thanks to successful community, transportation, and infrastructure efforts, the city underwent a massive environmental cleanup while focusing on development of transportation infrastructure. In 2002, two milestones were achieved on the city’s path to resurgence when Copenhagen opened both its first underground Metro line and its first public harbor bath, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). These projects marked an evolution in Copenhagen’s attitude toward a livable city.
City Loop – Kongen Nytorv Station – ARUP
Copenhagen has continued to focus on transportation infrastructure. In 2020, after a new City Circle Metro line opened with 17 new stations, resulting in 85% of city residents now live within 600 meters of a rail station. ARUP designed the 17 new metro stations using minimalist inspiration. The firm used a gigantic ‘kit-of-parts’ to find efficiencies and achieve cost savings to create a series of light-filled station with distinctive facades.
Smart Bike Lane – Superkilen Park – BIG
Showing how Copenhagen has prioritized transportation options, bicycle and public transportation are the top 2 preferred commuting options in the city. Copenhagen has the highest percentage of cycle commuters in the world (62%) and the city’s cycling infrastructure is extensive. One of the most innovative pieces of the city’s cycling infrastructure is used along ‘bicycle superhighways’ where smart bicycle traffic lights detect cyclists and their speed and adapt the timing of stoplights so that the cyclists never hit a red light
The Bicycle Street Model – JAJA Architects
My favorite example of Copenhagen’s attitude toward transportation is a DAC exhibition by JAJA Architect featuring the interactive Bicycle Street model showing how we can make greater neighborhoods, streets, and cities if we prioritize walking and biking. The one-of-a-kind model is part bike and part architectural model and includes both a street designed for cars and a street designed to prioritize pedestrians and bikes. The version of street visible to the user is controlled by pedaling the bicycle to flip the model to the preferred side.
Copenhill waste-to-power plant and recreation attraction – BIG
Also contributing to Copenhagen’s carbon reduction efforts is the Denmark’s tallest ski hill, the one-of-a-kind “waste to energy” power plant called Copenhill. The Copenhill project was designed by BIG and it not only serves as a recreation opportunity with a ski slope, hiking trail, and rooftop café that has views of Copenhagen and across the Oresund Strait to Sweden but it also provides affordable energy for 150,000 residents. The design speaks to Bjarke Ingle’s goal of a sustainable city that is not only better for the environment but is also more enjoyable for the lives of its citizens.
The highpoint of my trip may have been Copenhill but the highlight of my trip was touring BIG’s Copenhagen headquarters, home to 300 employees. The tour was an opportunity to see the last days of BIG’s location in a former Carlsberg brewery factory before moving next month to a new waterfront location.
The office featured ample daylight and a vast collection of models with live feeds of other BIG locations in London and NYC in the lobby so guests could give a friendly-wave to visitors in offices in other time zones. The office is involved in projects around the globe and also designing 3D printed housing for NASA on the moon. In the U.S., BIG is using similar 3D printing technology to build hotels and homes in Texas as a way to reduce waste in the construction process along with making homes that are resilient, sustainable, and energy efficient.
DOKK1, Aarhus – World’s Best Library – Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, is located by the sea and it has a large industrial harbor area that for many years sat vacant and unused. On my visit, I was able to view the active redevelopment of waterfront and swim in another harbor bath designed by BIG.
Previously, the waterfront was abandoned and isolated from the nearby city center and recent development has sought to breathe life into the harbor area by adding density to the city and making the waterfront accessible to the public by activating the area with active uses. A new harbor promenade connects ‘the world’s best library, ’ named DOKK1 with Aarhus Ø (Aarhus Island), a rapidy growing mixed-use area planning to add 7,000 residents to the city center. DOKK1 transformed a formerly vacant waterfront into an active community space, easily accessed by multiple modes of transit. The Danish designers, Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, note that DOKK1 reactivation of the waterfront and city center was due to an inviting design with 360 degree views of the city and sea that has become a vibrant space for all generations, interests, and cultures.
Aarhus Ø Waterfront – BIG
Aarhus Island features an award-winning masterplan by BIG that uses carefully programmed areas to encourage social interaction and activity along a waterfront promenade. Among the recently completed BIG projects contained in the master plan are a harbor bath that is open year-round, a theatre, residential building, and a waterfront village of small activity houses. To promote activity along the promenade, owners of the small activity houses are required to host social events a minimum of 10 times a year that are open to the public and have included activities like pop-up shops, musical events, and art classes.
Cederhusen, Stockholm – General Architecture
In Stockholm, I was able to see innovative uses of low-carbon mass timber. Cedarhusen is Sweden’s first mass timber high rise and contains 245 units which are primarily dual aspect. At 13 stories tall, the building would be illegal to build anywhere in the US due to the use of single-stair egress, also known as the point access block typology.
While building code in the U.S. caps the use of single-stair egress for multifamily projects at 3-stories, almost all of the rest of the world allows for taller point access block apartment, which allows for denser development and high-quality living for the residents. Designed by General Architecture from Stockholm, the Swedish building code allows single-stair egress up to 16-stories with performance based fire modeling that demonstrates a high level of safety by that including safety features like a fire sprinklers and pressurized stair and elevator cores.
Because mass timber is relatively light, innovative Swedish architects have also used mass timber to add onto existing structures to add density and expand sustainability. An Stockholm’s Trikåfabriken building, architects at Tengbom used mass timber to build a five-story extension transforming a historic factory building to a modern and sustainable office complex and at the Glitne apartment complex, BIG used mass timber to place apartments on the roof of an existing mall.
Looking to the future, Stockholm plans to expand the use of mass timber for large scale high-rise projects with the construction of Stockholm Wood City beginning in 2025.
As Colorado continues to grow in the coming decades while striving for important climate goals, it will be important for architects to not only be innovative with design solutions, but to serve as educators and advocates for the community. Understanding global climate efforts will need to be part of that effort and Denmark and Sweden offer great set examples of not just innovative architecture but building codes, transportation, infrastructure, and urban development attitudes.
My hope is that my viral tweet and sharing of these precedents will contribute to conversations about how forward-looking solutions are needed to reach Colorado’s climate goals.