Our most noteworthy building, the Sydney Opera House, was designed by a Dane, Jørn Utzon. When they bestowed Utzon with the industry’s most lauded international honour, the Pritzer Architecture Prize, cited it as “one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty …”. Its UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition cites “unparalleled design and construction; its exceptional engineering achievements and technological innovation.”

The engineering firm, Arup, who resolved many of its structural quirks was founded by Ove Arup, who had a Danish father, and himself studied engineering in Copenhagen. The Danish capital was also home base for Steensen Varming, the mechanical engineering firm, who came up with the idea to provide the Opera House’s air conditioning via a heat pump system that uses the water of Sydney Harbour as both heat source and sink. (About half a century later, their Australian office would pick up an Award of Excellence from the International Association of Lighting Designers, for their lighting design of the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre.)

Now just a 600 metre walk away from that iconic sail-like structure, often dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, a design by another Danish architectural powerhouse, 3XN, is poised to make an impact.  Their 200 metre cantilevered skyscraper, Quay Quarter Tower, is set to reshape the corporate backdrop to Sydney Harbour.

AMP Capital named Danish firm 3XN the architects for the 49-story, 102,000 sqm 50 Bridge Street tower and master plan for the Quay Quarter Sydney (QQS) precinct. The project is shown in the top right of the image.

Danish design and engineering has a long and abiding influence on Australian architecture, and not only eye-catching variety. As the Opera House’s heat pump example demonstrates, they’re rather creative in the sustainability realm too.

Denmark ranks top of the 2014 Climate Change Performance Index. (For the record, Australia has slipped to a cringeworthy 57th of 61 countries on the list.)

Denmark has ambitious plans to be fossil fuel free by 2050, with 70 per cent of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. Already they derive more than a third of their electricity from wind turbines. While renowned for their wind power, they are no one-trick-pony. The government originally had a goal of 200 MW of photovoltaic capacity by 2012, yet by 2013 they already had 500 MW of private solar installations.

60 percent of all heating demand is provided by ‘district heating’, massive community-based hot water reservoirs heated by huge banks of solar hot water collectors. This year the town of Dronninglund cut the ribbon on the world’s largest such plant, where nearly 3,000 solar heaters heat up to 62 million litres hot water that can stored for use in autumn and winter!

The Danish island of Samsø gets 75 per cent of its heating from solar and biomass energy. The entirety of its electricity needs are met by wind power.

Such investment in renewable energy technology and energy efficiency has yielded significant national benefits. Over three per cent of Denmark’s Gross Domestic Product comes solely from the sector, as do up to 8,000 new jobs created each year.

And that intellectual property in green design is in demand around the world, accounting for about 10 per cent of Denmark’s exports.

Velux is one those exporters, having produced their distinctive ‘roof windows’ for the past 70 years, the company, with revenues greater than $3 billion AUD, now finds itself with over 10,000 employees and sales in about 40 countries. The name takes the Ve from ventilation and Lux from the latin for light. And it is these two strengths that Velux promote through their pivotal association with the Active House project.

An Active House promotes natural ventilation and daylighting

Developed by Velux, the LichtAktiv in Hamburg Germany offers a high standard of living full of fresh air and daylight while covering its entire energy demand, including electricity, through renewable energy.

Active House is not to be confused with the Passivhaus movement, also originating out of Northern Europe, which we have discussed here before.

To receive their certification as a Passive House, buildings need to use less than 15 kWh/m2/year in heating. This usually requires them to be uber-insulated and virtually airtight with strong reliance on a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery. Generally Passivehaus homes mostly favour glazing on the sunward side, due to the heat loss through windows, even doubled and tripled glazed units.

As might be expected, such an approach is unlikely to enthuse a maker of skylights or roof windows. Hence Active House, which promotes the benefits of natural ventilation and daylighting.

Velux point to studies suggesting a 15 per cent productivity increase for workers who have their daylighting improved. And related studies on enhanced learning outcomes for children. They also note that greater than 15 per cent of global electricity consumption has been attributed to artificial lighting, which daylighting roof windows can reduce.

Comfort and lifestyle benefits are equally as important to the energy efficiency of an Active House. Light and ventilation are paramount.

Comfort and lifestyle benefits are touted as being equally important as the energy efficiency of a dwelling. Active Houses also make extensive use of solar photovoltaic energy generation and automated venting of skylights, to control indoor air quality, combined with ‘chimney stack’ venting up stairwells to upper floors.

However, even the most energy efficient of Active Houses reputedly use double the heating energy of the Passivhaus model.

Just how effective Active House designs would be in Australia is yet to be seen. Some demonstration homes in Europe have up to 14 skylights, which might struggle with the harsh Australian summer sun. Although Velux do offer blinds which can block out 100 per cent light or up to 57 per cent heat. Our predominately single storey housing stock tradition does not readily lend itself to stack venting either.

It doesn’t appear Active House has made it Down Under yet. And we might hear about it, if it had. The Danish Ambassador to Canada attended the opening of that country’s first Active House, whilst Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik officiated at Russia’s opening. No doubt Australian-born Princess Mary will do the honours if Active House reaches these shores.

Still, Active House is worth a look, to see what can be adapted to the local clime. And it is always beneficial to further discussions on daylighting.

Curiously, the Green Building Council Denmark is not adopting Active House, rather reworking Germany’s Sustainable Building Council certification to become their standard: DGNB Denmark

The importance of pumps

Another Danish international keen to challenge design thinking is Grundfos. Starting about the same time as Velux, Grundfos now produce over 16 million pumps annually, making them one of the globe’s largest pump manufacturers.

Pumps may not be something that readily springs to mind when ruminating on green design. But have you ever thought how a very heavy material like water gets to the basin, shower, toilet, sink, etc, of multi-storey buildings? Pumps. And according to Grundfos, pumps account for at least 10 per cent of the world's electricity consumption, as most pumps waste energy 95 per cent of the time. Grundfos reckon, “Switching to energy efficient pumps could make savings equivalent to the residential electricity consumption of one billion people.”

According to Grundfos, pumps account for at least 10 per cent of the world's electricity consumption. Should we be paying more attention to sustainability innovations in this field?

Also like Velux’s Active House, Grundfos was instrumental in setting up a non-profit environmental offshoot, that by raising awareness of solutions and technologies available to reduce energy consumption and CO2 emissions might also result in increased business opportunities. Originally known as Meet The Energy Challenge – Now, the initiative was spun off as an independent organisation in 2013 and became Act Now. It showcases some inspiring examples of clever green products and systems. Take Troldtekt, maker of acoustic panels, who last year had 92 per cent of their production Cradle to Cradle Silver Certified.

Danfos, a Danish climate control engineering firm, helped one of the largest supermarkets in Scandinavia cut their energy consumption up to 30 per cent with a CO2 cooling systems. Their refrigeration system controllers saved an America supermarket over $5.3 million USD in just two years. They suggest their SpeedUp flexible hydronic floor heating system (below) can save a home 15 per cent of energy cost compared with traditional floor heating solutions, or 25 per cent when stacked up against a radiator heating system.

We’ve barely scrapped the surface of Danish green design. The website: stateofgreen.com will have to fill some of the void.

We ran out of room for the CO2 neutral home made with infill insulation and cladding composed of naturally fire retardant seaweed. Or the recreation park designed to absorb rainwater in a flood event, the earth bermed nature and cultural centre that performs to Passive house standards, or low energy social housing units which have rental costs about 30 per cent lower than the norm.

Nor have we the space to review the free 200 page eBook ‘Design with Knowledge’ published by award winning Henning Larsen Architects, which explores the notion that between 40 and 50 per cent of a building’s energy consumption will be determined by its design. A reminder of the responsibility all designers, architects and engineers share.

But how could we leave this Danish smorgasbord without paying homage to that creation which set many a building professional on their career path: LEGO. Although originally derived two Danish words meaning to “play well,” it is also latin for "I put together.”