Tilting up nature protection
Innovative noise protection as a vertical nature conservation measure

‘Brandenburg’s Alhambra’

A motorway as an occasion and opportunity

Near the village of Nebelin, the A14 federal autobahn is to cut through the Elbe River Landscape Biosphere Reserve in Brandenburg. In the area where the motorway will pass the outer district of Nebelin ‘Siedlung an der Bahn’ at close distance of only a few meters, a 570 meter long noise barrier is officially required. Noise measurements by the residents of the village have revealed that this measure is not sufficient to protect the sensitive area. Based on the concerns of the local people concerning the construction of the motorway, the ‘Zentrum für Peripherie’ (Centre for Periphery) has taken the situation as an opportunity to initiate an idea development process, to use the potential of the region, to preserve its special beauty and quality of life, and in this way to initiate a forward-looking and economically relevant process: to develop an effective and at the same time close-to-nature solution, innovative in several respects – that is, a noise barrier wall made of loam directly excavated on the spot.

Feasibility study for a loam noise barrier

From the point of view of the BASt, the project “Alhambra Brandenburgs” offers the possibility to scientifically accompany a construction method on the example of an infrastructure project (…) . The combination of noise protection, landscape protection, nature conservation and resource conservation – the use of soil as building material, for the service area building as well – instead of treating it as waste: the BASt has been waiting for a pilot project with these qualities for a long time, and is committed to its realization due to the interesting investigation possibilities.
(Dr. Birgit Kocher, LRDir Dirk Heuzeroth, Dept. of Environmental Protection, Federal Highway Research Institute BASt)

We were able to investigate the advantages of a loam noise barrier in sustainable construction as part of a feasibility study with an international research team. Unlike most other construction materials, loam can be renaturated or recycled without costly disposal. The investigated loam building variants have a longer service life and lower maintenance requirements than conventional solutions. We were able to demonstrate the factors of acoustic insulation effect, lower climate impact of the cob construction method (in German termed ‘Wellerlehmbau‘) compared to conventional construction methods, its stability and longevity. Besides noise protection, we additionally designed integrated elements to add ecological functions on the wall side not facing the traffic lanes, such as elements offering .breeding sites for protected wild bees and other insects, and nesting sites for several species of endangered bats.

The magnitude of the structure demands an economic approach and the development of technical procedures for large-scale production. By means of the latter, ‘Brandenburg’s Alhambra‘ could be the first project to bring the cob construction method technologically up to date and make it usable for contemporary building construction. After the renaissance of timber construction, loam construction could become a pioneer for resource-conserving building, enabling a circular economy without downcycling. The use of locally excavated loam makes soil visible as a construction material, but also brings soil into focus as an important natural resource. Innovations with regard to the design as a habitat, for example the use of specially developed ‘bee stones‘, bat niches, or a ‘folded‘ ground layout for the wall to create diverse microclimatic areas maximize the ecological potential of the building material.

Necessary basis for the development of the present project are numerous process innovations: by means of accompaniment by contemporary, experimental art, it is possible to explore domains that seem to lie beyond the realm of the feasible. The project is exemplary for innovations, the basis of which lies in the cooperation of local residents, culture, landscape and building culture as an expandable and complex system. Inventions, ideas, contributions and appointments are co-designed and influenced and modified by very diverse social groups.

Infrastructure as public space – ‘Brandenburg’s Alhambra’

We have to break the system in which we in Germany consider (motorways and) rest areas as extraterrestrial places: by means of their reference to the landscape and through committed inclusion of the neighbouring places and the larger environment. […] It’s about broadening the perspective and understanding the motorway service area as an interface, as a place of exchange […].
(Rainer Nagel, Bundesstiftung Baukultur)

‘Brandenburg’s Alhambra’ is conceived as a construction that protects people, landscape and nature, and which combines innovative and economical process technology with a contemporary language of form. With a designed length of about 4.2 km, it would be the largest contemporary loam building ensemble in Europe. The project covers an area of approximately 26 hectares, which would accommodate the loam construction service building, loam noise barrier walls, and a large, biologically diverse multi-purpose green space.
We believe that intermediate zones and what are now non-places should be recognized and used as parts of a global (urban) development strategy. Infrastructures, roads, bridges and rest areas represent connecting elements and extensions of urban spaces. However, their construction often disregards the qualities of natural and cultural landscapes outside of measurable ecological factors. As ‘transit zones’, their potential as public spaces has so far been ignored. We therefore take the ‘violation’ of the landscape as an inducement for the development of a construction method that relates this extension of urban space to the landscape surrounding it and to the people, animals and plants inhabiting this landscape. This way, an (urban) infrastructure becomes a constitutive moment of contemporary building culture, and a motorway service station becomes a groundbreaking project: besides being a rest area for long-range travelling motorists, it may represent a point of attraction for cyclists and walkers in the surrounding landscape, a lecture hall and conference venue, a research object and beacon of climate-sensitive and climate-friendly construction.

Pursuing an active sustainability strategy, loam construction as a fundamental aspect of the project takes the relationship between humans and environment into consideration. It influences and stimulates the population to participate indirectly and directly in climate protection by means of direct experience of nature, the creation of a sense of responsibility and educational opportunities, and it adds a cultural narrative to the usual climate adaptation measures. This special building material, loam, is natural under both a physical and under an aesthetic aspect and – as it dispenses with synthetic additives – can be recycled indefinitely. Moreover, it can be extracted and processed on site. The projected shape of the noise protection wall contributes to the creation of ecologically valuable, varied microclimates. Due to wall thickness and the material used, interiors of loam buildings have a particularly balancing indoor climate in the case of hot and cold weather, of humid and dry air.
Scientific monitoring of the construction project will allow further research into the specific properties of the construction material. One of the basic ideas of the project we are proposing is the development of technological innovations to make the material available for contemporary building construction.

At the basis of the project stands a planning process concerning the design of the base structures in such a way as to achieve coexistence of innovation in construction, noise protection, nature conservation and the experience of nature. Due to the special qualities of this process, the building planned in this way has the potential to help a 100% recyclable construction material to accomplish a relevant breakthrough in architecture; it may function as a trailblazer for the coexistence of new technology and sustainable planning and building.

Company foundation as a motor

A solid noise barrier like this could really give [the region and loam as a building material of the future] a push. […] Changing building culture in a sustainable way is only possible in the cooperation of lighthouse projects, education and the creation of companies that can accomplish that. There is a lot of interest, but there is a lack of appropriate companies at the moment.
(Martin Rauch, loam building expert and entrepreneur)

On the occasion of the implementation of a pilot project of this scale, we are planning to set up a common-good-oriented company for the production of large prefabricated rammed earth and cob building blocks. With the sizeable construction site for the ‘Alhambra’ as an impulse, the expertise of Martin Rauch as the world’s leading rammed earth entrepreneur and the jointly developed prefabrication process technology in Wellerlehmbau (cob construction technology), a future-oriented production, research, and training facility can be founded. The company’s goal is to produce self-supporting loam constructions at affordable prices.

According to market and location analyses and according to the statements of experts and local entrepreneurs, the project can set sustainable development impulses for the entire region and establish the Prignitz district of Brandenburg as a vanguard for a contemporary loam building culture which may evolve based on already existing, traditional know-how. By incorporating research and education, this would create a point of attraction for trainees and international specialists.

Parallel to the establishment of production, new evaluation criteria for sustainable building appropriate to the times are to be formulated in cooperation with the Zentrum für Peripherie and the researchers involved in the project. A new architectural design language is to be developed that exploits the climate-friendly potential of loam building for a construction culture of the 21st century. This goes hand in hand with the development of further prototypes, which see buildings, landscape, inhabitants, and all living beings in coexistence.

An academy

If you combine such a strong sign as the loam noise barrier and the service area with an academy, it could have a very big impact.
(Martin Rauch, rammed earth construction expert and entrepreneur)

With its academy, the Zentrum für Peripherie makes unexpected, constructive and concrete solutions conceivable and possible. In the context of the ‘Alhambra of Brandenburg’, this represents the establishment of a training and research facility that, in further development of the Bauhaus doctrine, conceives innovation, craftsmanship, construction, science and art as acting together.

As an academy in the spirit of a New European Bauhaus, it builds on artistic practices, technological innovation and making complexity comprehensible in order to meet ecological, economic and social challenges.
It brings people together in ways in which each perspective is valued and visible, thus contributing to a rich ecosystem of ideas. Dysfunctions such as those of the educational system in terms of inequality of opportunities, the overburdening of large bureaucratic apparatuses, catastrophic environmental pollution, inequality in the world, the lack of understanding between groups – each convinced of their respective truths –, all that represents the starting point for processes of change. Problems that seem unsolvable serve as indicators that other solutions are needed than those envisioned by the respective concept.

In recent years, the Zentrum für Peripherie has developed two beacon projects in loam construction from scratch, employing new participatory formats that incorporate the uncertainty inherent in the complexity of construction, space, and social interaction. In the process, technological innovations have been developed that advance loam as a sustainable material for the building sector, and procedural innovations have been made that enable participatory planning and which contribute to the constitution of problem-solving groups. By drawing on this work, we have identified fundamental aspects for an academy that can contribute to a global future.

  1. Vividness
    Making complex systems and their changeability visible. Artistic work establishes comprehensibility where technical and scientific work reach their limits.
  2. Reliability
    A publicly accessible space with a small, consistent staff provides space at reliable times.
  3. Comprehension
    Physical apprehension, sensory understanding, humor, and indeterminacy are unifying elements, beauty represents an identity-building goal.
  4. Freedom of view
    Incomprehensible complexity serves as a motivation for conscious handling of presence, change of perspective, structure, improvisation, freedom of hierarchy and emptiness.
  5. Research
    Problems are taken as creative challenges and as a chance to take perspectives that are at first sight unusual, and as an opportunity to involve and bring together various research fields and the respective specialists.
  6. Technology
    Solutions for practical contemporary problems and their technological implementation are pursued in depth. From this, the foundation of companies may follow.
  7. Architecture
    The functionality and beauty of architecture created in the process is researched as an indicator for its quality.
  8. Urban development
    The developed architectures, processes and technologies are used in their potential to contribute to a vibrant urban environment.
  9. The role of art in society
    Transformation processes are seen as collaborative works with multiple authorship.
  10. The establishment of international exchange
    Networking of artists and researchers working with the form of processes.

The service area, the production facility, and the Zentrum für Peripherie

The A14 autobahn service area near Nebelin as a public space is the place where contemporary loam building technology, the quality of open-ended planning processes and the local landscape can be experienced in combination with loam as a construction material. It represents the core of the loam construction ensemble. The service area can be reached from the motorway side by both long-distance individual and public transport, and is directly connected to the motorway as a filling and rest area. From the side of the village Nebelin, it can be reached on foot and via a bicycle path. This is intended to connect the service area to the region’s network of cycle paths and link it to the adjacent villages and the Elbe River Landscape Biosphere Reserve.

The envisaged construction company as a production site will be able to implement the large-scale ‘Alhambra of Brandenburg’ project. It represents a place of technological development where the know-how of contemporary loam building methods is being maintained with sensitivity for its possibilities in terms of architectural beauty and biological habitat; the methods of rammed earth and cob construction are driven forward from here to large-scale implementation. The company will offer training courses and will participate in research projects.
The Zentrum für Peripherie as a solution-seeking think tank uses the potential of open artistic processes. Ideas are developed in open-ended and participatory processes and are tried out and implemented in real-life situations. The Zentrum für Peripherie initiates open workshop procedures, idea development and planning processes. To this end, it networks artists, urban planners, craftsmen, engineers and educators. In its projects, it assumes that new ideas emerge in social, geographical and intellectual peripheries.

Sustainability goals

‘Brandenburg’s Alhambra’ in the Prignitz region has the potential to become a European showcase project for building culture, climate and environmental protection.
(Baukulturinitiative Brandenburg)

The position at the Elbe River Landscape Biosphere Reserve underscores the importance of countering noise pollution with sensitively thought-out protective measures. Architecture and engineering, further developed and updated with loam construction technology, ensures durability and sustainability. “The material visibility of the loam and the technical construction of the wall pursue natural aesthetics, architectural individuality and sensitivity to the environment. With the active use of resources and noise minimization, the structure contributes to ecological and social resilience.” (Baukulturinitiative Brandenburg).

The socio-political core of the matter is the development of ideas together with local people and specialists. The involvement of local stakeholders strengthens regional value creation and promotes the pioneering role in the field of sustainable construction of the currently structurally weak region.

The construction of a noise protection loam construction ensemble along with the construction of the A14 motorway at, and cutting through the biosphere region fully complies with the intentions of UNESCO biosphere reserves. This becomes clear in reference to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to which the German government has committed itself.

  • SDG Goal 12: The loam noise barrier wall will use regional, natural building materials. These can be reused indefinitely and don’t release harmful emissions.
  • SDG Goal 15: The loam wall provides valuable habitat for insects as well as other protected species.
  • SDG Goal 9: The construction of a noise protection loam wall strengthens the economic performance of businesses located in the region, as well as local expertise in loam construction. The innovative capacity of small and medium-sized enterprises is strengthened through cooperation with the associated scientific institutions (TU Berlin, TH Lübeck, Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen – Federal Highway Research Institute).
  • SDG Goal 17: The construction of the noise barrier represents a cooperative partnership in the region; the involvement of some daycare centres and schools of Wittenberge and Perleberg demonstrates intergenerational cooperation to the benefit of the region.

In addition, a noise barrier built of loam picks up on an identity-forming feature of the regional cultural and natural landscape: the architectural culture. In the villages and small towns, typical regional house and courtyard forms shape the environment and contribute to the character of the landscape.

The model function of biosphere reserves makes such a pilot project particularly significant in this location. At the same time, its long-term support (the research and monitoring task of the UNESCO biosphere reserve and the Federal Highway Research Institute involved in the pilot project) ensures monitoring and thus its broad impact. The noise protection construction ensemble shows how a large infrastructure project (the construction of the A14 motorway) can be scientifically accompanied in a largely natural landscape while pursuing sustainability goals, and enables the exploration of how the adverse effects can be reduced.

Project initiator

Zentrum für Peripherie (Center for periphery)

Projectpartners

  • M. Sc. Anika Kristin Gathof, Institute of Ecology, TU Berlin (wild bees habitat)
  • Dr. Dieter Günnewig, Bosch & Partner GmbH (evaluation as an ecological compensation measure)
  • Christian Hansel, Lehmbau Lovis UG (Wellerlehmbau/cob construction)
  • Prof. Arch. DPLG CEAA Heiner Lippe, TH Lübeck (tests and analyses)
  • Dr.-Ing. Jan Mittelstädt, Knippers Helbig GmbH (structural engineering and construction statics)
  • Martin Rauch, Lehm Ton Erde Baukunst GmbH, Mag. (rammed loam construction)
  • Ute Reeh, Zentrum für Peripherie (process and form)
  • Bundesanstalt für Straßenwesen, Department of Environmental Protection (scientific support)
  • Bundesstiftung Baukultur, Chairman of the Board Reiner Nagel (aspect of building culture)
  • Elbe River Biosphere Reserve, Dr. Heike Ellner (consulting and monitoring)
  • Matthias Behrendt, Head of the village Nebelin municipality
    Christian Gadow, head of the building department of the municipality of Karstädt

The feasibility study was supported by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU) as well as by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Economics of Brandenburg.

Image montage showing the course of the A14 motorway and the service area on an aerial view. Red: loam walls, which merge into the service area building. Orange: guiding structures for people. Ochre: bicycle and footpath. Montage by Ute Reeh, Sebastian Bertalan