The Sustainable Seat

All images are author's unless otherwise noted

Anton Alexander von Werner - "Eröffnung des Deutschen Reichstags" (Kaiser Wilhelm II is the man in the middle and on the steps, to his right side and slightly in front is Otto von Bismarck)

A building designed to remember its past and offer a promising future is the seat of Germany's government and the site of impressive sustainability innovations stretching from a large glass dome used for natural light to the burning of bio-fuels. The building's history is quite rich. The Reichstag Building was designed by Paul Wallot and finished in 1894 to house the first Reich's parliament, the Reichstag. Kaiser Wilhelm II himself laid the final brick on December 5th, 1894. And it was from a window of this building that Phillip Scheidermann would declare the Weimar Republik on November 9, 1918. It was also here where a fire on February 27, 1933 sparked a series of events that led to Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Hitler's Reichstag continued to sit in the building. And here in 1945 the Soviet Army raised their flag during the Battle for Berlin. Today Germany's Bundestag, one of two parliamentary chambers, sits in the Reichstag.

German Reichstag 1930s, 1945, and 2013

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In 1972 renovations were completed on the heavily damaged building and parliamentary groups met once again inside the building. After Germany's reunification, and the decision to restore Berlin as the nation's capital, a plan to remodel the Reichstag was bid out to various architects. Sir Norman Foster and his architectural firm won the bid and set out to create a building that both remembers the past and looks towards the future. It was completed in 1999. Russian graffiti left by occupying soldiers who wrote the names of their hometowns on the Reichstag's walls was preserved, as were several stones and building structures part of the original building. But in other respects, the building was completely changed. A modern glass structure was imposed across most of the building, signaling Germany's commitment to transparency in government.

Most significant to the building's renovations is the large glass dome that now sits atop the Reichstag much like the dome that sat there before it under Wilhelm II. The dome conveys once more this element of transparency while adding a remarkable sustainable feature to the building. Its spiraled mirrors serve to light the parliament's chamber directly underneath and the dome provides innovative ventilation by removing hot air. A solar shade powered by rooftop solar panels moves with the mirrors and the sun to ensure the managing of how much sun and heat make their way in. A cogenerator that burns refined vegetable oil for energy reduces CO2 emissions over 90%. An aquifer below ground stores excess heat that is then pumped up for heating or used to drive cooling through absorption chillers. A Building Management System helps avoid unnecessary energy use and optimizes passive energy use. Smart windows allow ventilation which brings in fresh air without negatively affecting energy needs and chilled ceilings sourced via the underground aquifer's absorption chillers aid summer time cooling efforts (what in the world is a chilled ceiling? More here!). Finally, the decision to maintain as much of the original building structure as possible reduced construction waste. These sustainable elements are significant enough, and the building's energy requirements low enough, that the Reichstag actually produces excess energy which helps power nearby government buildings. Foster and Partners, the architectural firm behind the renovations, estimates energy requirements 57% less than comparable buildings. (Their building profile provided much of the information above and includes much more about the building; additionally, this brief letter written close to the building's openings describes the features in more depth). 


This combination of historical preservation and ecological preservation makes for a fascinating space that while providing historical perspective simultaneously encourages forward-thinking. Indeed this space's ability to influence may be one of the most clear examples of the type of power a sustainable space can have. The sustainably-oriented dome sits right above the seat of the country's government. Whether consciously or not, this certainly has the potential to affect policy. The fact that Germany's parliament meets in a building with such a plethora of sustainability characteristics is quite significant; it ensures politicians realize the many ways in which sustainability can be achieved just as they consider legislation to promote that sustainability. But the influence extends much wider. Tourists and citizens alike flock to visit the building, where free tours offer views of the modern and historical architectural mix as well as an incredible walk through the dome. And expansive views of the city itself showing the extensive green Berlin is known for greet visitors atop the building. The Reichstag is a symbol to the world of Germany's transparency and commitment to a new and more preservable world.