Intellectual energy – Energy Academy Europe, Groningen, Netherlands

A new building in the Netherlands which brings two universities together to help the country move towards a renewables-led future, appropriately embodies sustainable design. James Parker reports on how the architects focused on passive approaches for a carbon-neutral result.

While the Netherlands may appear to be a forward-thinking country in many ways, when it comes to reliance on fossil fuels it’s some way behind other leading Western economies. In 2016 it was second to last among EU nations on progress towards renewable alternatives, but a new, appropriately low-energy, education building in north eastern Holland is part of the effort to change that.

Part of the reason for the Netherlands’ continued allegiance to fossil fuels has been the Groningen natural gas field, discovered 3 km below the surface in 1959. This attracted global firms such as Royal Shell, and created what project architect Aldo Vos of Rotterdam firm Broekbakema describes as an economic ‘gas bubble.’ However, while it hasn’t yet burst, those natural resources have been severely reduced, and this has meant that transitioning to renewables is not only an ethical aim but an essential one to protect the country’s infrastructure.

Taking natural gas from the soil for decades has caused geological changes underground, leading to ongoing small earthquakes which are endangering buildings and infrastructure. This is part of the reason for the creation of the Energy Academy Europe, built on the Zernike Campus of the University of Groningen (RUG) and dedicated to exploring solutions to the problem of making a profitable transition to renewables. No surprises then that amongst its many other attributes, the building is designed to be earthquake-proof.

A “huge amount of knowledge” has developed in the region around energy, says Vos. This particularly resides in the local universities – the RUG (specifically the university’s Energy and Sustainability Research Institute), and also the nearby Hanze University of Applied Sciences (HUAS). Substantial knowledge also exists in the energy business community, and these interests all come together, and have bases in, in the new Energy Academy. The project had world-class sustainability aims, to achieve BREEAM Outstanding, and having gained an impressive 89.6 per cent rating, it picked up a BREEAM Award earlier this year.

As is common in many progressive educational establishments, the intention is that the different organisations will collaborate and share knowledge to produce practical solutions as well as business models for low carbon technologies. As Aldo Vos evocatively puts it, “there are a lot of different blood types in this building, businessmen, researchers, students”. He adds: “They have to work together, so meeting one another is one of the main goals.” To this end, the architects, once appointed by RUG (which is aiming to become carbon neutral), designed a highly transparent, connected set of spaces, which combine low-tech energy solutions with a focus on collaboration.

‘Visibility’ – one of the architects’ guiding terms for this project for the architects, means a very visible use of renewables in the form of 1600 PV panels arranged in clusters on the sloping roof – itself oriented carefully to maximise efficiency. The architects have pulled off the seemingly impossible trick of putting enough panels on the roof to constitute ‘100 per cent coverage’ while also designing half of the roof with skylights. This is because the steel roof structure includes triangular sections each supporting 12 panels, mounted on their size in a series of specific gradients to catch the sun over the course of the day.

This makes for architectural interest in itself, the resulting wave-like forms being a strong statement of how such installations can be exploited to enhance the overall form. As Aldo Vos says, “the solar panels become part of the architecture.”

The site is on the north side of Groningen, “in the heart of the campus,” and the building has been fitted between several academic buildings, including the earth-roofed Institute of Biology. Very close by was an old 1960s physics faculty, now demolished, with research staff having been moved across to the Energy Academy.

Building form & collaboration space

The architects designed a somewhat unusual elongated hexagonal geometry for the building, with two long sides and four short, to enable it to fit into the site with better quality public space. “We made a building with six sides, principally to create space around the building, and avoid any narrow alleys,” says Vos. He adds that this particular shape was also chosen because it “works really well with the triangles in the roof.”

The external form also allowed a simple, linear but also flexible internal arrangement of spaces, with the programme going from north to south. On the north side are RUG’s laboratories and offices, and on the south side the education facilities including seminar rooms and lecture theatres, as well as an open plan office/workspace area for HUAS. Some of the innovative work undertaken by the laboratories includes calculating climate change levels using samples taken from building materials to assess their CO2 levels.

Vos says that with there being three different types of user in this building, there are “three different typologies,” namely the laboratories, educational areas, and offices. “The University of Groningen side is more traditional,” he says, “whereas the applied science university has new, more activity-related ways of working.”

As part of fostering collaboration (and in a design response which Broekbakema has used successfully before), the building has a full-height atrium running east-west, with ramped walkways connecting across from the University of Groningen’s labs and offices to the education areas to the south, as well as HUAS’ workspaces. This ‘street’

is one of the key areas where the two separate institutions can meet, as well as the businesses using the facility for seminars. Being a compact building, light had to be brought in from above to offset artificial lighting needs – “we needed lots of rooflights,” says Vos – resulting in an attractive composition of triangular rooflights alternating with grey steel triangles.

The architects identified coffee breaks as a key device to make users come to the atrium space and interact. Aldo Vos: “Researchers and students want to drink coffee. We took all the utilities like the coffee area out of their work areas and put them on the common floors in the atrium space. There are print facilities and meeting spaces; you’re pulling people out of their comfort zones so they can meet each other.” Another innovative meeting area, and alternative workspace, is the winter garden on the building’s south side, which can be accessed from the education and seminar research labs however, which have a more discreet and traditional design appropriate to the client’s need for privacy.

He says interestingly that with the two colleges working side by side in the new building, the RUG professors are observing and learning from their less traditional counterparts in applied sciences. They have “a lot more interaction with students and with each other, with student and teacher spaces mixed to a much greater degree,” says Vos.


The Energy Academy, thanks to a rigorous design approach embracing passive solutions where possible, has achieved a very low energy use figure of 51 kWh/m2 per year. As with the roof, the architects have managed to make a virtue of energy-reducing design features on the facade.

The main external feature of interest on otherwise straightforward flat, glazed facades, are the wavy vertical brise soleil made from Siberian larch (from Dutch forests) – which the project architect says would otherwise have been used for biomass. They undulate between 5 cm and a maximum of 45 cm, the result of calculations on controlling solar gain to particular areas, and keep the building as cool as possible on hot days. Their form also provides an appealing softening to the facades. Internally, window frames and floors are also from Dutch forests, but are American oak.

To add further external variety, the ratio of glazing to wall is 50 per cent to the offices on the east and west-facing facades, but around 80 per cent to the south winter garden side, and the north, which doesn’t have direct sunlight. The external facade has triple glazing, although windows can still be opened, whereas internally it is double-glazed.

There are other low-tech, and less visible passive solutions that enabled this building to attain its high BREEAM score, and which Broekbakema worked closely with Arup to achieve. In particular, they wanted to use the building itself to provide not just natural ventilation, but natural ‘air conditioning’ using geothermal design.

External air is gently pumped through a subterranean concrete ‘labyrinth’ running under the entirety of the education rooms to the south of the building, warming it to around 10 degrees. This means the Energy Academy is consistently warm in winter, and cool in summer (when cool air will be taken in via the winter garden overnight).

The labyrinth is intended to save around 20 per cent of the energy of a normal HVAC installation.

While this is a relatively simple, although space-hungry solution, working with it is the more exotic ‘solar chimney’, which creates a convection current drawing air from the labyrinth up through the building. With a glazed face plus a black layer underneath, when the sun shines onto the chimney the air temperature at the top is raised to nearly 100 degrees centigrade.

Concrete core activation, now a common method in the Netherlands, is also used to keep the building’s concrete structural elements at a constant temperature and reduce the need for mechanical cooling and heating. Says Vos: “As well as creating our own HVAC system using concrete and a wintergarden, we make use of the earth to cool concrete floors using water pipes”.

Two water reservoirs 100 metres below the surface provide heating and cooling, cold water is pumped from one into the building to absorb heat in the summer, then pumped back to the second reservoir as a heat store. In winter this is reversed, the water also heated by a heat pump and then flowing into underfloor heating to provide 60 per cent of the building’s heating needs.

Lighting is LED and only comes on when occupants are detected, and users being able to use ramps rather than the lift saves a lot of energy. Lastly, water for flushing toilets and watering plants in the winter garden is collected in this reservoir, running down the sloping roof.

There is a back-up system of standard HVAC heating and cooling installations throughout the building, including a small gas boiler, however Vos hopes that “it will never need to run”. He says that this means the building is like a hybrid car, but in this case one that largely runs on renewables. “Almost eight months of the year the installations won’t need to work,” he says.

To reach the highest levels of BREEAM, Vos says that standard air conditioning methods are likely to be required to complement passive solutions, to ensure user comfort. “If you want a BREEAM Outstanding building the comfort levels required are quite high and have to be guaranteed all year round”. While acknowledging the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of BREEAM requiring more mechanical HVAC solutions to achieve the high score this building gained, Vos approves of how the scoring system “makes you search for a good balance and for really smart solutions.”


The building was opened in September, and the client and architect are collecting data on its energy performance, and, says Vos, “hopefully in a year or so we can say it’s working as we hoped and designed it”. Putting passive design to the fore but retaining traditional services as back-up, the architect says this hybrid building, like hybrid cars, represents a new stage in the learning process of how to create much more energy-efficient facilities. “A decade ago we had the Toyota Prius and now we have the Tesla, and we want this to be the Tesla of the building industry”.

Project Details

Project: Energy Academy Europe
Client: RUG (University of Groningen) Hanze University of Applied Sciences
Architect: Broekbakema (Aldo Vos, Sander Veenstra, Steven Schulze), in collaboration with pvanb architecten
BREEAM: Outstanding (BREEAM-NL)
Emissions: Zero, after 40 years, including construction
EPc: Zero or less
Energy use: 51 kWh/m² per year gross floor area: 12,676 m²