Architecture and geothermal – award for designs of proposed geothermal co-operative

Architecture and geothermal – award for designs of proposed geothermal co-operative Geothermal facilities, Valle del Diavolo, Tuscany, Italy (design and images, Robert Beeny)
Alexander Richter 20 Dec 2020

Winning the prestigious RIBA award for his architectural concept and design of a geothermal co-operative in Devil’s Valley (Valle del Diavolo) in Tuscany, Italy, Robert Beeny gave us some insights into this project.

In an approach to engineering, development and public acceptance, geothermal development faces a number of challenges. First the exploration, drilling and related visual impact of equipment and construction will effect how the public sees geothermal development, but there is also the time thereafter when a plant is operating. Often only an afterthought given the remote locations of many plants, with an increase in heat development in urban settings, the way we design the plants and facilities will effect how we fit into the city both from a visual perspective, but also from a social acceptance point of view.

There is though also the social element of the impact of a geothermal plant to the local economy. How does the plant fit into the social-economic environment? Does it create jobs, support local businesses etc. How we fit plants into the social settings is therefor crucial.

So when we stumbled across an architectural award for a student in the UK who took geothermal as a topic, we were quite intrigued.

Announced in this month, Robert Beeny of the University of Westminster in the UK, won the President’s Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), an award first given in 1836 and today the most prestigious prizes in architectural education globally. Learn more about the award here.

In his project, Robert drew up a concept for a geothermal co-operative in Devil’s Valley in Tuscany, Italy.  Touching base with him, we wanted to learn more about the background and motivation on his project.

Robert, first of all congratulations to the award, which we assume is a great honour.

What can you tell us how you got interested in geothermal and using it for this project?

My interest in the geothermal industry ultimately began through a university visit to Tuscany where we as architecture students were researching recent revolutions that had occurred within the countryside. Through this research I discovered the region of Valle del Diavolo which when visiting I instantly became captivated by. The landscape is truly surreal. The juxtaposition between the infrastructure relating to the geothermal industry and the natural landscape is incredibly powerful and even more intriguing when you realise that this scenario is actually responsible for producing renewable energy.

When starting the project and researching geothermal what were you most intrigued about in the context of what geothermal has to offer?

I think personally it was the witnessing of the pipelines dancing across the landscape which intrigued me first. Then as I began trying to trace and map these pipelines to figure out where they had come from and where they were going then I became more interested as I found that many of the ducts where terminating at a greenhouse or agricultural site. Through this exercise it was only then I found there was a whole community of farmers and artisans producing goods using this thermal energy. This was how I became so intrigued, how had I not known about the benefits of using this energy source within an agricultural setting? Through further research I became aware of the cascading thermal systems that could be implemented. The idea that developments, communities ultimately architecture could be ordered by their temperature use was for me hugely exciting.

In the project description, you talk about the challenges faced by geothermal in Tuscany. How does your project target some of those challenges?

Through researching this region, I was made aware of the recent challenges and issues facing the industry both at an economic level as well as at a social level within the local communities. It seemed to me that there was a growing divide between the people producing the energy and the people who live and work beside the plants. Although the people were positively using this sustainable energy source, their position as consumers seemed fragile so the project ultimately attempts to shift control back to the local people. Instead of being the consumers, they are the owners, builders and benefactors of the production of the renewable energy. I think at a broader level, my ambition for the project was to question why we should settle for and feel comfortable about our energy being produced at a national level. Why can’t it be down scaled and localised?

Fitting buildings, industrial or residential, into landscapes is we guess an important element in architecture, but how important is it for industrial buildings such as energy production sites?

I think this is a very interesting question, my first response is that we shouldn’t be trying to “fit” in these typologies into existing conditions. I think the opposite needs to happen, we as architects, urban planners, designers need to respond and react positively to these production sites or renewable energy plants. I believe our future cities, towns and urban developments need to be shaped and planned according to how they are powered and heated. We shouldn’t be scared about buildings appearing too industrial or non-contextual, obviously these buildings should be designed well and sensitively but I feel this is a superficial concern. We should celebrate our renewable energy plants and infrastructure.

In the designs shared, you describe the multiple use of geothermal energy in a flow or cascade. How important is it to not only functionally but also visually connect these different elements into one cohesive design?

Yes it’s absolutely essential I think and follows on from the previous question, we need to be thinking about how renewables can drive building design and architecture. For me it is not good enough to try to “bolt” on these elements after designing, they should be at the core of how we design today. The cascading system is so exciting because it is a visual and tangible experience. We can see the infrastructure physically connecting the spaces and through this we start to understand the thinking underpinning the architecture.

Likely having looked at several geothermal plants as part of your research, what would you describe as the most challenging from a design perspective and what would you think could make plants fit better into their surroundings?

Again I believe we shouldn’t be needing to better fit, hide or disguise these plants. I think it’s a pity that subjective factors such as aesthetics should be ruling whether these plants can be built, after all we are talking about clean, renewable energy production. Obviously, that doesn’t mean we don’t think hard about their design, of course we should. But I think our efforts would be best spent worrying about how we are going to power our world in the future and so we should be engaging with this industry positively and welcoming any attempts to produce energy sustainably. I do believe that community engagement is critical, if these plants and sites can positively reach out to the local community through either offering teaching or someone kind of involvement then they will stand a better chance of becoming accepted and hopefully cherished amongst the local populations.

We thank Robert for taking the time and congratulate him again on winning this award.

To learn more on the project, click here.