Thursday, January 21, 2010

Construction Observations from the Iberian Penninsula

This winter break I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Spain and Portugal with the School of Building Construction at Virginia Tech to study architecture, urban planning, renewable energy, and culture. As the observations made abroad could fill a hundred blog entries, I am going to dedicate this entry to a few specific construction practices observed while traveling the Iberian Penninsula. The topics covered in this section include historic preservation, adaptive reuse and renewable energy systems. These topics represent the most commonly observed differences in construction practice between Spain/Portugal and America; this entry hopefully will shed some light on these differences for those not able to make the trek themselves.

 Historic Preservation and Adaptive Reuse
Historic preservation is a central development issue in the Iberian Penninsula. With a rich history dating to pre-Roman times and countless structures literally hundreds of years old, preservation and adaptive reuse is the primary method of maintaining the character of the charming towns and cities in Spain and Portugal. Some interesting and innovative techniques have been adopted in this endeaver, as it takes extreme skill to work with such old structures in the confined spaces offered by most pre-industrial age cities in Spain/Portugal.

This photo (left) was taken in the town of Toledo, Spain. The goal is apparently to preserve the original brick and plaster facade of the building and reconstruct the interior. Notice the tightness of space around the site, as well as the use of neighboring buildings as anchors and supports for the scaffolding system, which is doubling as a form of support for the facade. Upon further inspection of this and similar projects, it seems that the interior of the building will be supported by a steel frame system that is added during the course of the renovation. The original facade will then be attached to this steel frame in some way, and therefore become a nonstructural facade. Power lines and other infrastructure have been retrofitted to the exterior of buildings in older towns; clearly evident in this photo.

This photo illustrates a host of issues with adaptive reuse of historic structures in Toledo, Spain. The original interior of this structure has been completely removed to the foundation, and a reconstruction is currently under way. Due to the lack of space around the site materials have either been stored at another location or deliveries are carefully timed so that all materials  delivered to the site are used the same day. The use of the tower crane here is typical of most construction in the tight-knit old cities of Spain. Small, windy roads and steep hills prevent mobile cranes from accessing a lot of construction sites, so the tower crane is the method of choice for even small residential construction. Notice the large concrete pad that has been poured in the center of the site. Presumably this will be built around and abandoned once the project reaches completion. The cost of tower crane rental for the duration of a project as well as the cubic footage abandoned to the concrete pad must add a tremendous cost to this type of project!

Renewable Energy Systems
The Iberian Penninsula is a world leader in development and deployment of renewable energy technology. Spain has embarked on an aggressive solar and wind energy developoment campaign and currently boasts some of the world's largest solar and wind farms. Next door, Portugal boasts the fastest growing renewable energy sector in the developed world. The Portugese have set a national goal of 45% renewable energy by 2015, and they seem to be well on their way to reaching that goal. Additionally, the Portugese have deployed the first wave-energy capturing machine on the planet. Several exciting renewable projects were sited on our travels through the penninsula.
Examples abound of small scale photovoltaic energy systems incorporated into residential and commercial structures. This array (pictured at left) was encountered on a rooftop in Madrid, Spain. The 29 panel system could possibly produce around 10kw of electricity to be fed into the local grid. Such a small amount of energy cannot be used to power whole buildings, but small scale PV deployment can provide valuable peak-load control on a national basis and perhaps reduce the need to construct new centralized power plants.

Large-scale photovoltaic arrays (LSPV) have been strongly incentivized by the Spanish and Portugese governments. These systems produce power in the megawatt range, which can be enough electricity to power thousands of homes. Large amounts of initial capital investment are required to build these systems, but the maintenance costs are relatively small compared to that of conventional fossil-fuel plants. A large scale photovoltaic power plant, Huerta Solar Almaraz, was encountered on a driving expedition between Toledo and Caceres, Spain. The facility covered 200 hectares of land and utilized solar tracking devices to increase energy harvest by up to 40%. The impressive site is a sign of the aggressive campaign to develop renewable energy projects on the Iberian Penninsula.

Wind power is seen as another important piece of the renewable energy pie. Wind turbines can produce far more electricity than their solar counterparts (up to 1MW a piece), and can be located offshore or on remote ridge lines therefore avoiding competition for developable land. Portugal and Spain see a combination of wind, solar, tidal and hydroelectric power providing the majority of their energy needs by the middle of this century.

 Hopefully this highlight of several important construction and development features in Spain and Portugal has helped raise awareness and knowledge of the progressive sustainability policies on the Iberian Penninsula. Future blog entries will touch on other aspects of construction encountered on this exciting visit to Europe.

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