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Shaping a circular industrial ecosystem and supporting life-cycle thinking
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NEW EUROPEAN BAUHAUS AWARDS: existing completed examples
Project title
Full project title
A local summer school for a global difference.

»ex_kurs« is a summer school for different generations and disciplines that brings together young pupils from disadvantaged or refugee families with university students, faculty and local players. Each year, a global challenge is addressed through local innovation. In 2021 we built and designed Germany's most sustainable and socially responsible community-run biogas plant.

What was the geographical scope of your project?
Does your project address mainly urban or rural issues?
Mainly urban
Does your project refer to a physical transformation of the built environment or other types of transformations?
It refers to a physical transformation of the built environment ('hard investment')
Has your project benefited from EU programmes or funds?
Has your project won an EU prize?
Your project is fully completed?
When was your project implemented?
How did you hear about the New European Bauhaus Prizes ?
Word of mouth (colleagues, friends …)
On whose behalf are you submitting the application?
As a representative of an organisation, in partnership with other organisations
Please provide a summary of your project

How can we turn the global (food) waste challenge into local opportunities? How can a social biogas plant inspire a diverse society to close urban cycles and fuel the energy transition?
In Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg, the largest inhabited river island in Europe and at the same time the poorest, most international and youngest district, massive environmental threats and social inequalities merge into complex questions. Solutions don’t care about disciplines. The 14 days summer school »ex_kurs« is an educational platform that makes no distinctions between age, disciplines or educational levels. A yearly free format to open up a space of thought and action on a topic with global relevance to find local solutions beyond ivory towers – in the midst of life. The outcome can be technically innovative, as well as socially responsible or ecologically sustainable....or all of these together: 2021 kicked-off a circular flow model for bioresources. Pupils, some of whom live in disadvantaged circumstances or are refugees, have joined university students, designers, engineers, architects, scientists and citizens for networked research. By planning, building, researching and celebrating together, Germany's most sustainable and socially responsible biogas plant was designed. The complete opposite of high-tech agricultural reactors. A transparent low-tech system, run by the neighbourhood in collaboration with school children, which is more than the sum of its biotechnological parts: food leftovers from the cafeteria of the Wilhelmsburg District School are decomposed into biogas for clean cooking energy and into fertiliser for growing food in the school garden. Construction waste from the neighbourhood was creatively processed for the aesthetic design of the plant house – thus, an active education building for a lively district culture emerged from a superficially mechanical piece of equipment.

Please indicate the main themes of your project with 5 key words
Social Design
Urban Mining
Please give information about the key objectives of your project in terms of sustainability (including circularity) and how these have been met.
Please highlight how the project can be exemplary in this context

Bioresources are the most widely used renewable energy source in the world. (Heating, biofuel for transportation, biogas for electricity generation). The »ex_kurs« approach is closely linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals four, seven, eleven, twelve and thirteen. Quality education is bundled directly with access to affordable clean energy in a sustainable urban community project on responsible consumption and production – leading to concrete climate action. Yet, after all, few know that non-recycled food waste is one of the main drivers of climate change. »ex_kurs« therefore launched a circular movement, where the production and consumption of food does not necessarily lead to useless waste. In collaboration with pupils, students and citizens, the food waste from their school canteen is fermented into biogas that can be used as a clean cooking energy, while also producing fertiliser for growing healthy fruits and vegetables in the garden.  

In the creation process, all materials for the construction of the biogas plant were harvested in the city. That means building materials from demolition houses, which would normally have ended up in an incinerator or landfill are collected and recombined. In doing so, the project not only stays true to the idea of recycling, but also raises awareness of the »grey energy« generated during construction and waste produced during demolition as well as their climate impact as one of the largest waste streams. In addition to experience and aesthetics, the architectural design also incorporates cycles: for example, the roof of the facility collects rainwater to use in the subsequent fermentation process instead of tap water. Closing all these cycles saves valuable resources and reduces not only CO2 emissions but also the impact on the natural environment. As a local and simultaneously scalable solution, the project is a global opportunity for the urban energy transition. This is what we call a »waste-win-win« cycle.

Please give information about the key objectives of your project in terms of aesthetics and quality of experience beyond functionality and how these have been met.
Please highlight how the project can be exemplary in this context

The ambitious goal of planning and building a community-operated urban biogas plant as a place of social life for a neighbourhood requires a lot of democratic mediation. With the overarching goal of bridging the gap between science and civil society, a dynamic research and design process was launched. From an early stage, participants worked closely with the public.  A focus on public engagement with participatory activities such as open workshops and lectures proved integral to the »ex_kurs’« holistic approach. 

The Summer School 2021 united the action potential of 30 students from six degree programs at seven different universities with pupils from the district school and local citizens. In addition, the Summer School reached out to local pupils who have little or no access to cultural and sustainable projects, who are refugees, or who are in a social, financial, or educational risk situation. For them the participation was even free of charge, providing a full meal plan which is already very important as some come from financially weak backgrounds and do not get all their meals at home.

Modelled after Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, learning hierarchies are constantly questioned and renegotiated at »ex_kurs«. Partner universities officially awarded their students credits for participation. District school pupils were also allowed to participate during their school time and beyond. In this field of tension, innovative ideas emerge through networked research. In the protected space of the Summer School, learners discover their role in society beyond the usual divisions of cultures, generations and educational levels. In this way, they gain formative experiences about the connection between public spirit, personal initiative and success – competencies that cannot be acquired in the classroom or at a desktop alone.

Please give information about the key objectives of your project in terms of inclusion (equal opportunities, public participation, citizen engagement, co-design, universal design, accessibility, affordability, etc.) and how these have been met.
Please highlight how the project can be exemplary in this context

How can design reflect the local energy and material cycles and at the same time create quality of experience? How does a biogas plant work? Where does our food waste go? And can you stop by to barbecue here? The wooden building raises questions in the city that need to be answered – because the biogas plant is a place of exchange. It is more than just a shelter for technical infrastructure. And it is more than just sustainable in its use of discarded materials. The project seeks to manifest the reuse of materials as a tangible and physical experience of the architectural artefact itself. The simple structural system provides the opportunity to reconceptualize the building process, while the exposed materiality allows the project to be experienced haptically.

For example, the traditional Japanese »yakisugi method« of wood preservation was used. The wooden boards for the roof structure were extinguished after a short time in the fire and laid out to dry. After that, a beautiful, slightly shiny and freshly blackened appearance of the wood is revealed, giving character to the architecture and creating moments of sensory experience such as the smell of burnt wood. In this sense, it tries to encourage people to interact with the structure of the plant. Construction and functionality are inseparable from experience and beauty. It was also an important concern to create colourful accents with natural materials by using native berries and plants collected by participants from places in the surrounding area thanks to various tips from the neighbourhood. The recycled materials for the facility's guidance system and the papers that were later used to create flyers and construction signs were dyed naturally. There was also experimentation with leftover old bricks following the example of the »Granby Workshop« by Assemble, which were further processed in a joint ceramic workshop. This resulted in unique tableware for use at community-dinners near the biogas plant.

Please explain how these three dimensions have been combined in your project.
Please highlight how this approach can be exemplary

The combination of sustainability, aesthetics and inclusion opens up an urban metabolism between efficiency and experience that makes this place vibrant. A movement has swept the neighbourhood, classrooms and home of participants, where there are only resources and no waste, where everything produced is material for the next project or product.

At the sustainability level, the good news is that reducing food waste is one of the three most effective ways to take on climate change. Other ways are to reuse construction waste through urban mining and save emissions by using renewable energy. The outcome? A zero waste project. One that reuses food waste to convert it to biogas using a plant built from construction waste, creating a renewable energy source that in turn saves fossil cooking energy.

At the aesthetic level, the architectural demand arises to unite the recovered materials beyond functionality in a solution that is convincing in terms of design and construction. The idea is to let visitors explore the site, to perceive urban cycles and to engage with the circular economy on a personal level. The result is an experience-oriented architecture that not only visualises local life cycle thinking, but also makes it tangible.

At the inclusion level, there was an immaterial flow which established a transdisciplinary educational model to break down boundaries between civil society and science. Community design and action were pursued not only during the construction of the biogas plant, but also afterwards during the plant's operation by citizens and pupils who continue to care about public teaching and learning formats and keeping the circular economy alive through their participation. By integrating a foodsharing-unit into the biogas plant, the building becomes a local meeting point for many who are not familiar with the project.

Please give information on the results/impacts achieved by your project in relation to the category you apply for

Circular thinking and concrete social action are at the forefront of »ex_kurs«. The concept of circular economy is demonstrated by various impact levels:

  • Sustainable innovation is found in scale-able decentralised urban biogas production as a clean energy alternative generated with local players.
  • Architectural innovation is convincing with the reuse of discarded materials, not only to start a new life cycle thinking, but also to improve aesthetic form and quality of experience.
  • Technical innovation is seen in the transition of a problem-ridden high-tech industrial ecosystem to a more sustainable and everyday usable – but quite scalable low-tech solution.
  • Social innovation lies in the diverse participants of the summer school who have developed forward-looking circular solutions in a concrete research field with civil society at the intersection of applied sciences, design, architecture and technology. It also lies in an ongoing community operation of the biogas plant through a long term partnership of pupils and citizens.
  • The educational innovation focuses on empowerment and collaborative learning and offers a new learning architecture. The digital transformation of the economic and living world increasingly requires concepts in school and out-of-school contexts.

The idea of the inclusive Summer School has excited various institutions. In 2021, Hafencity University (Department of Architecture and Experimental Design), Hamburg University of Technology (Institute for Wastewater), Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (Department of Communication Design), and the District School were firmly on board as partners of the non-profit association Zinnwerke e.V. It has established itself as a desired, because of exceptional, but firm educational cooperation. The official patronage of Jens Kerstan, Hamburg's Senator for the Environment as well as his feedback, shows that the joint development of solutions is not only desired by the city, but also politically.

Please explain how citizens and civil society were involved in the in the design and/or implementation of the project.
Please also explain the benefits that derived from their involvement.

»It's not often that you meet so many young, motivated people on a topic that revolves around waste. « said one student participant in an interview. At each stage, local experts, citizens, students and pupils were actively involved and shared responsibility. Connected by their shared interest in circular economy and social engagement, transdisciplinary teams formed this year at the intersection of architecture, engineering and design. In both process and operation, the biogas plant serves as a teaching and learning object that brings the principle of circular economy to life on a human scale.
Finally, the project has succeeded in establishing a long-term partnership with local citizens in cooperation with the pupils of the district school that operates the biogas plant. After all, the plant needs regular maintenance and the hungry bacteria have to be fed three times a week with leftover food from the school canteen. In addition, the school garden must be fertilised, planted, harvested and cooked again - and so the cycle begins anew. There are also public events, such as on-site school lessons on circular economy, and open meetings for neighbourhood dinners, where people can eat food cooked with the biogas while eating from a collectively designed set of dishes made from leftover bricks – the ultimate local experience of the circular economy. The project provides a great chance for pupils to organise themselves as the official »operators« of the site through being the first pupil enterprise that runs a biogas plant in Germany. This has the advantage of allowing them to learn about the responsibilities of such a circular economy in a self-organised and engaging way. The relations between plant-maintenance, school lessons and public cooking events must be coordinated and managed. Pupils even came up with the idea of offering biogas catering for public events with a mobile open-air kitchen to demonstrate and promote imitation of the circular model in Hamburg and beyond.

Please explain what kind of global challenges the project addressed by providing local solutions

The lines are blurring between problems like climate change, the waste crisis, and social and cultural inequalities. Why do we continue to look to isolated departments for solutions? Complex problems require closing the gap between civil society and academia. Therefore »ex_kurs« advocates for a radical opening of schools, universities, and departments, offering a holistic learning model that innovates across disciplines and generations for global change while integrating the civil society in responding to local needs.

For 2021, this meant addressing the global fact that most of us don't know or care where the waste we produce actually ends up. At worst, it ends up in nature, landfills or incineration. In 2017, less than half of the food waste was recycled into biogas and compost or reused as animal feed in the EU. They rot in landfills and cause up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world. Food waste is worse than emissions from air travel, plastic production and oil production. However, the good news is that reducing food waste is one of the three most effective ways to combat climate change. Therefore the project shows a local circular model where food waste is completely recycled.

Alongside, construction and demolition waste is also one of the largest waste streams worldwide. In the EU, it accounts for more than 35% of waste generation and up to 12% of national greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. Yet 80% of these emissions could be saved through meaningful recycling. For the building sector, one of the main important aspects is to move towards circular thinking in which buildings can take on new uses, constructions can be adapted to changing requirements and materials are durable, can be reused, reassembled or even be reintegrated into ‘nature’. The construction of  the urban biogas plant explores the potential of circular concepts by using exclusively discarded materials.

Please highlight the innovative character of the project as compared to mainstream practices in the field of the project.

So-called biogas plants, which ferment organic waste into methane-rich biogas and biological fertiliser, are widely known as high-tech rural reactors. However, the agricultural industry has come under criticism for using monocultural energy crops grown specifically for biogas production. 
On the sustainable side the model project proves the opposite: a low-tech plant that simplifies previous high-tech components to make them suitable for everyday use. The biogas produced is not converted into electricity, but can be used directly as a climate-neutral alternative to fossil fuels on gas stoves for cooking. During combustion, only as much CO2 is released as was previously removed from the atmosphere by the growth of the food. The ecological innovation lies in sustainable and socially responsible decentralised urban biogas production on a small scale with local players.

On the social and educational side, »ex_kurs« sees itself as an exemplary impulse for a jointly supported educational platform between a city's universities, district schools, the city and the local population for socially responsible and ecologically sustainable pilot projects. The social innovation lies in the fact that the participants of our summer school develop future-oriented circular solutions in a concrete research field with a disadvantaged civil society in the field of tension between applied sciences, design, architecture and technology.

On the architectural side the design and construction process of the urban biogas plant follows an unconventional and forward thinking approach as it is not starting with the design of a form or by following functional constraints. Instead the process is starting with the investigation of discarded materials that can become potential building elements. It is characterised by an economy of means that is driven by the conservation of resources.

Please explain to the potential of transferring the projects’ results or learnings to other interested parties and contexts.
Please provide clear documentation, communication of methodology and principles in this context.

»ex_kurs« is proof that a biogas plant can be operated at a demonstration scale and involve the community in a design build project, as well as engage the public and create cohesion. This solution is scalable and runs continuously so that it could be used in collaborations with local food production facilities in a variety of schools and neighbourhoods. For example, restaurants, cafeterias of companies, cafés, or housing projects could be appropriate partners for such a »biogas cohesion scheme« involving school or college groups as operators. To combat the problem of food and resource waste and produce clean energy and buildings, it is necessary to address where our food comes from and where it goes. Therefore, it is important to bring food consumption, production and its recycling, as well as the cascading use of materials, to the centre of society, where it becomes a visitor attraction and educational opportunity. Embedded as a situational teaching and learning space, it can have its impact and be lived. The inclusive learning format »ex_kurs« therefore aims to become a model for education and training in the city of Hamburg and beyond. It is an exemplary cooperation that opens up a concrete field of research between different education institutions of a city, a district and its residents to promote extracurricular learning and teaching and to provide real-time innovations that are globally replicable yet responsive to local needs.

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