THE PowerHouse

Revolutionary energy-positive, carbon-free buildings, using traditional techniques to fight climate change for a sustainable future

By Synnøve Marie Kvam

Image © Asplan Viak. Used with permission.

Powerhouse Kjørbo looks ordinary. On the outside and inside it looks like your average modern office building. But Powerhouse is neither average nor ordinary.


It is a power-saving, power-creating, sustainable environment that sets the standard in the refurbishment of existing office buildings, as well as new constructions. Its principles are not complicated, yet they are brilliantly applied.


The Powerhouse concept uses known technology in innovative ways, and in doing so an existing ordinary office building, when refurbished according to the Powerhouse model, can produce more renewable energy than it consumes in its lifetime. The pilot for this project is Powerhouse Kjørbo, headquarters of Norwegian engineering consultancy company Asplan Viak, who are part of the Powerhouse alliance. Powerhouse is a collaboration of companies dedicated to creating energy positive buildings, and consists of the environmental NGO ZERO, real estate company Entra Eiendom, entrepreneurs Skanska, architects Snøhetta, the aluminum company Sapa, and Asplan Viak. Powerhouse Kjørbo has been operational since 2014, and since then several other Powerhouses have come into existence or are under construction.

Image © Asplan Viak. Used with permission.

No comfort has been sacrificed in this process; walking through the hallways on a warm summer or a cold winter day, the temperature and indoor environment are comfortable and stable. In fact, the tenants report better indoor climate, better acoustics, better lighting and more comfortable temperature than before the refurbishment. While the environmental ambitions are more than fulfilled, the financial savings are also significant.


The refurbishment of these existing office buildings to modern energy standards led to a reduction in energy consumption by over 86 percent. Keeping in mind that in Norway buildings account for about 40% of domestic energy consumption, and half of that is for heating, the Powerhouse principles are an efficient way of saving energy. Efficient insulation, ventilation and lighting are the most impactful measures. The energy is sourced from one of Norway´s largest solar panel parks, located on the roof, and also cooled in summer and heated in winter by Ground Source Heat systems.

Image © Asplan Viak. Used with permission.

Only a few meters below the surface, earth is at a reasonably constant temperature. In Southern Norway this is approximately 7-8 degrees Celsius (44-46º F). Taking advantage of this, the Ground Source Heat Pump and cooling systems pump a water-alcohol mixture through a piping system, a "loop" of energy wells drilled into the ground. By exchanging heat between the ground, the heat pumps and the building this system provides heating in winter and also hot water. The "free-cooling" process provides cooling by pumping the water-alcohol mixture directly into the ventilation system.


Image © Asplan Viak. Used with permission.

Every aspect of construction has been included in the buildings’ lifespan energy-consumption calculation: the production and transportation of building materials, the construction process itself, and the maintenance and running of the offices. Windows from the original buildings, not meeting modern energy standards, have been recycled into indoor glass walls. A winding staircase acts as a natural ventilation shaft with no moving parts, and also makes for a pleasant architectural element.

Image © Asplan Viak. Used with permission.

The local civic council required that the facade should remain similar to the original buildings, with a dark or black finish. The result is another testimony to the Powerhouse alliance’s ability to apply known technology in innovative ways. Wood is low-maintenance if treated initially in the right way, and a popular building material in Norway. In conventional Norwegian buildings, one would traditionally choose an exterior paint to protect them from weathering and get the desired colour. However, in line with the  the sustainable, zero-carbon building concept of the Powerhouse, and in order to satisfy the local council rules, local short-travelled wood was chosen, and treated with the traditional Japanese technique shou sugi ban, which by charring the surface of the wood, protects it from fungi and other harmful organisms. In Norway, charring has traditionally been used as a technique in quai constructions, but not for building façades.


Due to the environmental standards of the Powerhouse concept, using gas in the charring process was out of the question, and the local supplier developed a system whereby the panels were pulled over a fire made up of left-over wood from the supplier’s production of wooden floors.

Image © Asplan Viak. Used with permission.

The concept of Powerhouse goes beyond energy savings. These buildings now produce excess clean energy which they sell back to the grid. The energy saved and stored from efficient use serves other buildings outside the Powerhouse, and fuels the nearby Uno-X hydrogen fuel station. Powerhouse Kjørbo now holds the BREEAM-NOR classification "Outstanding as built," the highest level of energy classification.


In a country where modern businesses pride themselves on inhabiting energy-positive buildings as part of their environmentally responsible values and profile, this concept has been a resounding success, resulting in many more Powerhouses being built or in the planning stages. It's a glaring example of a strategy where it is not necessary to sacrifice financial returns in exchange for environmentally responsible energy consumption. The energy saved and used efficiently represents financial savings for the tenants of these buildings.

Powerhouse Kjørbo has received enormous national and international attention, has been nominated for a number of awards, attracting interested parties from all over the world, and has become a flagship project for Norway. It clearly demonstrates that existing properties can be renovated not only to meet, but to exceed, modern energy consumption standards even in cold climates, and that it is of commercial and environmental benefit for everyone to adopt these new technologies as we combat climate change and transition to a renewable-energy economy.

Synnøve Marie Kvam is the Chair of Tsavo Conservation Group's Nordic branch, she is head of its Stabilization through Conservation (StabilCon) advisory council, and she is a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. Additionally, she collaborates with Impactvista, an international company dedicated to matching investors and businesses with entrepreneurs and sustainable initiatives. In 2018, to further merge her projects and passions, she founded the consultancy company Sparkle! 

Synnøve is a member of the Board of Directors of The Explorers Club in NYC, and is also chair of the Explorers Club Norway Chapter. She also holds a key role in the organization's Sustainability Task Force working to adopt environmentally sound practices.


Inspired by explorer Thor Heyerdahl to become an archaeologist, she earned a Bachelor Degree in Archaeology from University College London and a Master's Degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from University of Sydney. She has conducted fieldwork on sites in Peru, the Caribbean, Belize and elsewhere. She formerly served as Guest Services Manager and Coordinator of the Education Program at The Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway, and formerly part of the Norwegian Defence Research Institute TERRA (Terrorism and Asymmetric Warfare) project.


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