Impulse, The New Decade
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A call for more sustainability at universities

TU Darmstadt

Many architecture departments have yet to develop a proper understanding of the role played by sustainability in teaching and research. It’s such an important opportunity to introduce young people to the topic early and pave the way for the future. All universities should place climate protection and the conservation of resources high on their agenda.

2020 is not just another year. Entering 2020 means there are only ten years to go before 2030 – the year associated with so many sustainability goals. To mark 2020, six members of the DGNB board look back at the last ten years in the building sector and cast their gaze forwards. One topic – examined from six angles. In the next post on this blog, Anke Karmann-Woessner looks at the status of sustainability in cities and quarters.


I would even say that as professors, we’re obliged to include the multifaceted topics and fields of sustainability in teaching and research. If we don’t, every year thousands of up-and-coming architects will enter the world of work without the appropriate skills.

Many universities have not yet understood the potential

Despite this, over the past three to four years a growing number of German architecture faculties have introduced subjects revolving around ‘energy and sustainability’ or ‘energy-efficient building’.

  • Solar Decathlon 2007 Solar House
    Solar Decathlon, USA (2007): The TU Darmstadt Solar House wins the international competition for the most appealing and energy-efficient house based on solar energy. © Thomas Ott

But many have yet to declare a real belief in sustainability. It’s often like the term is thrown into the same pot as energy efficiency or even considered the same as neglecting design quality. My wish would therefore be that people develop a more differentiated understanding of sustainability. This would not only include values relating to Baukultur, but also social and societal factors. As the people who teach architecture, we should be sharing a general perspective of the construction and planning process with the next generation. The only way to pave the way for future-ready solutions is to provide holistic insights into our field and multidisciplinary thinking and action.

Embodying and embracing sustainability at the TU Darmstadt for 15 years

Climate change is highly complex. And potential solutions are similarly complex. Introducing these issues to teaching and research in sufficient detail will take clear concepts and a lot of time. But at the same time, there’s tremendous potential in doing this – as witnessed by the example of the Technical University of Darmstadt, which is where I work.

For 15 years, our architecture faculty has been working intensively on establishing sustainable thinking as something that should go without saying. We already started using the term as a key aspect of our faculty profile in 2005. From the very beginning, we have placed emphasis on delivering projects with a focus on usage scenarios. We have done this by building prototypes. We have been successful in international architecture competitions such as the Solar Decathlon in the United States and Europe, allowing us to gain recognition and visibility. What better way to motivate students!

One important milestone in broadening and deepening this topic was when we opened up to areas beyond our own discipline. One major contribution came from the graduate college of energy research at the TU Darmstadt, where 50 PhDs on the topic of energy have been completed. The TU Darmstadt also offers a master’s degree in Energy Science and Engineering. Similarly, we have worked with mechanical and construction engineers on a project involving an energy-efficient model plant called the ETA Factory, which went live on the Lichtwiese Campus in 2017.

After five years of research, the ETA-Factory shows that by carefully connecting up machinery and industrial buildings, industrial manufacturing can achieve up to 40 per cent energy savings. (Video language: German)

I’m looking back at these things because I would like to show that this is a journey worth undertaking. Our students set up companies or complete PhDs in this field. Some have also gone on to be appointed as professors. Others now work in key roles in government ministries and other institutions. They transfer their knowledge into practice and society. This galvanises our resolve, motivating us to keep filing away at our teaching models and continue with our research.

An appeal for professors to become actively involved

I appeal explicitly to those involved in teaching. If this is a cause that’s important to you, please champion it. Enter into dialogue with others. Use your networks in this area! In my experience, students relate extremely closely on an emotional level to the issue of how to protect our planet and save all beings that live on or colonise it. But they need pointers. They need support. So they need these values to be shared with them.

Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to offer clear teaching programmes and inspire students to contribute to this area themselves. The topics that are covered by sustainability are diverse in nature. As a result, I recommend that everyone find their own area of focus. By doing so, they can contribute to this topic in the best possible way – with their experience and know-how. And this allows them to highlight how they see themselves and feel about the topic.

Winning people over by adopting a clear stance

And we shouldn’t let people talk us down! Defining our faculty profile also led to certain conflict at the TU Darmstadt. We heard accusations like this: sustainability has an adverse effect on the quality of architecture; it’s just ‘flavour of the month’. The term became stigmatised, driving a wedge between topics that should actually belong together. Two battle lines developed, one with designers facing energy fanatics and one with artists facing pragmatists.

But this didn’t deter us from seeking dialogue and as a result, a viable teaching model was established. We have also been extremely successful in our research and have forged excellent networks. So now those battle lines have been crossed and eradicated. High-profile architecture awards honouring the quality of our work soon resolved any differences. The most convincing arguments lie in deed based on conviction – and in taking action.

  • ETA Fabrik TU Darmstadt
    Our ETA research team looks at energy technology and applications in production with the aim of making significant contributions to more environmentally friendly production and driving the transition to green energy. © Eibe Sönnecken

Looking to the horizon – so much unexploited potential

For it to become totally normal to think beyond disciplines in dealing responsibly with resources and the climate, not only do we need professors who feel motivated – not to mention students who are interested in these issues – but we also really require university leaders to take a clear stance. I see two key challenges in implementing this successfully.

Foster sustainability on an interdisciplinary level

The place to position this all-encompassing topic is in the overlap between different disciplines. This is also where the most exciting and innovative projects emerge – and these should by actively promoted. The specialist discipline of architecture has a key role to play in this. For example, building prototypes makes it possible to integrate disciplines like electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, and to address overarching issues affecting this topic. All disciplines have an important contribution to make.

Set an example with sustainability

University leaders should show how much they believe in this issue by setting an example and giving all departments and the university family clear signals – through big things and small. This could be by shifting the emphasis of professorial chairs, making electric bikes available, or introducing certain measures and making specific statements – even in their own buildings, by organising energy efficiency projects on campus. How about some sort of sustainability manifesto? All of these ideas would have a huge impact on perceptions – inside and outside the university.

We’ve already come a long way at the TU Darmstadt, but that doesn’t mean we’re satisfied; we’re still discussing a number of ideas to identify other areas of unexploited potential. It’s a diverse process and an open one, so it’s also an exciting process that holds plenty of promise.

University partnerships with the DGNB

DGNB Academy Logo

As part of a drive to establish sustainability as an integral part of architect education, the DGNB Academy collaborates with over 60 universities in more than 10 countries. Members such as the TU Darmstadt are granted access to teaching materials held on the DGNB knowledge platform. This also allows them to offer students additional qualifications with a bearing on sustainable building.

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