Authorized text 24-10-2017.
The real estate crisis forced him to reinvent himself and pushed him to continue his career in Germany. He was one of the first in our country to become a Passive House Designer, which opened the doors to the world of sustainability applied to architecture. Now he is part of the team of a company focused on the development of data centers, working for clients such as Airbus and collaborating with constructors such as Züblin, on very ambitious projects and in contact with sophisticated, advanced tools such as Building Information Modeling.
A family lineage always linked to the construction world
Although there is no precedent in my family in the world of architecture, I can say that we are closely linked to construction. It all started three generations ago with my great grandparents, who were manufacturers of roofing tiles and tenant farmers. In the middle of the last century they bought a plot in Sant Guim de Freixenet, a small town in La Segarra. On that land they raised a roof tile workshop; a brick factory to make all kinds of pottery and construction materials: bricks, tiles… This activity was combined with that of farmers. Later on, the house and animal farms were built on this plot with the materials they manufactured themselves.
A model of progressive professional adaptation to changing times
My paternal grandparents continued that activity, combining it in parallel with the livestock business. However, the roof tile business declined, as the process of manufacturing construction materials became industrialized and the artisanal system that maintained the tile factory ebbed. Probably because of this, my father, Josep Maria, no longer considered following the same professional paths, although he was professionally linked to the construction sector, since he had always worked as a builder. When I was born, in 1980, that roof tile factory was no longer working. We can say that our family, in some way, is the model of progressive adaptation, giving continuity to the previous professions but adapting to the changing times and circumstances; always maintaining links with construction work.
My maternal grandfather overcame the postwar working hard in agricultural tasks
The roof tile factory began during the postwar period – they must have founded it around 1940. Difficult years to carry out any activity. Of course, if my paternal grandparents had to strive to raise their family by combining the brick business with that of farms, my maternal grandfather, Ramon Casanovas, also had a hectic life. He belonged to the Lleva del Biberó, a local military recruiment campaign, which was why he was called to the front along with other teens to fight in the Civil War. He, who had dedicated his whole life to become a farmer, could overcome the challenges of living in the postwar period by working the land from dawn to dusk and helping the neighbors in agricultural tasks at a time when there was no machinery.
Already as a child I enjoyed making bales of hay
I spent my entire childhood in Sant Guim de Freixenet, where I studied elementary education. From that time I remember that games helped us to keep in contact with nature. I have always liked working with mud and clay, and as a child I used to make small figures or vases. But another of the recreational activities recorded in my memory are the huts that we made in the woods or gardens of our friends. Based on branches, we built refuges which fueled our imagination and formed part of our adventures. In June, when the time came to harvest wheat and barley fields (very common in La Segarra), we used to use the straw bales for our buildings. They were smaller than they are now and they could be handled easily. They were tiny, elementary structures, and we were inspired to build constructions with them.
I was always told that my father was very tired when he returned from work
Growing up in a small town is very healthy, precisely because of this contact with nature. It is true that in a city you have more leisure options, but in the countryside you can play in the street without much danger. When I was fourteen I went to study in Cervera, in a high school where I coursed Secondary Education and the University Orientation Course, until I was eighteen. It was then that I began to think about what I would like to focus on professionally. I immediately decided on architecture, as there was a certain predisposition considering my family’s trajectory., . When I was little I used to say that I wanted to be like my father, because I admired him. But both he and my mother, Rosa, tried to make me realize that he was very tired when he returned home every day and that his work was tough. They told me it was better to be an architect. So, in some way, I grew up with this idea. On the other hand, my brother Josep Maria preferred to carry on our father’s work.
While friends sped on with their lives, I was focused on my career
After taking Selectividat exam, my first option was to study at Barcelona’s School of Architecture and my marks allowed me to access that degree. I spent eight years completing it; a period which under my understanding, was very typical at the time I attended the studies. It must be said that I reconciled them with work placements and seasonal work. For a few years back then I focused completely on my career; it absorbed all my time. I noticed that some of my friends’ lives had accelerated, because they had decided not to go to college and instead worked as mechanics, builders, electricians, etc. This allowed them to start earning money, to become independent from parents, to start a family… Whereas I was totally studious.
Learning first-hand the artisan technique of Catalan vault
When I was twenty I started to work for a small construction during the university summer holidays. I used to work as a laborer, working both outdoors and indoors. We repaired old houses, roofs that had collapsed, facades… I was fortunate to meet some builders with artisan skills who showed me how to construct the Catalan vault. It was a delightful experience to see how a ladder was raised with this very old technique which unfortunately is no longer used. It is a very curious structure, capable of supporting each step thanks to a unique vault-like construction.
Josep Sánchez, a key figure in my career
Half way of my degree, when I had the possibility to do internships, I abandoned that summer job and began work in architectural offices; both during the holidays and throughout the course, although during the academic months it was part-time. I started in an office for architecture structures, where I stayed for several months. Subsequently, however, through the School of Architecture’s grant system, I contacted Josep Sánchez’s office, with whom I established a very special connection and with whom I became an architect. It was a small office, with just four people, and I worked there for seven years. Alongside Josep I learned a great deal. I got involved in all the projects and he helped me a lot in my professional development. He is, without a doubt, a key figure in my career as an architect.
Interventions in historic buildings
Josep Sánchez, as well as an architect, is a historian, to the point of being a reference person in the study of the heritage of spas. He has several publications on thermal heritage in Catalonia, Spain and Europe. For this reason, sometimes at the office we would receive orders to intervene in historic buildings, such as spas. However, we mainly intervened in housing; and sometimes we were participated in tenders, either open or restricted. I remember that we won five: one to raise forty homes in Granollers; another for a building of forty-one homes in Manlleu; another at the Travessera de les Corts in Barcelona, of twenty-three houses; the extension and reform of the CAP in Santa Coloma de Queralt, and a promotion of 70 social protec – tion houses in Sant Boi de Llobregat.
Winning a tender is a great encouragement to continue
Josep is very demanding in the distribution of floors and in the represen – tation of the plans. Thanks to this zeal, the results we achieved were of very high quality. It was a pleasure to work together, because he would direct and correct you while also making you feel you were part of the success – he made you feel included in all his projects. It also helped that it was an office of modest dimensions. It was a very interesting stage, working as a team, which in architecture is very important, especially on large projects. The ability to share your ideas, discuss them and contrast them with other professionals is very enriching. If you want to decide everything yourself without consulting anyone, you run the risk of departing from reality. All in all, that time with Josep Sánchez was a magnificent addition to the knowledge acquired at university. Winning tenders provided us with extraordinary joy and compensated for the times in which the office applied to other tenders but did not win, which happened often. Winning is a great satisfaction, but above all it represents a great encouragement to continue; it confirms that you’re doing things right.
Architecture that takes into account the historical component
At the end of my academic career I had to choose a project plan, which meant choosing between different teachers. I decided on Josep Muntañola Thornberg, coordinator of the subject of Projects of the School of Architecture. His practice, which works very well with my way of thinking, is based on the study of Catalan medieval urban centers. The projects they conceive have an important historical component, based on a very centered base in the small towns that have a historical past, often little known or undervalued. Probably because of my origins, I feel identified with this vision. I had the opportunity to develop projects with him; projects that I think give meaning to the architecture because they allow us to understand it from the perspective of historical intervention. It is a way of thinking about the discipline not only as a form, but also as a way to facilitate social exchanges; where knowing how to project, to build and to live all play a part. It is important to take into account the historical context of each period as a basis for architectural development at the service of society; analyze the social and historical origin of each place and understand why they were conceived as such and not in a different way. We now have tools to reinterpret these spaces and give them a new use, a new shape, without losing their essence. I think that this is where the key to poetry in architecture lies.
Final degree project consisting of a Nature Center in Montmaneu
I could put this philosophy into practice on a couple of projects in Montmaneu, very close to Sant Guim. In that municipality I carried out a historical and social investigation and developed it for the final project of the degree. These studies are collected and registered in the Archive of the Catalan Urban Form, which is in Sant Cugat del Vallès, and at the head of which is Magda Saura, professor of the School of Architecture. Through this approach, we studied old maps and plans, we analyzed how the paths and relationships between the different buildings were formed, and even an extensive survey of ancient stone walls, which were not hold in any docu – mentation. Thanks to this task, we found out how the communi cations network had been woven within the territory. This exhaustive study allowed us to detect those points where the urban context had been distorted, and where an architectural intervention would have the best effects to revitalize that environment. Finally, we ended up projecting buildings and interventions at key points in the scheme to give meaning to the whole structure. The leading piece was a nature center located at the highest point of the town. There are some remains of ancient stone walls that had been part of a small defensive structure and that would be integrated into the project. This led to an interesting dialogue between the ancient walls and the new architecture.
Reinterpret before starting from scratch
Architecture is evolution, so we need to update it using what we already have but also taking into account its legacy. It makes no sense to destroy and dispense with history. Reinterpretation is necessary to give new uses according to the times; when we look at the streets, we can find a reflection of all the previous historical episodes. It is a complex subject, because reinterpretation opens up multiple possibilities and all can be coherent and justified. In every case, it is necessary to know how to relate poetics to reality and assess whether it is feasible to reuse something. It does not make sense to reproduce one hundred percent what that building or space had been, because current needs are different and technology has also changed, as well as construction methods. I have always found this a fascinating dialectic.
Expert in Visual Simulation
Even before I started college I was interested in representation through digi – tal media and had the opportunity to try some three-dimensional drawing programs that I was fascinated with. During my degree, this hobby became a useful tool when working on projects and I immediately noticed that, to be successful in presentations and competitions, the visual simulation of the project had to be a key factor. In Josep Sánchez’s office, I often took on tasks of such as representation of perspectives and facades. Together with a colleague from university, Òscar, we started offering a service to create visualizations for other architects and clients. We did it in parallel to our studies and our work. We called it Samtor Studio and we did renderings of all kinds and even some videos. We had a website to promote our work and, during the 7 years that it existed, it registered 100,000 visits. After completing the degree I decided to take a postgraduate course in Visual Simulation to deepen my knowledge in these subjects. There I tried 2D image themes and the creation of interactive virtual scenarios, where the user could move around the building; going through 3D modeling, lighting, materials, rendering and video editing. In the end, whatever the technique used, an architect must express his projects graphically.
The importance of energy efficiency
It is well known that in 2008 we suffered a very deep housing crisis. In my case, by being involved in different competitions, I was affected later. However, in 2010, work was running out at Josep Sánchez’s office, forcing me to go back to live with my parents. I tried to carry out some projects on my own, but they were small and immediately I noticed that, in that rural environment, I had little future. That’s when I started to consider the need to make some changes. I gathered information to find out where architecture was evolving, and I came to the conclusion that energy efficiency created multiple opportunities. The solution seemed to be to reinvent architecture.
Technical Qualification in Solar Thermal Energy
Deciding to focus on energy efficiency, I spent a year doing distance learning in Thermal Solar Energy. This allowed me to obtain the qualification as a technician in the field. However, this certificate has not helped me much. In addition, although the course seemed to offer the possibility of carrying out different practices that could facilitate my reintegration into the labor market, this possibility in the end didn’t pan out. I have to admit, on the other hand, that although solar energy is an interesting aspect in our profession, in fact its representation in this discipline is very testimonial. If we want to develop truly sustainable architecture that is committed to the environment, it is necessary to have a much broader and more general approach.
One of the first thirty Passive House Designer graduates in Spain
My professional career took an important turn in 2011, coinciding with a visit to a sustainable building in Manlleu. That day I met Michel Wassouf, architect and Passivhaus Designer. Born in Damascus, he had spent his academic career in Germany, and at that time he was promoting the adaptation of an energetic standard of German origin to Mediterranean climates. One of his arguments is that a building which is isolated from the cold, also shows good performance in the heat. The Passivhaus is a knowledge developed around homes, which are built in a very sealed and isolated way and require very low energy for heating or cooling. The use of controlled mechanical ventilation allows for air renewal with minimal energy loss. I immediately discovered that it was a much broader concept than solar energy. Michel organized a course to train Passivhaus Designers. I decided to enroll in the first edition of the course in which we came across people from all over Spain. Once I passed the exam, I got the corresponding certificate. I can say that I was one of the thirty first Passivhaus Designer graduates in Spain.
Heading to Germany to deepen my knowledge of energy efficiency
Becoming a Passivhaus Designer was part of a strategy that considered continuing my professional career abroad. And if I wanted to continue learning and training on issues related to energy efficiency, it was necessary for me to move to Germany. Michel had contacts in Frankfurt and this would open many doors in this field. Thanks to him I met many people who were involved in this project. In this way, I started my work experience in Germany, where I’ve been settled for six years now. Even so, and although I only work in that country, I maintain ties with Catalonia and I am a member of both the Official College of Architects of Catalonia and the Architektenkammer of Hessen in Germany.
The first steps with Rook Architekten open my eyes to new concepts
When I arrived in Germany I did not know anyone or had any notion of the German language. I started taking on collaborations with architects known to Michel: Stefanie and Hans-Dieter Rook, a couple also known as Rook Architekten. With them, we worked on a couple of very interesting projects, which not only introduced the Passivhaus concept, but also took into account new concepts such as the urban garden, by inserting crop areas on the roof so that users could cultivate their own vegetables. Likewise, although they projected single-family homes, they had a community dimension that introduced them into patios which invited neighbors to share spaces and foster social relationships. They proposed a type of healthy housing, which included the use of new ways of building using mud, straw, lime, wood… ecological materials that take the Passivhaus concept a step further.
Modern architecture must be committed to the environment
Much has been said about the global warming of the planet and the need to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Also, a change of mind set is urgently needed due to the current quantity of waste generated, which is dumped in nature, and the use of limited natural resources. In Germany compliance with energy efficiency standards is assumed, and all new buildings meet standards such as the Passivhaus or similar. The additional costs involved in complying with these principles are offset by improved energy performance and, in the long run, they end up being offset. Even buildings are developed that, through plates or other mechanisms, produce more energy than they need. It is what can be called Active House or Plusenergiehaus – they derive the energy left over from the power grid. During my first years in Germany, working with bb22 Architekten, I collaborated on the project of the first Plusenergiehaus housing in the city of Bad Homburg.
The use of natural materials and the learning of old techniques
However, in the midst of all this sophistication of efficient architecture, it should not be forgotten that materials must also be sustainable. The com – bination of both sides is what allows us to move forward in our commitment to the environment; in the end, and with respect to the architecture, it has to do with the reduction of the CO2 by controlling the materials we use. There is an emerging trend that seeks to simplify the construction process with the incorporation of these more natural resources and the use of materials that do not have a chemical origin or where energy consumption has been minimal in their production processes. Wood is a material that is traditionally very present in German buildings, because there is a lot of local production and it does not come with high transport costs. Humidity will always be better regulated if the house is made with clay rather than plaster since clay helps to maintain better air quality, because it absorbs moisture when necessary and releases it when it is excessive. Straw, on the other hand, is a good insulator, while wood adopts a more structural function and lime may be part of the outer coating. In addition, when these natural materials have finished their life cycle they are biodegraded and do not have any impact on the environment. Attracted by these principles, in June of 2015 I moved for a few days to an Austrian town to learn first-hand about the Austrian Straw Bale Network, that promotes the construction with mud and straw. There I participated in a workshop where we put these techniques into practice in the rehabilitation of a house. From this experience I learned that, although these processes can be industrialized and wood and straw panels can be prefabricated, there are also basic techniques that allow consumers to self-construct, something within everyone’s reach.
Learning German thanks to the kindness of Mr. Hartmurt
Going to Germany was a personal decision. Sad, perhaps, but enriching; because it made me move forward and allowed me to discover new people and acquire interesting knowledge. I don’t regret it at all, because I learned new ways of working, another culture, a new language… German was very difficult to learn, but I knew that I would need it if I wanted to develop my career in this country. At first I encountered many difficulties, because I was not able to complete any administrative tasks, since I did not receive help in English. Finally, I found someone who helped me a lot: Mr. Hartmurt, a great man. During the first 3 months until I found my first job, he taught me German and helped me with the administrative tasks. I bumped into him in Egelsbach, a town near Frankfurt, where we both formed part of Chor St. Josef, a choir from the church I went to, encouraged by the first family who had rented me a room. He is a retired professor who, lately, has also volunteered to teach the language of Goethe to Syrian refugees. Later I took more courses in Frankfurt and I got the C1 certificate of German, crucial to be able to advance in certain jobs.
I’m part of a company mainly focused on the projection of data centers
The first two and a half years in Germany I participated mainly in singlefamily and multi-family housing projects in Frankfurt. For more than three years now I have been part of the team of ttsp hwp seidel. I feel very comfortable in this company. The projects we carry out are different from those that had been developed so far. I have found a very friendly, very professional and warm group. It is a company that worries about the team skills of its members, which I value very highly. Despite being located in Germany, it is an international organization. It is made up of some thirtyfive people, speaking eleven different languages. Our main activity is office buildings and, in particular, technical centers or data centers: buildings that host computer equipment and servers to store data.
We are building the largest data center in Germany and one of the largest in Europe
Among the projects we have carried out is a data center for Airbus, in the Bavarian region. It is a modest project, of about two thousand five hundred square meters, but at an energy level, it is currently the most efficient in Germany. These types of buildings consume a lot of energy, and this is one of the most complex aspects to manage. It is valued for the amount of energy required and the proportion between the amount of energy that is useful and the amount of energy that is lost. On the other hand, we are also working on a data center that, once finished, will be the largest in Germany and one of the largest in Europe. It is being built in Magdeburg, Lower Saxony, and it is impressive because, on a daily basis, there are a total of seven hundred people working in a very coordinated way. The management of this human team has enormous merit. We are talking about a building made up of six modules of twenty thousand square meters each. When you build this type of equipment, you have the feeling that you are working for machines, making an enclosure for them allowing them to obtain maximum performance. And one of the main challenges lies in ensuring good cooling and preventing them from getting hotter than they should. In this type of projects the technical part is very important. The architect must give constructive support not only to the demands raised by the users of the buil – ding but also to many technical engineering requirements.
We will project a building where tests will be carried out with hybrid and electric aircraft engines
In Lower Saxony, we also applied to a tender for an administrative building of seven thousand five hundred square meters for the University of Osna – brück, and we won it. And now we are preparing a new, very innovative project for Airbus, also in the Bavaria region. It is a research center for the development of aircraft engines that work with electric power. It is a very special building, because it includes rooms where the tests of the engines are carried out, which have enormous potential; therefore, it is necessary to take into account the unique requirements that come from having aircraft engines in operation within a building. We have to tackle issues such as a great warming of the building in this area, the need for great acoustic insulation or the energy loads that these motors cause. It is a concept with which we had never worked and that now we will have the opportunity to experiment with and be able to check which is the reactive behavior of the building
The Building Information Modeling allows an exhaustive control of the work
Another interesting facet we are developing at ttsp hwp seidel is projects with the BIM, an acronym for Building Information Modeling. Unlike the tradi- tional lines of the plans, the BIM generates objects in three dimen – sions. But, in addition, this management software allows the introduction of different parameters of the elements, such as its resistance to fire or the value of its sound insulation, so that later there is the possibility to more easily manage the entire project, integrated into a single file but which allows downloading partial information on a certain aspect. Thus, different plans can be generated for the different specializations that will intervene in the construction and that are coordinated in a central file. Consequently, contradictions within projects are avoided and control is facilitated. In this sense, we must not forget that the architect must assume a coordinating task; and must be able to transmit the information in an appropriate manner to each professional involved in the execution of the project. This central model can also facilitate the calculation of costs, as well as the evaluation of the time that will have to be invested in the construction of the different parts. All this is very important in large buildings to coordinate extensive human teams.
A change as great as how to draw plans on a computer
The Building Information Modeling generates many expectations among architects, although its implementation is slower than might be imagined. It is a trend that implies that the usual two-dimensional plans, which accumulate so many letters and so much information making comprehension difficult sometimes causing multiple different readings, will be replaced by this option, which is to model the objects in 3D. It is another important change in the world of architecture, similar to the change from drawing the drawings by hand to digitally. Not many days ago, I also witnessed a program that allows you to visualize the work and walk into it as if it were a video game. Virtual recreation is a tendency that, in the long run, will end up being profitable; especially because it will prevent errors and, therefore, savings in rectifications.
In Germany I found the opportunity to work in the activity of my dreams
The feeling I get from my career is to have experienced a great evolution. Following the crisis I had to start from scratch, undertake new projects and assimilate new concepts. Although the start was not easy and I had to fight constantly, coming to Germany allowed me to evolve very quickly. The experiences derived from this situation in a new country have enriched me not only in the professional aspect but also on a personal level. When I left Catalonia I was accompanied by a feeling of disappointment and demotivation. Here I have recovered that lost excitement. Germany is a demanding country, yes; but it does offer rewards. My goal was to be able to move forward independently and I have achieved it. I have the opportunity to work in the activity of my dreams. That is why I am so happy now, thinking that I have the potential to develop a very exciting professional career going forward. Certainly, I have no plans to return to Catalonia, although I have a certain sense of longing. But life has taught me that you cannot make long-term plans…